The meiteis, as the largest ethnic group of Manipur are called, dwell in a picturesque oval shaped valley surrounded by nine hills in Northeastern India. The name Manipur literally means a jewelled land and the meiteis trace their lineage to the Gandharvas, who are the celestial musicians and dancers in the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. They call the region Gandharva-desa and believe that Usha, the Vedic goddess of the dawn, created and taught the art of dance to young girls. Celebrated as Chingkheirol, this oral tradition has been handed down through generations. Manipuri, also known as Jagoi, is the classical dance of this region and one of the eight major classical dance forms of India.
Manipuri dance is a religious art which expresses spiritual values. The roots of this dance, like all the other classical dances of India, are based on the ancient Sanskrit text Natya Shastra by Bharata. Traditionally, the dance was based on themes of Vaishnavism which became a dominant force in Manipur in the 18th century during the reign of King Charai Rongba. His successor, King Gareeb Niwaz, converted to the Krishna Bhakti Vaishnavism of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who propounded singing and dancing to the themes on Lord Krishna from the Vaishnava Padavali. Maharaja Bhagyachandra adopted Gaudiya Vaishnavism and ushered the golden era of Manipuri by refining, documenting and codifying the dance style. He designed an elaborate costume for the dance called the Kumil and also composed three of the five varieties of Ras Lilas — the Maha Ras, Basanta Ras and Kunja Ras. The dance repertoire also included themes on Rama, Shiva and regional deities. Lai Haraoba is an ancient festival celebrated by the Meitei community to honour the sylvan deities known as Umang Lai. They believe that the gods visit the earth every year at the advent of summer to bless the people with peace and prosperity. The Lai Haraoba which means “merry making of the Gods”, is a ritual enactment of the myth of creation, origin and evolution of the universe. It reflects the cultural identity of Manipur with its harmonious blend of religious chants, indigenous music and dance, social values and ancient customs, all beautifully interwoven into the fabric of the dance. Eminent filmmaker Satyajit Ray said, “Being an art born out of the soil, Manipuri dance which achieves classicity through the ages, retains still the abstract, magical quality associated with the Lai Haraoba tradition.”
The most striking feature of Manipuri dance is the uniquely gorgeous costume. The female dancers dress like Manipuri brides in Potloi costumes, of which the most notable is the Kumil, an elaborately decorated barrel-shaped long skirt stiffened at the bottom, decorated with intricate gold and silver embroidery and embellished with tiny mirrors. It is bordered at the top with undulating gauzy translucent top skirt shaped like an open flower, and tied in Trikasta or three places around the waist at the front, back and side with spiritual symbolism as prescribed in the ancient Hindu texts. It is usually worn with a velvet blouse and a white translucent veil that covers the head. The dancers do not wear bells on their ankles as in other classical Indian dances, but adorn the face, neck, waist, hands and legs with jewellery and delicate flower garlands that flow in symmetry with the dance. The male dancers dress in a dhoti, which is known as dhotra or dhora, a brilliantly coloured cloth that is pleated and tied at the waist allowing free movement of the legs for elaborate and spatial movements.
Manipuri dance spread beyond the North-East in early 20th century when Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore invited Guru Budhimantra Singh to teach Manipuri at Shantiniketan.
The lasya or feminine aspect of Manipuri dance is ethereal and lyrical and the tandava or more vigorous masculine movement is also full of fluid grace. The basic dance movement is known as Chali or Chari. The most popular dance is the Manipuri Ras Lila, which is in three styles — Tal Rasak, Danda Rasak and Mandal Rasak — traditionally performed on full moon nights three times in autumn (August through November) and once again in spring (March/April). The Vasant Ras takes place during Holi, while others coincide with Diwali and post-harvest festivals. The songs and dances describe the love and interaction between Radha and Krishna, in the presence of Gopis named Lalita, Vishakha, Chitra, Champaklata, Tungavidya, Indurekha, Rangadevi and Sudevi. There is an individual composition and dance sequence for each Gopi where the words have two layers of meaning, one literal and the other spiritual. The lyrics, which are in Sanskrit, Maithili, Brij Bhasha and others dialects, are usually taken from the classical poetry of Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Chandidas, Govindas and Gyandas.
The musical accompaniment for Manipuri consists of a vocalist, a percussion instrument called the pung, kartals or cymbals, a stringed instrument called the pena and a wind instrument like the flute. The drummers who are male artistes play the pung and dance while drumming. They dress in white dhotis and turbans and wear the drum strap over the shoulder and perform the Pung cholom with intricate rhythmic movements in beat to the drums. Kartal cholom is a similar dance where the dancers perform with cymbals. When it is done by female dancers it is known as Mandilla cholom. The male dancers also perform Tandava dances of Shiva that are called Duff cholom and Dhol cholom. When they perform the Gopa Ras they synchronously enact the chores of daily life, like feeding the cows and in total contrast is Uddhata Akanba, an elegant dance full of leaps, squats and spins.
The reach of Manipuri dance spread beyond the northeastern region in the early 20th century when Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore invited Guru Budhimantra Singh as faculty to teach Manipuri at Shantiniketan. By the 1950s, the Jhaveri sisters — Nayana, Ranjana, Suverna and Darshana — started performing all over India and abroad, and took the world by storm. In 1956, they were the first non-Manipuris to perform the dance at the Govindji Temple inside the royal palace of Imphal. Along with their gurus Bipin Singh and Kalavati Devi, they founded the Manipuri Nartanalaya in 1972, with centres at Mumbai, Kolkata and Imphal. Guru Singhajit Singh who hails from a family of dancers from Manipur, established Manipuri Nrityashram, in New Delhi along with his wife Charu Sija Mathur. They travelled extensively with their dance troupe to several countries in Europe, North and South America, performing and popularising this ancient dance form.
Soma Dasgupta is a versatile Manipuri dancer and choreographer who has been performing and teaching in Houston, Texas, USA for the last 17 years. She is teaching Manipuri to the younger generation at her Tripti Dance Academy. Her speciality is choreographing the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore in the Manipuri style. When asked about her experience Soma says, “I have performed Manipuri dance in many places in the US and it has been highly appreciated. I feel so elated when Americans come and ask me more about the dance form. I look forward to teaching the pure dance form to students here. The main challenge is getting the costume from Manipur. My dream is to organise a programme inviting Manipuri dancers from India and showcase the Khol dance which is performed by the male Manipuri dancers as my Guruji used to do.”
I was fortunate to learn a little Manipuri besides Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Mohiniyattam and Odissi, thanks to my mother’s all encompassing love for classical arts which made her seek dance teachers from all over India to teach various styles. The exposure helped hone my artistic sensibilities for creative expression with an unbiased respect for all art. As Oscar Wilde says, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has known.”