Manipuri may be described as a dance form which is at once the oldest and the
youngest among the classical dances. Seemingly free and unbound governed only
in a limited manner by the poetic line and the melody, a long waning metrical
system, it is in fact rigorously structured and its easy fLowr and spontaneity is its
outer form w-hich makes for a smooth commtuiication but is not to be mistaken
for simplicity. What is identified as the stage art, Manipuri is only one fragment
or section or the outermost layer of much larger and deeper complex tradition
wdiich has many layers of civilization and culture going back in time. Its
contemporary vitality is the result of its being integral to the life of community
Although a full and comprehensive history ofManipur has yet to be written, it is
clearfromthe fragmentary evidence, both ofthe records ofManipru and elsewhere
as also from secondary evidence of other literatures of India, that thisjewrel of
natural beauty lying in the hills ofthe north-easten borders ofIndia has attracted
from times immemorial people from different parts ofthe country and from other
parts ofthe w-orld. The small valley and the adjoining hills have been the home
of many tribes and groups of people. Amongst these are those known by the
generic terms Nagas (including the Maos, the Tankhuls, the Kabuis); besides
there is a w-hole group ofpeople known by another generic term called the Kukis.
Other tribes and groups ofpeople with different ethnic individuality are known
to the region. In the valley are the Meiteis. By some accounts, their antiquity" can
be traced back to the Vedic times, by other accounts, this valley was the home of
the famous Chitrangada with whom Arjuna fell in love. It w-as perhaps also the
home ofthe ancient tribes described in the Mahabharata especially the Kiratas.
Whatever the heritage ofthe group of people whether traced back to the Vedas
or the Mahabharata or to the more recent times manymigrationstookplace from
India ranging from Gujarat, Bengal to Orissa. Some w^ere the result of the
Vaishnavite movement wdiich spread in this part in the 17th and 18th century.
Today the Meiteis are distinctive groups known for their beautiful lifestyle, their
refined rituals and their variety" ofskills ranging from w-eaving to basket-making
to w-ood-w-ork and above all their enchanting dances. Commonly wrhen people
speak about Manipuri dance or Manipur, they elude the one level or one aspect
ofthe large variety- ofMeitei dancing w-hich coniesimderthe sub-category- ofJagoi
or at best sankirtana. As iii the case ofKerala, in order to understand the tradition as dance called the
rasa dances or the various types ofsankirtana one has to dig deeper to see the
other layers of the performing arts of this region. Foremost amongst the preVaishnava traditions of the performing arts are the ritual dances. These, as in
other parts of India, are man’s attempt to make or enact, in specific time and
space the beginning of the cosmos, the creation and its ultimate destruction or
The Meiteis were divided into seven districts or clans called the Salais. Each of
these had particular deity connected with the vegetation, the forest and the
environmentThe Lai Haraoba is a typical example ofthe ritual ofa re-enactment
of creation, the world and the cosmos through a period of a few days. Literally,
it means the festival ofthe gods. It is performed annually by the groups ofpeople
in themonths ofApril and May, although there are differenttraditions or varieties
ofperforming theLaiHaraoba. Essentiallyeach ofthese follows a similarstructure.
Todayfive differentvarieties ofthe LaiHaraoba are known and these are associated
with different venues such as Kanglai, Moirang, Kakaching, Andra and Chakpa.
The festival begins with a procession going to a nearby river or a pond. Here the
leaders of the village invoke the spirits of the waters. The leaves—one placed
facing the sky and the other covers the first leaf. The ritual symbolises the
emergence oflife from the eternal writers. Ritually, a seed is put within the two
leaves. The procession retrums with a filled pitcher from the pond and the leaves
placed above it. The procession with the leaders then installs, this consecrated
pitcherwith leavesin a temporaryshrine. Symbolically, thisisthe comingtogether
ofmatter and energy Shiva and Shakti. Then begins a festival lasting 10-15 days
where each act of creation oflife on earth is enacted. The leaders ofthe festival
are the male priests and the wmnen priests. From the moment ofimmersing the
leaves in thewaterswhen the spirit ofthe godsisinvoked to the last, these human
priests look as if consecrated and belong to another world. It is they, who throw"
the flowers into thewinters or place the seedbetween the two leaves; in the second
phase they invoke the quarters. These are the four comers ofthe State ofManipur.
They involve the Lord of the Moirang—Thangjing—the Lord of north-west, the
Lord of the southwest—Wangbaren; the Lord of the south-east— Morjing,
and Koubru—the Lord of the northeast. Having infused life and invoked the
directions, they invoke the beginning oflife. This stage is veiy important phase
of the dance because through gesture the enactment of the creation of human
life is presented. Two rows are made: each is led by the Maibi. A song describes
very clearly the various stages of the creation of life, of the making of the
various parts of the body and ultimately the making of man. In a subsequent
phase through gestures again a house is built, through hand-gestures, bodily
movement and the singing of a poetic phrase. When the house is complete
there is the placing of the roof and then finally the dedication to the
God. Thereafter is the installation again suggestively of the male and female principle as nong-pokning-thon who perhaps represents Siva and Panthoibi who
possibly represents Parvati.
Having created a hut and a thatched roof installed
the duties, other functions of life are re-enacted. There is a sequence where
through gestures is presented the sprouting of cotton seed, its plant and the
weaving of the cloth. The cloth is too then dedicated to the gods.
Fish culture is important to Manipur and therefore the next stage re-enacts life
ofthe fish and the catching of a fish with a net. Later there is the enactment of
different types of games and ultimately also wrestling, acrobatics and the
presentation ofthe martial arts. .
