Two of the most important Vaishnavite classical dances of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur—Rasa-Lila and Sankirtan—are featured in Indian Dance of Manipur, a one-case exhibit on display in the Third Floor Reading Room of the Joseph Regenstein Library from November 19, 2012, to March 8, 2013.
Very little is known about ancient Manipur, a state located in northeastern India. The scattered and fragmentary records available indicate that the inhabitants of the valley belonged to seven different clans that eventually coalesced into what is still known as the ‘Meitei’ community. The ancient religion of the Meiteis included the performance of ritualistic dances that were clear expressions of religious ardor and dedication. The entire community was involved in these ritual celebrations and the performances were suffused with spiritual fervor.
Gradually Hindu philosophic beliefs filtered into this secluded valley, and the Meitei people accepted and assimilated the new divinities into their religious pantheon. During the 18th century, Vaishnavism, a branch of Hinduism that venerates the god Vishnu, became the accepted religion of the Manipuris. New temples were built and pavilions called ‘mandapas’ were constructed for devotional music and dancing. Although the Meiteis readily adopted the Vaishnavite faith, the earlier gods and their worship were never completely abandoned, thus creating a diverse synthesis of philosophical and cultural elements unique to Manipur. Two of the most important Vaishnavite classical dances of the region, the Rasa-lila and Sankirtan, are represented in this exhibit.
Performances of the Rasa-Lila (also spelled Rosa-lila) take place on the night of the full moon during the different seasons throughout the year. These performances, involving almost exclusively women and young girls, always occur first at the Shri Shri-Govindaji temple at the capital city of Imphal. This temple is the most revered shrine in Manipur and serves as the focus of all major Vaishnavite religious activities in the region. Only after the Rasa-Lila is initially performed at the Shri Shri-Govindaji temple can this ceremony be carried out at local village temples.
The ‘rasa-mandapa’ or main pavilion in the temple at Imphal is where the Rasa-Lila performances are held yearlong on auspicious nights determined by the lunar calendar, each performance beginning at dusk and ending at dawn. Before the Rasa-Lila begins, the rasa-mandapa pavilion is washed and made ready and straw mats are arranged in neat rows for the audience on all four sides surrounding the performance area.
Since the performance takes place during nighttime hours, incandescent bulbs, tube lights, and paraffin lamps are mounted. The scene or stage operator, known as the ‘karigar,’ fixes a rope to a rolling, rotating dais that manipulates the standing images of Krishna and Rhada throughout the different phases of the performance. Prior the actual outset of the Rasa-Lila, a prologue consisting of the Sankirtan occurs, a ritualistic presentation offered by the men that involves much dancing, drumming, and singing.
As the branch of Hinduism known as Vaishnavism began to dominate religious worship in Manipur from the 18th century onwards, the Sankirtan became a major component of Manipuri ceremonial activity. Following an extremely strict performance code, the Sankirtan with its dance, songs, ragas (repeated melodic patterns), talas (repeated rhythmic patterns), and costumes are all determined by specific rules and regulations. The group of male dancers participating in Sankirtan includes at least one pair of drummers who perform remarkable spinning motions as they play their instruments. At times, a conch player is also included.
At a certain point in the performance, the chief singer vocalizes on the words, “Hari Bol,” while the other men intone “Hare Hare.” The major portion of the Sankirtan consists of the male performers singing an episode or story from the lives of “Krishna,: one of the most important incarnations of Vishnu, and his childhood friend, “Rhada.” The lyrics are highly devotional, written by various Vaishnavite poets.
Among the diverse types of Sankirtan ceremonies, the “Nata-Pala” is the most complex, involving male drum and cymbal dancers. The Nata-Pala is performed throughout the year at important festivals and at significant “rites-of-passage” in an individual’s life. It also serves as a common prologue to the performance of the Rasa-Lila.
See Saryu Doshi’s Dances of Manipur: the Classical Tradition for additional information.