India is a land of many classical dances. The Manipuri dance form is one of the classical dances of India originating in the state of Manipur. Manipur is a beautiful and mesmerizing north-eastern state fraught with richness in culture and physical landscapes. Unsurprisingly, the Manipuri dance finds its continuation and a legacy of grace and elegance evolving and nurturing itself in its land origin.
History of Manipuri Dance
The people of Manipur believe themselves originally to be Gandharvas or divine dancers and musicians as referred in Vedic texts. Called Gandharva Desa in many ancient Sanskrit texts, as well as, various references in Mahabharata throw light on the fact that Manipur has always been regarded as an abode of musical creativity. Women have traditionally had a larger role to play in the dance form, since it was believed that the Goddess Usha taught and motivated girls to learn the dance passed down from one generation to another. Other ancient references to the dance form include the performance of the art during the Lai Haraoba or traditional festival by the ethnic locals of the region called Meitei.
Though ancient history points towards the importance of dance, it was during the medieval periods that the Manipuri dance form evolved to match largely its current style. The dance revolved around Vaishnavism which was practiced by the kings and royalty of Manipur during the 15th century and which was later declared as the state religion.
Manipuri dance flourished the most during the rule of Maharaja Bhagyachandra in the 18th century. He was instrumental in documenting the Manipuri style and evolving the dance theme on Krishna and Ras Lila.
With the colonial era, as many other dance forms, Manipuri dance also witnessed a massive decline and ridicule. However, Rabindranath Tagore was introduced to the dance in 1919 and it left him so impressed that he invited gurus to teach the dance at his Shantiniketan center. This gave Manipuri dance a much needed impetus, until it bounced back to its glory and full potential.
Style and Structure of Manipuri Dance
Manipuri dance is essentially a group dance. Though majority of the themes center around Ras Lila, Krishna and Radha the other themes include Shaivism, Shaktism and paying homage to local deities. The dance form is largely performed with a spiritual bend and traditionally the dance was performed in front of temples. The Manipur kings have composed many of the Ras Lilas, whereas, other compositions are by noted poets, such as Vidyapati, Jayadeva and Chandidas.
Many gestures and movements of the Manipuri dance form find their presence in the Natyashastra, the earliest foundation of almost all classical dance forms in India. The Manipuri dance however, is slightly different from other classical Indian dances on a few counts. The dance is almost always a group choreography and effort. Also, Manipuri dance performers do not wear the foot ankle bells also called ghunghroo or payals. The movement of feet in this dance form is subtle and there are no sharp or sudden deflections of the body. On the contrary, the dance style is elegant, fluid and in case of the women dancers, the feet rarely rise above the knee level. Men on the other perform a more energetic version which also includes acrobatic movements, leaps and jumps.
Costumes and Music of Manipuri Dance
Perhaps the most striking identification of the Manipuri dance for a layman that instantly stands out is the costume. The dance costume is traditional and very unique. The women dancers wear the bridal costume called Potloi. The Kumil is the barrel shaped skirt which is decorated elaborately with gold and silver embroidery. The top consists of a blouse that flowers at the base near the hip, whereas the head is covered with a translucent veil. The women dancers usually also wear garlands or flowers around their waist and hands. The male dancers are dressed in the traditional dhoti.
Musical instruments include the pung or a barrel drum, cymbals or kartals, pena a stringed instrument along with the harmonium, flute etc.
The drum in fact, is a prominent instrument and various dance forms in Manipur, such as the Pung Cholom are often performed with enthusiasm.
Some of the most popular artists of Manipuri dance include Guru Bipin Singh, Guru Senarik Rajkumar, Guru Chandrakanta Singh, Bibhaboti Devi, Guru Haricharan Singh, Kalabati Devi, Charu Mathur, the Jhaveri sisters, Devyani Chalia and more.