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Books > Performing Arts > Dance Music and Ritual in Manipur
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Dance Music and Ritual in Manipur
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Dance Music and Ritual in Manipur
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Preface

Part one - On finding my way to Manipur

I have always been drawn to the faraway places and for many years I had been planning a trip to the remote Northeast Indian state of Manipur. Even for the well traveled Indian of the subcontinent, this journey would be an adventure into a deep frontier of their own country. For a Western traveler, going to Manipur is akin to traveling to the ends of the earth. I expressly wanted to learn more about the area’s traditional music, dance, and rituals. But little is written in the English language, and an air of mystery completely surrounds the subject. Whichever way one turns; accounts are under-informed, made exotic, sensationalized, or oversimplified.

Years before the actual trip began, I voraciously researched, read, watched, and listened to every bit of information I could find. A few universities in the United Kingdom have collections of ethnographic fieldwork on Manipur by a handful of adventurers and researchers from the turn of the century up to the early 1970s, but the majority of these papers and films are not accessible to the general public. Surprisingly, the best source of material I. found was eBay. Searching descriptive tags for Manipur, Northeast India, Nagaland, Arunachal, Assam, and Burma produced the occasional antique or collectible book; In this way I discovered the writings of early explorers of the Eastern Himalayas and Northeast Indian Frontier Region. Among these eccentric and amazing adventurers and writers were Frank Kingdon-Ward, Ursula Graham Bower, Harish Kapadia, Francis Youngblood, Lt. Col. John Shakespear, J. P. Mills, Elwin Verrier, Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf and Louise Lightfoot. These finds would be few and far between and I purchased them all.

One day I discovered a rare first edition copy of the book that would be my true inspiration for a leap of faith and a journey of 12,000 miles from California to the valley of Manipur. It also became my personal outline for research subjects, potential people to find, and places to explore. The book was Louise Lightfoot’s Dance Rituals of Manipur; a small, 79 page autobiography that was published in 1958. Lightfoot was Australian born, an architect by schooling who became a classically trained dancer and studied South Indian classical dances in the 1930s and 1940s. In the early 1950s she took up residence in Manipur to study its dance traditions. Though the book was meant to be research, it is actually the memoir of her experiences. Lightfoot’s account is written with a sense of wonder and reverence in an intimate, non-scholarly style taken from the perspective of an outsider tenderly looking in. She often comments on events she had adventurously sought out, and then directly participated in, as a way to research the culture first hand and gain a deeper understanding. She was a dancer, and she wanted to move, touch, and feel the experience. Her’s was a participatory and non-sensational approach that I could completely identify with and wanted to emulate.

So without any type of outside backing for this project, I worked and saved money for two years until, with sufficient funds in my bank account, I quit my job in Silicon Valley, put all my stuff in storage, bought a plane ticket from California to India, and with a pair of good shoes, backpack, a camera, sound recorder, and laptop went on my way. This would not be my first trip to the subcontinent, I had traveled throughout India and Nepal for the previous 10 years and had lived in these two countries mostly off the beaten track for three of those, so I was somewhat prepared and seasoned for the adventure. Just 10 months before, Manipur had seen big changes in its dealings with outsiders. This part of Northeast India had been under restricted area status for 70 years. The Indian government has historically considered Manipur to be a “disturbed area” for reasons based on political, geographic, and social grounds. It is an extremely complicated and controversial issue. This restricted area status has curtailed travel and cultural research in the area for over 55 years. In December of 2012 the restrictions for non-Indian tourism was partially eased, thus granting limited non-escorted travel within the state. It was as if a veil had suddenly and quietly been lifted from the superficial face of Manipur. Few people, including government officials I encountered, even knew of these policy changes. In this first year of lifted restrictions only a handful of Westerners took advantage of these historic events, and when I eventually stayed on in Manipur for the following 16 months there was only one other Westerner to my knowledge who was also living in Imphal; the journalist Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist, who was researching the states unique cultural elements and the history of Polo. I arrived in Imphal, the small capital city of Manipur, in the fall of 2013. I had made contact through a few short email exchanges with two members of the Manipur Photography Society; Arbind Sorokhaibam and William Gurumayum. They greeted me at Imphal Airport, where I was being registered and informally detained by the Foreigner’s Registration Office (FRO) as to why an American was in Manipur without being on official business. I was lucky to get Arbind and William to vouch for me and let me use their name’s as references. They then helped me get official lodging, which was no easy task. At this time, in the whole state of Manipur there were only three or four hotels that would possibly accept or wanted to take an outside tourist with a foreign passport. We drove from hotel to hotel getting outright rejected because of my foreigner status, or because they claimed all their rooms were booked. Arbind drove the whole afternoon searching for lodging, and from this I got my first tour of the city. Finally a hotel was found, and I lay down my things. I had made it.

Through my research I knew there was an academy of traditional dance somewhere in Imphal, but had only a vague idea where it may be. So the next morning, with some general directions from the hotel staff, I set out on foot to find the campus. This was the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy (JNMDA), which I found after an hour’s walk. There was a guard at the academy’s gate, and I walked right past him without giving a seconds glance. However the moment I paused to look around for a direction to move he instinctively took this as a cue to address me from afar, speaking loudly to me in Manipuri, of which I knew not a single word. I had been found out to be a trespasser and was about to be rudely thrown off the property. Then, as if by providence, just arriving in his car and parking was the academy’s head choreographer, Lokendrajit Singh. I didn’t know this man at the time, and at that moment I saw him only as a potentially welcoming person who seemed to have his own air of authority. So I moved away from the approaching guard toward Lokendrajit, extending my hand to him in greeting. He looked at me inquisitively and straight in the eye with his broad handsome face. Then, without even knowing who I was he shook my hand in genuine concern and immediately treated me like a respected colleague. We spoke for a few seconds, and I told him of my interest in researching dance and music in Manipur. He sized up my words and me to his satisfaction, and in an old world, gentlemanly fashion invited me into his academy office. We were brought some morning chai, or “cha” as they call it here, then sat down together, and between his daily duties as the academy administrator we had an hours long talk about our mutual interests.