It is important to keep this sequence ofthe ritual enactment ofthe making and
the unmaking ofCosmos in the Lai Haraoba festival because many patterns and
choreographical designs knowntomany otherperforming arts ofManipur continue
to be inspired by both the symbolism and the artistic forms which are seen in the
Lai Haraoba enactment. Meiteis subscribe to a deity or one may call it a design
or a symbolic Yantra called the Pankhanba. This is the age-old design of the
intertwined serpentwithoutbeginning and end. Each ofthese functions ofthe life
as also of the creation of the universe is executed through a highly refined
choreographical pattern which moves in semicircles and intertwines patterns
wiiere the beginning isthe end and the end the beginning. The intricate patterns
of choreography of floor design wiiich wre see in Manipuri dancing are directly
related to wThat is integral to the festival ofthe Lai Haraoba. The figure of eight
is a basic movement ofthe body and choreographical patterns evolve out ofthis.
Closely related to the Lai Haraoba sometimes even integral to the Lai Haraoba
and at othertimes performed independentlyboth ritually and otherwise is strong
and \lgorous tradition ofthe martial arts ofManipur. These are known as by the
generic term Thangta. These martial arts are a parallel to the Kalari tradition or
the KaHaripattyam of Kerala. In some ways, this tradition is more rigorously
structured and ritually refined. There are different types of martial skills,
sometimes performed solo and sometimes performed as duets and yet at other
tune in groups. The solo dancer or the solo performer who wields either sword
or shield invariably executes intricate pattern ofdesignsthrough the movements
of his feet and his arms. In each case, the pattern is of the intertwined snake
In one number called Akao Thengon wiiich is amongst the
nineThengous (ritual designsthrough spear) known to the martial artstraditions
of Manipur, an intricate pattern of the intertwined serpent is executed in and
around the space ofthe body ofthe dancer. Exactly asthe Maibis had invoked the
life ofthe waters and the life of earth, the gods ofthe directions, the sky and the
elements now7 the solo performer invokes all these through his sword and spear.
The movements are breath-takingly beautiful The suppleness ofthe body ofthe
dancer and his capacity for leaps,jumps, hops, covering ofspace is unbelievable.
Besides, these two, there are other traditions of the Manipuri or the Meitei
performing arts which are hnportant for understanding what is considered as
Jagoi or Rasa traditions. There were the traditions ofthe singing ofthe ballads.
These ballads sometimes recoimt the stories form the Meitei Purana. Chief
amongst them is the singing of the history of Khamba Thoibi to the
accompaniment ofthe stirring times ofthe instrument called Pena. The story of
the love of Khamba Thoibi is sung by a single artiste where the bow of his
instrument becomes a prop for enactment. He sings, he plays the instrument
and he performs. Alongside are the different types ofballad singing drawn from
the Sanskrit tradition. These include the Wari Leeba (singing ofRamayana and
Mahabharata) and Haiba Thiba traditions. The latter requires two singers—
one who sings or recites words in Sanskrit and the other who provides the
It will be obvious from the above that Manipur is the home ofthe dancers ofthe
many Naga tribes, the ritual performances of the Meiteis, the singing and the
recitation traditions and the traditions ofthe martial arts.
It was into this rich complex of cultural traditions, the music and the dance, the
ritual enactment of creation and the varied tradition of the martial arts and
ballad singing that Vaishnavism arrived in Manipur.
Some seeds had already
been sown ofVaishnavism in this partjudging horn the fact that a copper plate
ofabout 763 A. D. mentions the words Sri Hari. King Khongtekcha is considered
to be devotee of Siva and Devi. He also regarded Sri Hari as his supreme deity.
This is not surprising because elsewhere in India the eighth and the ninth
centiuies were the periods of a strong and pervasive Shaivite tradition with
Devi worship. Between the eighth and the fifteenth century, there is certainly a
gap. The next archaeological evidence comes only from a small temple attributed
to about the fifteenth century in the region of King Kyamba. This small temple
lies in the Vishnupur area ofManipur. It must have been an important centre of
Vaishnav worship. Again, there is a gap of nearly 200 years before wre begin to
find Vaishnavism in hill swing. During this period, many migrations also took
place. The first ruler of Manipur initiated into Vaishnavism was King Pamheiba
better known as Garib Nawraz. A powerful Icing, an able administrator, King
Garib Nawaz came under the influence ofthe Ramanandi Cult It is said that he
became the disciple of Shantidasa, a zealous missionary of the cult. Conflict,
tension, wars, battles wrere not unknown. Whether through the sword or through
the song, Vaishnavism took deep roots in Manipur. By the early eighteenth
century. Vaishnav worship or more specifically the Krishna cult became strongly
rooted. The forms of Bengali Kirtana, the literature and music of the followers
of Chaitanya was popular. The son of Garib Nawraz w as a devout king known as
Rajasri Bhagya Chandra. He followed his father and became a disciple of
Narottamdasa of Bengal. The origins of many of the traditions of music and
dance of Sankirtana and of Rasa are attributed to the genius of this Icing. The
period of his rule, from 1763 to 1798, was one of great turmoil. He wns defeated in battles, was in exile and he re-conquered his land.
Whether in exile,
living with the Icings of Ahom or independently, his mind and heart turned
towards Krishna and Radha. Many legends are woven around his life and w7ork
but most important amongst these is a legend about his seeking the rasa and
the costumes of the rasa in a dream. There is more historical truth about his
having made his daughter perform the role ofRadha in the performances ofthe
rasa. Later his daughter renounced royalty and became a devotee of Lord
Krishna. The traditions of the Krishna cult became even stronger and more
popular during the rule ofhis successor Maharaj Chandrakirti in the nineteenth
century between 1850 and 1886. Singing of the 64 Bhakti rasas of Bengal and
performance of 64 sections of the Sankirtanas in the royal palace wus firmly
established. There was a search for a new7 Padavalis. Poets and artistes w7ere
sent to Navadeepa and Vrindavan. There was expansion ofthe music repertoire
and a refinement of drumming. Alongside w7as a renewal of the festivals which
punctuated the annual life of the people of Manipur. .
