Dance Forms: Manipuri

views updated

Dance Forms: Manipuri

Manipur is a small state situated in the northeast corner of India. A centuries-old tradition of dance and music survives in close coexistence with religious life. There is not a single social occasion in Manipur that is not celebrated with dance and music. The ancient Manipuri traditional festival Lai Haroaba—the merrymaking of the gods—is dedicated to the animistic pre-Hindu deities. Maibis, the priestesses, invoke the village gods as ancestors of the various Manipuri subclans. Their ritualistic dance describes a primitive cosmology: the creation of the world, of the human body, and of human activities.

The fifteenth-century Bengali Vaishnavism, a devotional cult of Hinduism, found expression in Manipur in 1764, during the reign of King Bhagyachandra, becoming the state religion. Hence Vaishnavite religious themes—the stories of the childhood pranks of Lord Krishna and of his divine love with Rādhā—form the content of the two classically evolved Manipur dance forms, Sankirtana and Rasalilas.

Manipuri dances are performed in the temple courtyards as night-long performances, attended by the devout. Sankirtana is performed on such occasions as the birth of a child, giving food for the first time to a child, piercing of the ears, the marriage ceremony, and funerals. A collective prayer and a highly codified ritual, it is the strong foundation on which Manipuri dances have been structured. The style is imbued with delicate lyricism and fluid grace, as the movements are rounded, circular, and flowing. It is divided into tandava, the masculine and forceful, and lasya, the feminine and delicate.

The elements of nritta (pure dance), nritya (expressional dance), and natya (drama) are all found in Manipuri. Human emotions have been codified by the Nātyashāstra into nine rasas (sentiments): love, valor, anger, fear, disgust, pathos, laughter, wonder, and tranquillity. Shringara, the sentiment of love, is predominant in Manipuri, and the other sentiments are present in subordinated form. Shringara is further divided into two: vipralambha, in separation, and sambhoga, in union; each is further divided into thirty-two divisions, reflected in the performances of the Rasalilas and Sankirtana. Manipuri gurus have created fascinating varieties of their own tala, or time measures, enriching the music for dance. The singing is typical, with women singing in very high pitch in nupi bashak, competitions by two groups of women. Original compositions of the Vaishnavite poets of the medieval period like Chandidas, Vidyapati, and Jayadeva and their translations in the Meitei language are also used while performing expressive pieces.

Manipuri is essentially a group dance, but special solo numbers are also found in the Rasalilas. Natasankirtana is performed before the Rasalilas. Basantarasa, Kunjarasa, Maharasa, and Nityarasa are various Rasalilas performed on different and specific festive occasions. Attired in gossamer veils and mirrored skirts and decked with ornaments, the milkmaids (gopis) and Krishna create a great spectacle of beauty. Pung choloms, the playing on drums by male dancers while dancing with acrobatic feats, and Karatala cholms, playing with large cymbals by men, form a part of the repertoire. Women also dance, playing with small cymbals. The variety of Manipuri dances is manifold.

Manipuri continues to be performed in the temple courtyards and the mandapas, the special spaces for the Rasalilas and Natasankirtan. It is also being performed in the metropolitan centers, retaining its inherent religious, devotional character while meeting the demands of the theater. Many gurus continue to create new choreographic works, solo numbers within the traditional framework, whereas some have ventured into new works with a shift in theme. Chaotombi Singh has choreographed Kaibul Lamjao about a vanishing species of deer in Manipur. Priti Patel uses Thang-ta, a martial art, along with traditional techniques of Manipuri dance to create a new kinetic language in her choreographic works. Disciples of Guru Amobi Singh, Mahabir, Jamuna Devi, Ojha Babu Singh, Rajkumar Singhjit Singh, his wife Charu Sija, Priya Gopal Sana, Guru Bipinsingh's wife Kalavati Devi, his daughter Bimbavati, his disciples the Jhaveri sisters, and Priti Patel are all well-known exponents of the art of Manipuri dance.

Sunil Kothari


Doshi, Saryu, ed. Dances of Manipur: The Classical Tradition. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1989.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi. Publications Division, 1974.

Venkataraman, Leela, and Avinash Pasricha. Indian Classical Dance: Traditions in Transition. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2002.