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Bringing Manipuri Dance To The World Stage

Manipuri Dance has been in existence since long before the beginning of any written history of the people of Manipur. In fact, Manipuri dance is the vehicle of pre-literate tribal memory for the Meiteis, who inhabit the valley of Manipur, a small state in the northeastern corner of India. Their oldest myths make mention of dance, and the continued existence of the same dances featured in the old stories serves to reinforce the validity of the mythology, in terms of tracing the origins of the dance tradition. According to the Australian anthropologist Louise Lightfoot, the Meitei word for dance, ‘jagoi’, actually means ‘chak-koi’, or ‘the going round (koi) of the ages (chak).’ That is to say, dance among the Meiteis is synonymous with history. To take only one example, the most popular dance among young people in Manipur is called ‘Thabal-chongba’, or ‘moonlight-jumping.’ During the full-moon nights of spring, the Meitei New Year season, young men from various neighborhoods and villages go from house to house, calling the young women (‘lei-shabees’) out to dance. The young people form a chain, holding hands boy-girl, boy-girl, and dance vigorously for hours at a time, shouting ‘Kre-kre-kre! Mou! Mou!’ The dance refers to a fight between the two sons of the Creator, known in Manipur as Atingkok. Each of his sons wanted to be appointed ruler of the earth. They were constantly maneuvering and playing tricks on one another to win their father’s favor. One time, the younger son, Pakhangba, had taken the form of a rooster. His elder brother, Sanamahi, took the form of a tiger and tried to devour Pakhangba. But their mother, Ima Leimaren, sent the Lai Nuras – seven angels – to protect Pakhangba. The angels formed a chain and kept dancing between the combatants, preventing the tiger from reaching his prey. Thus the Meiteis sing ‘Kre-kre-kre’ (the crowing of the rooster) and ‘Mou! Mou!’ (the growling of the tiger) while dancing in a chain through the moonlit nights.

Dance in Manipur also serves to transfer specific information from generation to generation. The shamans of the Meiteis, called ‘Maibis’, depict the entire way of life through dance. The farming, fishing, weaving, and house-building skills which originally set them apart from the hunter-gatherer tribes of the hills, all appear in step-by-step order in the dance rituals of the Maibis. The Maibis also describe the creation of the cosmos and of human beings in dance. In fact, the Maibis have many functions: they are midwives, herbalists, clairvoyants, and spiritual leaders. But it is as dancers that they are most well known; their dancing is at once a fulfillment of a religious duty to the community and an expression of the Maibi’s inner dedication.

While not requiring a high degree of physical virtuosity, the Maibis’ repertoire encompasses a wide variety of dances, demanding great concentration and stamina. These dances are exhibited once a year, during a ten-day period of ritual worship performed entirely by the Maibis themselves or by villagers under the direction of the Maibis. Each individual village, composed of a core family and its sub-groups, conducts its own yearly ritual, and a village has one or more Maibis organizing the ceremony. These Maibis dance, sometimes alone, often in groups at the head of a long line of villagers. These parade-like dances resemble the pow-wow dances of Native Americans, in their essential purpose (delineating the perimeter of the sacred ritual area), as well as in the sense that all the villagers, regardless of age or sex, eventually join the line. In this way, children learn the dances easily by following their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings. This is one reason that the Manipuri people are often referred to as a nation of dancers.

