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Ras Lila - Celestial Themes

Dance, man’s most vibrant and eloquent expression of joy and sorrow, has sustained itself in the tribal, folk and classical forms among the people of North-East India.

Manipur, the land of jewels, gateway to east India, bordered on the north, west and south by the hill tracts of Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram is identified by some historians as the setting for episodes of the Mahabharata epic. The land of misty mornings, mountains and plains that lies just next to Burma was formed, according to legend, when Lord Shiva touched the point of his trident to the earth and created a lake which formed the background for his dance with his consort, Panthoibi. Legend also has it that Manipur was the land where Arjuna, the unerring marksman and the most courageous of the five Pandava brothers in the epic, fell in love with Chitrangada, the daughter of a local king and married her. Manipur’s association with dance goes back to the gandharvas and the apsaras (celestial beings) as well as Arjuna, Balarama and Narada (epic heroes).

The land is also the birthplace of many folk and community dances as well as the youngest but the most distinctive form of classical dance in the country – the Ras Lila. The origin of the Rasa dances were rooted in a dream of Rajasthani Bhagya Chandra Maharaj (1763-1798) where he saw Lord Krishna in dance and merriment with his love, Radha, and the other gopikas (milkmaids). Even today the raiment worn in the Ras Lila, the stiff under skirn and the short upper one reaching up to the knees, are attributed to King Bhagya Chandra Maharaja’s dream.

The Ras Lila dances though in appearance a folk community dance form, reveal highly stylized and honed characteristics. The basic theme of the Ras Lila is the love of Radha and Lord Krishna and their differences and tiffs and making-up and the final joyous celebration of eternal togetherness. They are portrayed as the ideal couple, the ideal lovers. Though the theme itself and the strong vein of classicism evident in the Ras Lila seem to suggest an earlier origin, it was really in the 18th century that the Ras Lila flowered and blossomed into a fine classical dance form. What today goes by the term ‘classical Manipuri dance’ is based on a foundation laid by King Chandra Kirti (1850-56).

The five Rasas of the finely sculptured Manipuri Rasa tradition each have a specific occasion and season at which to be performed. The six main phases of the dance form are generally composed of an initial stage where Lord Krishna appears and translates his emotions into natya (dance) and abhinaya (expression). Radhya follows and they dance in unison. This forms the Ras Lila proper and is followed by bhangi or argument during which one or the other piqued lover refuses to participate in the general merriment. The lover then proceeds to appease the dejected one and persuades him or her to forgive and join in the dancing again. Milan or reunion of the lovers is then celebrated along with the gopis and gopikas. The final stage is one of prayer where both Radha and the gopis pledge never-ending devotion and trust.

In each of the Rasas, however, the sequence of the stages may differ. Maha Rasa, the most elaborate of the Rasas is performed during kartika (November) during the full moon. It depicts the parting of the lovers. Radha threatens suicide in a desperate attempt to impress upon Krishna the depth and intensity of her love. Krishna returns.

Basant Rasa is performed in spring (March-April). The focus in this Rasa is a serious quarrel between Radha and Krishna when he reneges an agreement with his love. a painful separation follows. Latter, a contrite Krishna returns to plead with her. In the Kunj Rasa, joy at togetherness even in the seemingly trivial occupations of daily life is the main theme. Nitya Rasa can be performed on any day of the year. Diva Rasa has to be performed only during the day. The Ashta Gopi/Ashta Shyam Rasa is performed during spring and depicts eight gopis in joyous celebration with eight forms of Lord Krishna. In the Natha Rasa eight gopis sport with Krishna in a magnificent show of colour, mime and facial expression.

The poetry of the Rasa dancers is based on the Bhagavat Purana and the verses of poet Jayadeva in the Gita Govinda written in the 12th century. Occasionally women singers take over the singing of the verses allowing the dancers to concentrate purely on the movements and the mime.

During the most popular festival of Lai Haroba, the rituals enact the formation of cosmos, the creation and destruction, very symbolically, by placing leaves (the male and the female principle) in the lake at the culmination of a ritual procession.

The Jatras (a form of ballet) are usually held during the three major seasons in the annual cycle. The Jhula jatra is performed in autumn and during the monsoon; the Dhol Jatra in winter and the Rath jatra in spring. Men and women sing and dance hand in hand. Among the other popular dances of Manipur is the Pung Cholam where performers dance with the pung or mridanga (king of drum) to amazingly agile and synchronized movements. There is also the Thabal Chongba performed in moonlight in March. But the Manipuri Rasa tradition of classical dance remains the most distinctive and alluring among the classical Indian dance forms in its raiments, its expressions, its music and its very character.