That is how I met Lokendrajit Wangkhem Singh, or as they say in Manipur, Oja (master/teacher). He was the first musician and performing artist I met in Manipur. I told him how I was interested in music played by traditional musicians in authentic settings. We talked about my concerns for the welfare of the endangered music and dance of indigenous cultures. I told him that I wanted to help preserve these aspects of culture by means of field recording, photography and film making. Oja Lokendrajit told me that if I wanted to learn about the traditional music of Manipur I should look for an indigenous stringed instrument called the Pena, and if I wanted to know more about Pena I should first meet a man named Mayanglambam Mangansana. That very day we got into Lokendrajit’s car and drove across town to Laihui, formally known as Laihui Center for Research on Traditional and Indigenous Performing Arts, to meet the man. It was after my first encounter with Mangansana that he took me to meet Somi Roy, one of the son’s of Manipur’s late and beloved playwright and screenwriter, M.K. Binodini Devi. Somi Roy welcomed me into his famous family’s house and suggested that if I wanted to witness the authentic music and dance of Manipur, I should travel into the countryside and pursue the actual musicians and artists themselves. He also told me that I needed to learn about the traditional festival of Lai Haraoba, and with a knowing smile he mysteriously informed me that at this time I would not know what Lai Haraoba was or meant, but if I could stay and see it for myself, I could possibly gain some understanding into the essence of Manipur.

So just like that it started, and from these first meetings everything opened up. Over the months that followed I was taken in and welcomed among the inner circles of Manipur’s singers, musicians, dancers, and performing artists. As my stay progressed I was introduced to the rituals and dances of the sacred Lai Haraoba, and the community that animates this authentic festival and keeps its most ancient traditions alive.

Although I planned to stay in Manipur no longer that 30 days, I continued to be drawn in with increased activity and research for 16 months. It seemed that the more I saw and learned, the more was revealed with ever deepening complexity and interconnection. My archive of research material grew to over 50,000 photographs and over 100 hours of video and music field recordings, and a selection of these photographs have come to comprise this book. I am by no means finished, and I hope that what you see here is only the first chapter of many more projects to come.

My stay in Manipur saw both adventure and adversity. Rarely does a Westerner come to visit the smaller villages, and many inhabitants have never traveled outside of the region. Although I was mostly welcomed, I was at times regarded with a measure of suspicion. For example, I remember an incident that happened while I was in the Chakpa village of Phayeng during their Lai Haraoba festival. I was living in the home of the Khullakpa (village head) and his family, when late one evening a group of husky men barged their way into the house and demanded to meet the foreigner. They had come from an evening of drinking the local rice wine booze, and were now rambunctious and emboldened enough to come meet the American staying in their village. I was ordered to sit down on a stool in the middle of the room for a sort of interrogation. Their leader blustered about his connections to VIPs in the city and then asked me in his simple English, emphasizing each syllable of each word to make himself quite clear, “So, what is an American doing in Phayeng?” There was a tense silence in the room.

I paused, and for the first time thought deeply about it. I was here in Manipur of my own accord. I had no government or university research grants or funding. I had no assignment from any private institution, nor was I covering any story for a news- paper or publication. Yes, why was an American in Phayeng? Finally, I looked the man straight in the eye and, speaking slowly and also emphasizing each syllable as he had done, I replied, “That is a very good question.”

My answer cast a perplexed state of silence to the room, and could have gone over badly; but I had said it in all sincerity. The truth was that I couldn’t explain exactly why I was there; I just was, and was indeed enjoying myself. I was definitely not there on any bureaucratic business or institutional agenda. This tense moment turned the event into a moment of contemplation that ended with my interrogators turning into potential guides who wanted to then help me find some clues as to the answer of their question. This incident was wholly indicative of my experience in Manipur, as a place where adversity could flip to advantage, or vis versa, in a moment’s notice.

I was well aware of being constantly watched, and wherever I went the news of this outsider spread with incredible speed. Sometimes the knowledge of my unannounced arrival could spread through a whole village within a half hour’s time. On one occasion, while documenting a one year death anniversary ritual in a small village area of Sekmai, we were taking a lunch break. Suddenly, from off the trail a whole line of UG militants (underground insurgents) carrying machine guns marched by us, looked us over, and then just as quietly dispersed back into the jungle. My companion compared it to encountering a cobra on the trail. It is doubtful that they had just stumbled across us, and more likely that they also had come to check us out.

Adding to this story, I wish to put forward that I am not an academic research scholar, or a so called investigative reporter. I am not a journalist or travel photographer. I do not consider myself a professional photographer, and have no interest in becoming one. I have an arts degree as a film maker and come to the table with a personal interest in ethnography and folk traditional cultures. I have approached my experience in Manipur with the perspective of a guest and an outsider, who is looking in trying to understand and comprehend what I saw and how it made me feel. I have been generously helped along the way by many elders and learned folks of the communities from whom I sought advise. I also gained many friendships among young people, who are also quite aware of the issues and changes taking place daily around them in Manipur.

For simplicity I’ve organized this book into a basic chapter structure. I have focused on three main subjects, which I consider separate parts of the whole. These would be the old traditions, the new classical traditions, and the present traditions. This structure may not be to everyone’s taste in Manipur, and this book is in no way meant to be a definitive statement on the cultures and faiths of Manipur. I have intentionally left out the serious political and violent situations of the present times. This book is instead focused on beauty and grace, and hopefully through these it can lend some basic and fundamental insight into this complicated region. I believe there is no more important time than now to gain a deeper understanding into what it means to be in Manipur by lending some insight into its indigenous faith and spiritual identity.

In this particular journey I have had a few advantages in my possession. The first was the novelty of being the outsider. In Manipur, the guest is king. As a guest with an interest in traditional culture, I was invited many times wholeheartedly to special village events to witness rituals which are usually hidden from view even to other Manipuris outside of those specific villages or localities. Some of these events I was able to witness, and were then captured and photographed or filmed for the very first time.

The second advantage I possessed was in my shared Asian ancestry, or as they love to say in these parts, my Mongoloid descent. Superficially my own Japanese ancestry helped me to camouflage my otherness, as my Asian features blend in very well with Naga, Meitei and most Northeast folk. Many times if I kept my mouth shut I was mistaken for a local Manipuri, and when found out to be a foreigner, being of Japanese descent only helped me to be accepted. In recent history the peoples of Manipur have had a strong emotional connection with the Japanese. During World War Two, the Imperial army of Japan had invaded and occupied Burma (Myanmar). Then in their push for the conquest of India the Japanese had invaded Northeast India. It is estimated that 65,000 Japanese soldiers marched into Manipur and Nagaland. Within a one and a half year period between 1944 and 1945, 45,000 Japanese in the Imphal/Kohima campaign lost their lives from hand to hand combat, disease, and starvation. Another 15,000 were wounded or taken prisoner. The memory and legacy of these events made a deep impression on Manipuris. The people of Northeast India hold a sincere respect for the Japanese soldiers who fought so bravely on their soil. I personally heard more than a few stories from the old folks of their warm personal encounters with Japanese solders, who were seeking food rations or medical attention. There are also personal recollections and stories of Japanese who at the end of the war, defeated and unwilling to return to their homeland, decided to stay on in Manipur and live out their lives. Some of these men moved to the country, married and became accepted to the village.