The Maibi dances consist of three classes of movement. The first is spinning movement, which eventually sends the dancer into a state of trance, conducive to spiritual possession and prophecy. The dancer then kneels, is covered by a veil, and speaks in the ancient form of the Meitei language, hardly understood by the villagers but recognized as the voice of the patron spirit of their forefathers. The second type of movement is expressional, in which the dancer, using stylized hand movements and body postures, relates certain proto-historical events such as the creation of the world. The third class of movement is demonstrative, in which the Maibis act out processes such as house building and fishing. All of these dances are said to date from the ‘Hayee Chak’, roughly 2,000 B.C. Whether the dances performed today are in any way similar to the dances of the first settlers of the valley is a matter of pure speculation. But the fact that the Manipuri people trace the roots of their culture as far back as 4000 years in a continuous dance tradition is little short of miraculous.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century A.D., the royal family that ruled the valley of Manipur was converted from the age-old system of ancestor worship guided by the Maibis. They were visited by Brahmin priests from nearby Bengal, who taught them the tenets of Hinduism. Over a period of several generations, the rulers of Manipur adopted Hinduism, built temples or shrines to various Hindu deities such as Vishnu and Hanuman, and encouraged the people to worship at these shrines. Eventually, Hinduism was declared the state religion of Manipur. Accustomed as they were to expressing their religious faith through dance ritual, the Manipuri people were inclined to approach Hinduism in the same way. Bengali missionaries introduced the art of kirtan-singing, in which groups of men or women congregate to sing religious lyrics, while playing drums and cymbals. The Manipuri people adopted and developed this style with alacrity, using their own traditional technique of voice production and movement patterns. While singing, they step and turn gracefully in unison, and their hands trace flowing patterns, causing the long tassels attached to their cymbals to swing in dramatic arcs.

Interestingly, the Meiteis never abandoned their old beliefs. Although one of the first Hindu kings, Garibniwaz, ordered all pre-Hindu written texts burned, and the Bengali proselytizers induced the Meitei pandits to abandon their own alphabet and use the Bengali alphabet instead, somehow the ancient legends and myths survived. So great was the Meiteis’ dependence on the Maibi tradition that the yearly fertility festivals, known as ‘Lai Haraoba’ or ‘spirits’ pleasure’, have been performed continuously right up to the present day. It is quite normal for a Manipuri to attend the Hindu temple in the morning and a Lai Haraoba festival in the evening, although members of the royal family did not commonly participate in Lai Haraoba after their conversion to Hinduism.

In 1759, when Maharaja Joy Singh, known as ‘Bhagyachandra’ or ‘Lucky Moon’ came to the throne in Imphal, Manipuri dance began a pattern of development which almost exactly duplicates the early history of court-ballet in Europe. This is considered the beginning of the classical period in Manipuri dance.

King Bhagyachandra was a devotee of Vaishnava Hinduism, meaning that he addressed his personal devotions to the god Vishnu, in the form of Krishna, the cowherd god. But at the outset of his reign, Hinduism was still a very new religion in Manipur. Having been declared the state religion by Bhagyachandra’s grandfather, it was as yet accepted by a relatively small number of people outside the royal family. Since his grandfather, Garibniwaz, had eighteen sons, Bhagyachandra had to spend the beginning of his reign settling power struggles and threats to his own life. His uncle plotted with the King of Burma to oust Bhagyachandra, who fled to Ahom (Assam). When he later returned to his kingdom, Bhagyachandra began building a temple to Lord Krishna in fulfillment of a vow he had made. When the temple was finished and the deity known as Sri Sri Govindajee was installed, Bhagyachandra undertook to produce a religious dance-drama there, based on a vision he had seen in a dream. He worked with an assembly of dancers, musicians, and scholars to choreograph the story of Krishna’s meeting with Radha, his beloved, and her companions on the banks of the sacred River Jamuna. Their meeting and love-play symbolize the union of the human soul with the divine spirit. The drama brought the message of Krishna-worship to life, in such a way that the dance loving Manipuri people might be influenced to accept the new religion. Just as in the early years of ballet, when lords and ladies of the French court used to create ballets and perform them for the diversion of an aristocratic audience, the first performers of what is now known as Manipuri Ras Leela were members of the royal family.

Most notably, King Bhagyachandra’s daughter Bimbavati was the first to perform the role of Radha, the heroine of the Ras Leela. The rest of the participants, young females of the royal house, became a typical ‘corps de ballet’. There was no dancer assigned to play the part of Krishna, but rather the holy image from the temple was set up in the center of the dancing area. This custom continues for Ras Leelas performed at the temple of Sri Sri Govindajee; although Ras Leelas performed in other temples include a dancer in the role of Krishna. King Bhagyachandra himself designed the costumes, attempting to reproduce the celestial beauty he had seen in his vision.

