Volume 6 | Issue 13| June 30, 2012|


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The conflicts and traditions of

In order to make a judgment on the culture and heritage of a particular group, the notion of aestheticism often looks beyond the geographical, social and political background and ultimately ends up killing the culture. In this fortnight's issue of Star Insight Magazine, the same has been observed regarding the traditions of the Raasleela of the Manipuri population..

Shubhashish Sinha

The moves of the Raasleela are unique, the costume being gorgeous and the music melodious to the ears of the listeners - these are usually the remarks made by the viewers of the Raasleela. For ages, the cultural status of a locality has been attempted to be judged with the cultural standard of a particular segment of its heritage. Raasleela has already been adorned with the grammar of classical dance and the communal culture. But nobody has sought to follow the toughest and easiest way of going into its depth of origin. We cannot guarantee a success in doing so either because we have been habituated to the typical way of looking at it. However, this is inevitably true that Raas in not just a function, or a mere art. It is something more than that. A modern outlook towards culture and heritage may or may not help us find it.

Let us first look into its history. About 250 years ago, the king of Manipur, India named Bhagya Chandra dreamt that he himself was arranging a Raas and his daughter Bimbabati was playing Radha. The first Raas was organized in Manipur in 1779. There is another relative background behind it. A little before the occurrence the former Manipuris had embraced the Vaishnav view of religion whole heartedly. Bengali Vaishnavs had preached this view going to Manipur. The population by then had very well recognized the cause of the conflicts within themselves. The strives had increased. The place itself was multicultural. Therefore the only weapon to Bagya Chandra to make others accept the religious views of others was by the manifestation of the Raasleela. The Manipurians started to compose the Raas taking into consideration the views and notions of the Vaishnav preachers. A fusion of the Bharat based dance moves and local Manipuri dance steps was created in the neoclassical world of art. All this was done to promote the religious mutuality. There was a tint of Bengali since Vaishnav notion was originated from Bengal. The high standard of language in the classical world had lead to the local Manipurians to feeling inferior. Therefore songs in Bengali were easily adapted.

Though the language was Bengali, the tone, accent, intonation, melody, emotion and the style had a Manipuri flavor. Therefore, it is still a matter of surprise to many that the songs of the Raasleela are in Bengali. They believe all the songs to be in the Manipuri language. And the tone of the song also has a Manipuri flavor of soft and uneven melody. The costume is inspired from Manipuri culture with works of golden zari petrifying the eyes of the lookers. And Manipuris synthesized using the drum (dhol) of extolments, naming it Mridanga. Its skin is quite hard and rare. Therefore a marginal group of the population adapted a foreign culture giving it its own flavor.

Thus was the creation of Raas; not a story to be precise but the manifestation of the emotions encircling Radha and Krishna. None can separate the two from Earth or heaven. They both belong to the Earth. This notion makes the play more realistic. The art becomes an asset to the hearts; not of the philosophers. The artists demonstrate the act on the stage or on the land and the believers get lost in the emotions. Their eyes in tears and they try to identify an existence other than that of the Lord Krishna.

The conflicts within the Manipur and attacks of the Burmese increased causing many Manipuris to migrate to Bangladesh with the fusion of their religious views and culture. They had to start their lives afresh and take themselves to the esteem they held. An attempt to find the identity is seen in the time, style, music, dance and acting of the program that goes on all night. Through this the existence and individuality of the Manipuris was rooted. Distance or separation is vital. Undergoing the pain of distance leads to the ultimate destination. Lord Krishna is the ultimate destination. The travelers are all Radhas. The divine story of Radha and Krishna is embedded by many lovers. This is what we are, nothing but minute existence amongst innumerable extremities.

The pain of being homeless, the emotions related to the search of the meaning of life have contributed more to the expression than that particular chapter of Geeta. It looks like it is Radha in the conflict of the search and loss. It is through Radha that the Manipuris can find the crude existence of themselves. Let us now look at the grammatical provision of this notion. The Raas is originated from the notion of romance. The Raas makers have made up many stories to create this essence of romance. Consequently, they have fragmented the Raas into many segments: Maha Raas. Bashanata Raas (Raas of spring). Kunja Raas (Raas at home), Nitya Raas (Regular Raas), etc. The bottom line is that there are many ways derived to reach the same destination.

After making calculated analysis the basis which has been identified is that every Raas must be grouped and have a segment, namely Natpala. Nat means actors. This is basically a preparatory arrangement and is believed to be for the men. The Raas is for the women. The program is balanced hence.

Natpala is also regarding Radha and Krishna presented dramatically. There can be heard open hearted songs and acting with an essence of the locality. The singers are themselves the actors accompanied by the music of the instruments played.

However, the Raas is for sanity, for peace. It begins with the Raagalap (a type of music) where the singer sings the particular Raags for a long time along with the beats of the Mridanga.

