Art enthusiasts from all over Chennai flocked to the auditorium at SAC on 31 August for a traditional Manipuri performance, looking forward to the rare opportunity. Expectations were not in vain, and the audience were held in thrall by the Pung Cholam Drum dance, followed by a Manipuri Classical Dance.
The performance began with seven white-clad men taking to the stage with drums, conches and cymbals. As the Nipa Pala, or Male Choir, performed a prelude to the Raasa Sankirtana, the soaring vocals, rhythmic drums and cymbals and the majestic sounds of the conches combined to create an atmosphere of sanctity. The music was accompanied by vigorous jumps and acrobatic turns, the coloured tassels on the dancers swaying in unison. This was followed by the actual enactment of the Raasa Leela in dance form – the Raasa Nrithya – together with music and song. The Gopikas and Krishna, in their glittering and elaborate costumes, conveyed different stages of the story – Krishna’s dance, his disappearance, the Gopikas’ viraha or grief, Krishna’s reappearance, pushpanjali and aarathi – through graceful, hypnotic movements.
The Manipuri dance form traces its origins back to the pre-Christian era, but the Nata Sankirtana was developed as a classical art form only during the late eighteenth century. The variant of Rasa Sankirtana (featuring Rasa Leela, or the relationship between Krishna and the Gopikas) is closely tied to the Vaishnavite movement in Manipur.
The performance was organized by the IITM chapter of SPIC MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth), in collaboration with the Progressive Artiste Laboratory (PAL) in Imphal, Manipur, which the troupe is a part of. Led by Padmashree Guru Thanil Singh, the troupe consists of fifteen artistes. Founded in 1975 by Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Guru Shri Tarunkumar Singh, PAL aims at using culture to spread the message of peace and integrity across the country, while promoting and preserving traditional art forms. The programme came to a close with Prof. Milind Brahme of IIT Madras honouring each of the performers.
Following the Manipuri Dance performance organized by SPIC MACAY in the SAC auditorium on 31 August, T5E correspondent Shilpa Menon interviewed Mr. Manju Elangbam, who performed Krishna’s part in the Raas Sankirtana performance. Mr. Elangbam is currently in his third year of a Ph.D. on Manipuri Dance in the Visva-Bharati University, Bengal. The son of acclaimed Sankirtana singer Elangbam Anganghal Singh, he has been a recipient of numerous awards for his performances, and has multiple foreign collaborations to his credit.
Q. Tell us more about this dance form – is it a ritualistic, annual performance?
A. Yes. Traditionally, the Raas Leela is performed every year. What you just saw is a modified version of the original performance, shortened and structured to suit modern audiences. There are five types of Raas Sankirthanas performed in Manipur corresponding to different seasons; this is Basanta Raas Leela, performed on full-moon nights in spring, lasting until just before sunrise. In the original version, Krishna is represented by an idol rather than a performer, and the ‘Gopikas’ dance with the idol of Lord Govinda (Krishna) in the centre. The Shree Govindaji Temple in Manipur hosts such performances every year.
Q. Manipuri Dance has an intriguing history – could you tell us more about it?
A. The art form of Leela Sankirtana was developed during by Rajashree Bhagyachandra in the late eighteenth century, when Vaishnavism became a prominent religious movement in Manipur. The stories, hence, are from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gita Govinda (couplets on the Raas Leela composed by Jayadeva, a twelfth-century poet), and the underlying philosophy, as well as the costumery, are distinctly Vaishnavite. However, the language used in the songs, and the movements, were inspired by indigenous art forms of Manipur that trace their origins to before the Christian era. Sanskrit and Bengali variations of the songs also exist.
Q. As opposed to southern dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Manipuri Dance seems to rely less on facial expressions to convey meaning – why is this so?
A. Yes, that’s true. This dance form seeks to convey the Vaishnavist belief that Lord Krishna is the only Lord of the Universe – all focus is on the idol at the centre. The Gopikas are depicted as being full of bhakti – they are meditating upon Krishna, and Krishna alone. Their veiled faces and their floating, flowing movements also seek to symbolise this trance-like state of devotion. In fact, in Manipur, it is common for young women to book for a Gopika role in the annual performance, as they believe that performing the Raas Sankirtana will purify their mind and body. The prominent emotions are bhakti – devotion – and madhu rasa, and the eroticism associated with Raas Leela is not emphasised upon.
Q. Was the performance traditionally restricted to temples?
A. Not really – the first performance of the year has to be conducted in the Shree Govindaji temple, and it may then be performed outside temple grounds. Generally, a mandap is set up in a courtyard or a similar space after ceremonially sanctifying it, and the performance is held there.
Q. What is the current status of the Manipuri dance form? Does it find patronage in today’s times?
A. Until a decade ago, local dance forms such as these were going into decline for lack of appreciation. However, in recent times, they have seen a revival, owing to academic focus on traditional art forms. Manipur itself has a very small population, but Manipuri dance is, today, enjoying an international audience. We have students from the West, and from East Asia, especially Korea. Most of the performers in our troupe are either students of dance, or have taken it up as a profession.