Manipuri Dance and Culture – A World Heritage

Interview with Dr Sohini Ray as narrated to Sreeparna Lahiri

Sreeparna Lahiri, from Medha-Journal was a child student in Manipuri Nartanalaya, Kolkata in the late 1970s, at a time Sohini Ray was a prominent child artiste in the institution. Many years later they re-met in California and once Sreeparna has asked Sohini how was it that she became so involved in the field coming from a completely different background. The idea of the interview came from that conversation.
What is Manipuri dance form? Is it considered as an Indian Classical dance form or is it considered a folk dance? How is Manipuri dance different from other Indian dance forms? What is the status of Manipuri dance in India vis-a-vis other comparable dance forms?

Manipuri dance is the collective name given to the dance and performance traditions that is the heritage of the Meitei people in Manipur. It has different elements in it. The classical tradition is the ones associated with Rasleela, and Natpala. The folk/indigenous elements are those from Lai-haraoba.
Manipuri dance is long recognized as a classical dance form in India – both administratively and socially. However, given the difficult geographic access to Manipur and Northeastern India in general the dance form has relative less publicity in large Indian cities. Especially when we were growing up it was really very little known – however, with televisions coming in that is changing.

Manipuri dance has both similarities and differences with other Indian Dances. The movements of Manipuri dances are all found in the movement system described in the Bharata’s Natyashastra. Most importantly, the music system, especially the tala system in Manipuri dance is very similar to that used in the major music systems in India with a few regional variations.

There are two major differences – the first is in the mood. Manipuri dance is very contained and controlled in its repertoire and there is no exaggeration of movements and facial expressions. Secondly, as the dance form is theatrical in origin the entire repertoire is sub-divided into two broad categories – tandava (masculine) and lasya (feminine) for the male and female characters. It is very difficult for dancers to master both techniques as they are very demanding in different ways.

What/who inspired you to learn Manipuri dance and then pursue your academic career in similar field? Can you tell us about your Guru Bipin Singh and his achievements? The Jhaveri sisters are synonymous with Manipuri dance. What in your opinion is their major contribution?

I came across Manipuri dance by chance – and the art form chose me, than me choosing it. I feel really fortunate that way. I used to go to a neighborhood dance school when I was a five year-old. The teacher there, a former student of my guru’s suggested to my mother one day that I be admitted to his guru’s school. As I started In Manipuri Nartanalaya, Kolkata in 1974, I was 7 years old, within a few months of training I was given the lead role of Krishna in a Gostha-leela, a dance drama on childhood episodes of Lord Krishna. I have not looked back since.

Later on, I remember I was about ten or so, Guruji came back from Manipur and asked my mother whether she was ready to purchase a pung (Manipuri drum) for me, as it was an appropriate time for me to start learning. My Mother was very surprised, as no other student studied drumming, it was a skill only the senior teachers had – people like Kalavatidi (Guru Kalavati Devi), Darshanaben (Guru Darshana Jhaveri) etc. Anyway, I started learning and again within months Guruji assigned me to perform a solo drumming piece in one of their important shows. I still remember that it was January 1978 – I was only eleven years old. I received raving reviews in many newspapers, and after me some of the other students started learning drumming as well. When I was 13 and studied in seventh grade, one day my guru asked me to look at a dictionary of archaic Bengali and find out synonyms of a word. Since then he asked me to look at lyrics he wrote, and hand-copy many of the scripts and lyrics. I started working as his research assistant from that time, and studied archaic Bengali and Sanskrit. Eventually I co-wrote a book manuscript with him.

As Guruji and other prominent dance scholars like Dr. Kapila Vatsyayana and Dr. Padma Subramanium whom I met through him, advised me that taking on a field related to dance would a good idea for a college degree, and the different choices open to me were – Sanskrit literature, history and Cultural Anthropology. I chose anthropology. It was the best choice I could make as I have really enjoyed being an anthropologist even outside dancing. But most important it has helped in understanding Manipur in a broader cultural context in a very deep way.

By the time I was sixteen I had decided on my college career to be something related to dance and I was very decisive that dance and dance-related academics was going to be my lifetime pursuit. It was not easy, as in my family like in many other traditional Bengali families, the arts are not considered career – to be a career woman one needed to be a doctor, software engineer, accountant etc. Especially since I was a good student in school my career choice met with many waves of disapproval and disappointment. In general in Bengal, dance is considered an ‘inferior art’ more associated with prostitutes. But, despite all pressures, I remain undaunted in my pursuits.

