Manipuri dance is all about worship. The effort is to please god with beautiful dance and music. Juanita kakoty learns this after an interaction with Guru Rajkumarji and Charuji, who have dedicated their whole lives to this dance form.
If grace had a face, it would be his, I thought, as Guru Rajkumar Singhajit Singh ushered me into the living room. His wife Charu Sija Mathur, elegant in a Manipuri phanek, joined us as Guruji spoke on a topic close to his heart — Manipuri dance.
“Most classical dance forms in India have had temple connections, though the application and performance was not always identical. Manipuri dance, which is one of the classical dance forms, has been an important aspect of worship. Before Hinduism came to the land, dance and music was how worship was done. So, in our psyche and whole mental make-up, dance and music has always been revered.”
“Manipuri dance has never been about entertainment. Hence, it is very subtle. The effort is to please god by producing the most beautiful form that the mind and body can produce. Which is why, unlike many parts in India where dance and music was taboo, where dance was associated with women of bad repute, in Manipur, dance was and still is very spiritual,” Guruji said. Charuji expressed, “Our abhinaya is very subdued; body movements very subtle. We believe in whole body expression and keep our facial expressions natural.”
Guru Rajkumarji and Charuji have dedicated their whole lives to Manipuri dance. For his contribution to the art, Guruji has been conferred with the title of Padma Shri besides a host of other prestigious awards in India and abroad. Charuji has been the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Delhi Sahitya Kala Parishad Samman. They have not only enriched the dance form with their compositions but have also created a huge body of research and documentation through their work.
“Hinduism came to Manipur in the 15–16th century,” continued Guruji, “We took to Vaishnavaite Hinduism because of the bhakti and shringara inherent in it: the two factors intrinsic to our pre-Hindu worship.” With this evolved more elements in their dance worship. Raslila, Guruji said, is one of the oldest living religious dance dramas in the world and is a contribution of Vaishnavism. So is Sankirtana. “But even before Raslila and Sankirtana, Manipuri dance had existed in the form of Lai Haraoba.”
Variety in style
“In technique,” Guruji pronounced, “The pre-Hindu and Hindu dances have slightly different styles and repertoire. Raslila and La Haraoba both are jagoi (a style of classical Manipuri dance distinct from the other style, cholum); but La Haraoba is pre-Hindu jagoi.”
In Charuji’s words, “La Haraoba is very ancient. It is perhaps the oldest living dance drama in the world. The core of its performance is how the world came into being. It is performed to please pre-Hindu deities like the forest gods. There is a lot of caution involved as people are afraid to anger these deities and thereby invite misfortune to the village.” In this dance ritual, “the maibis are the high priestesses who get possessed and utter predictions.”
The exponents tell me that the rasa (aesthetics) repertoire of classical Manipuri dance comes from Raslila. “Raslila tells the story of Krishna; but it is a feminine jagoi where the performance is by females. Krishna too is played by a girl.” Charuji remembered how, years ago, when she went for a SPICMACAY programme at Varanasi and played Krishna, the organisers were stupefied. “They had never before seen a woman play Krishna in a Raslila!”
“In Manipur,” Guruji reflected, “it is prestigious for parents if their daughters played Krishna in Raslila. Parents and grandparents shed tears of joy when they see their little girls essay the role of Krishna. In such shared moments of ecstasy lie the essence of Manipuri dance.”
Gosthalila is another Krishna lila, Guruji told me, but a masculine jagoi. The performance is by males only and starts at the temple, shifts to the open fields for go-charan (cow grazing) and then comes back to the temple. Thus, these lilas or acts take hours to perform. And there is a set time as to when they can be performed. For instance, Guruji spoke of how “Raslila cannot be performed during the day because Krishna and gopis danced only in the night. Then there are some lilas that can be performed only during full moon.” But with time, all that is changing. “We have started editing the lilas for the modern stage, where the temple dance can’t be transplanted in its entire length. Raslila, for example, is performed all through the night. But the modern stage will not accommodate that. Besides, insurgency is bringing a lot of change within Manipur. It has put an end to activities in the night, which is why we are now losing the tradition of dance worship through the night.”
Listening to Guruji on Manipuri dance was like undertaking a spiritual journey. But this is just a prelude. The real thing is in experiencing the dance ritual in a proper temple setting; or maybe, to an extent, at the stage in what Guruji calls the “times of loudspeakers and speed.”