Later it was decided by the Raas analysts that the Raas will take the form of a musical presentation regarding Brindabon (the place of romance for Radha and Krishna). Surprisingly a new character was included beyond the Puran named Brinda. Whether she was named Brinda for living in the Brindabon or was the place inspired but her name is a matter of controversy. Brinda is a creation of the people. She is a woman. She is a lover who loved and admired Krishna eagerly awaiting his arrival and trying to make a place in his heart, by singing with all her heart “I am in love with the Lord Krishna/I am Brinda the lost heart in the Brindaban/ beside the Jamuna, a palce of divine Leela/aiming to devote my life to the two feet/and hence making living a success… It was believed that Brinda lived by the Jamuna, prepared the raas there itself and devoted herself to the service of Krishna. Unlike Radha who wanted to devour Krishna, Brinda wanted to submit herself to his service.

The origin of Brinda's arrival is still unknown. However it is evident that she is the most alluring and attractive character of the legend. In her humane form when Radha had lost herself in her romance with Krishna, drowning into the game of coincidence. Was it then that Brinda had appeared with her unconditional love? Did he appear to let her know that achieving his love was not her objective, but only to suffice his needs by being at his service?

Anyways, coming back to the point, Brinda arranges the centre for the romance of Radha and Krishna and leaves. Then Krishna takes his seat. Usually the role is played by a young boy though his act is that of an adult. He would sing and dance around o lovely maiden Radha with your beautiful eyes… this expresses his feelings and then appears Radha with her friends. Thus will begin the attempts of Radha and her friends to get a sight of the Krishna along with trivial fights.

This will involve many elements of the author of the scripture, a variety of expressions and many other things. A lot may not be understood on the face though. There will be complications and differences in the dance moves in an attempt of keeping a religious view expressing legend on the same footing with that of contemporary arts. In fact this is what keeps the existence of the Manipuri culture alive. None can tamper with it. After all how many may have such strong determination and patience.

But the Manipuris were successful in treading this path of difficulty in everything. That is why preparation for a religious demonstration can continue for a month. The main view is to fulfill the religious objectives, but on the way creating and encroaching on an artistic presentation. Everything, starting from the clothes to the process of invitation has a disciplinarian flavor.

The actors are required to wear spotless clothes which need to be at first treated with light and smoke showing reverence to the Gods. It is only then that the clothes would be wearable. This system still persists. Another demonstration is performed the previous day with the other lovers of the Raas (Gopis). The actors consider themselves to be a part of an extremely religious service and do everything in order. A mini rehearsal also takes place that day.

The culture and heritage is present in the stage of the Raas as well. Bamboo sticks are used to encircle the area being covered with coloured papers. There can be induced creativity but the figure does not change. The designs also have a Manipuri flavor. The fencing is around one or two feet high with only one side open. The entrance is very narrow. Whoever enters will enter going through the small passage and show his love and respect.

Love and respect are to be shown to the little boy of the locality who till yesterday was naughty boy and today has tear filled eyes and an emotional expression. The followers are so moved by their emotions that they roll around near the feet of the boy. They are very well aware that the boy is a mere boy from the locality playing the act. The followers have respect for the reality and beauty in his act. The actor and the existence work substantially together manipulating the minds of the followers.

Many mothers and fathers pay respect to their own wards taking part in the play. This is Raas- a place to identify the art beyond the reality of existence. There is no hatred, no demand. There only rules love, romance and respect. There is only trust.

This has a social effect which we did not try to see. It has the attempt for a particular community to make its existence through it. Why preparation of several days, rehearsals and invitations and then a final event? Is not there a yearning to social mutuality and terminated conflicts?

Of course there is. It is said that the more the people in a Raas the more pleasant it becomes. The process of the invitation is tough too. Every family of the village must be invited and at least one member of the family must be present or there is the fear of deprivation form ultimate goodness.

The Raas begins late at night, around midnight or even later, but ends in the dawn. Sometimes the lesser important ones are omitted, but it must end by dawn. After the night long romance Radha and her friends must return home. The day light can make them get caught. It is a well planned extra marital affair.

Affair with whom? What are the views of the emotional? Or with the followers of the Raas? Or is it with oneself, the true existence of oneself concealed by the external visage of practicality? Or why else do the viewers cry witnessing the separation? Why do the followers entangle their lives and emotions with that of Radha, Krishna, or Brinda of the Raas?

A service enlightening a candle is held after the meeting of Radha and Krishna. The Brahmin being at the centre moves the plate of service in circular motion and starts the song which is followed by the others. Gopi, Krishna, Radha and everyone present takes the sacred smoke of the fire. The fire symbolized a new pure beginning.

Basically this is what Raas is. The same story, in the same style comes to the people years after years in virtue of the artistic and cultural development. The new additions are that of the actors or songs. But the structure remains the same. The cultural analysis which inspires certain movements neutralizes in the field of Raas. This is an amazing transformation. Had this not been true, people of all ages could not have enjoyed its flavor. The songs do not have a communicative aspect, neither do the dances. Raas is for everyone, for the emotions of life and its philosophy.

During a political and social unrest, the Manipuris had adapted a new view where there were chants rather than rules, there was romance, there was a scope to find the existence of being, a light to guide through the darkness of turbulence of life. They have maintained their individuality and identity by living with their original style of dances and music. Raasleela is therefore a language for the Manipuris explaining their hurdles, achievements and losses, struggles that they faced and most importantly, an identifier of their existence.

Translated by Nuwaira Riyan
Cover Art by Ujjal Ghose

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