Indian classical dance. Kuchipudi style.

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Manipuri Style

Manipur is a green, fertile and mountains surrounded land of unusual beauty. This is the valley of the Serpent God inhabited by the people considering human life and nature God’s gifts, dance and music Manipuri Stylebeing the most beautiful and the most natural ways of expressing gratitude. Every event, be it birth, wedding or death is the reason for a beautiful ceremony and gives men, women and children the opportunity to become witnesses to and participants of a professional dancing and musical ritual.

Manipur is the land where myths and legends coexist with almost scientific explanations of phenomena, where a complex system of prophecies is a neighbor to wide knowledge and the deepest philosophy. These different influences are united in harmony in everyday life. Rituals are not just formal ceremonies detached from simple people’s needs. In the same house you can see both sacred objects that are the evidence of spiritual aspirations and a loom to satisfy purely economic needs. But the most important thing is that every man feels his unity with nature, dances and songs being the proof of it.

A beautiful legend of Nongpokningthu and Panthoibi, the deities similar to Shiva, explains the meaning of the name Manipur. When Krishna and gopis (shepherdesses) performed Raaslila, Krishna invited Shiva to see that nobody bothers them. Shiva was very eager to see their ecstatic dance but Krishna did not allow and only let him to stand near the gates to the dancing ground and Shiva swore that he would stand with his back to the dancing all the time. Shiva kept his word but the intoxicating sounds of Krishna’s divine flute and gopis’ foot bells did not give him a moment’s peace.

He shared this with Parvati and together they decided to create their own Raaslila. Coming down from their Himalayan dwelling place they found a fairy-tale valley full of water. Shiva threw his mighty trident into the slope of the mountain. The water poured out through the outlet and then Shiva and Parvati started to dance in joy, and Ananta the divine serpent took jewels off his hood and with their help lit the valley. The shining of those jewels gave the name to the valley under which it is known today – "Manipur" or the land of precious stones.

The gods and goddesses’ creative work is the basis of another legend. It tells how the Almighty rubbed his right hand and created nine gods, and then he rubbed his left hand and created sevenManipuri Style goddesses. Gods and goddesses started to dance and with their motions they created the matter and then created piles of ground. After creating seven piles they took a rest and refreshed themselves with food and water. Sixty of such piles were created; gods and goddesses took rest after each eighth pile. At the same time they measured units of time that still exist today. Pung that means "a pile of earth" is both a measure of time and a drum that beats the temporal cycle. The people of Manipuir’s cosmic conceptions and the laws of existence are interwoven into this myth. Up to the present day no foreign influences could bury the tradition of ritual playing of the story of the world creation. The chain of traditions in Manipur is unbreakable and unchangeable.

The cult of Vishnu became dominant in Manipur in the period of the philosopher-king Bhagya Chandra’s reign (1759-1798). This is an extremely important period in the history of Manipur culture. Bhagya Chandra left memories of himself as of an enlightened king deeply devoted to God. He was called Bhakta Rajarishi or the king-ascetic. There are records that he succeeded in poetry, dance, music and philosophy as well as in the arts of governing, war and administering. These qualities combined in him with humbleness, compassion and generosity. It is not surprising that folk legends ascribe to him all human virtues.

During Bhagya Chandra’s reign Manipur undergone the attack of the Burmese. Notwithstanding the fact that Manipur offered the fierce resistance the might and the overcoming forces of the Burmese were decisive and Bhagya Chandra was made to escape and seek refuge with Svargadeva the king of the neighboring state Tekhow. According to legends, leaving Manipur after his defeat Bhagya Chandra danced a ritual dance with a spear (thengao) on a rock that dangerously hung over a high precipice. Because of the strong wind raging in the valley it was not easy even to stand on the rock. Bhagya Chandra’s dance was interpreted as a divine blessing and an omen of his return to his kingdom.

Kings and queens of Manipur traditionally were competent in dance and music. A queen could dance on the same ground with simple people. Dance was not just a form of entertainment. That was an offering to gods and there were no castes and barriers of social position on a dancing ground. Kings were supposed to embody the subtlety of aesthetic taste; the rulers rivaled with their predecessors and encouraged the development of oratory, poetry, dance and music. That’s why talas are still identified with the rule of separate kings that helps to arrange them chronologically and watch their development.