A description of a 16th century court ballet in France, written by Susan Au, seems to mirror the circumstances of the first Ras Leela: ‘The earliest of these performances preceded the invention of the proscenium stage and were presented in large chambers with most of the audience seated . . . on three sides of the dancing floor. The figured dance or horizontal dance as it was called, consisted largely of geometric forms, often overlaid with symbolic meanings. They were always danced by single-sex groups rather than by men and women in couples. The dancers in the earliest ballets were not the highly skilled professionals of today. Instead, they were usually noble amateurs, often led by the king or queen. In contrast to today’s ballet dancers they would seem very earth-bound, for the steps and movements they executed were derived from the social dances of the time, which emphasized decorum, grace, and elegance rather than feats of strength or agility. The dancer’s costumes . . . were meant primarily to impress the spectators with their opulence and inventiveness: freedom of movement was only a secondary consideration. Lengthy performances and a leisurely pace were characteristic of many of these entertainments: beginning late at night, they went on for as many as four or five hours.’

As the French court ballet was derived from the social dances of its time, so the Manipuri Ras Leela was choreographed using the movements of the Maibi dances and the Lai Haraoba festival, which may be considered social, dances in that they are joined by everyone. The dancers are all women and girls, except for a pre-adolescent boy sometimes appearing as Krishna. The movements are decorous and slow, not only because Manipuri dance is a very soft and lyrical style generally, but because the Ras Leela costume is a large stiffened cylindrical skirt, as unwieldy as any hoop skirt or farthingale. Further limiting the dancer’s mobility is a veil over her face, which, however diaphanous, obscures the vision. This veil is related to the veil over the face of the Maibi who is in the grip of spiritual possession. The Ras Leela dancer is also thought to be possessed by a spirit, in her case one of the divine milkmaids who are perpetually dancing with Lord Krishna in the realm of the gods. In fact, the Manipuri people often take a handful of earth from the floor on which a Ras Leela has been performed and put it on their heads as a blessing, because they believe that Krishna and Radha have actually set foot there in the guise of the dancers.

To increase the resemblance to the early ballets, the Ras Leela in Manipur normally begins late at night, after a program of Kirtan-singing, which sanctifies the occasion and puts the audience in the proper mood to appreciate the transcendental beauty of the Ras Leela. A true Ras Leela then continues until the hour called ‘Mangal Arati’, the first hour of worship in Hindu temples, when dawn has barely streaked the night sky. At the end of the Ras Leela, the dancers actually perform the Arati in front of the Krishna-image or the dancer who has taken the role of Krishna, garlanding the deity and circling him with a plate bearing the sacred flame. The most interesting aspect of Manipuri tradition, for the dance researcher at least, is that the dances on which the classical Ras Leela was based are still being performed in their original form (the Maibi ritual and Lai Haraoba festival), their original setting (the village green) and for their original purpose (propitiation of the ancestral deities). Due to the difficulty of access of the entire state of Manipur, and the fact that the Government of India has limited the number of visitors from outside the state, the old rituals have not yet degenerated into tourist attractions, as have the hula dances of the Pacific Islands, and many other similar ancient dance forms.

It is therefore a fertile field for the researcher, a living laboratory where one can see how dance as a universal human activity has arisen out of the equally universal need to ritualize our experience.

As with any ancient tradition which is brought out of a closed society and exposed to outside influence, Manipuri dance is thought to be in danger of radical change and possible corruption. A threat is felt by adherents of the Lai Haraoba tradition to have come from the influence of the Natya Shastra, the artistic ‘Bible’ which informs the mainstream classical dance styles of India. Most non-Manipuri dance scholars believe that Manipuri dance is actually another branch of that Natya Shastra tradition. The Natya Shastra is a lengthy treatise on theatrical arts compiled sometime between the 4th century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D. which can be compared in influence with the ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle.

In the words of Dr. Padma Subramaniam: ‘The earliest extant literature on the subject of Indian Dance is Bharata’s Natya Shastra. The term ‘natya’ encompasses in itself all the artistic elements of the theatre art. Dance was only a part of drama in ancient India. But drama itself was mostly danced. There was hardly any bifurcation between these arts in the true Hindu theatre. ‘Natya’ was the term that indicated this composite whole. The term ‘sangeeta’ was always referred to in its triple aspects, viz. ‘Gita’ (song), ‘Vadya’ (instrumental music) and ‘Nritta’ (dance). ‘Natya’ included these three plus drama too. The Natya Shastra is an unsurpassed compendious work dealing with all these elements in totality and running to thirty-six chapters. It is highly probable that this composite work was written during the course of a few centuries, by authors of the same pen name. Hence this work may be considered as an extraordinary compilation of a series of supplemental treatises on the subject. This clearly proves the exclusive importance that the nucleus of the original treatise on Natya and its author Bharata enjoyed in the ancient Hindu society.’

