To many of us, the name Manipuri stands for colorful hand-woven saris and shawls. To other it is synonymous with classical dance. But the exotic images tell only part of the story, Beyond the colorful facade, the history of the Manipuri people is one of conflict, deprivation and exile. Following political intrigue in the eighteenth century, a large number of Manipuri fled their homes and took refuge in greater Sylhet, as well as the Indian states of Assam and Tripura. These people had Indo-Aryan features and called themselves Bishnupriyas. Long before their exodus they had lost control of Manipur to the rival clan of Meiteis. In their adopted land their lives and limbs were safe; but their language and culture began to lose ground against those of the majorette. Meanwhile, the Meiteis in Manipur became vindictive and imposed a de facto ban on Bishnupriya language and custom. The Bishnupriya Manipuris were caught between a rock and a hard place. Today, young Manipuris are no longer sure of their cultural identity. Elders worry that their rich heritage may not be preserved for posterity… 2nd part of the Article written By Syed Zainul Akmal Al-Mahmood, Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Barton! Come One, Come All!!
A man comes into the front yard. He has in his hand something that looks like a large green leaf. He place it carefully under the Tulsi plant in one corner. Swapan looks pleased. I looked puzzled, “Barton” he says.
Barton. I learn, is the formal invitation to a function. In case of Ras Lila it consists of piece of Pan (betel leaf) and a few piece of Supari (betel nut). These have to arranged in a certain way and place under the inevitable Tulsi tree. “Without this time-honored ritual, the invitation is incomplete”, says Swapan’s mother with a smile.
Rain Songs: the vanished memories
The Manipuris are craftsmen extraordinaire. It is difficult to find a Manipuri household without a loom. The weavers have traditionally been women. There are many skilled Blacksmiths and Goldsmiths among the Manipuri men. They are excellent farmers as well. This industriousness has seen them for centuries of turmoil.
Oh Sorelel! Singing and dancing is part and parcel of Manipuri life. From watching young children one feels that they have an instinctive sense of Rhymes and Rhythms. Their culture is a curious blend of Vaishnavism and orthodox belief. In between it is still possible to see glimpses of the ancient traditions that prevailed in the Pre-Hindu Manipuri society.
One of the last surviving original Bishnupriya Manipuri culture is the ancient Rain Song. Translated into English it would something like this – Oh Soralel, the king of Gods! / The land of Khumal become barren because of drought / Oh king of Gods, pray and send us rain! / Pahangpa (Pakhangba) was angry because Chamei was insulted… It is a long song with impressive rhythm and deep feeling. It was composed long before Hinduism took place in Manipur. Manipuri elders testify that there were many other important songs, but they have vanished from memory, never to return.
GK Ghosh said of the Bishnupriya Manipuris, “In Manipur their culture is being gulped by Meithei culture, in Cachar and Bangladesh it is by Bengali culture, while in Assam by Assamese culture (ref : Tribals and their culture in Manipur and Nagaland). The erosion is easy to see. Even since Santidas won over the population, the influence of Bangla has steadily been growing. The Manipuri alphabet has been replaced by Bengali letters. Traditional Manipuri names like ‘Thoibi’ and ‘Senatombi’ has given way to names such as ‘Suchitra’ and ‘Sunetra’. Many traditional costumes have been lost. Those Bishnupriya who remained in Manipur have lost their language, now they speak Meitei. Many experts believe this rich culture is headed for extinction.
Costume making a semi-religious job!
“The Ras costumes to be handed out with a brief ceremony. It’s called Bar Silkorani. Are you interested?” I already have one foot inside a shoe, “Lets go, where does it happen? The temple?” Swapan shakes head, “At the costume maker’s house.”
Costume making for the Ras is a semi-religious job. Traditionally, before every Ras, the costume maker unveils his work (with every bit as much pride as Legerfeld showing off his spring collection) and makes prediction about how the Ras will go. All the dancers came and pay homage to him before collecting their costumes.
The costume maker is spry, middle-aged man named Kangress Singha. His family has the business for three generations, he tells me. The costume itself is a gorgeous affair. Red, Green, Yellow –all the colors of rainbow in fact. And some besides. The costume has 10 different parts and known as ‘Polloi’.
The dancers step up one by one First up is Krishna. I surprise, he is a young boy not older than six or seven. “This must be a joke”, I whisper to Swapan. “ This child is too young to dance!”
“No, he’s not.” Swapan whispers back. “You’ll see!”
Next come Radha, a young girl of same age. Then, in single file, a bevy of teenaged girls who will be Radha’s companions, the Gopis. Subhasini is among them as earnest as the rest. Clearly this was a big occasion.
In the Ras Mandav
It is approaching midnight, the dancers are struggling with their costumes and make ups. Subhasini is being helped on with her jewelry by willing hands. She is a great dancer, pupil of a dance teacher who trained in Allahabad. But most of the dancers have no formal trainings.
“They learn by watching their seniors”, says Jharna, “According to tradition each Ras is sponsored by a particular household. And a girl from the house must be the lead dancer. I’ve performed the lead, so has my younger sister. And Swapan was Krishna once.”
Swapan squirms in embarrassment, “ That was a long time ago, Everyone knows I cant dance!”
At Last, the watching hour. The Ras start off at a quarter past midnight. The sequence of dramatic scenes shows Radha nad Krishna in the idyllic Vrindaban cavorting with the Gopis. The songs are part Bangla, part Manipuri and part Brajabuli. Sameer Singha, student of dramatic Art at Jahangirnagar University, sits by me and explains the lyrics. The young Krishna dances beautifully; it’s an amazing part of a child so young. Amazing performance, period.
The Ras Lila ends just as the first streaks of dawn appear in the sky. As I trudge back, mission accomplished, I can’t help the thread faced by the flamboyant people. They badly need a new dawn, a new beginning. Unless current trends are reserved, their exotic culture may become extinct in near future. Our cultural landscape will be poorer for it.