A legend says that King Bhagya Chandra was sanctified by the grace of God and Lord Krishna himself is said to appear before him in a vision and wished that dancers and musicians of Manipur performed Raaslila. Inspired by Krishna’s image Bhagya Chandra learned that there is a banyan tree out of which the god’s image must be carved. The king and the elders headed for the search of the tree but could not find it for a long time; they were almost desperate when all of a sudden they heard a boy playing flute in the wood. Considering this a god’s sign the king kept on searching until he met a poor family living in an old house in the far corner of the wood. They found the huge banyan tree near the house. When they began to cut it the tree started bleeding. The tree was delivered to the capital and Krishna’s image was cut out and sanctified amongst prayers and common rejoicing. This image became sacred for the vishnuit cult in Manipur.

Organizations that grouped around Krishna’s temple and the royal court were the keepers of artistic, administrative, religious and literature traditions in Manipur. Their role continues to be vital for they form a supreme organ that keeps up the highest level of studying, interpretation and practical use of everything that is based on traditions. These organizations are respected by the most outstanding learned men and performers who consult for example brahma sabha on arguable religious questions, pandit loysankh on arguable tradition matters and pala loysankh on dance and music questions. Even the kings of Manipur have always respected these organizations for their decision was final. Their jurisdiction covered protocol and ceremonies in relation of kinds of art, they observed the correctness in rituals.

Tantric influence is strong in the culture of Manipur. It finds its expression in a shivaist legend of the Manipuri Styleworld creation. The process of creation was called Ley tai nongtai jagoy or "the marriage of heaven and earth". There is a popular belief that dance and its origin are closely connected with the creation of the world. A performance based on this legend is a constituent part of Lai haraoba a thoroughly thought-out festival of dance and music. Laipou, the dance of creation is still performed on every Lai haroba festival in its primordial form. Annoyrol, a ritual dance described in ancient Manipur texts is performed on this festival too. This allows to trace the origins of dance that goes back to satya yuga or the legendary age of piety, and to hayichika or the period when according to a belief the worshipping of fire, of this purest and the most ancient among all known forms of deity, started.

The Lai haraoba ritual reproducing the process of the creation of universe begins with the proclaiming of the primordial Nothing or the Void. Then appears "water": men dressed in white and women in clothes with pink stripes carry offerings and cloths down to the river. These men and women, maiba and maibi, according to tradition are the high priests and priestesses of Manipur. As great connoisseurs of sacred texts and the ones who mastered the art of prophets they are the main characters in all ceremonies. Golden and silver things embodying earth and heaven are sacrificed to water. The people of Manipur summon its divine energy with music.

When a deity becomes implanted in a maibi’s body it starts to speak with her mouth. It is solemnly followed back to the temple under the loud accompaniment of trumpets sounds. On the way dancers demonstrate their art in honor of the deity three times. The next days of ceremonies, dance and music go according to a strictly prescribed ritual. Winding lines are drawn on the ground, various dance ceremonies take place, and they are believed to bring prosperity to village.

Hicham hirao, a ceremony with a boat is another important ritual that also includes dance. A boat is a symbol of life, god and travel through life. A tantric dance thengao is inserted in some places of LaiManipuri Style haraoba.  Performers are required to go through exhausting trainings. Since a wonderful possession of body, balance, power and concentration are generally claimed of dancers, thengao is considered the highest form of dance art among the experienced performers. Their reputation often depends on how they master thengao.

Sankirtan is an ancient tradition in dance and music, the storage of rasa bhava, classic ragas and talas. Thematically it is based on a legend about Krishna though its prototype araibapala sankirtan was dedicated to Rama. In the reign of Bhagya Chandra a number of compositions in honor of Krishna greatly increased, this period is considered the resurrection of sankirtan tradition. Nata sankirtan literally means "singing and dancing in honor of Hari". Its performance is considered the highest form of worshipping. People approaching the place of sankirtana first bow down before it and then before spectators. Sankirtan is performed even during a wedding ceremony, since according to a tradition it replaces fire usual for other regions of India. It depends on a ceremony and occasions what sarkitan to perform.

