The photograph that 62-year-old Khwairakpan Mangi tenderly draws out from her little brown bag is that of a painting. The visual is of a marketplace where a mustachioed Manipuri man is being offered a hookah by a woman—the man’s placatory expression in keeping with the woman’s haughty demeanour. The scene represented here, says Mangi, dates back many centuries when Imphal’s Ima Keithel (Mothers’ Market) was the place where Manipuri men dedicated their love and life to the women.
“Even in those days, it was the men who doted on us,” notes Mangi, the publicity secretary of the sprawling market, kwa (betel leaf) stains colouring the hearty laughter of this fifth-generation handloom stall-owner at Ima. “My mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s…” Mangi tries to explain her links to Ima Keithel, a market that has over the centuries determinedly barred men—and even young and impressionable unmarried women—from owning stalls.
Given its vintage appeal, the painting could well be rooted in the era of Khagemba Maharaj of Manipur, who is said to have founded the Khwairamband Bazar (more famously known as Ima Keithel) in the late 16th century. Yet some of the most significant elements of the painting—the traditional ways and indomitable spirit of Manipuri women—continue to find resonance at Ima Keithel. Around 6,000 female stall owners earn their living at this market and two other complexes, Lakshmi and New Markets.
Click here to view a slide show of Manipur’s Mothers’ Market
The evidence of continuity is everywhere—in the rows of stalls selling fish, vegetables and farm produce; the long line of garments, Manipuri handloom and utensil shops; the small eateries serving a quick lunch to stall owners; and the bewildering array of sounds, smell and colour.
The orange mekhla that 38-year-old stall owner Baby Moirangthen is wearing is not strikingly different in design from the flaming red mekhla worn by the woman in the painting—a tradition in dressing continued with “obligatory” pride. So too are the wrap-around sarongs locally known as phanek, and the scarf-like innaphi worn by all women stall owners.
At Ima Keithel, it all boils down to Manipuri identity, which has been carefully crafted by the industrious spirit of Manipuri women. For most women, the Rs1.70 lakh municipal fee paid for acquiring a 4x4ft stall is also the key to complete financial control in the family, even though Manipur, unlike Meghalaya’s Khasi society, is not a matriarchal society.
Financial independence, though, has assured the Ima women of a more authoritative voice in matters of social justice and politics. Ever since the Nupi Lan (Women’s War) in 1939, when the women of Ima Keithel led the revolt against British economic and administrative policies, culminating in mass unrest near the bazaar area, the Ima market has been associated closely with dissent and protest in Manipur.
Stall owners reportedly participated in the June 2001 protests against clauses in the Union government’s ceasefire agreement with a Naga rebel group, and in 2004, when women protested in the nude in front of Imphal’s Kangla Fort, against the alleged murder of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by paramilitary forces.
Even on the day we meet, as Moirangthen displays an intricately designed, handcrafted mosquito net, a handful of Ima women are getting ready to participate in an ongoing relay hunger strike outside Imphal’s JN Hospital in support of Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri activist who has been fasting for over a decade to demand the repeal of the 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the state.
The long-held narrative of women’s empowerment and identity in Manipur is even reflected in the name of its governing body, the Ima Keithel Sinpham Amasung Saktam Kanba Lup (Mothers’ Market Profession and Identity Protection Organization).
Change now looms literally over the sprawling women’s market—enormous white-washed buildings have come up in the vicinity as a modern, alternative space for the maze-like Ima Keithel. But when the proposed shift takes place later this year, the enterprising chutzpah of the Ima women is likely to make the move too—along with their distinct stocks of Manipuri goods.