On the one hand there w7ere the reasons which w7ere celebrated with great
gusto and festivity. Each was related to a particular moment or episode in
Krishna’s life. On the other w7as the life cycle of the Manipuri w7hich as
elsewdiere in India wus now7 marked by a series of ritual performances; each
provided opportunity for a different type of Sankirtana. The first and foremost
amongst the seasonal festivals was and continues to be the Doljati'a coinciding
with Holi of other pail of India. It is also called the Yaosang. Yaosang literally
means a small hut for he sheep, perhaps this festivity around the Doljatra
wus an amalgam or a true fusion of many strands in Manipur culture. On one
plane, it wus the harvesting seasons, the season of the spring, the season of
newT birth, of the making of new7 thatched huts, on the other it was the
celebrations of the birth of Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya the great devotee of
Bengal Vaishnavism. On the third, it wus related to the Puranic myth of the
burning of Holika. In all cases, it wus the full moon of Phalguna and it wus
and is the period wliicli celebrates the dance of Lord Krishna and the gopis
at Vrindavan as described in the Srimad Bhagvata. Elsewrhere in India,
especially Assam, ritual festivities are held on this occasion, thatched huts
are made and burnt at the end of the festival. In North India the Holika is
burnt and this is followed by the festivity of colour throwing or recognised
popularity as the occasion of the Holi. In Manipur, the Doljatra, the Phalguna
Purnima takes its own character w7hen the men and women join together to
sing and dance collectively before the Govindji Temple.
This is the Sankirtana
called lloli Pala. As in the case of the Lai Haraoba wdiere the festival ended
writh collective dancing of young men and women alternately now7 also at the
tune of Yaosang Festival, young men and w7omen dance together throughout
the night weaving serpentine movements again recreating in floor patterns
the design of the intertwined snake. This is the period of great festivity, of
the finding of life partners and of the celebrations of the spring tune dance
of Radha and Krishna. Later in the year, sometime around early part ofJune on the second day ofthe
bright moon of Ashada is held the Rathyatra. The Rathyatra is most famous
in Jagannath Puri. This celebrates the journey of the deities when they are
taken out in a procession and installed in a chariot (Rath). Rathyatras are also
known to other parts of India. Manipur assimilated the Jagannath cu t
conventions and rituals but gave them a different form. Instead of the three
chariots, there is a host of chariots which are taken out The deities sit on them,
take their residence at another temple called Gundicha and return on the
eighth day. The car is decorated by skilled workers who come from far and near.
There is puja and singing by thousands of devotees and more join in when the
procession begins to move. In the Holi Pala and during the tune of Holi,
everyone sang Hari Haii Bol; now they sing Jai Jagannath Jai Jagannath.
This festival is the occasion of a very important style of singing called the
Khubak Ishai, which really means music with clapping. It is prescribed by large
group ofwomen. The theme is Krihsna’s departure from Vrindavan to Mathura,
in his mission to vanquish Kamsa. However, the narration is through the words
of Lord Chaitanya and each ofthe women represent the yearning of the human
for the divine. The Nupi t.e. the woman Khubak Ishai may seem a very simple
collective dance of women but it is highly structured.
It is performed to vocal
music and there is a minimal mime in the presentation. The presentation ofthe
Khubak Ishai is an important component of the totality of Manipuri dance and
some women artistes have become professionally skilled in the presentation of
the Khubak Ishai. On this occasion, there is also another land ofstyle ofsinging
called Jayadeva after the name of the writer ofthe Gita Govinda. The opening
canto ofthe Gita Govinda, i. e. Dasaavatara. is sung in a very old style, perhaps
a style which has something to do with other forms of Meitei singing. Not all
the verses are taken from the Gita Govinda; many interpolations from other
Padavalis are added.
Other seasons, especially the Autumnal full moon, Sharad Poomima, and the
Kartik Poomima, soon after Diwali provide occasions for the presentation of
collective music and dance sometimes performed only through singing and at
other tunes performed to the playing of the cymbals called KaHala either by
men or by women.
There is thell the life’s cycle ofthe Manipuri. The life ofHindu is marked by 16
Samskaras; in Manipur each ofthese stages or Samskaras is punctuated by the
performance of a particular type of Sankirtana. SankiHanas are performed at
Birth, at the first giving ofsolid food anna prashana when the ears are pierced,
when the sacred thread is worn (Yagyopaveet), at marriage (vivaha) and at death
and after creamation and on death anniversaries. There is no occasion when the Manipur community does not celebrate these important moments whether these
are ofjoy or sorrow through music and dance. These Sanldrtanas, although
collective ritual on one level are really the fundamental foundation on which the
traditions of Manipuri dance have been structured. .
To go back for a moment to history, we know that when the Ramanandi cult
becamepopularinManipurthe style ofsinging calledBangadesh Pala orAribapala
became popular. Although it is not known what is the original form of this
Bangadesh orAriba Pala was in Bengal, in Manipur it assumed a new and a very
beautiful structured form.
One has only to observe the performance ofAriba Pala
in Manipurto be convinced thatthis Sankirtana is distinctive to Manipur’s artistic
manifestation. It is no longerjust collective singing, it is in fact a highly structured
choreography. It is performed in a mandapa which is constructed in a circular
shape. Here first and foremost facing north sits the Sabhapati or the patron of
the performance. On either side are seated his ministers. The Brahmins face
inwards. Then enter a group ofperformers into this nat mandap where a centre
has already been established. The group is led by a very experienced renowned
performer artists Guru Ishei Hanba. A mridangam player is equally important.
Then the second respondent group enters led by the Duhar. The seating, the
execution and the sequence of the performance follows a pattern wThich is very
clearly outlined and there can be no departuresfrom it. Closely observed whether
it is a group of Anba Pala players or the later type of Sankirtana performers
popularly known asthe nata sankirtana each ofthese executes a pattern ofdesign
ofthe intertwined serpents through drumming, singing in slow; middle and fast
tempos and chiselled movement patterns of the intertwined serpents.