On a personal note, one of my great uncles on my mother’s side had in fact been an enlisted Japanese solder during WWII and fought in the Burma Campaign. In 1944 he disappeared and never returned to Japan. I’ve always entertained fantasies that he died somewhere, or possibly even lived on somewhere, in Burma or Northeast India and perhaps even Manipur itself.

About seeing things with fresh eyes

Psychologically speaking, there is inevitably a “familiarity blindness” that happens in our everyday lives. We often get so close to our daily tasks that the world around us has a tendency to become invisible right before our eyes. This is also true with traditional events like the dances, rituals, and festivals I was witnessing in Manipur. As an outsider I could look in to see events that might be regarded by a local person as mundane and ordinary, but for the first time viewer be extraordinary, revealing, and unique. Sometimes it takes a person to go away and shake off this familiarity blindness, then return to appreciate anew the things that before were taken for granted. Sometimes I feel like this is my job as a researcher; to attempt to always see things with these so called new eyes.

It is a naturally evolved theme of my personal work and projects that I am drawn to traditional cultures and how they relate and continue to exist in their unique yet universal ways on the periphery of the larger world society. This interest goes back to my own personal experience and upbringing in California during the 1970s. Being part of the tight knit immigrant Japanese American community of the times, my family was involved with seasonal and cultural events of our ethnic group. During that time period there still existed the old fashioned Japanese/American new years festivities and events, such as traditional boy’s and girl’s days ceremonies, Spring Obon Odori festival, Teriyaki chicken and Japanese movie nights at the Buddhist Temple, and Sunday sermon at the bilingual Japanese/American Christian church. These were fully noncommercial, social events that the non-Japanese/American population in California barely knew existed.

Myself and my peers of this time period took these yearly and seasonal events for granted. Little did we know that within a ten year period, by the early1980s that these community events would all gradually disappear and become extinct. The reasons were many, and were connected to the passing of the older generations, coupled with the sudden migration of Japanese/Americans into the mainstream of homogeneous United States suburban culture. Also a great number of the youth entered colleges and universities which were far away from their home bases. Then upwardly mobile jobs further separated us from the smaller immigrant community. All of these old festivals, ceremonies, and social get together which were a part of the first and second generation Japanese/American immigrant experience seemed to have vanished in a flash. In some cases the largest and most sacred events were altered and commercialized in order to survive and continue. One of the biggest examples, Obon-Odori, is now the “Japanese Spring Festival,” which serves as exotic cultural entertainment for the weekend, fair-loving, mainstream American society. The loss of my own irreplaceable Japanese/American cultural tradition has haunted me, and this theme of impending change is reflected in much of my work today.

My experience is not unique. To put in metaphoric terms, the once bright and many fires of all our ancient traditions have now become flickering embers, fading quickly to ash. The transformation towards sameness rushes on. In the romantic sense I often feel as if I am racing toward these remaining lights and searching for my own lost ancestors. So when during Lai Haraoba it was insisted that I too dance before the shrines and deities of the Meitei and Chakpa sylvan Gods, it came naturally to me. In doing so I felt a deep connection to my own remembered past, wanting dearly to pay tribute to my own lost and forgotten ancestors.

At the close of the Chakpa Phayeng Lai Haraoba of 2015, a 10 day festival where I had stayed and participated from beginning to end. In the closing moments of the festival I came to the shrine to bow in reverence to the Lai Koubru, the presiding deity, and to whose Haraoba the festival is dedicated. I sat alone on bended knees upon the earthen floor of the Laibung. In that moment I first asked to be forgiven for any faux pax I may have committed. Then I made a quiet prayer, and after those formalities I made a speech directly to the deity. In it I made a promise to do the best I could with all the work I had done. I then promised to present my images, recordings, and words in as clear and correct a way as possible, omitting only what I was unsure of, and promised that I would not pretend to represent things about which I did not have or been given clear information. At that point I didn’t know what else to say and paused to grasp for words. At that moment I heard a voice, without a sound from somewhere else a different place but clearly speaking directly to me. The voice said, “Just be a good person,” and that was all. I now think back to that night when the drunken men in Phayeng asked me, “Why is an American in Phayeng?” I had replied, “That is a good question.” If I could go back to that situation I would say, “I am learning to be a good person”.

Introduction

The land, geography, and early history

In the creation stories, the valleys of Manipur are bordered on all sides by a series of nine circular hill and mountain ranges made by nature to seclude and protect it from the outside world. Approaching Manipur from the air, one gets a sense of this land’s immense isolation. The surrounding blue and green hills seem to go on forever in all directions, rising and rippling across the horizon like frozen waves for a hundred miles or more before reaching the high plateau valley.

The physical dimensions of Manipur are approximately 150 miles long by 110 miles wide (240 by 175 kilometers). Roughly 80% of its land is made of hills and mountains. At the state’s geographic center is situated a large oval shaped agricultural valley, 2,500 feet (780 meters) above sea level. Down the valley to the central south is one of the wonders of South Asia; a five-mile wide freshwater lake and surrounding wetlands named Loktak, the largest body of water and marshland in all of monsoon drenched Northeast India. The lake is fed by streams and rivers from the surrounding mountains and is naturally stocked with an astonishing variety of exotic fishes, mollusks, and edible water plants. The country- side is blessed with a long and heavy tropical monsoon season. Manipur is a land of rain; even in the dry season it sometimes rains a few days per month. Summer weather is historically mild, with only a month or two of the year seeing temperatures rising above 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit). The winters are chilly, with nights in the 5 t01 0 degree range (40 to 50 Fahrenheit). On occasion it may snow in the high hills, but snow in the valley is rare.

During the last ice age Manipur was part of the long glaciated expanse of mountains that comprise the eastern hook of the Himalayas. Its range of downward elevation hills and valleys provided an escape route for the slowly flowing rivers of snow and ice originating from the towering mountains. Over thousands of years these glaciers carved the long and wide expanse of the Manipur valleys. Toward the end of the ice age, the warming climate melted the glaciers, creating land locked mega-lakes. Over time the natural draining and silting from the erosion of the surrounding hills created the high elevation valley floor as it is today.

