Dance and Opera in Manipur: The Survival of Ritual Theatre

by FAUBION BOWERS

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NOWHERE in India do people practice the arts of dance, drama, music, and their combined form, opera, so widely as in the princely state of Manipur. Perhaps, too, no other area of India has been quite so cut off and remote. Manipur is in Assam, the northeasternmost corner of India. Bordered by Burma, Bhutan, and East, Pakistan at its outer frontiers, it is surrounded by the swirling convergence of nine separate mountain ranges (the highest peak is the lowest of the Himalayas). In these encircling hills the Nagas live, aboriginal peoples, of whom some still go naked, some continue to head-hunt, and others as yet are unaware of the use of fire.

Near the heart of this curious country, just off center, lies the oval valley of Manipur, a paradise of civilization amid barbarism. Indians conquered the country culturally millennia ago; but ethnologically, the fair skin and Mongolian cast of feature remain. Physically the people are closer to Burma and Tibet. The name Manipur means literally “ diamond-place,” and the origin of the word goes back to a myth that tells how the snake-god who lives at the center of the earth saw the loveliness of the place and in an orgiastic ecstasy sprayed out a mist of sparkling, gleaming diamonds. Today, while there are no gems of value — and the existence of a gold mine is apparently only legendary — Manipuris call their Lai Haraoba dance and their Ras Lila opera the country’s two most precious jewels.

Separate, disconnected villages speckle the countryside. A few clusters compose the towns, and the capital, Imphal, is a fusion of six or seven villages which until recently even spoke slightly different dialects. The Lai Haraoba is essentially a village dance. The whole village participates in it and its purpose is to ensure the continued productivity of the land. During almost any month of the year (the winters are always mild, the rains rarely too heavy, and the summers never torpid) somewhere, in some locality, this dance is being given. For one month each year the performances are repeated, and the event is not only socially compulsory but a religious necessity as well. Manipuris are convinced of the dance’s efficacy, because their land is so rich it grows practically anything and the country imports virtually nothing. Now that modern modes of transportation have reached them, the Manipuris have become small-scale exporters — of rice, indigo, orchids, and turmeric.

Manipur is a nation of dancers and it naturally follows that the Lai Haraoba should be a community, group affair. Manipuris put it this way: “Every girl who weaves can dance.” To them, this saying implies that it would be as unthinkable for a woman not to dance as it would be for her not to be able to make her own clothes. Since dance is a part of the Manipuri marriage ceremony, a man automatically assumes his place as a partner.

Before a Lai Haraoba receives its annual performances — the time is never fixed as it depends on when the village has enough leisure and money for the celebrations — word of mouth alerts the whole countryside. When traveling around Manipur, any afternoon a few hours before sunset, if you see groups of people in their finery walking along a country road and follow them, you will very likely happen on this dance.

All the women — ranging from little girls to great-grandmothers — dress in the national, formal panek. This is a wrap-around of deep purple, with tiny parallel lines woven into it to look vaguely like a snake coil (another souvenir of the snake at the core of the earth). Wide borders of fine embroidery hang at the bottom just below the ankles. These are family heirlooms handed down from generation to generation until the cloth rots away with age. Around their bare shoulders the mature girls and women wear a thin, gossamer scarf of white. When a man approaches, or when they begin to dance before the gods, they drape it to cover their heads as well. Some of the leading dancers wear the bride’s crown — a gold headband dangling with short slivers of silver like phonograph needles. The Muslim women, a small but colorful minority, dress with startling flamboyance. One woman, I remember, wore four layers of different colored cloths — a purple, turbanlike headdress, a blue scarf, a red sash, and a yellow skirt. The old women, widows and grandmothers, shave their heads entirely and look rather like Buddhist priests; young unmarried girls trim their hair so as to have long bangs in front which lengthen around the sides until at the back the straight hair hangs down to their shoulders. Around their necks nearly all the women wear sacred rosaries of balsam seeds or strings of little gold beads.

The men are turbaned, feathered, and trousered in clean white dhotis which wrap around their hips and shins and, pulled between their legs, leave their calves exposed in back. Most of them are barechested; others drape a long piece of thin, white, starched muslin toga-fashion over their naked shoulders. Both men and women mark their faces with the formal caste marks of the Manipuris — a long, thin smudge of sandalwood paste along the bridge of the nose and two round lumps on each ear lobe. Some of them wear on their foreheads an intricate design of two feet, heel to heel, with the soles decorated with curlicues and Sanskrit words.

Most villages have grown up near streams and rivers. The winding path of the water makes the rows of houses on the banks look romantically disordered, like a fairy-tale drawing. At various points the people have dammed the flow to catch fish or to keep their ducks from being carried downstream. Over the bridges which connect the two parts of the village, a thatched roof provides shade as well as a charming appearance.