The whole group moves from one sequence to the other and ultimately the
performance culminates in a crescendo of ecstasy. While one cannot make anv
conclusive statements, but it would appear thatsome aspects ofthe Lai Haraoba
tradition and some of the choreographical patterns of the Ariba Pala (or the
Bangadesh Pala Ape) ofSankirtana fused in Manipur. Alongside evolved a new
form ofSankirtana now called the Nata Pala, the wnrd Nat in this case meaning
dancer, nartak, actor, abhineta. The beginnings of the Nat Sankirtana are
attributed to the reign of King Chandrakirti by some scholars and to Bhagya
Chandra Maharaj by others. Whenever this particular form ofSankirtana began
and possibly it did begin with the devotee King Bhagya Chandra Maharaj, it w-as
a further refinement ofthe Ariba Pala tradition. Today it is considered the most
In fact the Meiteis call this a mahagagna as it lasts
for nearly five hours at a stretch, begins with preliminary rituals, follows a
rigorous structure, and culminates in a moment of great ecstacy. Like the
Bangadesh Pala, the group comprises two teams. Usually, there are 16 artistes
who enter the mandap ofthe enclosure. On one side is the main performer—the
abhineta called Ishei Hanba, along with three other supporting musicians,
dancers; on the other side another semicircle is made by the respondent dancer player abhineta called Duliar. He too enters with his group ofsupporting artistes.
Two players on the Manipuri Mridangam called Punga are most important. The
entire group called Pala enters the Mandap where a centre has already been
established by the placement of plantain leaf, a piece of cloth and with ritual
objects surrounding it. After performing the preliminary rituals, called the
Mandali puja, wdiich symbolically invoke the five Vaishnav saints—Krishna
Chaitanya, Nityananda, Adhuta, Gadaghat and Sahrivats there is the
announcement by the President ofthe assembly as in the case ofthe Ariba Pala.
He announces that there will now be the invocation to the saints. Soon after the
twro mridangamplayersstrike and execute amostintricate sequence ofdrumming.
In counter distinction to other forms of singing in Manipur, the mndangam
playing itselffollows a specific sequence ofragas. Each sequence ofdrumming is
in a particular raga. Thereafter the chief dancer or the leader i.e. Ishei Hanba
sings in a very slow7 tempo a melody which could be called an alap. This is once
again followed by the playing of the mridangam as also a very balanced and
controlled playing on the cymbals by the supporting group. This section is called
the sanchar or the variations of the improvisations ofthe miidangam wdiich is
punctuated by the playing on the KaHal or the large cymbals. These sections may
be considered all as preliminaries of prelude to the main performance wdiich
begins wdien Ishei Hanba or the leader starts a section known as sabha vandana
i. e. salutation to the audience. Soon after he returnsto the Gum Vandana wdiich
deals with the theme of the life of Chaitanya or Gam Chandra. Then is the
presentation by the two groups of a series ofintricate metrical cycles, sung lyrics
playing on the pim.
Sometime there can be presentation ofas many as 64 different
types ofthe bhavas. The sections ofthe metrical eyele called the cachouba in a
‘8’ beat cycle, sometimes is also called the teen-tala achouba. This is followed by
a teen-macha wdiich is in a 7-beat pattern or a 14-beatpattern called the Rajamel.
Here, the main performer—the respondent the group, the mridangam player all
execute together or separately the most intricate improvisations on the basic
metrical cycle. The period ofrealisation almost follows wdien from the Rajamel
the group moves on to the rendering, ofthe metrical cycle knowm as Tan Chepa
set to a 4-beat cycle. Finally, there is the Menkupa set to a 6—beat metrical cycle
pattern. In each ofthese, there is the playing of the drum, there is the singing
by the main actor, dancer and the response ofthe second group led by the Duhar
and the execution of choreograhical pattern by the supporting actors, dancers
who play on the Kartals. All in all, the rigorousstructuring ofthe nata sankirtana,
its sequence, its change ofmoods and its presentation ofthe different groups of
the metrical cycles is a staggering piece ofstructured musical compositions and
choreographical patterns. The lyrics or the songs are many; however, one single
theme is chosen for elaboration for a particular sankirtana. The group may well
choose only the theme of the nayikas and present the different moods of the
heroine as that ofthe abhisarika or the lady going out for a tryst or another type
like the mugdha, the quarrelsome etc. The dancers singly or collectively consider
themselves to be the gopis who are yearning for the Lord. So no matter ofwdiich theme is chosen, it is in fact only a performer who underlines the yearning ofthe
human for the divine. The singing is marked by an easy flow through three
octaves, high pitched singing which has pathos and compassion, ecstasy and pain
built into it. At moments or climax and at moments of great ecstasy, a member
ofthe audience pays obeisance to the centre by a dandavat pranam (prostrate).
The actors, dancersrespond alsobyprostrating on the ground. The communication
between the audience which sits around the mcindap and the performers within
the mandap is complete. The atmosphere is charged and tears flow effortlessly
These sankirtanas constitute a system ofmetrical cycles, talas,
techniques of very controlled and restrained kind, vocal music and drumming.
There are sections of the Pala which have great delicacy and grace. There are
others which are vigorous and masculine and which constitute the Tandava
portions ofclassical Manipuri dance. Sometimes, dancers can execute movements
which are remniscent of birds and animals, at other tunes there are men with
women’s. Often many ofthe dancers or men both in the Ariba Pala as also in the
Natan Pala are above 60 or 70 and sometimes 80. The performance ofthe Nata
Sankirtana is a unique experience unparalleled to anything anywhere else in
India. Here, as in the Ariba Pala, the choreographical pattern centres around the
intertwined snakes or the figure of 8.
Finally, then there is also another type of kirtana called the Dhrumel Here
14 mridangam players playing on the drums the entire sections of the
Nata SankiHana. Understandably, the emphasis is on the intricate talas, the
improvisations ofthe sanchar and execution of many types ofpermutations and
combinations. Symbolically, the 14 types of improvisations or variations are
dedicated to the saints beginning with Chaitanya and going to Nityananda and
to the eightsadhus and the sixgoswamis ofYrindavail. The Dhrumel is also highly
stylised and structured form of the performance understandably. This is also
considered a gagna.