In Manipur, there are two theoretical camps, fiercely divided, on the question of at which point in history the influence of the Sanskrit Natya Shastra tradition was introduced into the Manipuri dance technique. The earliest point of time at which this event might possibly have occurred is during the reign of King Bhagyachandra, A.D. 1759 – 1798. At that time, the Bengali kirtan (devotional songs) tradition had been introduced in Manipur, and members of the royal family were probably fascinated by other aspects of their exotic new religion. Also, King Bhagyachandra did travel outside of Manipur to the neighboring kingdom of Ahom (Assam) during a period of political upheaval. At that time he might have encountered a dance form rooted in the Natya Shastra tradition.

There was a ‘devadasi’ system in existence in Assam until the early part of the twentieth century. ‘Devadasi’ is a Sanskrit term for a woman dedicated to a particular Hindu deity, residing in a temple, whose duties included dancing in the temple precincts. These temple dancers are acknowledged to have been the preservers of several ancient dance forms in India. There was, however, never any devadasi system in Manipur itself. On the other hand, since most of the religious instruction received in the early days of Hinduism in Manipur came from Bengali Brahmins, and there is no tradition of dance based on the principles of the Natya Shastra indigenous to Bengal, one hesitates to assume that those missionary Brahmins would have imparted any kind of technical expertise to the dancers of Manipur. In fact, in examining the ‘Achouba Bhangi Pareng’, the first composition attributed to King Bhagyachandra in the new Ras Leela style, one finds none of the telltale ‘footprints’ that mark dance styles rooted in the Natya Shastra tradition. Here are none of the 108 Karanas (poses), nor Abhinaya Hastas (hand positions).

The movements are ritualistic rather than interpretive. When performing the Achouba Bhangi Pareng, the dancer is not acting out the words of a song, but rather following a prescribed series of steps, turns, and gestures, which constitute a kind of magic formula. It is not possible to rearrange or omit any part of the dance, and no member of the audience may leave the dancing area during the performance of the Bhangi Pareng, at the risk of exposing not only himself but the entire assembly of dancers, musicians, and observers to evil influence.

The steps and hand movements themselves are based on the steps used in the Lai Haraoba, with several taken from the Manipuri martial arts form known as ‘Thang-Ta’, sword-dance. The gestures have their own descriptive names in Meiteilon, the Manipuri language. Since each element of the Achouba Bhangi Pareng can be traced to its root either in the Lai Haraoba or Thang-Ta, both of which activities existed before the Hindu or Sanskrit influence reached Manipur, it would be gratuitous to assert that this dance is based on the principles of the Natya Shastra.

One hundred and twenty years after the death of King Bhagyachandra, the poet Rabindranath Tagore encountered Manipuri dancing in Sylhet district, a Manipuri enclave that is now part of Bangladesh. He was so entranced by the dancing that he brought a dance teacher from that community to help establish a dance department at Shantiniketan, his fledgling center of artistic study in West Bengal. From 1919 to 1941, when the poet Tagore died, several Manipuri teachers served as faculty members at Shantiniketan, and gradually Manipuri dance became well known in Calcutta, then later Ahmedabad and other parts of India. The last of these teachers was the well-known guru Atomba Singh.

This is the period during which Manipuri dance came to be catalogued together with Kathak, Bharata Natyam and Kathakali as one of the ‘branches’ of the Natya Shastra tradition. When using the Manipuri style to choreograph his dance-dramas, Tagore often borrowed facial expressions, dramatic poses, and ‘hasta mudras’ (hand gestures) from other Indian dance styles, to aid in telling his story. In this way he developed one of India’s modern dance styles, now known as ‘Rabindrik’ or ‘Tagore Dance’. Gradually, some of these borrowed gestures may have been carried back to Manipur and absorbed into the style. But the use of dramatic facial expressions has never been adopted by Manipuri dancers, and this is one of the quirks which identify Manipuri dance. The dancer’s face in Manipuri style is serene, meditative and smooth.

