My entre to discovering the incredible depth and richness of this lesser known performing art of northeast India began with a 2x2 inch notice on a University of Michigan dance board announcing the availability of Manipuri Dance classes at the local community centre. That was in 1969 and I had never seen a Manipuri dance performance live or on film, only photographs in dance books and I knew that it was one of the four dance genres recognised as classical at the time of India’s Independence. My first teacher, Minati Basu Roy, a senior disciple of Guru Atomba Singh whom Tagore brought to Santineketan in the 1920s, inspired my desire to come to India to learn more of this lyrical form. I was fortunate to realise this dream through seven years of training under Guru Singhajit Singh and in Manipur studying Maibi jagoi with Ranjani Maibi and Kumar Maibi, Kartal Cholom with guru Thongjan Chaoba Singh and classical Ras-Leela jagoi at the JNU Manipur Akademi.
Manipuri remains surprisingly misunderstood even by dance cognizati, writers and artists of other genres, let alone the general public today. The satvik, internalised abhinaya for which others value as the aim of their art, is the core of the Ras tradition; yet there are those from other traditions who believe that there is no abhinaya in Manipuri. There are five principal Ras dances; of which four are linked with specific seasons, while the fifth can be presented at any time of the year. While outside of Manipur we see small slices of a Ras on the stage, at home the emotional and spiritual import is huge. Every parent would love to be able to afford to co-sponsor a performance as their child would be trained to become Krishna or Radha for the event. Viewers will lie prostrate before the child, as they are the deity for the time being with professionals dancing as Gopis. Every traditional home has a large open space for such performances, which are performed in the round for the community. During the Bhangi Pareng, a pure dance piece of intricate rhythms and patterns, no one in the audience can leave, as this is sacred. You have to get your cup of tea earlier or wait till it’s over!
Besides a few folk dances, Manipuri dances are devotional in a society that is deeply religious. Manipuri dance is sustained by its society; it is still part of religion, an unbroken religious practice, rather than a revival or reconstruction or neo-classical tradition. Because of this, artists from Manipur are reluctant to come out for more than brief tours and few have been willing to live in other regions of India to foster understanding of their art.
It is truly amazing that all forms of Manipuri, or Meitei, dance play a vital living role in day-to- day culture. Despite Herculean efforts by some dancers to recreate this sense of vitality in other parts of India, with greatest continuity in Kerala, it is only in Manipur where dancers work fulltime, performing as an essential part of life celebrations. Besides Ras and the other leelas, the other main dance forms of Manipur are Lai Haroba or Entertainment of the Gods and Sankirtana.
Each stage in one’s life is celebrated with Sankirtana performances — childbirth, upanayanam, marriage and shradha are all occasions for singing and dancing in Manipur. The Sankirtana of Manipur is unique as dance was added to Vaishnava singing of Sankirtana when it was added to the Hindu and Pre-Hindu spiritual dance traditions of Manipur through Bengali missionaries from the 15th century onward. What we see outside of Manipur on stage are the spectacular dancing musicians spinning in the air while playing the Manipuri pung mardala, or the drums of Holi, turbans flying off, after dancing and playing a very few of their 90 rhythmic cycles. Pung cholom borrows elements from the Manipuri martial arts Thang Ta and Sarit Sarak and also from the traditional Maibi jagoi dance. Although Pung Cholom is traditionally performed by men, there are women’s groups that are booked solid throughout the year as part of life cycle events!
The magnificent Pung Cholom performances, impressive as they are, in Manipur are most often seen as part of the Nupa Pala, or Kartal Cholom, which encompasses passionate bhakti singing and dancing with heavy brass cymbals by a circle of dancer-musicians accompanied by a couple of Pung Cholom artists. The Nupa Pala acts as a prologue to the Ras Leela dances, besides an independent performance too, in connection with religious rites. Before the Sankirtana Cholom, artists lead a bridegroom from his home to that of the bride and a messenger from the wedding site at the bride’s home arrives to announce, “We still have the bride, do you still have the groom?” as tradition accepts elopement if either takes off before the planned marriage. It is quite a cacophony when the groom arrives with the Sankirtana music to compete with the brass band playing at the wedding venue! Even more amazing than the fact that dance plays an essential role in daily life in Manipur is that everyone dances! It is the norm to dance and during the festival of Lai-Haroba, the dance of the shamanistic Maibi spiritual mediums will be preceded by community dancing. In a long line dance one sees women from grandmothers to small girls performing a subtle and sophisticated dance that, along with the Maibi dances, was the base for creating the classical Ras. As part of this pre-Hindu annual ritual festival, teenagers from each neighborhood of the many festivals in honor of the 360 Umanglai ancestor deities of the Manipur valley compete as teams with new choreography of the lasya and tandav dance technique to depict the story of Khamba and princess Thoibi, the hero and heroine of a legendary Moirang romance.
The Maibi dances of the Lai Haroba are essential for the preservation of the world, or at least the world of Manipur! It is remarkable that this pre-Hindu tradition has not diminished with the advent of Vaishnavism, which coexists comfortably side-by-side. Maibis are both women, and men dressed as women, who evidence signs of being a Maibi, often as teenagers who have seizures that are not explained as epilepsy by modern science and are then turned over to Maibi gurus who train them in the ritual dances of the Lai Haroba as well as managing their seizures that result in shamanistic trances that help guide the Meitei people who come to them. This kind of shamanism can be seen only in Manipur and across Southeast Asia. There is no dearth of Maibis even in this day and age and it is not something one either wishes to become or avoid if it is so. The Maibi ritual dances include the whole Meitei cosmogony from creation through the creation of man, construction of houses, weaving and other aspects of living. There is even a Maibi dance of the deity playing polo, which originated in Manipur!
Thang-ta, the martial art of Manipur, may arguably be included as a form of dance. Besides the thang or sword, and ta or spear, shields and spears and other weapons are also used. Thang-ta can be practised as ritual, demonstration or combat. The first way is related to the tantric practices and is entirely ritualistic in nature. Demonstrations can be converted into actual fighting practices and combat application. Thang-ta is closely related to certain war-dances like thangkairol (sword dance) and khosarol (spear dance). Many ritualistic dances in Manipur were traditionally performed by martial artists such as the spear dance for funerals or the sacred thengou dance. The first time I saw the spire dance was shortly after the end of the war in Vietnam and I was struck by the technique of stepping forward after first swiveling the foot in front before stepping, which was clearly the wise way to move through knee-high paddy fields that might have stakes hidden throughout, as was the traditional practice used by the Vietcong.
The internationally acclaimed theatre of the brilliant director Rattan Thiyam, and other fine Manipuri theatre groups, is supported by actors, who have learned dance as part of their cultural ethos. Being part of a society that dances has given a foundation on which to build upon an incredibly evocative physical theatre. Manipuri dances use the entire body for expression, comparable to western dance traditions but with different aesthetics. Manipur is a land without stone for temples of sculpted figures. The dance is never static, never stopping in frozen poses, but rather subtle and elegant transitions of circles, curves and figure eights. The ankle bells of many Indian classical forms that clearly delineate rhythms through foot contact cannot be used in Manipuri where the subtly of rhythms are syncopated and the off beats may be demarcated by a bend of the knee or in the air besides by the foot. This makes it less visible to the less observant eye, but the reward of closer attention will reveal a world of ethereal nuance.
Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri, Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau. She has an MA in Dance from Michigan University and 17 years of experience in Modern Dance and Ballet in the US.