Manipuri mystique

A dance form with elegant and fluid movements  

“Manipuri is still a living dance form,” says Sinam Basu Singh, a Manipuri dance exponent who is in the city with his troupe as part of a SPIC-MACAY programme to bring the arts to young student. The term ‘repository of knowledge’ almost seems coined for Singh, who has been travelling with his troupe through Kerala and Tamil Nadu with their performance, ‘Raas Leela’. Every performance is so much more than dance and music. Every time his troupe takes centre stage, it is an amalgam of history, mythology, and performance; a means of storytelling woven into a smooth sequence of dance moves.

Ten minutes of conversation with him, and one can tell that he is an authority on the dance form. He begins by contrasting Manipuri with the Tamil tradition of Bharatanatyam. “You will see both the pre-Vaishnavite as well as the post-Vaishnavite forms still alive in temples today, across the 364 temples recognised in the valley.” As one of the four oldest classical art forms recognised in India (the others being Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, and Kathak), Manipuri prides itself on being a flowing form, one whose difficulty lies in mastering the elegance and fluidity that mark its movements. Primarily a form of religious worship, most dances are centred around the themes of the Krishna’s life and the traditional Raas-Leela. “Some ought to be performed only in some seasons; others are just for the night or specifically for the day. Today, however, we have started choreographing other stories too.”

Sinam Basu Singh takes centre stage

Sinam Basu Singh takes centre stage  


While the performance may have been new for Tamil audiences, Singh is no stranger to introducing the art form to communities around the world. “We’ve performed everywhere from Russia to multiple smaller towns in South India,” he explains. “It is always different from performing at home because we need to introduce the history and culture that the form is rooted in. We do our best, but often don’t get more than a few lines in because there is just so much to say and no time to say it!” Yet more often than not, their performances do most of the talking, with traditional Manipuri costumes and make-up inspiring a generous smattering of oohs and aahs from first-time audiences.

At their performance at Vidya Vanam, a school for tribal children in Anaikatti, students were both amazed and intrigued by the elaborate headdresses and grand costumes. The favourite was the drummer who played and danced simultaneously (traditionally called Pung Cholom). His spinning and jumping as he played on the drum was greeted with spontaneous applause.

Such enamoured audiences, while integral to the spread of the art form, are not key to the Manipuri experience. “The most important emotion is ‘bhakti ras’,” says Singh, explaining how the people of Manipur speak of ‘praying’ Raas-Leela instead of ‘dancing.’ “We started performing for audiences only in the 1920s or 1930s. Even today, though the art form has progressed to account for the stage, it is primarily a form of prayer.” Historically performed by the Meitei community, today Singh believes that the form has transgressed socio-cultural boundaries and been adopted by people across the spectrum. “Dance is an art form. We must evolve. We even have two universities and a few more institutions dedicated to dance in the valley. Dance and music are a part of our lives in Manipur.”

Just a drum and flute to accompany the vocals

Just a drum and flute to accompany the vocals  

For Singh and his troupe, performing Manipuri for various audiences around the world is an exercise in worship and reverence. It is the practice of history and mythology, tweaked to suit the 21st century audience. As Singh explains, “ Manipuri dance is conservative for the temple and progressive for the stage.” Manipuri, it would seem, is evolving and dynamic. It is truly alive.

Ancient and progressive

At Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan, the only two dance forms taught are Kathakali and Manipuri. Manipuri has a key influence on Rabindranritya


Manipuri is traditionally performed during the Laiharaoba (merry making of the Gods) festival that worships pre-Vaishnavite deities.

Manipuri has two broad influences, mapping the evolution of religion in the valley. The pre-Vaishnavite era is seen at Kaiharaoba while the post-Vaishnavite era is reflected in Raas.

The three oldest Raas performances were introduced by Rajashri Bagachandra in 1779.

The veil worn by female dancers was traditionally almost opaque in an effort to preserve the bhaktiras. Today, it has become translucent as the art form adapted to the stage.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 12:08:21 AM |

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