In sarkitan any of 64 rasas can be used, all just being Shringara rasa variations after all. A legend of Krishna and Radha is often played and each performance must include rajamel or the divine unity of Krishna and Radha. This is the symbol of unity of purusha and prakriti (male and female energies) and the creation of the world. During the performance of rajamel the cymbals which dancers hold in hands are never completely parted from each other.

Raaslila is a theatrical action dedicated to Krishna’s deeds. There are five kinds of it: Maharaas, Vasantraas, Kunjaraas, Nityaraas and Divaraas. Some of them can be performed only in a certain season, others at any time.

Before any Raaslila there is a sankirtan. Actors greet arangpham (Master of Ceremonies) and after receiving his permission they start the performance. Arangpham embodies Paurnimasi, Radha’s friend who performed the first lila in Vrindavan. Drummers usually take their shirts off, bow down to the deity and then to all the present: elders, teachers and all the rest. Singers and other musicians do the same. The drummers begin arranging a raga and then they are joined by singers and musicians playing on a shell. The singers sing about Vrindavan, the place, the time, and the circumstances that are reconstructed in the performance. When they get down to description of Krishna an actor playing this part begins abhisaar or trip to meet his beloved (a child usually plays Krishna and his part begins not long before 9 o’clock in the evening). He comes out into the middle of the ground, dances and moves towards the temple under the north gates. The whole Raas must be over till the first ray of the sun.

All parents want their children to take part in Raas and it is desirable for the children to play Krishna or Radha. Parents are ready to bear expenses. The main part of expenses is taken by parents of Krishna, then Radha’s, Paurnamasi’s and Chandravali’s parents, then by the parents of the four girls near Radha and finally by the parents of other gopis who probably only pay for the costumes of their children. These monetary contributions are spent on decorations and ornaments for mandapa (dancing ground) on paying to professional actors and musicians and guru with his pupils who had been preparing children for their parts for several months. It is a hard task to teach little children. A teacher who prepares a boy chosen to play Krishna’s part must teach him such difficult songs and dances as abhisaar, krishnattan, a duo with Radha and how to speak with gopis. He must also prepare him for bhangi paren with participation of other dancers and singers. Ojkha or the main guru conducts a general management: he devotes himself to children by walking from one classroom to another because everybody needs him. Thus children of various ages are taught to play corresponding parts and those who have inclinations for that continue to perfect their playing all their lives through. In time they become professional dancers.

A day before Raas begins the organizers gather the participants for gopibhojan. During this ceremony the teachers receive clothes, money, food and kheer (sweet dish). This is a touching gathering of all those who had worked together to achieve the common goal for almost half a year. Perhaps a guru was very strict to children during teaching and sometimes even gave beating to the boy playing Krishna. But now the honourable guru is the example of faith and humbleness, he bows down low before Krishna-child and says: "You have taken upon you the image of the God I honor. Forgive me for the pain I have given you". For all the participants the day of Raas is special. Children are bathed carefully and dressed for the evening performance. They are treated as little gods and goddesses.

It is necessary to note that a Manipuri dancer must keep the unique lightness in motions and strict Manipuri Stylerestraint whatever difficult the dance is and whatever physical efforts it demands. Perhaps in this is the key for understanding the style. There are no sharp motions. One motion transforms into another creating a sensation of endlessness. A soft change of scenes leads to smoothness and continuity in body movement what is so characteristic of this style. In Manipuri the difference between tandava and lasya is very visible.

Female performances of this dance are exclusively lyrical, tender and soft. Though at first sight the motions of male dancers do not claim special efforts, supplies of great physical strength are hidden behind the exterior endurance. Even when men perform fast dances with swords and spears that claim maximum energy, a dancer’s strength can be felt in only stylized and restraint motions.

So, outwardly Manipuri is a non-effective style. All figures form a single whole transforming one into another, the harmony of body motions renders the spirit of dance. Only maibis’ dances slightly differ from the others as there are more swaying motions and jumps.

Manipuri is never aggressive but tender and restraint. The exaggerated use of pantomime contradicts its norms. All motions both horizontal and vertical are circular and transform one into another, forming spiral combinations. Arms and hands must be incredibly flexible. Not a single motion, mood or thought contains completeness. Body motions are not fixed and rendered by a slight hint. One is claimed to possess strain and training to give Manipuri its seeming shape of lightness. Great efforts hide behind every move. That’s why an accident spectator may not understand this dance.