Each village of Manipur must have a dance arena where the annual Lai Haraoba takes place. If the village is wealthy enough, a dung-plaster godown will contain brass masks representing the King of the East and his bride-eternal (commonly recognized today as prototypes of the Hindu Siva and Parvati), the gods before whom the dance is enacted. Manipur also worships Krishna, the most important incarnation of Vishnu, and since 1700 Vaishnavite Hinduism has been the official state religion and directly presided over by the Maharaja.

As the villagers and spectators arrive the dance begins. The ritual is begun by the maibis, another indication of the ancient, pre-Hindu origins of this dance. A maibi is a woman who possesses supernatural qualities and the power of divination. At some point in her life she has been seized by strange forces inexplicable to all except other maibis, and has been taught the dances and incantations which only maibis know. They have no connection with the temples or organized religion and their position has been likened to that of witch doctors. Among their chief functions, they count the conducting of the Lai Haraoba. The more expensive the maibi, the better the dance.

At intervals the maibis change their costume. Not long after the dance has begun they appear in white uniforms (looking rather like hospital attendants) with a sacrilegiously gaudy sash tied around their waists. Dressed in this way, they bring out from the godown the brass masks and swaddle them in yards of cloth which make them look as if they have bodies. The maibis do an armwaving and foot-stomping step which appeases the heavens with their rains and the earth with its nurture. The villagers then begin dancing in force. They start with about a dozen little girls, who imitate the maibis’ dance before the masks, and as the dance progresses, the groups get progressively older.

When the women have finished, the men form a circle in the center of the arena and begin shouting and making gestures. The whole village then dances together. The women in a huge semicircle move in a clockwise direction; the men step counterclockwise around them. Led by the maibis, they gesture and gesticulate, posture and pose. The movements have an erotic significance but they are always graceful. The soft flow of Manipuri dancing has been described as being “gentle as velvet and forceless as a smile.” Lai Haraoba means literally “to please the gods.” The Manipuri sees it primarily as a recognition of the relation between his own procreation and the creativity of his earth. Before night falls, the day’s performance ends and the villagers disperse to return to their homes.

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MANIPUR could, with equal justification, be called a nation of musicians. The visitor to the country is made aware of this fact at every turn. If you are driving over the countryside — often there are no roads, only cross-country tracks straight through paddy fields — and your car has trouble, the driver while he pumps a tire or tinkers with the carburetor will begin to sing folk songs. The Manipuri has a wide vocal range but to increase it, men use falsetto as freely as the natural voice. Much of their singing is in trills and tremolos, related somewhat to a yodel but more delicate and dulcet. It the repairs on the car are more serious and require a long wait for some reason or other, then you will probably be regaled with drumming on the hood of a rather brilliant sort. Syncopes, counterbeats, thuds, and rumbles all flow rhythmically and musically one into the other. In the town of Imphal, where the water supply is distributed through a series of strategically located public water taps, the din in the morning is deafening. As the water boys and girls line up and wait their turn at the spout, they all seem to be in competition to see who can pound out the louder and more intricate rhythm on their water cans.

The Manipuris harness the best of this general musicality, and coupling it with their most advanced and evolved dance forms produce an opera which they call Ras Lila. Lai Haraobas are popular entertainments in the sense that all the people dance in them. Ras Lilas are popular too in the sense of being nationwide and well attended, but because of their exhausting length (they start after midnight and continue until dawn) and their extreme complexity (a performer must be able to sing, dance, and act), even in this land of artists, a specially trained class of professionals has evolved to perform in them. Broadly defined, a Ras Lila is an operatic and choreographic enactment of the original “divine play” between Krishna and Radha and her retinue.

In history and mythology, Krishna, before his mystic enlightenment and subsequent godhood, was a cowherd. Radha was a neighboring milkmaid and his consort. Around the two were the other milkmaids, the gopis, who shared Krishna’s affection. The symbolism of this heavenly dalliance has been interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries, and I suppose each believer works it out to his own satisfaction and in accord with his conscience. In general, to the Manipuri, the promiscuity of Krishna is acknowledged as such, and the nature of his playfulness, although it has been established that Krishna was only eleven at the time, was that of genuine sexual experience.

In an actual performance of a Ras Lila, out of deference to propriety and to enable a full flavor of spirituality unimpaired by adult, corruptive sensuality, the roles of Krishna and Radha are played by children. I have seen some performed by children of seven or eight, and others by youths of twelve and thirteen. In some Ras Lilas, an adult performs Krishna, but in this case a woman takes the part. “Every man here is married to a Radha and every woman to a Krishna,” one Manipuri once explained to me, “and to discuss our beliefs and faith is like talking in public about our marital life.” The Manipuri’s religion has a privacy that is unique in India.