A hundred kilometers southeast of Imphal lies the remote town of Moreh, where one can travel by road into Myanmar via the Tamu pass. From the Bay of Bengal to the Pangsau Pass (the Burma Road) in Arunachal Pradesh, one could argue that this is the only sensible overland route connecting India with South East Asia. This arduous passage traverses the forbidding hill country of Western Myanmar. One must travel over the Moreh/Tamu pass and through Manipur Valley, then northwest across 120 miles of sparsely inhabited jungle hills in Nagaland. Finally the road reaches the plains at Dimapur where it enters Assam and the flatlands. Then of course the route winds another 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) across Assam to Kolkata.

Recent genetic mapping studies indicate that the first migrants to Southeast Asia passed on or near this way between 30,000 to 35,000 years ago during the first human journeys from West to East across the India/Nepal foothills. Since then however, though never a popular trek, this has become the route less traveled between the Indian Subcontinent and the kingdoms of South East Asian and Southern China with a steady trickle of traders, migrations, and adventurers. Historically the pass at Moreh/Tamu has also been the path of military invasions between the ancient Burmese and Manipur Kingdoms. During the Second World War the Japanese imperial army chose the pass at Tamu to stage one of their major troop and equipment advances in their overland invasion to conquer India. Then when reaching Manipur and Kohima the Japanese troops became stranded and ultimately defeated. Less than 5,000 of the original 60,000 to 65,000 troops survived the campaign.

The mystery of the first settlers

The ancient history of Manipur and its first settlers is a mystery which may never be solved. Archaeological findings of stone tools and cave habitation in the surrounding hills have concluded that Manipur has been inhabited since at least the late neolithic period 10,000 years ago. The historical written records of the Meitei chronicle the existence of a complex monarchic society dating back 2,000 years, which represented the unification of the proto-Meitei under the first king named Pakhangba. This points to the human history of Manipur and its valley folk as being very ancient, yet the exact facts are conjecture. The earliest court histories were compiled centuries after the actual events, and there is no physical proof to substantiate the existence of this ancient kingdom. The unstable soil and wet- lands of the Imphal Valley do not support a foundation for monumental construction and monsoon silting raises the topsoil level every year, so that strata from a civilization built 2,000 years ago would now be buried and hidden under perhaps 100 feet of silt and mud. The inconclusive historical evidence has left Manipur’s ancient cultural history wide open to conjecture and speculation. In truth, no one can pinpoint who the original Manipuris were or where they originated. It is only after groups had established themselves over the past millennia that written history has been able to somewhat catch up.

It does not help matters that from within the royal court during the 16th century, many of the ancient written records stored in the royal library were maliciously and selectively destroyed and burned by Vaishnava Hindu religious fanatics. This singular period of record burning not only destroyed valuable written history of Manipur, but is also seen as the hallmark of division and polarization between Hinduism and the indigenous Meitei faith of the Umang Lai. The still unresolved resentment and distrust emanating from this event is a major sore mark, dividing the hearts and minds of the Meitei along religious lines to this very day.

The people of the hills and the valley

Nothing is simple when talking about the many peoples, cultures, and tribes that make up Manipur. The state has an astonishing diversity, with about one hundred distinct languages and dialects. In the most simplistic terms one could say there are two main groups of people; those of the valley and those of the hill tribes. In the hills there are many different tribal groups, identities and languages, some which live in harmony and others who have become bitter rivals. Again in simplistic terms, the hills contain three main divisions and ethnicities; the people of the Naga tribes, the people of the Kuki Mizo Chin ethnic groups, and the tribes which prefer to maintain an independent identity. Within these three, specific tribes firmly exist. Some of the largest include the Tangkhul, Kabui (Rongmei), Kom, Zeme, Kuki (Mizo), Mao, and Maring, with separate languages and dialects spoken among them. As an example, among the Tangkhul there are such distinct dialects that seemingly whole different languages are spoken between one village and the next.

In the Manipur Valley live the Meitei, who are the dominant and majority ethnic group. The Meitei are the united people of the seven ancient clans known as the Yek Salai. These “Great Clans” have settled and controlled the flatlands of Manipur since neolithic times. By the 2011 census there are 2,570,390 registered peoples living in Manipur. By estimate the Meitei constitute about 30% of this population. Also of the valley are the Chakpa tribes, who are thought to predate the Meitei clans and consider themselves a separate tribal group.

There is also a Pangal (Muslim) community who comprise about 10% of the current population. It is generally thought that Manipur’s Muslims immigrated during the 17th century, but they may have been much earlier. The Muslims are said to have initially intermarried with the Meitei and over the centuries have formed their own communities which are still distinct today.

From the 15th century onward a significant Bamon (Brahman) class of Hindus has come to live in Manipur. The original Brahmans arrived from Gujarat, Orissa, and Bengal at the behest of the kings and have heavily influenced the royal court of Imphal in all facets of dance, music, and ritual life. Over time the elite Brahman’s have intermarried with the Meitei and become an integral and influential part of Manipur society. Many of the great artists of the classical styles of Manipuri dance and music are Brahman, and though they are considered a separate community they are fully integrated into Meitei social life.

The Umang Lai. A faith created from the riches of the land

“Although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are in fact indivisible.” - Simon Schema, Landscape and Memory.

So it is with the Meitei and Chakpa of Manipur’s original faith, which is indigenous and based upon the deities known as the Umang Lai. These deities and ancestors are themselves a part of the hills, mountains, forest groves, rivers, salt flats, and sky; the geography of Manipur itself. Here there is no division between nature and faith perception and the valley, the hills themselves are their actual monuments, ancestors, and deities. For example, Koubru is the regent of the Northwest and also a high peak of a hill range, while Eshing Chaiba is a deity but also the natural force that controls rain and storms.

Historically the wealth and abundance of rice, produce, and fish provided by the area’s paddy and fertile farmlands gave the ancient ruling Meitei societies the leisure time to patronize their arts, entertainment, and the pleasures of cultural development. Over the centuries the Meitei courts and farming village societies have developed and cultivated their dance and music forms to high artistic standards. The Meitei and Chakpa also harbor a great love and enjoyment of complex ritual and ceremony in all aspects and events of their life. They have thus refined these traditions into rich expressions of creative imagination which culminate in the complex festival of the Lai Haraoba, the celebration and remembrance of the Umang Lai deities. It is a wholly unique festival, and staged in epic proportion.