Are there any mythological significance to Manipuri dance? How does the socio-cultural aspect of the more recent local culture influence or how has the more ancient Meitei culture influenced evolution of this dance form?

The history of Manipuri dance can be divided into two broad phases – the pre-hindu and Hindu. The primere festival of the Pre-hindu tradition on Manipur, the word Lai-haraoba has been derived from “lai hoi lauba” which literally means shouting of the word “hoi” by the gods reflecting on the Meitei creation myth. There are four kinds of celebration of Lai-haraoba throughout Manipur: Kanglei haraoba (celebrated in the major parts of Manipur), Moirang haraoba (as celebrated in Moirang), Chakpa haraoba (as celebrated in Chakpa and the non-Hindu Meitei villages) and Kakching haraoba (as celebrated in Kakching). Among these Kanglei haraoba is the most common form of celebration. The celebration of Lai-haraoba is done any time between April and June, and the celebration may last from one day to one month depending on the enthusiasm and monetary capacity of the organizers. It is usually celebrated communally collecting revenues from the community. The festival is dedicated to the local pre-Hindu deity of the area where it is celebrated, and is officiated by maibas (male priests), maibis (female priestesses) and the pena-khungba (the player of pena, a stringed instrument).

The mythological genesis of Lai-haraoba is very complex, and there are various stories around it. It is commonly believed that Lai-haraoba started in the Koubru hills (a sacred pilgrim, and all the gods of the Meitei pantheon participated in the festival. The mythologies are found in various hand-written manuscripts know as the puyas. The rituals of Lai-haraoba start with Lai-ikouba (waking up of the deity) from water on the first day. The daily proceedings include Lai-yakaiba (the awakening of the deities by singers with penas early morning), Laiman-phamba (when the maibis predicts the future). The evening rituals consist of Lei-langba (offering flowers to the deities by the common people), Hoi-laoba (singing by the maibis), Thougal-jagoi (dance with maibis to invoke the deities), Laiching jagoi (the maibis dance with the sequence involves a variety of expressive movements), Laibou-chongba (dance of creation) done by maibis, the sequence ends with Leiren mathek (a maiba indicates the movement of a snake in a single line which is a symbol of the snake-god Pakhangba); Wakol, (all the cultic objects are kept inside the temple) and then a concluding song is sung to put the deities to sleep. The Lai-haraoba ceremony also includes Lai-lamthokpa, in which the lais are put in a palanquin and taken out in a procession; Kanglei-thokpa (the maibi chooses the bride of the lai) and the all night function on the last night of Lai-haraoba, known as Lairoi. In this occasion the mythological story of Tangkhul and Nurabi are enacted by the Pena-khungba and the maibis. This story of this enactment is highly ritual in nature and symbolizes the propagation of fertility in the Meitei society. Lai-haraoba festival is identified to be the ideological roots of dance and theater of Manipuri tradition. The dance of maibis and the ritual theater of the lairoi numit is the oldest example of dance and traditional theater among the Meiteis.

Later on as Vaishnavism came into the valley, the community accepted many of the themes and festivals that are celebrated through out India but in Manipur there was a special element added to it, dance and music. At this juncture the repertoire of classical Manipuri dance came into existence, Rasleela and Natpala began at this time.

The primere Hindu dance tradition of Manipur is contained in the Manipuri Rasleelas, which are night-long or day-long dance dramas about the life of Krishna that are held in the temple courtyards. These are ritual occasions and are largely performed by devotees, who may not be trained dancers. There are two kinds of Rasleelas – about childhood stories that enact episodes about Krishna’s childhood stories. These are largely performed by children. There are adult Rasleelas that are held at night, these are performed by adult women, again largely devotees who perform in a Rasleela as an act of devotion. Stories from Lord Krishna’s life are performed at different times of the year. In the Rasleelas performed in any other venue in Manipur the roles of Lord Krishna and Radha are played by very young children, but in the royal temple of Manipur no human being is allowed to play the role of gods and the deities are brought out in the middle of the courtyard. The gopis, the other characters played by other women dance surrounding it.

