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ON MANIPURI CULTURE

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The Asia Society, 2000, 2004.

This brief on Manipuri culture was written for The Asia Society's website to provide background information for the 2000 US debut of theater director Ratan Thiyam and his Chorus Repertory Theatre. It was slightly modified for the Manipur Field Trip of 2004.

When a Manipuri infant begins to flex its tiny fingers, as all infants do, its doting parents say it has begun to dance. Everyone learns to becomes an artiste at an early age. Child Krishnas in silk of sunflower yellow, crowned with peacock feathers and bamboo flute in hand, take part in Sanjenba, the annual children's ballet-opera. Some as young as two merely stand in costume, as older children sing and dance around them.

Children go through rigorous, formal training in dance at an early age, and performances take place at neighborhood Hindu temples, local groves of animist shrines, or the village green. In the Manipuri culture of the Meitei people of Manipur, the line between the performer and the spectator is permeable and easily crossed and the distinction between classical and folk forms is unclear at best.

It is also unusually rich, exhibiting in a microcosm, a range of art forms found in larger cultures. Manipur has its own language and cosmology and produces a range of artistic expressions - traditional, modern and popular - in dance, music, theater, literature, film, video and television. Little known even in India, much less to the outside world, Manipuri culture exhibits the strong tribal roots of the surrounding Nagas and Mizo tribes, as well as the blend of Indian and Southeast Asian cultural influences one would reasonably expect from this state of India on the border of Myanmar.

What is most distinctive about Manipuri culture is that it is about itself: Manipur is ultimately about Manipur. Much like Bali in Indonesia, its cultural achievements are created, consumed and judged largely within itself. While financial patronage from Bombay and New Delhi may be important, the highest aesthetic appraisal of, say Manipuri dance, lies with Manipuri ojas (teachers) and an informed public. Imphal is not only its official capital but also a cultural capital of a distinct culture, to the extent that, not content with what Hollywood and Bombay has to offer, it produces its own popular and pulp detective novels and soap operas.

This distinctness goes beyond the shared culture of regional Indian cultures, such as Kerala or Orissa. This is because of Manipur's Tibeto-Burman ethnic and linguistic roots, the relatively recent conversion of the Meiteis to the bhakti cult of Vaishnavite Hinduism in the 18th century, and the fact that Manipur joined India only in 1949. Manipuri culture is a product of its historical isolation and inaccessibility, its tribal roots, its old, animist religion co-existing and overlaid with Vaishnavism, and its feudal, agriculture and a handicrafts-based economy, the latter remarkable in that run entirely by women from weaving and embroidery to wholesale and retail marketing.

Manipuri Dance, though Manipuri Dances would be more accurate, is the best known art form in Manipur. Recognized as one of the four classical dances of India during the construction of the idea of modern India, it is derived from four major sources. Jagoi is folk community dance, whether celebrating the harvest or spring; Thang-ta, literally sword and spear, is the martial arts of Manipur. The Lai Haraoba, the most important and defining performance rituals of the Meiteis, celebrates the cosmology, creation and history of the shamanistic, ancestor worshipping animism of pre-Hindu Manipur. Sankirtan, the flower of Manipuri Dance, with its most celebrated form the Ras Lila, is the music and dance of Vaishnavism, the sect of Hinduism subscribed to by the Manipuris. Its dance and music also finds contemporary expressions in new compositions in the established traditions as well as new forms using these vocabularies from abstract modern ballets.

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Manipuri wedding dress

The ancient epic ballads of Nongpok Ningthou and Panthoibi and the story of the lovers Khamba and Thoibi in the epic Moirang Parba form an important part of the telling and performance of the cosmology and history and is performed by maibis, the shaman priestesses of the animistic religion, during the Lai Haraoba. Even as late as the 1890s, the Khongjom Parba, an epic historical ballad about the conquest of Manipur by the British was composed and is regularly performed today. The Meiteis produce their own popular music supported by a small recording industry and numerous bands for hire.

Manipuri, or Meitei-lon, is a Tibeto-Burman language and is the language of the early oral histories and literary forms such as the three ballads, the Cheitharol Kumbaba, Manipur's official royal chronicles and the manuscripts of Meitei cosmology for most of the 2000 year-old history of the Manipuris. Its earliest literature in the form of ritual texts such as the Leithak Leikharol and the Thirel Layat of the Lai Haraoba, and first written in the Meitei script that appeared about 800 years ago. Manipuri story telling calledWari Liba is the prime vehicle for the transmission of the epic stories of the Mahabharata.

In the 18th century, the conversion of Manipur to Vaishnavism by King Pamheiba, led to the destruction of many of these texts and Manipuri began to be written in the modern Bengali script. The 20th century saw the Manipuri literary elite drawing its inspiration from Bengali and to a lesser degree, other Indian languages. have produced novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, lyrics, and screenplays in the Manipuri language. Pulp novels of the detective genre also abound.

Coming out of old theater of the commedia dell'arte style such as Thangmei Makhong Lila and Thok Lila, Manipur has about 200 troupes performing the tremendously popular Sumaang Lila, the traditional courtyard theater. Ratan Thiyam is Manipur's leading modern theater director, whose plays draw upon the traditional Manipuri dance, music, storytelling, martial arts and rituals. There are about 40 other modern experimental theater companies.

Although it has only about a dozen movie theaters, the Manipuris have produced about 30 feature films, about 20 dance films and documentaries, and more than 150 video dramas and soap operas. Aribam Syam Sharma, its leading film filmmaker, has shown his films at festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate."William of Ockham

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