At the time we visited the Ima Keithiel or the Mother’s Market in Imphal, Manipur, in 2010 this historic collective of women was in flux. What had remained the largest, and perhaps oldest, women’s market (run mostly by women of the Maiti community) in Asia, in its chaotic but organic form, was now about to be shifted to a concrete structure built by the government. Whispers of what the new market would have in store for them went around: would the unorganised vendors who sat outside the earlier market be taken in? Would they share the new structure with male traders from other communities who are richer and more influential.While the women of Ima Kethiel was in the midst of these discussions in November of 2010, Sonia Gandhi came to Imphal. She was there to inaugurate the new market – which the women would only come to occupy a few months or so later. As curfew had been declared in Imphal the day she was coming to the city, the women of the market stayed the night at the Keithiel, so they could walk from the market to the grounds where the inauguration was going to take place, instead of risking travel during curfew.They transformed the market into a space of their own, with mosquito nets and mattresses, playing or singing in groups through the night, eager to hear Sonia Gandhi speak. The following photographs are from days before and after this inauguration, inside and outside the market, perhaps the last few of the market in its erstwhile form.
This photo-essay was part of documenting the research Swar Thounaojam, playwright and director, was doing in Imphal for her play Lucky Lobster, awarded the Robert Bosch Art Grant 2010. She was attempting to investigate what the role of Meitei women in Manipuri society truly was. While they are glorified as being an empowered lot, being the breadwinners of their homes, they are still subjected to oppression and violence by men, the state and non-state forces.
Deepika Arwind is a writer and performer based in Bangalore. She won the Toto Funds the Arts Creative writing Award 2011 and was awarded the Lavanya Sankaran Fellowship 2011 at Sangam House, an international Writer's Residency. Her poems and stories have been published in several national and international magazines and journals. Currently, she is making her a debut as a director with Nobody Sleeps Alone, a play she has also written. It will open in Bangalore in June 2013.