Manipuri dance is one of the major Indian classical dance forms. It originates from Manipur, a state in north-eastern India on the border with Myanmar (also known as Burma).
It was originally only performed in temples and continues to form an integral part of the religious and social fabric of Manipur. It is only since the early 20th century that Manipuri dance has been presented on stage. Manipuri dance, whether folk, classical or modern, is devotional in nature. The people of Manipur are very religious and are exclusively attached to the Hindu deities Radha and Krishna, who are often the main characters depicted in dance compositions like Ras Lila.
The Early Period
A copper plate inscription gives the credit of introducing drums and cymbals into this genre of dance to King Khuoyi Tompok (c. 2nd century CE). The contribution of Maharaja Bhagyachandra (1759 – 1798 CE) for the scientific development of the Manipuri dance is immense. He composed three of the five types of Ras Lilas, the Maha Ras, the Basanta Ras and the Kunja Ras, which were performed at the Sri Sri Govindaji temple in Imphal during his reign. He also designed an elaborate costume known as Kumil. The Govindasangeet Lila Vilasa, an important text, detailing the fundamentals of the dance is also attributed to him. The Achouba Bhangi Pareng dance composition is also his creation. Maharaja Gambhir Singh (1825 – 1834 CE) composed two parengs of the tandava type, the Goshtha Bhangi Pareng and the Goshtha Vrindaban Pareng. Maharaja Chandra Kirti Singh (1849 – 1886 CE) was a gifted drummer and he composed at least 64 Pung choloms (drum dances). He also composed two parengs of the Lasya type, the Vrindaban Bhangi Pareng and Khrumba Bhangi Pareng. The composition of the Nitya Ras is also attributed to him.
Contribution of Rabindranath
It became better known outside the region through the efforts of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1919, he was so impressed after seeing a dance composition, the Goshtha Lila in Sylhet (in present day Bangladesh) that he invited Guru Budhimantra Singh to Shantiniketan. In 1926, Guru Naba Kumar joined Shantiniketan for teaching the Ras Lila, which created a great interest in Manipuri dance outside Manipur and adjoining regions. Soon, the other celebrated Gurus, Senarik Singh Rajkumar and Nileshwar Mukherji were also invited to teach at Shantiniketan. Later, Guru Atomba Singh came to Shantiniketan as the head of the dance department. They assisted Tagore to choreograph several of his dance-dramas.
The popular interest in Manipuri dance was spread to the other parts of India when Guru Naba Kumar went to Ahmedabad to teach Manipuri dance in 1928. Soon, Guru Bipin Singh popularised it in Mumbai. Amongst his pupils, most well known are the Jhaveri sisters, Nayana, Suverna, Darshana and Ranjana.
In 1954, the Manipur Dance college of Imphal started with three great exponents of this genre of dance in its faculty, Guru Amubi Singh, the principal, Guru Amudon Sharma and Guru Atomba Singh. In 1957, it was renamed as Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy. When the Sri Sri Govindaji Nartanalaya, another premier institute was founded in Imphal, Guru Bipin Singh became the principal. Kalavati Devi and Binodini Devi are the alumni of this institute. It was later renamed as Manipur State Dance College. In 1972, Guru Bipin Singh in collaboration with the Jhaveri sisters and Kalavati Devi founded Manipuri Nartanalaya in Mumbai, Kolkata and Imphal.
The traditional Manipuri dance style embodies delicate, lyrical and graceful movements. The aim is to make rounded movements and avoid any jerks, sharp edges or straight lines. It is this which gives Manipuri dance its undulating and soft appearance. Of course, behind this outwardly soft impression lies a tough regime of body control.
In contrast with other Indian dance forms, the dancer’s feet should never strike the ground hard as this would interfere with the delicate flow of the body movements. Every time the dancer puts down his or her feet, even during vigorous steps, it is the front part of the feet which touch the ground first and ‘break the fall’. The ankle and knee joints are effectively used as shock absorbers.
The dancer’s feet are neither put down nor lifted up at the precise rhythmic points of the music but rather slightly earlier or later to express the same rhythmic points most effectively. This is possible because the way the feet move is viewed as a part of a composite movement of the whole body. Indeed, Manipuri dancers do not wear ankle bells, whose purpose in other Indian dances is to accentuate the beats tapped out by the feet.
Like the movements of the body and feet, the facial expressions in Manipuri dance should be subtle. The main bases of this dance style are devotion and grace.
The musical accompaniment for Manipuri dance comes from a percussion instrument called the Pung, a singer, small cymbals, a stringed instrument called the pena and wind instrument such as a flute. The drummers are always male artistes and, after learning to play the pung, students are trained to dance with it while drumming. This dance is known as Pung cholom.
Manipuri dance has had a very different evolution from other Indian classical dances. With its origins in Manipur, which is surrounded by mountain ranges and geographically isolated at the meeting point of the orient and mainland India, Manipuri dance developed its own specific aesthetics, values, conventions and ethics.