CONTENTS

  Preface vii
  Introduction 1
Chapter One: Lai Haraoba - The Ancient Ways 11
Chapter Two: Ras Lila - The Classical Tradition 129
Chapter Three: Life Art and Ritual in Daily Life - Traditions for Today and Tomorrow 163
  Acknowledgments 230
  Bibliography 235

 














Dance Music and Ritual in Manipur

Item Code:
NAN201
Cover:
Paperback
Edition:
2016
Publisher:
ISBN:
9789937623582
Language:
English
Size:
8.5 inch X 11.0 inch
Pages:
248 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
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Weight of the Book: 1.3 kg
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Preface

Part one - On finding my way to Manipur

I have always been drawn to the faraway places and for many years I had been planning a trip to the remote Northeast Indian state of Manipur. Even for the well traveled Indian of the subcontinent, this journey would be an adventure into a deep frontier of their own country. For a Western traveler, going to Manipur is akin to traveling to the ends of the earth. I expressly wanted to learn more about the area’s traditional music, dance, and rituals. But little is written in the English language, and an air of mystery completely surrounds the subject. Whichever way one turns; accounts are under-informed, made exotic, sensationalized, or oversimplified.

Years before the actual trip began, I voraciously researched, read, watched, and listened to every bit of information I could find. A few universities in the United Kingdom have collections of ethnographic fieldwork on Manipur by a handful of adventurers and researchers from the turn of the century up to the early 1970s, but the majority of these papers and films are not accessible to the general public. Surprisingly, the best source of material I. found was eBay. Searching descriptive tags for Manipur, Northeast India, Nagaland, Arunachal, Assam, and Burma produced the occasional antique or collectible book; In this way I discovered the writings of early explorers of the Eastern Himalayas and Northeast Indian Frontier Region. Among these eccentric and amazing adventurers and writers were Frank Kingdon-Ward, Ursula Graham Bower, Harish Kapadia, Francis Youngblood, Lt. Col. John Shakespear, J. P. Mills, Elwin Verrier, Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf and Louise Lightfoot. These finds would be few and far between and I purchased them all.

One day I discovered a rare first edition copy of the book that would be my true inspiration for a leap of faith and a journey of 12,000 miles from California to the valley of Manipur. It also became my personal outline for research subjects, potential people to find, and places to explore. The book was Louise Lightfoot’s Dance Rituals of Manipur; a small, 79 page autobiography that was published in 1958. Lightfoot was Australian born, an architect by schooling who became a classically trained dancer and studied South Indian classical dances in the 1930s and 1940s. In the early 1950s she took up residence in Manipur to study its dance traditions. Though the book was meant to be research, it is actually the memoir of her experiences. Lightfoot’s account is written with a sense of wonder and reverence in an intimate, non-scholarly style taken from the perspective of an outsider tenderly looking in. She often comments on events she had adventurously sought out, and then directly participated in, as a way to research the culture first hand and gain a deeper understanding. She was a dancer, and she wanted to move, touch, and feel the experience. Her’s was a participatory and non-sensational approach that I could completely identify with and wanted to emulate.

So without any type of outside backing for this project, I worked and saved money for two years until, with sufficient funds in my bank account, I quit my job in Silicon Valley, put all my stuff in storage, bought a plane ticket from California to India, and with a pair of good shoes, backpack, a camera, sound recorder, and laptop went on my way. This would not be my first trip to the subcontinent, I had traveled throughout India and Nepal for the previous 10 years and had lived in these two countries mostly off the beaten track for three of those, so I was somewhat prepared and seasoned for the adventure. Just 10 months before, Manipur had seen big changes in its dealings with outsiders. This part of Northeast India had been under restricted area status for 70 years. The Indian government has historically considered Manipur to be a “disturbed area” for reasons based on political, geographic, and social grounds. It is an extremely complicated and controversial issue. This restricted area status has curtailed travel and cultural research in the area for over 55 years. In December of 2012 the restrictions for non-Indian tourism was partially eased, thus granting limited non-escorted travel within the state. It was as if a veil had suddenly and quietly been lifted from the superficial face of Manipur. Few people, including government officials I encountered, even knew of these policy changes. In this first year of lifted restrictions only a handful of Westerners took advantage of these historic events, and when I eventually stayed on in Manipur for the following 16 months there was only one other Westerner to my knowledge who was also living in Imphal; the journalist Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist, who was researching the states unique cultural elements and the history of Polo. I arrived in Imphal, the small capital city of Manipur, in the fall of 2013. I had made contact through a few short email exchanges with two members of the Manipur Photography Society; Arbind Sorokhaibam and William Gurumayum. They greeted me at Imphal Airport, where I was being registered and informally detained by the Foreigner’s Registration Office (FRO) as to why an American was in Manipur without being on official business. I was lucky to get Arbind and William to vouch for me and let me use their name’s as references. They then helped me get official lodging, which was no easy task. At this time, in the whole state of Manipur there were only three or four hotels that would possibly accept or wanted to take an outside tourist with a foreign passport. We drove from hotel to hotel getting outright rejected because of my foreigner status, or because they claimed all their rooms were booked. Arbind drove the whole afternoon searching for lodging, and from this I got my first tour of the city. Finally a hotel was found, and I lay down my things. I had made it.

Through my research I knew there was an academy of traditional dance somewhere in Imphal, but had only a vague idea where it may be. So the next morning, with some general directions from the hotel staff, I set out on foot to find the campus. This was the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy (JNMDA), which I found after an hour’s walk. There was a guard at the academy’s gate, and I walked right past him without giving a seconds glance. However the moment I paused to look around for a direction to move he instinctively took this as a cue to address me from afar, speaking loudly to me in Manipuri, of which I knew not a single word. I had been found out to be a trespasser and was about to be rudely thrown off the property. Then, as if by providence, just arriving in his car and parking was the academy’s head choreographer, Lokendrajit Singh. I didn’t know this man at the time, and at that moment I saw him only as a potentially welcoming person who seemed to have his own air of authority. So I moved away from the approaching guard toward Lokendrajit, extending my hand to him in greeting. He looked at me inquisitively and straight in the eye with his broad handsome face. Then, without even knowing who I was he shook my hand in genuine concern and immediately treated me like a respected colleague. We spoke for a few seconds, and I told him of my interest in researching dance and music in Manipur. He sized up my words and me to his satisfaction, and in an old world, gentlemanly fashion invited me into his academy office. We were brought some morning chai, or “cha” as they call it here, then sat down together, and between his daily duties as the academy administrator we had an hours long talk about our mutual interests.