Another primary Hindu dance tradition the Natpala is a devotional ensemble performance held on ritual occasions in the Meitei society of Manipur. The oldest form of nata sankirtana is bangdesh pala introduced in 1709 A.D, followed by manoharshai pala, in 1850; the other two variations of this genre being dhrumel and dhap pala. In a typical performance held in the courtyard of a house or a temple, with audience sitting on three sides of the sacred performing space. The head of the function (mandap mapu) ritually begins and ends the function, with the sound of the conch-shell marking every phase of the performance. Structured as an ensemble, the primary dynamics of the performance consists of a duet between the singer-cymbal player-dancers who may be male or female and the drum-dancers who are always male. The singers sing while standing, play cymbals to keep the rhythm of the song along with and enact the meaning of the song in expressive gestures. The drum-playing is accompanied with dancing with vigorous jumps and acrobatic turns. The lead singer often narrates parts of the theme in the form of theatrical dialogues. The archaic Bengali songs of Vaishnavite themes along with Meitei translations are the most common along with the emerging Meitei revivalist tradition of nata sankirtana where the themes are about the pre-Hindu deities of Manipur.

There is greater importance to “Mudras” in Manipuri dance compared to other Indian dances. Can you explain the importance of “Mudras” or hand-gestures in Manipuri dance?

Hand-gestures are an integral part of the form. The hand-gestures are prevalent in the older Maibi tradition as well, but they do not have any names. The later Rasleela tradition has Sanskrit names for the hand-gestures, in fact that is way we were taught. Other Indian dance forms have very similar traditions of hand-gestures. Later on, in the 1970s during the peak of the political unrest Hidanmayum Thambal sharma started a new tradition as he re-named the hand-gestures with Meitei names. I am working on a project right now on the history of hand-gestures in Manipuri dance, and would be better prepared to give statements once it is published.

You would of course be familiar with the martial art styles of Manipuri. Can you tell us how they relate to the dance forms?

I personally studied Thang-ta for about a year, when I lived in Manipur. The history of Manipuri society is filled with warfare with neighboring kingdoms, and inter-clan rivalries. Also, the surrounding mountains are covered with dense forests which are home to many wild animals. It was necessary for every Manipuri individual to be well-versed in the art of combat both armed and unarmed to survive. Indigenous games were practiced widely to keep every male individual fit in the society and ready to face attack from enemies at every moment. The culture of physical movements is thus very deep-rooted in Manipuri society. Dancing is one of the many proliferations of this culture. Many dance movements draw heavily from movements of martial arts.
The formal of Manipuri martial arts is Huen Lalong. Thang- ta is the name given to the sword and spear techniques. Other noteworthy techniques are Sarit sarat or unarmed combat, and Mukhna or wrestling.

In Manipur, because of the history of warfare, martial arts were practiced to train every male individual and have them ready for going to war. Thangta also has a ritualistic side to it – art of thenkourol or the black magic to defeat enemies was also an important part of the martial arts. However, it is a knowledge that is limited to only the older male practionaers and are never shared with women or even men under the age of forty. Many heroes are still remembered for their courage and valiance in the martial art technique till today. Paona Brajabasi for example the general who led the Manipuri army against the British forces in the Khomjom war in 1891 was known for his skill and courage. Manipur lost the war and he died in the battlefield, but stories about him and still popular in Manipur. As Manipur came under British rule, the colonial government out-lawed the practice of thang-ta. The entire art form had to go underground. My guru, Guru Sinam Devabrata, the head of Hula sindamsang has told me many stories from his childhood as he recalled how thang-ta practitioner practiced in secrecy.

Later with Indian independence, the practice of Thang-ta was restored in open. But, the very son, modern theater in India and choreography was keen in adapting techniques of thang-ta on stage. Also, the modern Indian proscenium adapted Thang-ta as a performing art, as chroreographed fights, shows of sword and spear techniques on stage set to music became more and more popular.

What was held in society as technique of combat transformed into a performance form. Today if you go to study Thang-ta in Manipur, you will see distinctly different kinds of practice. The first one is that of the neighborhood boys. In my Thang-ta school Hula Sindamsang in Imphal, I was the only female student, and I remember the neighborhood boys would come and peek in the training area being curious to see what I was learning. But my classmates were wonderful, they helped me learn and practice and often corrected my mistakes. There is also a very urban fashionable side of Thang-ta, as you see several actors, actresses, dancers from outside take Thang-ta workshops, and Thng-ta teachers are always busy conducting workshop in the large Indian cities.

Among modern choreographers in Manipuri dance thang-ta is an important element that has been used again and again to choreograph movements. The noted choreographer Astad Deboo for example uses Thang-ta extensively in his productions. Just like many parts of south India Kalarappayatu is used by modern choreographers, the late Chandralekha was known for her use of Yoga and Kalari in her choreography – Thang-ta is used in Manipur. The pioneer modern choreographer Th. Chaotombi used movements from Ta-khousarol shaba – (the spear technique from Manipuri martial art) to chreograph the movements of the deer in Keibul Lamjao).