While one cannot make any conclusive statements on the relationship of the
earlier types of Manipur dance i.e. the Pre-Vaishnavite and Post-Vaishnarite, it
is clear that the Vaishnavite traditions of poetry, music and dance were
superimposed as a further layer on the vibrating highly sophisticated culture of
the Meities. .
We have referred only to a few ofthe traditions ofManipur dance. There are many
more. It was from this complex that the rasa dances evolved. Indeed, one would
think that the rasa dances performed only by women were the last of the
performance sequences ofa much more elaborate ritual performance comprising
invocations, singingthe execution ofthePalasfollowedbythe drumming complex.
We referred earlier to the dream of Bhagya Chandra Maharaj when the rasa
dancers came to him as a vision. While one may question the authenticity ofthis legend, one cannot ignore that Bliagya Chandra Maharaj laid the foundations
of everything that we recognise by the generic term Manipuri dance. .
Although there is meagre textual literature on Manipuri dance, mention must
be made of Sangeeta Lila Vilas. Despite the fact that the manuscript has been
the subject of considerable heated controversy in regard to its authorship, date
and authenticity, its contents are significant for understanding the technique of
Manipuri dance. On the whole, although it follows the Natyasastra tradition,
it is no slavish imitation. There are significant departures. In this work, he
defines tandava and lasya, which are not found in the treatises ofthe medieval
period from other parts ofIndia. The tandava is divided into the chalanam and
the gunthanam. Lasya is also subdivided into simitanga and sphuritanga. This
classification is distinctive to this work and is followed to this day in contemporary
practice. This classification ofNatya also differed from the classification known
to the other treatises which have only divided the generic term into nritya and
natya. The author divides it into rasaka and rupaka. The work rupaka may be
identified as a variant ofthe dasa rupaka and the other natika and prakarana
forms of the natyasastra tradition. The rasaka comes as something new.
Although rasa is mentioned in the Natyasastra, it is not elaborately described
by Bharata. The author devotes a full chapter to the rasaka and speaks in detail
of the various types of rasa dances—the maharasa, majurasa, nityarasa,
nirvesarasa or the kunjarcisa. He also speaks about the goparasa and quotes not
Bharata as his authority but Gargacharya.
Judging from these descriptions, it would appear that, in Manipuri not only the
purely classical tradition of the Natyasastra but also the Puranic tradition of
the Srimad Bhagvata have been blended. An authoritative sanction is thus
given to the dance. In his discussion ofthe various angas and upangas, wre find
a detailed account of the knee position and hastas. Significantly, hovrever, wre
do not find a minute discussion of the various facial movements vdiich wrere
dealt at length in the treatises of the South, especially those in Telugu and
A comparison of the textual description and contemporary practices reveals
that by and large, Manipuri receives its theoretical sanction from this or
conversely that the text reconstructs the theory on the basis of actual practice.
It gives a comprehensive account of the chalis and the bhangis known to the
dance style the gatibhangas as also the various types of chalans and sthanakas.
All these are unique to Manipur.
Other relevant manuscripts have been found, such as the Mridanga Sangraha.
This wrork is attributed to Chandrakirti and contains extremely valuable details of playing the particular variety of drum called the khol in Manipuri.
treatise, Sri Krishna Rasa Sangita Sangraha by Bhakti Sidhanta, was, perhaps,
written earlier than the Mridanga Sangraha; it contains many of the lyrics to
which the rasa dances are performed today.
In technique, Manipuri is a far cry from anything we know in the other styles of
dance. It has a flow and a grace which contrasts from the precision ofthe South
Indian Styles. This impression of ease and fluidity, which is not a negation of
precision, results from an unusual treatment ofthe body. The vertical line ofthe
body is never broken. There are no deflections or sharp shifts from particular
horizontalsutras asin Orissi or in Bharatanatyam. In fact, the bodymerely curves
itself into a figure of 8. The positions attained are thus relaxed and controlled
rather than sculpturesque. An effort is made to connect two parts of the body
through beautiful curves. There are no sudden transitions from particular
horizontalsutras asinOrissiorinBharatanatyam. Infact, the intertwined serpents
(nagabandha mudra) as a basic motif, it is no longer possible to have a spread
out, open position ofthe lower limbs so characteristic ofthe South Indian styles.
The knees are kept close together, flexed in front, in what may be identified as
the nata position of the knees in the Natyasastra tradition. The body is held
upright, butwithout any tension. The torso once again is not treated as a unit, but
is divided into two distinct parts above the katisutras, the chest and the waist.
Neither unit is used singly because the bend ofany one part by itselfwould mean
creating an angle. Thus, the chest and the waist, although moving in opposition,
are always connected. The effect is ofthe slow drawing of a curve in the shape of
“S”, but is never a simple bend. The neck and the head follow this principle but
the head never moves horizontally as in Bharatanatyam or Kathak. Instead, it
also executes a figure 8 in space. The arms and hands follow the pattern ofthe
lower limbs and the torso. They too are never tense nor are they ever in acute
flexion. They are held, in a naturally relaxed manner away from the body in a
semicircular curve. Thewrists play an extremely importantpart in the movement
ofthe hands and the fingers, because it is the wrists w hich give the movements
of the fingers a unique fluidity.
A basic movement is the gradual closing in and
opening out ofthe fingers, while the wuist attempts to execute a lateral figure of
8. The face isplacid andwithoutany exaggerated facial expressions.This controlled,
but not unduly severe or austere, expression is sustained throughout the
What has been described here is however, restricted to the movements of the
feminine type and may be described, in the language ofthe Govinda Sangita Lila
Vilas as the simitanga. A deliberate attempt at limiting space and restricting
movement is made here. In the sphuritanga, although greater freedom is
allowed, it is once again within the definite limits set by the dancer. In the Lasya
portions, even in the sphuritanga, the dancer does not and cannot lift her foot
away from the ground above the level ofthe knee. The release from the ground
is invariably characterized by a sweep ofthe ground, a gliding movement almost
touching the floor rather than a movementwhere the foot is lifted high above the
The situation changes considerably in the tandava portion known for its agility,
verve and high leaps, whether executed bywomen in the role ofthe child Krishna
or by men in the numerous male dances of the region. The basic position in
tandava is no longer the closed feet with knees bent in front leaving no space
between them. Now7 there is nearly a four tala distance between the two feet and
the knees are bent in front. Normally, this is the position of the pungcholam
dancers who usually maintain this position practically throughout the number.