There are certain compositions in Manipuri which are traditionally passed down from generation to generation. They are called parenas and contain almost all possible motions and figures of the style. They are considered unshakable. Parenas only come across in the part of the dance called jagoi as for instance in Raaslila or in Goshtalila.

The whole specter of the dance is divided into jagoi, cholom and thangta. Jagoi is performed by dancers of both sexes as for instance in Raaslila or in Lai haraoba. Choloms are performed under theManipuri Style accompaniment of drums and cymbals. They may be extremely vigorous and tender.

For the ceremony to be a success every dancer’s specialization in a certain aspect of dance is extremely important.  A dancer, a singer, a drummer, a cymbals player, everyone has his specific role and each of them needs serious training.

There are no specialized schools so ojkha or guru teaches children at home. If a child makes progress and needs further specialization his guru asks another guru to take it upon himself. The approach to teaching is informal. In the very beginning ojkha does not clarify or explain the details of the dance and does not recommend any manuals. The ceremony of dedication is held on the first day of classes or later when the most important ragis are explained to a pupil. Students acquire subtleties by watching carefully. The most important thing is to give them the right mood rather than the right technique which they will get acquainted with later.

The connection between motions of dancer’s legs and tala or rhythmic cycle is extremely important. There is no necessity to beat the rhythm with foot. Rhythm is often only outlined. At the same time the main rhythmic points are strongly emphasized. Dancers do not have bells on ankles because the jump may finish when there must be no sound. Rhythmic points can be marked by a movement of a foot, an ankle, a knee and a hip or even by a jump. Masters of dance may consider foot stomping in a rhythmic point too elementary.

In Manipuri’s nata sankirtan about 100 talas are known. Only 60 of them are widely used. They are not just rhythmic cycles but also the main musical accompaniment. Beating complex rhythmic patterns on various drums, cymbals and even by hands is an important element of Manipuri. Male singers playing cymbals perform palacholom by bending their knees. They slightly bow forward without bending backbone and moving legs apart. This is an important element of a male style. A dancer saves the position even performing complex motions when he raises his leg or executes turns and jumps.

The manner of singing and the vocal culture of Manipuri differ from other styles. A singer usually has high and clear voice. Manipuri singers have never needed microphones for their voices are loud enough to be heard by 3000 people.

There are four types of percussions: pung (drum), dholak and dhol (also kinds of drums) and khandjuri (a small one-piece drum). Claps of hands play important role in the rhythmic accompaniment. Various dances or choloms require various techniques of performance.

Children taking part in sankirtan put on pink clothes with black narrow stripes on the edges and white Manipuri Stylescarves. Men put on white dhotis and two kinds of turbans. The drummers have small turbans (koyetmachi) on made of especially thin muslin. They are carefully washed and starched. The singers have extremely complex turbans koiechubas. Tying them is a complex art in itself and respected professionals devote themselves to this. The sankirtan performers must be irreproachably neat. They put on sacred threads or beads on their naked chests. The drums are wrapped in the muslin similar to that the turbans are made of, because drums are believed to be live creatures and thus need clothes.

Manipuri uses simple decorations but they create fantastic atmosphere. A round dancing ground does not allow using backstage or large decorations that would cover the action from the audience at least from one side. However, using the principles of the perspective and the dance technique allow transferring the impression of the depth, distance and sizes to the audience.

Today Manipuri is performed by single dancers and by small groups beyond the state boarders where it was born. It has turned into the kind of art with professional performers ready to perform both in their own country as well as in front of a foreign audience. Even though Manipur dwellers are very jealous about traditions and the heritage, they were able to satisfy the increased interest in this style by playing excerpts from ancient ceremonial dances and various performances. Famous gurus developed choreography for new compositions where the traditional dance technique is preserved.

Manipuri is a lively tradition; the dance style is in the close connection with the everyday life. Because of the fact that Manipur is surrounded by mountains, it has been relatively unavailable till recently, its culture did not meet full understanding. But the truth is that on the earliest phases of its development the arts of Manipur achieved high level of complexity, every historical period made its considerable contribution to the development of arts. Just like the literature of Manipur, the traditions of its dance meet the highest standards of classicism and elegancy.

Based on the book "Rhythm In Joy" by Leela Samson

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