That is how I met Lokendrajit Wangkhem Singh, or as they say in Manipur, Oja (master/teacher). He was the first musician and performing artist I met in Manipur. I told him how I was interested in music played by traditional musicians in authentic settings. We talked about my concerns for the welfare of the endangered music and dance of indigenous cultures. I told him that I wanted to help preserve these aspects of culture by means of field recording, photography and film making. Oja Lokendrajit told me that if I wanted to learn about the traditional music of Manipur I should look for an indigenous stringed instrument called the Pena, and if I wanted to know more about Pena I should first meet a man named Mayanglambam Mangansana. That very day we got into Lokendrajit’s car and drove across town to Laihui, formally known as Laihui Center for Research on Traditional and Indigenous Performing Arts, to meet the man. It was after my first encounter with Mangansana that he took me to meet Somi Roy, one of the son’s of Manipur’s late and beloved playwright and screenwriter, M.K. Binodini Devi. Somi Roy welcomed me into his famous family’s house and suggested that if I wanted to witness the authentic music and dance of Manipur, I should travel into the countryside and pursue the actual musicians and artists themselves. He also told me that I needed to learn about the traditional festival of Lai Haraoba, and with a knowing smile he mysteriously informed me that at this time I would not know what Lai Haraoba was or meant, but if I could stay and see it for myself, I could possibly gain some understanding into the essence of Manipur.

So just like that it started, and from these first meetings everything opened up. Over the months that followed I was taken in and welcomed among the inner circles of Manipur’s singers, musicians, dancers, and performing artists. As my stay progressed I was introduced to the rituals and dances of the sacred Lai Haraoba, and the community that animates this authentic festival and keeps its most ancient traditions alive.

Although I planned to stay in Manipur no longer that 30 days, I continued to be drawn in with increased activity and research for 16 months. It seemed that the more I saw and learned, the more was revealed with ever deepening complexity and interconnection. My archive of research material grew to over 50,000 photographs and over 100 hours of video and music field recordings, and a selection of these photographs have come to comprise this book. I am by no means finished, and I hope that what you see here is only the first chapter of many more projects to come.

My stay in Manipur saw both adventure and adversity. Rarely does a Westerner come to visit the smaller villages, and many inhabitants have never traveled outside of the region. Although I was mostly welcomed, I was at times regarded with a measure of suspicion. For example, I remember an incident that happened while I was in the Chakpa village of Phayeng during their Lai Haraoba festival. I was living in the home of the Khullakpa (village head) and his family, when late one evening a group of husky men barged their way into the house and demanded to meet the foreigner. They had come from an evening of drinking the local rice wine booze, and were now rambunctious and emboldened enough to come meet the American staying in their village. I was ordered to sit down on a stool in the middle of the room for a sort of interrogation. Their leader blustered about his connections to VIPs in the city and then asked me in his simple English, emphasizing each syllable of each word to make himself quite clear, “So, what is an American doing in Phayeng?” There was a tense silence in the room.

I paused, and for the first time thought deeply about it. I was here in Manipur of my own accord. I had no government or university research grants or funding. I had no assignment from any private institution, nor was I covering any story for a news- paper or publication. Yes, why was an American in Phayeng? Finally, I looked the man straight in the eye and, speaking slowly and also emphasizing each syllable as he had done, I replied, “That is a very good question.”

My answer cast a perplexed state of silence to the room, and could have gone over badly; but I had said it in all sincerity. The truth was that I couldn’t explain exactly why I was there; I just was, and was indeed enjoying myself. I was definitely not there on any bureaucratic business or institutional agenda. This tense moment turned the event into a moment of contemplation that ended with my interrogators turning into potential guides who wanted to then help me find some clues as to the answer of their question. This incident was wholly indicative of my experience in Manipur, as a place where adversity could flip to advantage, or vis versa, in a moment’s notice.

I was well aware of being constantly watched, and wherever I went the news of this outsider spread with incredible speed. Sometimes the knowledge of my unannounced arrival could spread through a whole village within a half hour’s time. On one occasion, while documenting a one year death anniversary ritual in a small village area of Sekmai, we were taking a lunch break. Suddenly, from off the trail a whole line of UG militants (underground insurgents) carrying machine guns marched by us, looked us over, and then just as quietly dispersed back into the jungle. My companion compared it to encountering a cobra on the trail. It is doubtful that they had just stumbled across us, and more likely that they also had come to check us out.

Adding to this story, I wish to put forward that I am not an academic research scholar, or a so called investigative reporter. I am not a journalist or travel photographer. I do not consider myself a professional photographer, and have no interest in becoming one. I have an arts degree as a film maker and come to the table with a personal interest in ethnography and folk traditional cultures. I have approached my experience in Manipur with the perspective of a guest and an outsider, who is looking in trying to understand and comprehend what I saw and how it made me feel. I have been generously helped along the way by many elders and learned folks of the communities from whom I sought advise. I also gained many friendships among young people, who are also quite aware of the issues and changes taking place daily around them in Manipur.

For simplicity I’ve organized this book into a basic chapter structure. I have focused on three main subjects, which I consider separate parts of the whole. These would be the old traditions, the new classical traditions, and the present traditions. This structure may not be to everyone’s taste in Manipur, and this book is in no way meant to be a definitive statement on the cultures and faiths of Manipur. I have intentionally left out the serious political and violent situations of the present times. This book is instead focused on beauty and grace, and hopefully through these it can lend some basic and fundamental insight into this complicated region. I believe there is no more important time than now to gain a deeper understanding into what it means to be in Manipur by lending some insight into its indigenous faith and spiritual identity.

In this particular journey I have had a few advantages in my possession. The first was the novelty of being the outsider. In Manipur, the guest is king. As a guest with an interest in traditional culture, I was invited many times wholeheartedly to special village events to witness rituals which are usually hidden from view even to other Manipuris outside of those specific villages or localities. Some of these events I was able to witness, and were then captured and photographed or filmed for the very first time.

The second advantage I possessed was in my shared Asian ancestry, or as they love to say in these parts, my Mongoloid descent. Superficially my own Japanese ancestry helped me to camouflage my otherness, as my Asian features blend in very well with Naga, Meitei and most Northeast folk. Many times if I kept my mouth shut I was mistaken for a local Manipuri, and when found out to be a foreigner, being of Japanese descent only helped me to be accepted. In recent history the peoples of Manipur have had a strong emotional connection with the Japanese. During World War Two, the Imperial army of Japan had invaded and occupied Burma (Myanmar). Then in their push for the conquest of India the Japanese had invaded Northeast India. It is estimated that 65,000 Japanese soldiers marched into Manipur and Nagaland. Within a one and a half year period between 1944 and 1945, 45,000 Japanese in the Imphal/Kohima campaign lost their lives from hand to hand combat, disease, and starvation. Another 15,000 were wounded or taken prisoner. The memory and legacy of these events made a deep impression on Manipuris. The people of Northeast India hold a sincere respect for the Japanese soldiers who fought so bravely on their soil. I personally heard more than a few stories from the old folks of their warm personal encounters with Japanese solders, who were seeking food rations or medical attention. There are also personal recollections and stories of Japanese who at the end of the war, defeated and unwilling to return to their homeland, decided to stay on in Manipur and live out their lives. Some of these men moved to the country, married and became accepted to the village.