In the tandava portions, the torso is occasionally treated as a separate unit and
side-bends are frequent. There are many sitting positions and many spirals and
turns known to the dance style, both in Iosya and tandava. In lasya, the
sthanakas or various positions once again attempt to limit space and although
wromen dancers change the level throughout a performance, there is hardly ever
much space between the two feet. In the tandava portions, the sthanakas take
the form ofpositions known asthe vrischika karnas ofthe Natyasastra tradition.
Some ofthese are common Orissi and Manipuri. There are few7 leg extensions in
the lasya or the tandava portions. The gunthanam described in the Govinda
Sangita Lila Vilas in the context of tandava may be identified as the various
sitting and jumping movements in tandava wdien there is comparatively little
distance between the feet and the knees. Howrever, neither in the tandava
portions nor in the lasya portions are hip movements allowed. There is one type
of thigh or pelvic movement known to the dance style. It is an up-and-down
movementrather than a side-to side movement, writh the shift ofweightfrom one
foot to the other characteristic of styles like the Orissi. The up-and-down
movement is achieved through knee dips and through a suggestion of a hop on
the toe. .
The manner of covering space in Manipuri is expressive ofits grace and delicacy.
The dancer coversfloorspace also in figures of8 and then the foot islifted to cover
space, it invariably touches the ground by a slight toe movement rather than flat
foot orthe heel. The kunchita foot orthe agratalasanchara foot ofthe Natyasastra
is seen repeatedly in this dance style. Many ofthe complex dance movements are
derived from a dexterous use ofthe kunchita foot.
The dancer begins with the movements known as the chali. The chali need not
be identified with the chari ofthe Natyasastra, but it is definitely a movement
wdiich suggests basic ways of wulking and covering space. The dancer moves
firstto the front and backwith hands held horizontally atthe chestlevel and then
moves these hands vertically in an up-and-down direction. She then covers
78 INDIAN CLASSICAL DANCE
space in side ways walking, ending by weaving circles and spirals. In these basic
movements, thevarioustypes ofbhramaiis are introduced, the two distinctvarieties
being the uplai and the longlai. The uplai and the longlai have been identified by
some scholars as the bhava bhramari and bhramari ofthe Natgasastra. We may
understand these lais whether in Icisya or in tandciva as wags of covering floor
space; usually, it is sideways movement followed by a semicircle. They are the
finale ofthe dance cadences and are often executed in multiples ofthree as in the
tihai ofthe other dance styles. Sometimes, a spiral movement in vertical space
is executed, where the dancer treats her body like a screw and weaves a spiral
vertically from a higher level to lower level. While doing so, the dancer also takes
a circle or a spin. This very difficult movement has a graceful fluidity, sometimes
mistaken for imprecision. The achongba ofjumpingmovements are characteristic
of the tandava portions ofthe dance. .
The basic movements of the chali are connected together to form the various
types of parengs.
The parengs are perhaps parallel to the tirmanams of
Bliaratanatyam. for they are cadences ofmovements in a given metrical cycle. The
metrical cycles are very many and in-beats and the cross-beats are complicated,
requiring a high sense ofprecision. .All the la is are used in parengs and different
types oftalas, are employed, especially the rajmela, the seven beats (rupaka), 15
beats (panchamsvari) and the 16 beats (tintala). Three bhangis are attributed
to king bliagya Chandra Maharaja and two to his descendent. King Chandrakirti.
The fust three bhangis, and the bhangi pareng achongba, the Vrindavan pareng
and the khurumba pareng are known as the lasga cadences. They are used in
common rasa portions of the dance. The three other bhangis have a common
adjective gosthci which stands for the tandava bhangis. They are used by actors
while presenting the character ofKrishna in the rasa dances. Three such bhangis
are prescribed, namely the gosthci bhangi pareng, the gostha khurumba pareng,
and the gostha khurumba pareng. The last one is rarely performed and seems to
have gone out of vogue. .
With such an elaborate system, it is not surprising that the dance has a highly
complex technique of movement and tala. The dance is not restricted to solo
ntunbers. Manipuri is perhaps the only classical style in which we find exquisite
survivals of compositions, such as the hallisaka, the charchari and other forms
mentioned in classical Sanskrit literature. Group formations mentioned in the
Natgasastra have been lost to other classical forms. One comes across some
survivals in folk forms, but Manipiui exhibits, in a well-chiselled fashion, the
many types ofpindibcmdhas described in the Natgasastra. In the rasa dances, we
find that all the four types ofpindis mentioned by Bharata can be seen. We also
see that other group formations mentioned in later texts find a place in the
different ntunbers ofthe Manipuri dance. .
As will be obvious from the account of the complex history ofManipur and the
evaluation ofdifferent genres, the repertoire ofManipuri is extensive. Ifwe take into account the innumerable festivals, the Sankirtanas, the singing styles and
the larger variety ofparticipative community7 dances known to Manipur and still
practised, the repertoire inmodemtermswouldbe considered tobe inexhaustible.
Only for purposes ofunderstanding although no hard and fast rules can be made,
one maydivide the repertoire ofManipuri dancesintothree orfourbroad categories.
This would not include the whole group of dances which one would call tribal or
folk. The first group would comprise the prc-Vaishnav dance forms or dance
rituals. These would include whatwe have already described in the Lai Haroaba
and the presentation of singing and enactment of the stories of Khaba Thoibi.
