Manipuri Dance Introduction
Manipuri is the classical dance of Manipur, a state in north-eastern India. Its themes are devotional, and it is performed on religious occasions and in temples across the country. It is even known as “sankirtan” in some circles. The term Manipuri refers to a variety of dance forms from the region. Ras Lila and Pung Cholom are the most important.
Even today, Manipuri dance is an important part of temple festivals throughout the state. Aside from performances at secular prosceniums, it is part of regular temple rituals. Manipuri dance is a part of devotional traditions, and its performance on festive occasions is ritually sanctioned.
Manipuri dance is regarded as one of India’s major classical dance forms, particularly for themes based on Vaishnavism and spectacular performances of ‘Ras Lila,’ dance dramas based on Radha and Krishna’s love. Other themes associated with this art form include Shaktism, Shaivism, and the sylvan deities known as Umang Lai during the Manipuri festival ‘Lai Haraoba.’ This dance form is named after the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, where it originated, but it has its roots in the age-old Sanskrit Hindu text ‘Natya Shastra.’
This form embodies a fusion of Indian and Southeast Asian culture. The place’s age-old dance tradition is manifested in the great Indian epics, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata,’ where the native dance experts of Manipur are referred to as ‘Gandharvas.’ During Hindu festivals and other important cultural occasions, the Manipuris perform this religious art that aims to express spiritual values.
Manipur is primarily inhabited by the Meiteis, a valley people whose ancestors can be traced back to Vedic times. Whatever the heritage, it is fairly well established that many ritual practices were common in the region very early on. The dances maintain the continuity of such ritual practices. The ritual dances are not just trance dances or dances to exorcise evil spirits; they are pure devotion and dedication to their gods.
Origin & Evolution
The first reliably dated written texts describing Manipuri dance art date from the early 18th century. The history and evolution of Manipuri dance is fascinating. Manipuri is said to have been developed in the 2nd century AD by King Khuyoi Tompok, who was a great patron of the arts. However, it is unlikely that this early form of Manipuri shared many characteristics with modern forms.
Traditionally, the Manipuri people regard themselves as the ‘Gandharvas’ mentioned in Vedic texts, who were singers, dancers, and musicians associated with devas or deities. Sculptures of ‘Gandharvas’ as dancers can be found in Southeast Asian temples from the early medieval period. In ancient Manipuri texts, the region is also referred to as ‘Gandharva-Desa.’ Usha, the exalted dawn goddess of the ‘Rig Veda,’ is traditionally credited with creating female dance art and teaching it to young girls.
In Manipur, this oral tradition of dance passed down verbally to women is known as ‘Chingkheirol.’ Manipur is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts, including the great Indian epic, the ‘Mahabharata,’ was one of the five Pandava brothers, Arjun, met and fell in love with Chitrangada in this beautiful valley.
Manipur’s historical texts have not survived into the modern era, and reliable records date back to the early 18th century. Theories about the origins of the Manipuri Raas Leela dance rely on oral tradition, archaeological discoveries, and references to Manipur in Asian manuscripts whose dates can be determined.
According to Panniker’s text Bamon Khunthok, which literally means “Brahmin migration,” Vaishnavism practices were adopted by the king of Manipur in the 15th century CE, arriving from the Shan Kingdom of Pong. Further waves of Buddhists and Hindus arrived from Assam and Bengal after the mid-16th century, during the Bengal Sultanate’s Hindu-Muslim wars, and were welcomed in Manipur. In 1704 King Charai Rongba declared Vaishnavism to be the state religion. King Gareeb Nawaz converted to Chaitanya style devotional Vaishnavism in 1717, emphasizing singing, dancing, and religious performance arts centered on the Hindu god Krishna. Devotional dance drama centered on the Hindu god Rama expanded the Manipuri dance tradition in 1734.
Manipuri Dance Costumes
The costumes worn by Manipuri dancers, particularly by women, are distinct from those worn by other Indian classical dance forms. A male dancer wears a brightly colored dhoti, also known as a dhora or dhotra, that covers the lower half of his body from the waist down. The unique style of wearing it allows the dancer to perform his footwork with ease. The head of the dancer, who plays Lord Krishna, is adorned with a crown made of peacock feathers.