On a personal note, one of my great uncles on my mother’s side had in fact been an enlisted Japanese solder during WWII and fought in the Burma Campaign. In 1944 he disappeared and never returned to Japan. I’ve always entertained fantasies that he died somewhere, or possibly even lived on somewhere, in Burma or Northeast India and perhaps even Manipur itself.

About seeing things with fresh eyes

Psychologically speaking, there is inevitably a “familiarity blindness” that happens in our everyday lives. We often get so close to our daily tasks that the world around us has a tendency to become invisible right before our eyes. This is also true with traditional events like the dances, rituals, and festivals I was witnessing in Manipur. As an outsider I could look in to see events that might be regarded by a local person as mundane and ordinary, but for the first time viewer be extraordinary, revealing, and unique. Sometimes it takes a person to go away and shake off this familiarity blindness, then return to appreciate anew the things that before were taken for granted. Sometimes I feel like this is my job as a researcher; to attempt to always see things with these so called new eyes.

It is a naturally evolved theme of my personal work and projects that I am drawn to traditional cultures and how they relate and continue to exist in their unique yet universal ways on the periphery of the larger world society. This interest goes back to my own personal experience and upbringing in California during the 1970s. Being part of the tight knit immigrant Japanese American community of the times, my family was involved with seasonal and cultural events of our ethnic group. During that time period there still existed the old fashioned Japanese/American new years festivities and events, such as traditional boy’s and girl’s days ceremonies, Spring Obon Odori festival, Teriyaki chicken and Japanese movie nights at the Buddhist Temple, and Sunday sermon at the bilingual Japanese/American Christian church. These were fully noncommercial, social events that the non-Japanese/American population in California barely knew existed.

Myself and my peers of this time period took these yearly and seasonal events for granted. Little did we know that within a ten year period, by the early1980s that these community events would all gradually disappear and become extinct. The reasons were many, and were connected to the passing of the older generations, coupled with the sudden migration of Japanese/Americans into the mainstream of homogeneous United States suburban culture. Also a great number of the youth entered colleges and universities which were far away from their home bases. Then upwardly mobile jobs further separated us from the smaller immigrant community. All of these old festivals, ceremonies, and social get together which were a part of the first and second generation Japanese/American immigrant experience seemed to have vanished in a flash. In some cases the largest and most sacred events were altered and commercialized in order to survive and continue. One of the biggest examples, Obon-Odori, is now the “Japanese Spring Festival,” which serves as exotic cultural entertainment for the weekend, fair-loving, mainstream American society. The loss of my own irreplaceable Japanese/American cultural tradition has haunted me, and this theme of impending change is reflected in much of my work today.

My experience is not unique. To put in metaphoric terms, the once bright and many fires of all our ancient traditions have now become flickering embers, fading quickly to ash. The transformation towards sameness rushes on. In the romantic sense I often feel as if I am racing toward these remaining lights and searching for my own lost ancestors. So when during Lai Haraoba it was insisted that I too dance before the shrines and deities of the Meitei and Chakpa sylvan Gods, it came naturally to me. In doing so I felt a deep connection to my own remembered past, wanting dearly to pay tribute to my own lost and forgotten ancestors.

At the close of the Chakpa Phayeng Lai Haraoba of 2015, a 10 day festival where I had stayed and participated from beginning to end. In the closing moments of the festival I came to the shrine to bow in reverence to the Lai Koubru, the presiding deity, and to whose Haraoba the festival is dedicated. I sat alone on bended knees upon the earthen floor of the Laibung. In that moment I first asked to be forgiven for any faux pax I may have committed. Then I made a quiet prayer, and after those formalities I made a speech directly to the deity. In it I made a promise to do the best I could with all the work I had done. I then promised to present my images, recordings, and words in as clear and correct a way as possible, omitting only what I was unsure of, and promised that I would not pretend to represent things about which I did not have or been given clear information. At that point I didn’t know what else to say and paused to grasp for words. At that moment I heard a voice, without a sound from somewhere else a different place but clearly speaking directly to me. The voice said, “Just be a good person,” and that was all. I now think back to that night when the drunken men in Phayeng asked me, “Why is an American in Phayeng?” I had replied, “That is a good question.” If I could go back to that situation I would say, “I am learning to be a good person”.

Introduction

The land, geography, and early history

In the creation stories, the valleys of Manipur are bordered on all sides by a series of nine circular hill and mountain ranges made by nature to seclude and protect it from the outside world. Approaching Manipur from the air, one gets a sense of this land’s immense isolation. The surrounding blue and green hills seem to go on forever in all directions, rising and rippling across the horizon like frozen waves for a hundred miles or more before reaching the high plateau valley.

The physical dimensions of Manipur are approximately 150 miles long by 110 miles wide (240 by 175 kilometers). Roughly 80% of its land is made of hills and mountains. At the state’s geographic center is situated a large oval shaped agricultural valley, 2,500 feet (780 meters) above sea level. Down the valley to the central south is one of the wonders of South Asia; a five-mile wide freshwater lake and surrounding wetlands named Loktak, the largest body of water and marshland in all of monsoon drenched Northeast India. The lake is fed by streams and rivers from the surrounding mountains and is naturally stocked with an astonishing variety of exotic fishes, mollusks, and edible water plants. The country- side is blessed with a long and heavy tropical monsoon season. Manipur is a land of rain; even in the dry season it sometimes rains a few days per month. Summer weather is historically mild, with only a month or two of the year seeing temperatures rising above 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit). The winters are chilly, with nights in the 5 t01 0 degree range (40 to 50 Fahrenheit). On occasion it may snow in the high hills, but snow in the valley is rare.

During the last ice age Manipur was part of the long glaciated expanse of mountains that comprise the eastern hook of the Himalayas. Its range of downward elevation hills and valleys provided an escape route for the slowly flowing rivers of snow and ice originating from the towering mountains. Over thousands of years these glaciers carved the long and wide expanse of the Manipur valleys. Toward the end of the ice age, the warming climate melted the glaciers, creating land locked mega-lakes. Over time the natural draining and silting from the erosion of the surrounding hills created the high elevation valley floor as it is today.

A hundred kilometers southeast of Imphal lies the remote town of Moreh, where one can travel by road into Myanmar via the Tamu pass. From the Bay of Bengal to the Pangsau Pass (the Burma Road) in Arunachal Pradesh, one could argue that this is the only sensible overland route connecting India with South East Asia. This arduous passage traverses the forbidding hill country of Western Myanmar. One must travel over the Moreh/Tamu pass and through Manipur Valley, then northwest across 120 miles of sparsely inhabited jungle hills in Nagaland. Finally the road reaches the plains at Dimapur where it enters Assam and the flatlands. Then of course the route winds another 800 miles (1,200 kilometers) across Assam to Kolkata.