Closely related to this group would be the Thang ta or the martial ritual dancers
ofManipur, all thesebelong to pre- Vaishnav state ofManipuri culture. The second
group would constitute the dance and dance music sections ofthe variousjatras
in Manipur. TheHoli Pala the Khumbak Ishei and other numberstodaypresented
on the stage are part and parcel ofthese seasonal festivities. So also isthe popular
Thabala Chongbi which is part of the Yaosang dances. The third .group would
constitute the different types ofSankirtana traditions. We have referred to only
the Ariba Pala and the Anuba Pala, i.e. the Bangadesh Kirtana and the Nata
Sankirtana, but there are others such as the Manohar Sahi and of course the
Dhrumel. Part and parcel ofthese Sankirtana wasthe group dancing, the various
types ofwalking or group forms executed either through clapping or through the
playing ofsmall cymbals called Manjira or large cymbals called Kartala.
A fourth group may be considered for the ballad forms which have both a vocal
as also a miming aspectto them. Among these would be the presentation through
solo duet rendering in the forms known as the Wariliba, the Haiba Thiba, etc. A
most important part of Manipuri repertoire is recognised by the generic term
Jagoi. At the artistic level, one may consider the Jagoi as the main type of art
dance. It is somewhat difficult to have a definitive meaning of the word Jagoi
which literally only means dance. Nevertheless, perhaps one could understand
this term and the group of number or repertoire that it represents as those
sections of music and dance from amongst the Sankirtanas which could be
presented outside the ritual parameters. Perhaps itwas with thisin view thatthe
traditional gurus of Manipur have divided the Jagoi into several sub-categories
such asthe Pungalola Jagoi, the Motkanba Jagoi andjust Lila.
There is a frirther
subdivisionwhich ismadeby adding the adjectivesNupa orNupi—Nupa standing
for man and Nupi for woman. Amongst the further divisions are the Cholam, the
Kartala Cholam, the Mridang Cholam, the dance ofthe ghosta lila (also called
the shanshenba Jagoi), and the spear dances.
There are varioustypes o(cholams, and the differentvarieties ofthe kartalis. The
cholams are both lasya and tandava. Those belonging to the feminine group are
the cholams ofthe small cymbals, namely, the Manjira cholam and those ofthe
tandava type are the Kartala cholams with large cymbals. The dance ofthe Pung
which is performed by men. may be said to be the highest achievement. The
80 INDIAN CLASSICAL DANCE
dance may be executed by a solo performer or by a hundred men. The range of
sound which can be produced through the pung has to be experienced to be
believed. Perhaps, among percussion instruments, there is no other mridanga
which can command the same range of communicative sound as the pung.
There are other cholam dances too, such as the duff cholam and the kanjira
cholam. Amongst the kartali dances are the clapping items performed only by
women known asthe nupi khumbak ishei and the nupa khumbak ishei. These are
group dances in which a number ofinteresting group formations can be seen and
the dance is built on clapping ofhands at crossrhythmstobe basic rhythmplayed
by the accompanyingpung. All the cholam and the kartali dances are pure nritta.
There is no abhinaga, nor isthere any song accompaniment. Originally performed
in the context oftheRathyatra, these numbers are nowperformed independently
as part ofstage repertoire.
Like the cholam and the kartalis, the thang haiba and the takheiv saiba, or the
sword and the spear dances, which belong to the tandava category, have now
become part ofthe artistic repertoire. Originally, these were performed either in
the context ofritual magical performances or as a sequence in the Lai Haraoba.
When incorporated as an artistic number, these are called thangtajagoi. These
are vaguely reminiscent ofthe kalis of Kerala and are purely martial dances.
The Nupi Jagoi or the women’s dance mentioned above is the graceful variety
quite distinct from the tandava type of dancing which is divided into two main
sub-divisions-the firstBhangiJagoi, and the second PunglolJagoi i.e. thatwhich
is performed only to the mnemonics ofthe Pung the Manipuri Mridangam. The
BhangiJagoi is marked by seriousness ofpurpose, a slowtempo and a very careful
delivery ofmovements which are controlled and restrained. It comes under the
category ofwhat we have called the smitanga In contrast, the Punglol Jagoi is
executed in a fast tempo or in old three tempos like the three kala tirmans of
Bharatanatyam. Hie mnemonics have a particular tempo, a metrical pattern and
a repetition ending in triplets ofthree. All these .should be considered both of
the male and the female as pure abstract dancing without mime or abhinaya.
Thisisthe nritta repertoire ofManipuri dancing. Itmust, however,be remembered
that none ofthese numbers are dissociated from the repertoire which we have
mentioned in the context ofthe sankirtana and thejatra dances.
It is only when we come to the rasa dances of Manipur that the richness and
dexterity ofboth nritta, pure dance and abhinaya, mime ofthe Manipuri style is
evident. Although the rasa dances are closely related to the presentation ofthe
Nata sankirtana in the Govindji Temple and on specific occasion the sankirtan
precedes the presentation of the rasa. The rasa dances have a structure and technique which can distinguish them from any other type of dance in Manipur.
The rasa dances ofManipur are lyrical, narrative andnotdramaticunlike Kathakali.
Nevertheless, the compositionboth literary and musical have rigorousstructrwing
comprising vocal passages, percussion, pure dance, mime, all ofwhich is similar
to the structuring of a full Kathakali play. Bhagya Chandra Maharaj or King Jai
Singh is considered the composer ofat least three ofthe four rasa dances known
to Manipur. As in the case ofthe other dances whether these are the sankirtanas
or the Lai Haroaba, the rasa dances are also performed on particular occasion
and in particular season. .
First and the foremost isthe VasantRasa for the frill moon day ofHoli. While men
perform the holi pala and there is the season ofthe Dol yatra, women perform
the VasantRasa. The VasantRasa or any other rasa is invariablypreceded by the
Natapala or the group of men dancers who play the drum and sing. Thereafter
there is the presentation ofa particular raga in this case, Vasant Raga bywomen
singers nowr called sutradhari. Here the singing setsthe tone ofthe presentation
of the rasa. A particular mood is invoked and the players and the audience
become prepared to transport themselves into the world of Lord Krishna in
Vrindavan.Thereafter, there isthe descriptionofVfindavan sungby the sutradhari
and followed through dance by a group of young dancers. .
