Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Manipuri Dance - A Spiritual Exercise

Manipuri is one of the six classical dance styles of India, the others being Bharata-natyam, Kathak, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, and Orissi. It is indigenous to Manipur, the north-eastern state of India and the indigenous people of this valley were said to be the dance-expert Gandharva as mentioned in the epic Ramayana, Mahabharata and other religious scriptures.


Manipuri dance is purely religious and its aim is a spiritual experience. Development of music and dance has through religious festivals and daily activities of the Manipuri people. Not only is dance a medium of worship and enjoyment, a door to the divine, but indispensable for all socio-cultural ceremonies. From the religious point of view and from the artistic angle of vision, Manipuri Classical Form of dance is claimed to be one on the most chestiest, modest, softest and mildest but the most meaningful dances of the world.

The most obliging aspect of Manipuri culture is that, it has retained the ancient ritual based dances and folk dances along with the later developed classical Manipuri dance style. Among the classical categories, ‘Ras Leela’ - a highly evolved dance drama, choreographed on ‘Vaishnavite Padavalis’ composed by mainly eminent Bengali poets and some Manipuri Gurus, is the highest expression of artistic genius, devotion and excellence of the Manipuris.

The history of Manipur says that different clans of the Indo-Vedic and Mongoloid people lived side by side in Manipur for centuries. Now it assembled in her the major folks of the east and the west - the Meiteis and the Bishnupriya Manipuris. Orthodox Bishnupriya Manipuris consider themselves to be the genuine Vedic decent, who according to them, came to Manipur valley from Dvaraka and Hastinapura, just after the Mahabharata war, which happening before the 9th century B.C. as generally accepted by modern research. The Meitheis, on the other hand, differentiate themselves as Mongoloid group of people. But some orthodox Meiteis believe that they are the descendants of group of people coming from Mithila (Videha) which is the eastern frontier of Aryan culture for a long time.

Referring to the people of Manipur E.T. Dalton in his book “Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal”, states that, “ ..And, this hordes overrun a country (Manipur) that has been previously occupied by the people of Aryan blood known in the western India and to the Bards.” Also while explaining the appearance of the Manipuris, Dr. R. Brown says “ although the general facial characteristics of the Mannipurie are of Mongolian type, there is great diversity of features among them, some of them showing regularly approaching the Aryan type” (Imperial gazetteer of India, 1908, Vol 17, page 126).

So certainly there was a bulk of Vedic people from the north-west of India had entered into Manipur valley in the pre-Christian era. Ancient temples like the Vishnu temple of Bishnupur, Govindajiew temple in Imphal, the Kohima stone, old palaces and other related buildings and structures provide us little more historical information. G. E.Geraini, in his work, Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography, indicated the establishment of an Indo-Vedic state by the Bishnupriya Manipuris in the remote period in Manipur. He states, “From the Brahmaputra and Manipur to the Tonkin gulf, we can trace a continuous string of petty states ruled by those scions of the ksatriyo race, using the Sanskrit or Pali language in official documents and inscriptions, buildings, temples and monuments of old Hindu style and employing Brahmin priests at the propitiatory ceremonies connected with the court, and the state”.

The other race in Manipur, the Meiteis, moved in from Chinese territory and this is reflected in the name. Meitei means, in Chinese, ‘people of this country’ i.e., Chinese territory. “It is quite probable that the Kalachaias are the first cultural race in possession of the Manipur valley,” wrote Rajmohan Nath in’ The Background of Assamese Culture’. R.M. Nath also held that- “The Meiteis were the later immigrants.” The Meiteis brought with them the experience and momentum of an ancient civilization. They probably had superiority in numbers and gradually they gained ascendancy. Manipuri folklore tells of an adventurer named Poireiton who came from the ‘land of death’ and taught the locals many wonderful things. This mythical figure may have been an enterprising Meitei. It is also possible that Poireiton wasn’t a single person. It may have been a common name for the early settlers.

It is evident by a number of sources that China supplied some earlier racial elements that attributed to the development of the Indo-Chinese culture in Assam. The Accounts of Shung Shu (420 -479 AD) recorded the Chinese’s subduation of Manipur valley, and also establishment of their suzerainty over Kapily valley which is to be located in modern Nagaon. Referring to the Chinese or Mongolian racial elements in the Manipur valley, Arther Pelliot (Deux Itineraries) stated that the Chinese invaded the valley in about 700 AD The Chinese called the people of the valley as Khalachas, i.e. the son of the wide lake( Loktak) and described them as highly civilized. Interestingly, the Meiteis of the Mongolian stock and late comers to Manipur used to call the Bishnupriya Manipuri as Khalachaya. ET Dalton held that by degrees the Meiteis became more powerful in Manipur. It encouraged them to introduce matrimonial relations with the indigenous people undoubtedly with the Vedic Aryan people, and it now merged into totally a new origin, i.e. Indo-Mongoloid Culture.

However, as mentioned in the Meitei sacred scriptures and texts, a most comprehensive dance form popularly known as Lai-haraoba mirrors the pre-Vaishnavite culture and other types of solo, duet, group, etc., within its body.

Lai-Haraoba (Merry Festival of the Deities) is the festival of the recollection of the creation stories played by all these deities with the first origin of this universe and evolution of the plants and animals through the will of Atiya Shidaba, the Supreme God of the Meitei sanamahi’s. (Agencies)

Courtesy: The Sentinel (23 June, 2010)
Image: Shailesh Johar
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