What were your topics of interest in your research activities?

My research interests are two – dance and language. My earlier works are on dance and its relationship with culture. For my Ph.D. research I studied linguistic anthropology, and my Ph. D. is on the writing system of Manipuri language. I am working on a book manuscript on it right now, and will be prepared to share more after it is published.

You have researched on Meitei mayek the ancient Meitei writing system and spent eighteen months doing fieldwork in Manipur when you studied the ancient writing system and learnt to read puyas, the ancient manuscripts written in Meitei script. Can you tell us about your field experience or any interesting episodes that you would like to share? What is your most cherished moment?

Some of my most cherished moments are from my days in Manipur. I was spent long phases of time there researching and studying dance with many different old masters. I would not trade this time and experience with anything else in my life. Two episodes that I recall are some of the highlights of my experience there. Dancing in a temple Rasleela – I had performed in many famous/high-profile places – but dancing with the deity in the temple compound was a completely different experience. I feel that my education as a Manipuri dancer would be incomplete without it. No material means can explain this experience.

My other cherished memory is the pilgrimage to mountain Koubru, a sacred pilgrim spot of the old Meitei religion. I had gone for a three day pilgrimage on this sacred moutain called Koubru with a local activist group who did worships on the mountain on the day of Imoinu puja in January. We trekked about five miles it took us almost all day and camped there for three nights. We traveled and made offering in different sacred spots on the mountain. It is an experience I would never forget.

Some of my other warm memories are from interacting with the community of traditional scholars in Manipur. For my Ph.D. research I learnt the revived version of Meitei mayek in a school but the older version in which the puyas are written is different from it. I found a teacher who taught the same and then I studied some of the traditional pandits (scholars) to know this version accurately. This community of scholars who live hand to mouth and have been very financial sponsorship are some of the world; most knowledgeable people I have ever met. The old royal establishment of Manipur the pandit loishang or the royal department of scholars housed in the compound of the temple still have living quarters for the traditional scholars, and any person from the community came and consult with them. The atmosphere of knowledge, learning and intellect that I have seen there is rare, and the odds against which this community of scholars has struggled to keep this ancient heritage alive is amazing. These are people who inspire me everyday. If I did not have any worldly responsibilities I would be living in the loishang (if they let me live there) studying puyas with these grandmasters, and singing and dancing in the temple. That is the life of my dreams.

Your major choreographic works include Secrets of the heart and Self in collaboration with Korean choreographer Senhea Ha. Can you tell us your experience in doing this fusion of two dance forms?

Those were works I did earlier in my career. Secrets of the heart is a solo piece based on a story by Kahlil Gibran. Self is a fusion work with Korean choreographer Senhea Ha. Self looks at the intersection of the techniques of Korean dance and Manipur. I had just come to this country then, and was amazed to discover the similarities with the east asian dance traditions. Senhea and I used to get together to do improvisation and piece emerged from those dance conversations. We built on the similarities and the contrasts between the two movement genres. The piece opens with a segment where the two of us separate from being one body, and the come back to becoming one person again. In our lives, our notions of self are sometimes fragmented, not together, sometimes in conflict with each other, but sometimes in harmony. It is this notion of human that we tried to look at in this dance piece.
The other work that I did was the one with Peter Sellars – Mathis der Maler, an experimental version of a German opera. I have worked with several other fusions projects in India dance forms as well. I have worked with Menaka Thakkar Dance Company in Toronto in their production Pattano Pradesh involving five classical dances of India, the lead of Krishna in the production krishnabhakti produced by Rasika and directed by Jayanthi Raman in Portland, oregan, fusion project ‘Angika’ with Odissi produced by Srishti Dances of India etc.

But currently I am more interested in focusing in traditional Manipuri dance. Being based in the US I feel that this dance form has had relatively less exposure in North America, and it is my responsibility to make sure that every dance lover in this part of the world is made aware of the beauty and richness of classical Manipuri dance.

Any advice to young students? What ritual and cultural context of Manipuri Dance that you would like to share with the students?

My first advice to students is be prepared for hard-ship – this career is not easy, financial hard-ship, family pressures, social stigma everything will work against you. Secondly, if you still want to continue, go and spend time with the people in Manipur – no matter how famous an artist you are, your education as a Manipuri dancer is incomplete until you have danced in the temple.