The nextsequence is Vaishnav Vandana. The most exciting part ofthe rasa is the
entry of the young Krishna, normally played by a young girl. Thereafter is the
presentation ofthe main theme in the case of Vasant Rasa. It isthe theme ofthe
gopis playing Holi with Krishna. At one moment, Krishna decides mischievously
to put powdered colour in the eyes of Radha. This leads to the next sequence
where Radha seemingly rejects Krishna. He implores her. He pleads with her.
Then the union follow's, the gopis surround the pair, the yugul roop, and there is
the culminating or prarihna. .
The Kunj Rasa is somewhat simpler. It is performed sometime in August
coinciding with what is known as the full moon or rakhi or rakhi purnima: The
theme of this rasa is drawn from the Srimad Bhagvata. It revolves round the
mutual hide and seek ofRadha and Krishna. The rasa is performed in a special
group and it recreates the dance ofthe gopis with Krishna. A thud rasa called
the nritya rasa which was perhaps created by Maharaj Chandrakirti in the
nineteenth century can be performed at any time. Here dance rather than the
story or the theme is more important The libretto is chosen from the poetic
wrork called the Govindalila Amritam written by Shri Krishnadas Kaviraj.
the sequence is different. It begins with the Krishna Abhisar and the waiting of
Krishna and preparation for the gopis and Radha to be drawn to his flute. Some
people believe that this rasa is mentioned in the PadmaPuranawhere the nritya
Idas ofLord Krishna are described. Most important and impressive, however, is
the Maharasa created by Bhagya Chandra Maharaj and presented in the
precincts ofGovindji Temple on Kartik Purnima. This is easily the most refined and chiselled complete artistic composition with a beginning, middle and an
end. It begins as in the case of the Vasant Rasa with a prologue of the nata
sankirtana, the entrance of the sutradhari, the singing of a rags, in this case
Kedar, the description of Vrindavan, the Vaishnav Vandana, the Krishna
Abhisar, the mandali sajana, the song of the gopis, the presentation of the
Bhangi pareng the dance of Krishna, the dance ofRadha, the atma samarpana,
the offering, the prarthna and finally the arti. .
The Vishnu Purana, the Srimad Bhagvata Purana vividly describe the dance of
Krishna with the gopis. Initially, Krishna commands the gopis to return to their
homes and their families. The gopis do not listen and entreat him to dance with
them. Krishna begins to dance with the gopis who believe that their partner is
Krishna, but in fact it is only an illusion. In between Krishna also disappears.
He re-appears. All this provides for great variety in choreographic pattern
singing, in dance and the role ofRadha. The role ofRadha is played a seasoned
dancer and a singer. Radha does not play a part in the Vishnu or the Bhagavat
Purana. It is only the later traditions which combine the story ofthe Bhagavata
Purana and the love of Krishna and Radha of the Gita Govinda. It is this
assimilated form of the two stories which is strung together in a single theme
which constitutes the libretto of the Maharasa of Manipur. The Maharasa
provides immense scope for the high order of singing, excellence in very
restrained manner and excellence in the presentation of higly intricate pure
dance passages, i.e. the Bhangis. .
Besides these rasa dances, there are the lilas.
The enactment of Krishna
childhood with his mother Yashoda or with his companions. These lilas also
constitute an important part of the repertoire of the Manipuri dance. Tire
gostha lila recreates the play on Krishna and Balarama; Krishna and Yashoda,
and the dances ofKrishna with his companions. The main singer for the gostha
lila is a man and not a woman. In the presentation ofthe gostha lila, other lilas
of Krishna such as the killing of the demon Dhenuka and Bakasura, etc. are
presented. In the ulukhala rasa, the birth ofKrishna, Putna vadh, etc. including
makhan chon are presented. When we compare this repertoire of the rasa
dancers, the four main rasa dances and two gostha lilas we realise that the
inspiration of this repertoire comes from all that we know of the rasa and the
lilas in Vrindavan. Transported to Manipur, it acquires a new-chiselling, a new
sequence, a new interpretation in spirit and ethos and the ultimate goal is
identical. The Vaishnavite fervor lives and vibrates in the hearts of every
Manipuri and truly through the rasa dances and the presentation of the lilas
Vrindavan is created in every heart in far off Manipur. On one level of these
dances are community shared with full participation ofthe performers and the
participators. On the other are their sophisticated pieces of opera with libretto
musical scales, ragcis, talas, giving enough scope for pure niitta abhinaya and
the combination ofboth singing and dancing. IfKathakali perfected in the hero
types, Manipur seems to have perfected in the heroine Apes but all through the
configtu~ation ofthe myriad moods, transitory states, there is only one dominant
mood which is evoked. This is that ofKanina, compassion. Ifthe concept ofthe
state of elevated, uplifted, aesthetic experience through music and dance has
to be experienced one must participate in the presentation of Maharasa in the
precincts of the Sri Govindji Temple or be of attuned heart in a Sankirtana
The singing and the drumming, the variations ofthe tempos, the
patterns of rhythmic permutation and combination, the slow and doubling and
tripling of tempos with breathtaking smooth transitions and the execution of
the movements called the bhangis all accumulatively lead to a state of ecstasy.
Ecstasy for he wiio performs, ecstasy for he wiio responds and is of attuned
heart. From this body of the large rasa dances, the gostha Mas, the moods of
kanina, compassion, affection vatsalya etc. emerged smaller numbers. Thee
wrere creations of the gurus of the last century.
Among these, the most important being wras the late Guru Atnobi Singh.
Sometimes, he abridged rasa for purposes of stage . At other tunes, he chose
lyrics from the Gita Govinda or from Yidyapati’s Padavali or the works of other
poets of the Bhakti school and presented them as short numbers. This
presentation is largely solo. Exactly as a presentation ofby a sole Bharatanatyam