Recent genetic mapping studies indicate that the first migrants to Southeast Asia passed on or near this way between 30,000 to 35,000 years ago during the first human journeys from West to East across the India/Nepal foothills. Since then however, though never a popular trek, this has become the route less traveled between the Indian Subcontinent and the kingdoms of South East Asian and Southern China with a steady trickle of traders, migrations, and adventurers. Historically the pass at Moreh/Tamu has also been the path of military invasions between the ancient Burmese and Manipur Kingdoms. During the Second World War the Japanese imperial army chose the pass at Tamu to stage one of their major troop and equipment advances in their overland invasion to conquer India. Then when reaching Manipur and Kohima the Japanese troops became stranded and ultimately defeated. Less than 5,000 of the original 60,000 to 65,000 troops survived the campaign.

The mystery of the first settlers

The ancient history of Manipur and its first settlers is a mystery which may never be solved. Archaeological findings of stone tools and cave habitation in the surrounding hills have concluded that Manipur has been inhabited since at least the late neolithic period 10,000 years ago. The historical written records of the Meitei chronicle the existence of a complex monarchic society dating back 2,000 years, which represented the unification of the proto-Meitei under the first king named Pakhangba. This points to the human history of Manipur and its valley folk as being very ancient, yet the exact facts are conjecture. The earliest court histories were compiled centuries after the actual events, and there is no physical proof to substantiate the existence of this ancient kingdom. The unstable soil and wet- lands of the Imphal Valley do not support a foundation for monumental construction and monsoon silting raises the topsoil level every year, so that strata from a civilization built 2,000 years ago would now be buried and hidden under perhaps 100 feet of silt and mud. The inconclusive historical evidence has left Manipur’s ancient cultural history wide open to conjecture and speculation. In truth, no one can pinpoint who the original Manipuris were or where they originated. It is only after groups had established themselves over the past millennia that written history has been able to somewhat catch up.

It does not help matters that from within the royal court during the 16th century, many of the ancient written records stored in the royal library were maliciously and selectively destroyed and burned by Vaishnava Hindu religious fanatics. This singular period of record burning not only destroyed valuable written history of Manipur, but is also seen as the hallmark of division and polarization between Hinduism and the indigenous Meitei faith of the Umang Lai. The still unresolved resentment and distrust emanating from this event is a major sore mark, dividing the hearts and minds of the Meitei along religious lines to this very day.

The people of the hills and the valley

Nothing is simple when talking about the many peoples, cultures, and tribes that make up Manipur. The state has an astonishing diversity, with about one hundred distinct languages and dialects. In the most simplistic terms one could say there are two main groups of people; those of the valley and those of the hill tribes. In the hills there are many different tribal groups, identities and languages, some which live in harmony and others who have become bitter rivals. Again in simplistic terms, the hills contain three main divisions and ethnicities; the people of the Naga tribes, the people of the Kuki Mizo Chin ethnic groups, and the tribes which prefer to maintain an independent identity. Within these three, specific tribes firmly exist. Some of the largest include the Tangkhul, Kabui (Rongmei), Kom, Zeme, Kuki (Mizo), Mao, and Maring, with separate languages and dialects spoken among them. As an example, among the Tangkhul there are such distinct dialects that seemingly whole different languages are spoken between one village and the next.

In the Manipur Valley live the Meitei, who are the dominant and majority ethnic group. The Meitei are the united people of the seven ancient clans known as the Yek Salai. These “Great Clans” have settled and controlled the flatlands of Manipur since neolithic times. By the 2011 census there are 2,570,390 registered peoples living in Manipur. By estimate the Meitei constitute about 30% of this population. Also of the valley are the Chakpa tribes, who are thought to predate the Meitei clans and consider themselves a separate tribal group.

There is also a Pangal (Muslim) community who comprise about 10% of the current population. It is generally thought that Manipur’s Muslims immigrated during the 17th century, but they may have been much earlier. The Muslims are said to have initially intermarried with the Meitei and over the centuries have formed their own communities which are still distinct today.

From the 15th century onward a significant Bamon (Brahman) class of Hindus has come to live in Manipur. The original Brahmans arrived from Gujarat, Orissa, and Bengal at the behest of the kings and have heavily influenced the royal court of Imphal in all facets of dance, music, and ritual life. Over time the elite Brahman’s have intermarried with the Meitei and become an integral and influential part of Manipur society. Many of the great artists of the classical styles of Manipuri dance and music are Brahman, and though they are considered a separate community they are fully integrated into Meitei social life.

The Umang Lai. A faith created from the riches of the land

“Although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are in fact indivisible.” - Simon Schema, Landscape and Memory.

So it is with the Meitei and Chakpa of Manipur’s original faith, which is indigenous and based upon the deities known as the Umang Lai. These deities and ancestors are themselves a part of the hills, mountains, forest groves, rivers, salt flats, and sky; the geography of Manipur itself. Here there is no division between nature and faith perception and the valley, the hills themselves are their actual monuments, ancestors, and deities. For example, Koubru is the regent of the Northwest and also a high peak of a hill range, while Eshing Chaiba is a deity but also the natural force that controls rain and storms.

Historically the wealth and abundance of rice, produce, and fish provided by the area’s paddy and fertile farmlands gave the ancient ruling Meitei societies the leisure time to patronize their arts, entertainment, and the pleasures of cultural development. Over the centuries the Meitei courts and farming village societies have developed and cultivated their dance and music forms to high artistic standards. The Meitei and Chakpa also harbor a great love and enjoyment of complex ritual and ceremony in all aspects and events of their life. They have thus refined these traditions into rich expressions of creative imagination which culminate in the complex festival of the Lai Haraoba, the celebration and remembrance of the Umang Lai deities. It is a wholly unique festival, and staged in epic proportion.

CONTENTS

  Preface vii
  Introduction 1
Chapter One: Lai Haraoba - The Ancient Ways 11
Chapter Two: Ras Lila - The Classical Tradition 129
Chapter Three: Life Art and Ritual in Daily Life - Traditions for Today and Tomorrow 163
  Acknowledgments 230
  Bibliography 235

 














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Ankush, Australia
I just love shopping with Exotic India.
Delia, USA.
Fantastic products, fantastic service, something for every budget.
LB, United Kingdom
I love this web site and love coming to see what you have online.
Glenn, Australia
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