Female dancers wear Potloi costumes, which are similar to those worn by Manipuri brides. Meidingu Bhagyachandra Maharaj introduced these costumes for dancers portraying Gopis in the ‘Rasa Lila’ dance. The most notable is the Kumil costume, which consists of an exquisitely embellished long skirt in the shape of a barrel with a stiffened bottom. The skirt is embroidered with fine gold and silver works, embellished with small mirror pieces and border prints of lotus and other natural items. Kumil’s top border adorns a wavy and translucent fine skirt that is tied three times around the waist in Trikasta and opens up like a flower.
A velvet choli or blouse adorns the upper part of the body, and a white translucent veil covers the head. The dancer adorns her face, hand, neck, waist, and legs with round-shaped jewellery or flower garlands that complement her costume. A Manipuri dancer, unlike other Indian classical dance forms, does not wear a ghunghroo, which is a musical anklet made of leather straps with small metallic bells attached to it. The entire ensemble of the dancers performing gracefully onstage, accompanied by devotional music, gives the impression of floating apsaras.
- Female artists wear decorative embellishments on a barrel-shaped drum-like long stiff skirt. They also wear a dark-colored velvet blouse and a veil over their faces.
- Male dancers dress in dhoti, kurta, white turban, a folded shawl over the left shoulder, and drum strap over the right shoulder.
- Lord Krishna is always dressed in a yellow dhoti, a dark velvet jacket, and a crown of peacock feathers.
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Manipuri Dance Music & Instrument
The Pung, a barrel drum, cymbals or kartals, harmonium, flute, pena, and sembong are common musical instruments used in this art form. A singer is among the accompanists. Dancer-drummers perform spectacular footwork, including dance jumps while drumming, during the Pong cholom dance, which is usually performed as a prelude to ‘Ras Lila.’
TThe drummers are male artists who train to dance with the pung while drumming after learning to play it. According to Massey, this dance is performed with the dancer wearing white turbans, white dhotis, a folded shawl over the left shoulder, and the drum strap over the right shoulder. Pung Cholom is the name of the dance, and the dancer plays the drum while performing dance jumps and other movements.
Similarly, in Kartal cholom dance, the dancers in a group play the kartals or cymbals and dance to the rhythm of the kartals or cymbals, forming and moving in a circle. While male artists perform Pong cholom and Kartal cholom, female artists perform Mandilla cholom while playing cymbals tied with colorful tassel strings. Text songs of Manipuri dance lyrics are written in a variety of languages, including Sanskrit, Brij Bhasha, and Maithili, to name a few, and are generally based on the poetry of Jayadeva, Govindadas, Chandidas, and Vidyapati.
Manipuri lyrics are typically drawn from the classical poetry of Jayadeva, Vidyapati, Chandidas, Govindadas, or Gyandas, and may be written in Sanskrit, Maithili, Brij Bhasha, or another language.
Facts About Manipuri Dance
- Manipuri dance, also known as Jagoi, is named after the region of its origin – Manipur, a state in northeastern India bordering Myanmar (Burma), Assam, Nagaland, and Mizoram.
- Manipuri dance encompasses both classical and folk dance forms. The folk dance forms are mainly attributed to regional deities such as Umang Lai and performed during Lai Haraoba, and also the dances of the different tribal communities of Manipur.
- The classical Manipuri Raas Leela is one of the major Indian classical dance forms. The dance form is based on Hindu Vaishnavism themes, and exquisite performances of love-inspired dance drama of Radha-Krishna called Raas Leela.
- The Manipuri dance, in general, is a team performance, with its own unique costumes, aesthetics, conventions, and repertoire. Manipuri dance is religious art and its aim is the expression of spiritual values. Aspects of this performance art are celebrated during festivals and major rites of passage such as weddings among the Manipuri people, particularly in the ethnic majority of Meitei people.
- It is more restrained compared to the other dances of India.
- The artist never establishes eye contact with the audience. The movements are continuous and circular, merging into one another. The hand gestures or mudras gel gently with the overall movements. The facial expressions are not over the top, but rather subdued. Even in the more vigorous form, that is, the Cholom, these features are maintained. The artist does not wear bells or anklets known as ghunghru, and this is in stark contrast with the other classical dances of India.