Embellished By Time
There is a classical dance form in the northeastern part of India called "Manipuri". It is deliberate and stylised with great attention paid to grace.
Every community in India has a dance form, some very obviously folk with their infectious and impulsive nature with matching rhythm and some very elaborate and stylised. In the northeastern part of India, there are many tribes and each tribe performs its own dance, with specific costumes and accompaniments.
Generally these dances are performed during festivals and originally seem to have had the entire village involvement. With social development geared to rob people of free time, it became more and more difficult for everybody to join in a village dance. Very soon, troupes came to be formed and today they perform in functions/festivals in front of an enthralled audience. The onlookers at best join in the chorus. Most of the dances are based on the mythological beliefs of the people of the tribe.
Manipur is a picturesque valley surrounded on all sides by tall hills. There is strong evidence that suggests that a rich culture flourished in this region even in the pre-Aryan times. It has been referred to as the valley of the snake god, and from earlier times till date is inhabited by the Naga tribes. The people who live in the valley are known as the "Meities" and they trace their antiquity to Vedic times.
The Meities as a community knew innumerable ritual dances. The Meiba and Meibees are heralders of good omen. Then there were some dances of the couples like Lai Haroba and of the Khamba tribe. These dances are performed to evoke a formless deity and the abstract design of the movements symbolise intertwined serpents. Artistic representations of piety were blended into daily life. Rituals, including dance, were not just a formality, but also a part of life.
Influence Of Vaishnavism
There came a change in the life of the people of Manipur with the spread of Vaishnavism in the 17th century. Sankaradeva was a great pious man who introduced the worship of Lord Vishnu in Manipur. Soon it spread al over Manipur and then became a state religion.
Gradually the arts too were influenced. Singing or Kirtans in praise of Lord Krishna in the Vaishnavite style came to be accompanied with Manipuri ritual dances. Various forms of Kirtans and Cholams of Vaishnava traditions gained prominence. The Rasa dance of Krishna described in the Bhagwat Gita are the ones that became more popular. The Meities, however, assimilated the Vaishnavite tradition but continued to practice the old form. The result: a vast repertoire exists today.
Time embellished the dance form to suit contemporary tastes. Connoisseurs amended the original form, and the present repertoire and form is attributed to king Bhagyachandra who is said to have seen it all in a dream. The king was a scholar too, not just a dreamer. He wrote a valuable treatise on dance called the govinda sangeeta lila vilas. Till today, this text forms the basis of manipuri dance.
Manipuri dance has a very fluid style wherein the vertical line of the body is never broken. The body curves itself in the figure of '8', essaying continuous movement. One flows from one movement to another. Unlike many other styles in India, Manipuri has very few movements that involve the stamping of the feet. The feet movement is intricate and the dancer cannot lift her foot away from the ground above the knees level. Whenever the dancer cannot lift her foot away from the ground above the knee level. Whenever the dancer raises her foot, it is followed by a gliding movement almost touching the floor. The Tandaveaq portion or the dance of a male is characterised by cat like agility and high leaps. The feet are kept apart with knees bent. There are many spiral and sitting positions in the whole technique. In contrast, the movement of the woman is very delicate and she covers space mainly moving on the toes.
The various Raasa dances form a very important part of the Manipuri repertoire. These compositions are highly literary in content set to classical music and specific metric cycle.
For the Rasa, the costume is special. Special skirts called "Kumin", which opens out at the waist, is made to stand stiff in a circular shape around the dancer's legs. They are highly ornate and sequined. Radha, Krishna's love, always wears green. Over the skirt, the dancers tie a frilly, wispy material with stiff border that reaches up to the top half of the skirt. They also wears two or three wide strips made of a stiff material, which are highly ornamented around his waist, a lot of jewellery, an elaborate headgear with a peacock feather and a tail like piece made of very thin strips of paper hanging from it.
One of the dance forms from the state of Manipur has been beautifully developed and is very ancient treatise on indian dance, the natyasastra. Its existence is told with a story.
It is said that once upon a time Lord Shiva was relaxing with his consort, Goddess Parvati. The northeast has a lot of Shiva and Shakti worship and so there are legends galore about them. Shiva and Parvati heard some beautiful sounds; so musical and so lyrical that there curiosity was aroused. They looked around to find out where it was coming from. They could not find it. Then the two of them got up and decided to move towards its source. Finally, they came near the place where the sounds were coming from.
The centre of the noisy area seemed cordoned off. Try as they might, they could not get to the actual spot and they could not see from far either as to what was creating those lovely sounds. They asked around. People told them that Lord Krishna was playing with the Gopis. This was in private and an audience could not be entertained. They were not allowed to see the dance of Krishna and the Gopis. This dance was called "Raslila".
With their curiosity having been satisfied, the divine couple should have forgotten about it. But they did not. The melodious music haunted them. Finally unable to sit quiet, the master of dance and cosmic dancer, Shiva, wore his anklets and decided to create a Raslila of his own. Parvati too had been inspired and she too wanted that the two of them work on creating their own Lila.
Now they looked for the right space. While searching for it, they came upon a beautiful valley filled with water. Shiva drained the water with his trident and they fell into step with each other and danced joyously. 'Ananta', the serpent illuminated the valley with the gem on his head. The serpent who guards Lord Vishnu is said to wear gems on his hood. The gems are called "Mani". The radiance of the Manis gave the valley its name of Manipuri.