B’nei Menashe Singer Benny Khongsai Dies at 53
Updated: Feb 19
(February 18) Well-known B’nei Menashe singer Benny Khongsai passed away in Churachandpur, Manipur on February 1 at the age of 53. Khongsai was hospitalized after a heart attack and died a week later. He is survived by his wife, his son, and four daughters, two of whom, Amalia Khongsai and Tehilla Lhingboi Khongsai, live in Israel.
Born in Churachandpur and a lifelong member of its Beit Shalom synagogue, Khongsai was a popular performer. Reportedly, over 50 vehicles took part in the motorcade that accompanied him to his last rites. A graduate of Churachandpur College, his musical career ran parallel to a career in public service, in which he worked for 30 years in the Sericulture (silk-production) Department of the state government of Manipur and rose to the rank of Inspector.
A proud member of the B’nei Menashe community, Khongsai often performed with a kipa and avoided all public appearances on Shabbat. The composer of over 200 of his own songs, he was, as Manipuri music critic John Phailen put it , “an iconic singer” for the Kuki-speaking public of Manipur, one who, in his own words, believed that “music is about the human voice expressing the emotions of the soul for all faiths.” Yet there was a special place in his repertoire for songs of longing for Zion and Israel. One such song was Khongsai’s version of Chavang koulni lhum deh deh, “As the autumn sun sets gently,” originally written in the 1970s by T.Daniel, a seminal figure in the Judaism movement in North East India. Its first stanza translates as:
As the autumn sun sets gently,
How I long to reach you!
How I yearn for you ceaselessly, O Zion,
Land in which our beloved brothers dwell.
Toward Zion we march forth. Link to song.
“There was,” says Degel Menashe board member Gershom Mate, a lover of Khongsai’s music now engaged in a project of compiling his songs, “something special and unique about his voice. It was very soothing. He could carry a wide range of scales. His talent was so great that all his recording sessions, I’ve been told, were done with one take. There was no difference between his studio performances and his live ones. He was a very friendly man, too, always ready to talk with anybody, young or old, rich or poor, powerful or ordinary.”
Speaking to our Newsletter. Khongsai’s daughter Tehilla also stressed his highly sociable nature . “We always had visitors in our house,” she said. “Not a day went by without someone for tea, lunch, or dinner. My father loved his old friends and loved making new friends. There was a constant stream of people in our house. On one day it might be a powerful politician or high-ranking official, on another a provincial farmer or villager from some remote place. He treated them all equally.”
Tehilla remembers her father as a friend, too. “True, he was a singer with a large following, but I never felt that at home. To me, he was simply my father, and I loved him. Sometimes I’d hear him in another room, making what sounded to me like funny noises; when I asked him about them, he’d tell me he was preparing for a show or recording session. But I don’t recall him ever working very hard at it. Singing came to him naturally, effortlessly. Maybe that was because he loved it so much.”
For all that, “Benny,” writes John Phailen, “was a deeply religious man. He followed all the Jewish dietary laws, and observed the Jewish Sabbath and all the traditional Jewish holidays. A secular singer, he was an Orthodox Jew who made believers out of skeptics.” “The people of Manipur adored him” says Zmira Khonsai Yaish, Khongsai’s niece who lives in Kirya Arba in Israel. “Most of them were not even B’nei Menashe. I take it that was God’s way of showing to all what Judaism really is. They witnessed it in my uncle’s life.”