In rubbing shoulders with dancers from other parts of India, the Manipuri dance teachers found much to admire in their differing styles, which are more vivid and dramatic than the subtle and refined Manipuri style. At the same time, teachers of other styles recognized some similarities between Manipuri hand positions and footwork patterns and gestures and steps described in the Natya Shastra.

They then took it upon themselves to ascribe the origins of the Manipuri dance to that treatise. In a classic example of wishful thinking engendered by the political impulse of the era, which was the desire for a unified Indian nation, the notion took root that once upon a time, Indian dance had been a single art form, but slowly the different styles had diverged, with each geographical area developing its trademark technique, having forgotten or lost some of the elements of the original art form.

This kind of superficial scholarship led to statements such as the following by Rukmini Devi, one of the first modern-day revivalists. ‘Even other forms of dancing, like Kathakali and Manipuri, are obviously variations of Bharata Natyam, though they have changed in character in accordance with environment and the atmosphere of their surroundings.’

It can definitely be stated that during the renaissance of Indian dancing, which began in the 1920’s and still continues, Manipuri dance has been influenced by the Natya Shastra tradition. It is also probably true that ever since the Hindu religion was brought to Manipur, the Hindu or Sanskrit artistic heritage has influenced the people of Manipur intensely, so that it is difficult to unravel the threads of the fabric of Manipuri life and say, ‘This one is Meitei, this one is Hindu.’

But other statements about the Natya Shastra influence on Manipuri dance, which place it at some very early juncture now obscured by mists of time, cannot be used as a basis for scientific commentary. When highly respected scholars, such as Kapila Vatsyayan, make these pronouncements, one feels that the Indian national predilection for glorifying the Aryan-Dravidian tradition has clouded their perception. Dr. Vatsyayan stated in her influential treatise, Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts; ‘Whenever the contemporary forms of Bharata Natyam and Manipuri and Odissi evolved, two things are clear: first, that they were broadly following the tradition of the Natya Shastra and were practicing similar principles of technique from their inception and, second, that the stylization of movement began as far back as the 8th and 9th century.’

This statement is actually a reverse projection, in which the analyst has looked at a present-day dance form and, seeing similarity to other forms, whether contemporary or historical, has projected into the past the idea of a common origin. It is extremely confusing to the student of Indian dance forms, who must constantly sift through the available literature on the subject for such imaginative analysis presented in the guise of history.

In point of fact, the appeal of Manipuri dancing for the non-Manipuri audience lies not in its points of congruence with other Indian dance styles, but in its points of contrast. Not only the dance researcher, but general audiences as well seem fascinated by the unique flavour of Manipuri dance. In bringing Manipuri dance to the world outside, it is the opinion of this researcher that one can highlight its special qualities and status as a kind of anthropological microcosm. Several Indian dance styles look so similar to the general audience as to be indistinguishable, namely Bharata Natyam, Kuchipudi, Odissi and Mohini Attam. On the other hand, Manipuri dance is so extremely different in its appearance that a local dance critic was once heard to comment on a performance of Manipuri dance at Washington, D.C., that this was not Indian dance because the dancers did not wear ankle-bells and did not slap their feet on the floor. In a sense, we may say that he was correct in his perception. Manipuri dance is really India’s ‘non-Indian’ style, and the fact that Manipuri dancers have Indian passports does not change the simple truth. In bringing Manipuri dance to a wider audience, it is essential for the performers and presenters to emphasize the purely Manipuri qualities over the generally Indian character of the dances.

We now come to the question that lies behind a discussion of how to pre-sent Manipuri dance on the world stage. That question is, ‘Why?’ When the dance is, at heart, strictly an expression of Manipuri culture and religion, not intended for performance, but for participation by the Manipuri people as a way of reinforcing and handing down their traditions, why interfere by imposing alien presentation requirements and artistic standards? The obvious answer is that it has already happened. The art form is known at least superficially all over India since the days of that country’s independence from Great Britain. The late Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, learned Manipuri dance at Shantiniketan when she was a young girl. She retained a love of the dance form all her life, and frequently took a cultural delegation of Manipuri dancers with her when she made state visits to foreign countries. Thus, foreigners had an opportunity to see Manipuri dance, and the dancers enjoyed their visits to the world outside. Gradually, Manipur is opening its doors to tourist travel, and at least two large teams of Manipuri dancers perform on stages all over India and on international tours.

