Back in 2004, a Peepal tree was replanted from an old brick wall into an area in Sangaiprou, Imphal. As the tree grew, so did the space around it; it blossomed into a place for like-minded individuals to meet and share their talents and dreams, where walls and conformities did not exist. Thus, The Giving Tree was born, and today we find it thriving and breathing new life into a positive cultural movement in Manipur.
“The Giving Tree was a very personal space that offered friends and family to simply spend quality time together,” founder Bobby Laishram says. “It was just friends performing for friends under the tree, but with time, everyone saw the opportunity that the space offered; the scope it had to grow, and to help the people of Manipur grow, as well.”
The venue transitioned to formally hosting performances and shows around 2012, involving local artists and bands like Imphal Talkies, Tapta, and hosting a workshop on rap music with Manmeet Kaur (aka MC Kaur). The Giving Tree has evolved into a warm, versatile place that is as much as about ecological conservation as it is about promoting contemporary art and artists. On the goal of the cultural platform, Bobby explains, “We want to introduce to Manipur diverse cultures, art, music and theatre, and we have been committed to bringing in artists from different parts of the world, and to taking Manipur forward.”
A landmark performance that took place towards the end of last year was ‘Queen-Size’, an emphatic choreographic response to the outdated Section 377 of the Indian Penal code that criminalises homosexuality.
Later in November, 2016, The Giving Tree also went on to host two evenings of contemporary performances organised by Nachom Arts Foundation, Manipur, in collaboration with The Japan Foundation, New Delhi, followed by ‘Shakukachi meets Pena’, a collaboration between Japanese Shakukachi player Motonaga Hiromu and Manipuri traditional folk musician Mangka Mayanglambam of Laihui Ensemble. It has worked closely with Laihui Ensemble on several events, actually, such as the exhibition of established Manipuri artist Sorei Keishing’s paintings, as well as a collaborative performance between choreographer Leah Raphael Curtis, and Hawaiian cellist Nawa Lanzilotti.
The Giving Tree kicked off 2017 with the first edition of ‘Into The Wild’, where Manipuri bands like Imphal Talkies, The Koi, Atingkok and Kendy Khuman shared the stage with artists like Rudy Roots Selekta (France), Mr. Nobody (Hyderabad) and MC Kaur (Goa). “With the aim of promoting young native contemporary art and artists, The Giving Tree also hosted painting exhibitions featuring the works of Meena Laishram and Sony Thokchom in January,”
Tedawnshim Khaling, known to her friends as Shim, explains. One of the founders behind Unibrow Creative Agency, she — along with co-founder Jackson Meisnam — met Bobby Leishram, and upon realising that they share the same ethos and aesthetic sensibilities, came on board to manage the venue. “Unibrow Creative Agency was born in the beginning of this year when Jackson and I met in Imphal, after I returned from spending two years at College of Art, New Delhi. We wanted to do something that was our own, and we were lucky and blessed to find a place that we found synergy with right from the outset.”
The Giving Tree has stayed true to its name, and has succeeded in creating cross-cultural performances that are truly unique; this was also the organisation behind introducing reggae music to Manipur — the first stop on dancehall/reggae duo BFR Soundsystem’s tour with their hand-built sound system that took place this March, a show that Shim reckons is a great reminder of the possibilities and the bubbling potential The Giving Tree is capable of.
“Hosting Delhi Sultanate and Begum X, and introducing the world of reggae music to Manipur, was a definite step forward,” she says. “It started with a little confusion and inhibition, but Manipur slowly began to move to the rhythms and sounds of reggae, and the response was far more than what we expected; at the end of the show, we had to form a small barricade around the system for Taru and Samara to perform safely.
“The Giving Tree now strives to promote such events which connect the different worlds of music, art, theatre, food, literature, to Manipur — to bring positivity to this strife-torn, beautiful state, and spread happiness and contentment, even if it’s for a short time.”
Heisnam Shantanu, who was the local artist manager for the BFR tour, shares, “I am keen on getting more reggae here, and The Giving Tree is the preferred venue in Manipur to host any event outside of the mainstream.”
He explains that there aren’t any clubs or pubs for regular events in Imphal, and The Giving Tree fills this gap to an extent; the scene is changing slowly, though, and there have been a few new cafes hosting shows spotted around town. As to why reggae strikes a chord with him, he says, “Roots Reggae was my newfound peace, and the genre and culture that really spoke to me, right when I left Delhi in June, 2016. Before that, I was fortunate to meet some really good DJs and crews travelling to India at the end of 2015, and all the good energy we shared stayed on.”
Shantanu is a staunch proponent of the reggae culture in the region, and played a dub and roots reggae DJ set himself in December 2015 in Manipur, at the Festival of Andro; an experience which has only reinforced his drive.
Reflecting about the political climate of Manipur, he says, “We have been through some rough phases as a society in the recent past — communal differences, stories of insurgencies, guns, fake encounters, corrupt leaders and their shallow motives... Considering the essence of Roots Reggae, the lyrical themes of which focus on social issues and reformation required, is very similar to what we have seen here, I personally felt like reggae could help bring a rise in inner consciousness amongst the youth, as it did for me.”
With the BFR Soundsystem show, they managed to connect to a young crowd of about five hundred, who attended the Imphal leg; Shantanu sums up, “The message was delivered, and it was done the right way. BFR Soundsystem has been on our radar of good things happening in the Indian Reggae community, and to see the soundsystem in Manipur was an idea that was born in the year 2016, but germinated fast; we are happy to have been able to pull this off by the beginning of 2017. We are very thankful to the BFR team for looking towards the East for their One Step Forward tour.”
Most recently, the venue hosted Hang Massive — one of the best known hang drums duo in the world today — comprising Danny Cudd from the UK and Markus Offbeat from Sweden. “It has been an immense achievement to successfully host the duo,” Shim explains. “While it is always a challenge to find funds for shows that support new and contemporary artists, that is where The Giving Tree finds a way to give new and contemporary artists — regardless of whether they perform at a local, national or international level — a platform.”
On the cards next at The Giving Tree is a reggae gathering that Shantanu is organising, Hip Hop AD 2 | Breaking Jam 2017, a bboying battle with hip hop crews from the region, and Yenning Affairs, an event for kids. ‘Yenning’ in the Meitei language means ‘new growth, blooming of buds and flowers blossoming, or spring time’, and this is an effort to simply ‘try to give kids a break from academic pressures, to give them an opportunity to open up their minds and enjoy the moment’.
Shim accedes that while people might not always share the same taste or sensibilities, they aspire to create a cultural dialogue and hope that people appreciate the effort they put into bringing quality artists and shows to the people in Manipur. As The Giving Tree continues to grow and breathe in Imphal, the community that has formed around it similarly flourishes alongside.