Manipuri Classical Dance
One of the six recognized classical dance forms of India. It originated in the eastern Indian state of Manipur around the 15th century. Succession of kings encouraged music and dance in this ancient mountain kingdom. Meitei, the ancient non-sanskrit language of Manipur, was replaced by Bengali for almost two hundred years. Manipuri classical dance was adopted by the Bengalis and helped it to spread throughout pre-independent Bengal and further into India. In the early 1930s, Rabindranath Tagore imported this style into Santinketan, where it is widely prevalent even today.
Manipuri dance has soft foot and body movements. It is rhythmic yet devotional in character. The three different ‘ras-lilas’ are the predominant features of this classical dance form. These ‘ras-lilas’, the ‘maharas’, ‘vasantaras’ and ‘kunjaras’ have intricate foot movement and choreography. The ‘pung-cholom’ or drum-dance is another attractive dance in the repertoire of a male Manipuri classical dancer. The Krishna ‘avisar’ is a perennial favourite especially during the colourful festival of ‘Holi’. The ‘angan’ or courtyard of the Govindji temple of Imphal, the capital of Manipur, comes alive at this time with devotional dancing. Loud and forceful music and singing is a characteristic feature of Manipuri art as performances are in the open air ‘mandapa’. Costumes are elaborate and ornate. Story lines are woven around the mythological stories of the Hindu deities of Radha and Krishna.
Experiencing the ‘ras’ is a devotional experience. The atmosphere is one of ‘bhakti’ or spiritual devotion. The ‘raslilas’ are commonly danced to poet Jaidev’s words set to music. Both the ‘tandava’ and ‘lasya’ modes of dance are interwoven into the classical dance repertoire of the Manipuri dancer. The rhythmic patterns are intricate with bhangi pareng being unique, bringing undiluted pleasure with its pattern of different ‘tala’ and ‘laya’. ‘Nritta’, ‘rasa’ and ‘bhava’ are separate entities in this classical dance form. Facial expressions are restrained. The strong religious and social connections of this dance keep it separate from pure entertainment.
Manipuri classical music is based on ragas. Their patterns are, however, different from the Indian ragas. The ‘pung’ or small drum is the most important instrument used together with small cymbals and a flute. The ‘esraj’, a stringed instrument, an import from north India, commonly accompanies the singer even to this day. Vaishnavite traditions predominate, as Manipuris are devotees of Mahaprabhu Shri Chaitanya. Today, Manipuris are moving towards their more ancient, pre-Hindu traditions.
Manipuri classical dance, a social and devotional art form, has yet to adapt itself fully to the modern world of entertainment. Efforts are being made, by well-known exponents of this art form, to individualise their presentations and bring in innovations, in order to make it more palatable to modern audiences fed on faster paced forms of dance. May this soft, slow and elegant ancient classical dance live on in spite of pressures from the modern world!