By Rajmani Ayekpam
Perhaps, Manipuri Raas Leela is the best form among various other forms of Raas Leela to be found in India. It may not only be considered as one of the finest forms of classical dances, but there are elements of heightened spiritualism in this Vaishnav sect’s devotional performance. Some of the best classical dances of India are based on eroticism; on the other hand Manipuri classical dance has its premise in Bakhti (devotion). Most of the classical dances of India with all their precision and vitality generally thrilled the audience, whereas Manipuri classical dance lifts the audience to a higher realm of spirituality. Indeed, the recognition of Sankirtan as an intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Cultural Orgsnisation, UNESCO has been a proud achievement for us. This is more so for dance enthusiast like us. It is important to note that Raas Leela is part of the Sankirtan.
The popular Manipuri Raas Leela dance has five kinds i.e. Maha Raas, Kunja Raas, Vasanta Raas, Diba Raas, Nitya Raas. To witness Maha Raas one has to wait for the full moon day of Hiyang-gei (November-December), so as to witness Vasanata Raas one has to wait for Shajibu purnima (March-April). Likewise Mera Purnima (September-October) for Kunja Raas, all other months of the year exceptHiyang-gei and Shajibu months for Nitya Raas, and for Kunja Raas and Diba Raas it is opened throughout the year. Kunja and Diba Raasthese Raas are performed in daytime.
Therefore it is not possible to witness all the five kinds of Raas at any given point of time owing to the specificity of its performance in accordance with the months. On the other hand, it is cumbersome to facilitate all these five Raas Leela by any individual. Moreover because of the intricate nature of the performance, in this time of ours, it is an uphill task for the gurus and sutras (singers) to remember all the relatedtaals, songs and the sequences as they are performed occasionally.
The effort of the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, JNMDA is noteworthy for coming out with the initiative of organising Festival ofRaas Leela. This initiative facilitates performance of various Rass Leelas under one roof within scheduled time structure. The last Festival of Raas Leela was held in the year 2010 at Mandap of the JNMDA. That festival was a successful one.
After five years of the last festival, JNMDA organised recently the Festival of Raas Leela at Guruaribam Mandap, Brahmapur, Imphal from October 16 to 20, 2015. Five different groups of Nata Sankirtana and dance organisation participated in that festival. The festival offered much awaited opportunity to Vaisnav devotees and dance enthusiast of this state to witness all these five kinds of Raas Leela. To organise such type of Festival of Raas Leela can not only enhance the quality of Manipuri classical dance but also help in ushering spiritualism to a great extent.
After the formal function of the festival, the Nata Sankirtana performance of Gurus and students of JNMDA preceded the Maha Raasperformed by Gurus and students of JNMDA. The performance of Maha Raas by JNMDA was good but not upto the mark as expected by audience. Intelligent audience of Manipuri classical dance expected much from an institute like JNMDA, taking into account of its professional and institutional acumen, which is a rare institute in the northeast India. In the second day of the festival i.e. October 17 the Nata Sankirtanaperformance by Shri S. Kameshwar Singh & his Party preceded Kunja Raas performed by Sangeet Academy, Kakching. Kakching is far from Imphal but they have distinctive style of art & culture.
The third day of the festival, the 18th of October the Nata Sankirtana performance of the N. Ibomcha Singh & his party preceded theVasanta Raas performed by Public Theatre Artistes Association, Nambol. Vasanta Raas is the most common Raas Leela among five Raas Leela. The audiences of Manipur are very much acquainted with Vasanta Raas. The performance of the Vasanta Raas performed by Public Theatre Artistes Association was average. The Progressive Artistes Laboratory (PAL), Lambhoikhongnangkhong, Imphal performed Diba Raas on the fourth day of the festival. Nata Sankirtana performance of Shri L. Lakpati Singh & his party preceded the performance of the Diva Raas. The uniqueness of Diba Raas is the only Raas Leela that can be performed during the day time. Some ordinary audience opined that that Diba Raas performed by PAL was very good in compare with other performance. Dancers & sutras (singer) who have participated in that Raas were good, so their performance drew the attention of the audience. The fifth and the last day of the festival Nata Sankirtanaperformance of the Shri M. Boyai & his party preceded the Nitya Raas performance of the Sangeet Kala Sangam, Khurari, Imphal. The performance of the Nitya Raas performed by SKS was also a good one.
Here is a humble suggestion to the authority of JNMDA. Lai Haraoba and Raas Leela are the backbone of the Manipuri dance. In this regard, JNMDA should spearhead in taking initiative for promotion and preservation. The institution should encourage its post-graduate students by offering projects to work extensively on either Lai Haraoba or Raas Leela. This will enhance Manipuri dance to go forward.
(The writer is a cultural commentator based in Imphal)