Many of the dancers who present Manipuri dance outside their own state, however, feel dissatisfied with their methods of presentation. In addition, when they return to Manipur, they frequently come under fire from teachers, scholars and theoreticians on the grounds that they have deviated from a high standard or presented less-than-authentic versions of Manipuri dance. There are indeed many problems inherent in presenting Manipuri dance in a touring situation. They can be stated in simple terms as follows:

(1) Manipuri dance is performed in large groups, making travel costly.

(2) In its original settings, Manipuri dance is performed in the round, so the original arrangements are unsuited to proscenium staging.

(3) Inside Manipur, dance is performed by amateurs, making it difficult to assemble touring companies.

(4) The original compositions are too lengthy for a modern 90-minute concert program.

These are some of the challenges facing Manipuri dancers and their presenters at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Many creative approaches have been tried, some are acknowledged successful, some subjects of dispute. One of the solutions to the first problem is being sponsored by the Government of Manipur. An annual festival of solo dances in Manipuri style has been organized for several years running, and many lovely dances have either been created or excerpted from the Ras Leelas. But a single dancer is hard put to perform a full-length program of Manipuri dance, the way a Kathak, Bharata-Natyam, or Odissi dancer does. The reason is that there is no single costume that can be used for the varied items of the repertoire. Each item in a solo recital requires a different dress, for example; Maibi dance, an all-white ensemble; Leima Jagoi, pink-and black striped sarong and golden crown; Radha Nartan, elaborate Ras Leela costume which takes fifteen minutes to put on; and Krishna Abishar, the dhoti, a wrapped trouser-like garment and tall crown topped with peacock feathers. In practice, two dancers are required to perform a seamless program of solo dances.

As noted earlier, it may not be desirable to force Manipuri dance into the mold of other Indian dance styles which are presented in solo recital form. The beauty of Manipuri style continues to lie in its group dances, making the comparison with Western ballet a valid one. With a group of five women and four men, one can produce a very authentic program of traditional dances of Manipur, without much change in the original choreography. Even counting on three musicians, a party of twelve is reasonable for touring purposes.

Another alternative is to train outsiders to perform Manipuri dance. This has been accomplished with some success, and the incidence of non-Manipuris learning Manipuri dance is increasing slowly. There is no objection from the Manipuri people to this idea. Foreigners have been allowed, nay, welcomed to participate in rituals such as the Lai Haraoba. In fact, interest from foreigners has sometimes led the Meitei people to look with a fresh eye at their own traditions, and gain renewed respect for their indigenous arts. Since this seems to be a prevailing attitude, it would behoove the Government of Manipur, and the central government of India, to encourage artistic exchange. In the past it has been difficult to get permission to visit Manipur. On the one hand, one is glad that the government is not admitting too many foreigners into the state, because they might disrupt the delicate balance of the old traditional way of life there. On the other hand, that way of life, and its accompanying art forms, are in danger of disappearing in the face of economic problems, a flood of refugees from neighboring Burma, cross-border operations of extremist political cadres, smugglers, and perhaps most damaging of all, the advent of television transmission in Manipur in 1984. One hopes that the folkways can be documented and recorded before they deteriorate. Such documentation, when published abroad, would generate increased interest among foreigners wishing to see live, authentic performances of Manipuri dance, thereby creating a market for dancers, musicians, and costumiers who might otherwise turn to other fields for their livelihood.

In this age of the global village, the overgrown village of Imphal, capitol of Manipur, is still a secret destination for a small percentage of dancers and dance researchers. We would love to keep it so, but beauty and history have an attraction all their own, which cannot be hidden for long, and indeed should not be. Much remains to be discovered which is still hiding behind the enigmatic half-smile of the Manipuri dancer.

*The article was written by Christel Stevens

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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