Manipuris regard the Ras Lila as so sacred as to be virtually secret. Performances can only take place three or four times a year during the full moons of March, August, and December, and they announce the exact date on only a day or so’s notice. If the Maharaja decrees a Ras Lila, he gives only time enough to erect the mandal hall in which performances are usually held. Sometimes the artists appear within the great temple of the palace, sometimes in remote spots on the side of some nearby, sacred hill, or often simply out in the open.

Muslims, including those who have settled in Manipur since the thirteenth century, were not, until a few years ago, allowed to hear even the music. White men, or korakora as they are contemptuously called, were told that Ras Lilas do not exist and were automatically excluded. Almost as if by a national conspiracy, the beauties of the Ras Lila have been kept hidden. In the only book ever written about Manipur as a general study, the writer, a long-time resident and quondam political officer in Manipur, states categorically (and in outrageous ignorance) that the Manipuris have four dances in all and among them he lists neither the Lai Haraoba nor the Ras Lila. Even the native Indian fares little better, for though he may be of the same religion, the intense orthodoxy of the Manipuri subsect amounts to a snobbism which rejects him as well.

Elaborate protocol attends each performance. The mandal hall, a straw and bamboo house open on four sides, is decorated with greenery and intricate paper cut-outs. Around three sides of this, the people lay straw mats to sit on. In the center of the hall a circle of flowers planted in a low mound delimits the dance arena. No man is allowed within this area. Under the roof only persons of rank and of course religious acceptability may sit. Nowadays, outsiders, that is Muslims, Indians, and very recently korakora, may stand off in the distance where the mats end. But once a performance is in full swing, as long as you take off your shoes, you can draw as close to the hall as the eaves of the roof.

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A RAS LILA requires a cast of at least eight people — Krishna, Radha, and six gopis. Sometimes eight gopis play to two child stars; but for other Ras Lilas eight Krishnas perform with seven gopis and one Radha. The accompanying orchestra and chorus are also large — two conch shell players (to herald dramatic moments), several esraz (a rebablike stringed instrument), drummers, cymbal groups, and singers. A pair of Brahmins sing the Krishna arias; a chorus of women sing the Radha arias; the gopis who are adult, professional artists, sing their own arias, duets, trios, and sextets.

The actual plots of a Ras Lila are thin. The theme is selected from one of three set situations: Krishna’s infidelity to Radha, her forgiveness, and their reunion; the general concord and blissful state of agreement between Krishna and Radha and their sportive play together; or the abandonment of Radha by Krishna and their reconciliation because of her threatened suicide. Dances, arias, and choruses alternate with orchestral interludes to make the form consecutive and connected.

In rough outline the development follows this pattern. A Krishna dance, a Radha dance, the dance-play between the two and then with all the gopis, the plot-argument (the separation, the faithlessness or faithfulness), the solution (the dance in mirth together), and finally at dawn, as the sun rises, the prayer and worship of the sacred fire. A flaming tray is brought into the arena and as the dancers twirl it around in the air, the audience rises and holds out their hands to receive the warmth and blessing of Krishna’s sacred flame.

In full dress a performance of a Ras Lila scintillates with bright colors and decorative flashes of light and movement. The intricate costumes with their velvet hoopskirts of glittering mirrors and patterned squares of cloth, the Mongolian-looking girls with their lightly powdered brown faces and hair done high in a knot on the side of their heads, and their faces alluringly draped with a large veil of white tulle sprinkled with mica (to glitter like the diamonds of the snake who first sprayed the paradise of Manipur), and the sinewless, undulating gestures of the dancers against the vibrating, jangling orchestra are almost unbearably moving.

Manipuris seriously believe that their Ras Lila is an approximate re-enactment of the original Ras Lila as it happened thousands of years ago in the garden of Brindavan (now a near-desert place in north central India) and as it happens nightly in the heavens above with the gods. Their reaction during a performance at times becomes almost embarrassing in the openness of its expression. When the children dance well, or when the gopis sing an especially beautiful theme or dance particularly smoothly, or even during famous passages of music, the audience showers coins on the performers. In the interludes, an attendant drapes lengths of cloth over the shoulder of each artist, both as partial payment for the evening and to show particular gratification at the success of the performance. At sensitive moments, older Manipuris in full dress draw near the arena and, weeping loudly, prostrate themselves. Shaking their heads and wiping their eyes, while lying prone on the ground, they pay homage to the perfection of the performer and the beauty of the Ras Lila.

A Ras Lila entrances even the spectator who is alien to the religion. Even those who are ignorant of the theological intricacies of the Chaitanya sect of Vaishnavite Hinduism, and to whom the lore of Krishna and Radha is unfamiliar, are affected by the spectacle of a Ras Lila. Somehow, something deep within the human being is touched, and the validity of the experience aesthetically is undeniable. But the curious thing is that as you leave the mandal hall, you find yourself almost persuaded of the spiritual experience as well.