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Tue, 10 Dec 2019

Northeast Today

Jagoi- sacred rhythms of Manipur

Jagoi- sacred rhythms of Manipur
June 06
16:20 2019

Himashree Das

Manipuri dance is counted among major classical dance forms of India. It is particularly known for its Hindu Vaishnavism themes, and exquisite performances of love-inspired dance drama of Radha-Krishna called Raslila. However, the dance is also performed to themes related to Shaivism, Shaktism and regional deities such as Umang Lai during Lai Haraoba. This dance form is named after the north-eastern state of Manipur, India from where it originated but it has its roots in ‘Natya Shastra’, the age-old Sanskrit Hindu text. We can see a mixture of Indian and Southeastern culture in this dance form. The age-old dance tradition of the place is manifested from great Indian epics, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, where the native dance experts of Manipur are referred as ‘Gandharvas’. The people of Manipur perform this religious art that aims at expressing spiritual values during Hindu festivals and other important cultural occasions like marriage.

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The roots of Manipuri dance, as with all classical Indian dances, is the ancient Hindu Sanskrit text Natya Shastra, with influences and the culture fusion between various local folk dance forms. With evidence of Vishnu temples in the medieval era, the dance arts have been passed down verbally from generation to generation as an oral tradition. The first reliably dated written texts describing the art of Manipuri dance are from the early 18th-century. The region is also mentioned as ‘Gandharva-desa’ in ancient Manipuri texts. Usha, the exalted dawn goddess in the ‘Rig Veda’ is traditionally accredited of creating female dance art and tutoring girls in the art. Conventionally this oral tradition of dance passed down verbally to women is famous in Manipur as ‘Chingkheirol’. Manipur finds place in age-old Sanskrit texts including the great Indian epic, the ‘Mahabharata’, which mentions that one of the five Pandava brothers, Arjun met Chitrangada and fell in love with her in this beautiful valley. The ethnic majority of Meitei people call dance as ‘Jagoi’ and the traditional ‘Lai Haraoba’ festival observed in honour of the sylvan deities called Umang Lai includes several dance postures of Nataraja, an illustration of Lord Shiva as the cosmic ecstatic dancer, as also His disciple Tandu or Tangkhu.

Evolution in the medieval era

Although texts of ancient Manipur gradually faded out, but the oral tradition of the Manipur people records back till 18th century. It has references in Asian manuscripts and archaeological findings speak volumes about the art. In 1717, there was a rise of religious performance arts including singing and dancing based on themes surrounding Lord Krishna. It further developed its dance tradition by incorporating dance dramas based on Lord Rama in 1734.  Maharaja Gambhir Singh and Maharaja Chandra Kirti Singh of the 19th century are accredited with composing the ‘Nitya Ras’. While the former composed ‘Goshtha Vrindaban Pareng’ and ‘Goshtha Bhangi Pareng’ , the latter composed ‘Vrindaban Bhangi Pareng’ and ‘Khrumba Bhangi Pareng’ along with around 64 Pung choloms or drum dances that are usually performed as a prelude to the ‘Ras Lila’.

Condition during the colonial era

British colonial rule in the 19th century saw decline of various Indian classical dance forms which were subjected to discouragement. Manipur was annexed by the British colonial government in 1891, and with this the flourishing period of Manipuri dance art came under the clutch of colonial rule like other ancient Indian classical dance forms. The Manipuri dancers somehow survived in the temples of the region like the Govindji temple of Imphal. The Christian missionaries launched anti-dance movement in 1892 and later the Madras Presidency under the British colonial government banned the custom of dancing in Hindu temples in 1910. The Indian community disapproved such ban and as the Indian freedom movement progressed steadily during the early 20th century, an effort to revive Indian culture and tradition became strong among Indians. Many classical art revivalists joined hands between 1920 and 1950 in reviving the different ancient classical dance forms.


The repertoire of this dance form revolves around different seasons. The traditional style of this art form incorporates graceful, gentle and lyrical movements. The fundamental dance movement of Ras dances of Manipur is Chari or Chali. Manipuri dances are performed thrice in autumn from August to November and once in spring sometime around March-April, all on full moon nights. While Vasant Ras is scheduled in spring when Holi, the festival of colours is celebrated by the Hindus, the other dances are scheduled around post-harvest festivals like Diwali. Themes of the songs and plays comprise of love and association of Radha and Krishna in company of the Gopis namely Sudevi, Rangadevi, Lalita, Indurekha , Tungavidya, Vishakha, Champaklata and Chitra. One composition and dance sequence is dedicated for each of the Gopis while the longest sequence is emphasized on Radha and Krishna. The dance drama is performed through excellent display of expressions, hand gestures and body language.

Costumes involved in the dance

Usually the costumes involved in the Manipuri dance are full of bright color and very unique. A male dancer wears a bright coloured dhoti, also referred as dhora or dhotra that covers lower part of his body from waist. The unique style of wearing it gives the dancer the flexibility to perform his footwork. A crown decorated with peacock feather adorns the dancer’s head, who portrays the character of Lord Krishna. The costume of female dancers resembles that of a Manipuri bride, referred as Potloi costumes. These costumes were introduced for dancers characterising Gopis in ‘Rasa Lila’ dance by Meidingu Bhagyachandra Maharaj. The most distinguished of these is the Kumil costume that is an exquisitely embellished long skirt in the shape of a barrel with a stiffened bottom. The entire get up of the dancers performing gracefully onstage complimented with devotional music. The drummers who also dance while drumming are male artists. They wear white dhoti that covers the lower part of body from waist and a white turban on the head which adds grace to the dance.

Instruments and languages

The musical instrument generally used in this art form includes the Pung that is a barrel drum, cymbals or kartals, harmonium, flute, pena and sembong. The language of text songs of Manipuri dance lyrics are varied including Sanskrit, Brij Bhasha and Maithili.


This dance form of Manipur is full of life and enthusiasm. This dance is clearly an example of how rich the culture of northeast region. The culture of north east has a very rich history and has undergone many evolutions but it has still able to retain its position in the society. Although it faced backlash in the british period but it was able to regain its position. The dance form shows the culture of the hindu people. The region of north east is full of rich heritage .



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