The first time I visited Manipur twenty years ago in September 1988, it was an eye-opening experience. Till then, we were trained in classrooms and were performing on stage. This was the first I saw the broader context of the dance form. I made up my mind to return to Manipur as an anthropologist to study this society in which the dance form has grown. And, since then I have spent months, years traveling and studying in Manipur. The natural beauty of Manipur valley is breathtaking. The blue mountains, the clear skies, the green fields, and dancing happening in the temple courtyards, the sound of music reverberating in the horizons – the intricately embroidered and woven clothes, the banana leaf plates, the arrangement of offerings, the neat lines that people form to sit and attend any formal function, as you internalize the beauty of this place and the people you realize how to express this beauty in the dance form – your dance becomes a true representations of the beauty of the place. For me, these are times when I could internalize the genre. So far, I had only perfected it as a technique. Dancing with the people and the maibis in Lai-haraba, hearing the drumming and singing of Arati in Govindji’s temple everyday, watching the older devotee’s participate in temple activities – you know the roots of the genre, not just the condensed version handed to for stage.

I have attended swaradhs (after death rituals), weddings, sometimes stayed up nights to watch and video rasleelas in the temples, or the lairoi (final) day of Lai-haraona when the function goes on all night. The tears of joy and ecstasy of audience and participants are all experiences I have undergone for years and still today I want to go back to Manipur at any given opportunity and spend time there studying and traveling. Just living in Manipur, can be such an enriching experience for your mind and your soul.

But then, it is not all easy and romantic. In my guru’s house where I live in Manipur there is no modern toilet, with political turmoil in NE India, everything is unstable, there are bandhs, closures; public transport is irregular and infrequent, during monsoon the streets are water logged. One time I remember in winter sometime in the end of December the Imphal municipality went on strike, and there was no electricity or water supply for five days. We used to go to the river and bring buckets of water everyday at 5 am morning. Another time, in my guru’s house there was an infestation of rats, and they ate up all my sweaters. It was in the middle of severe winter in Manipur. I was very busy rehearsing for my show in the State Solo festival in Imphal; and I did not have any time to go buy a sweater for myself. I somehow survived without sweaters in the middle of winter, but the show was very successful. However, I have received tremendous warmth and help from the people of Manipur at every stage. I will never forget those instances.

Tell us about your experience with your dance school Manipuri Dance Visions – Institute of Manipuri Dance.

The school has given me a completely different perspective on the dance tradition. Having students is very similar to having children, because no matter where they are in life you are somewhat responsible for them. But, it is a wonderfully rewarding experience to watch people you train bloom and become performers. I have an ethnic mix of students – Sri Lankan, Philipino, Bangaladeshi, and I have one advanced student from India who was already a trained Manipuri dancer and joined my school to receive advance solo training.

I also have a research and documentation unit in my school, as I feel it is important to have cultural information on the dance form while you are learning it as a technique in a different environment.

Author’s bio:

Sohini Ray is one of most important exponents of the Guru Bipin Singh gharana of Manipuri dance today. Spotted by her guru at the age a seven as a child prodigy she was the first student in Manipuri Nartanalaya in all the three branches to learn and perform Manipuri drumming at the age of ten, performed with the Jhaveri sisters since the age of thirteen and received the highly competitive National Cultural Talent scholarship at the age of fourteen. Later in her early twenties she received the ‘Shringar Mani’ award from Sur Shringar Samasad, Mumbai, the first prize in Manipuri dance in the State Youth festival of dance music by the West Bengal state music academy. Today, a versatile performer, director, chorographer, teacher and scholar she has her own training institute of Manipuri dance – Manipuri Dance Visions based in Los Angeles, USA along with its performing unit – the Manipuri dance Visions Ensemble. She has performed and toured all over India and North America performing in many prestigious venues and dance festivals both individually and with her students, receiving raving reviews from the press and the audience. Recently in 2007 she was given the “Los Angeles Treasurers Award’ by the Dept. of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles and the California Traditional Music Society and her production “Harao-Kummei: Joyful Celebrations in Manipuri Dance” was nominated for the prestigious Lestor Horton Award given by the Dance Resource Center of Los Angeles.
Apart from her artistic career, she has a stellar academic career as she topped all through college and University while performing full time, being the coveted ‘first-class–first’ in both her Bacheler’s and Masters degrees in anthropology in Calcutta University receiving the prestigious Jubilee (merit) prize and the National (Merit) Scholarship. After coming to the United States, she received her M.A. in Dance and Ph. D. in anthropology in UCLA, and held post-doctoral fellowships in Harvard University and the Humanities Research Institute in University of California, Irvine. One of her major efforts being documentation of Manipuri dance for future generations, her institute, Manipuri dance Visions has one of the largest collections of archival footage on temple rituals of Manipuri dance in the world.

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