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Celebrating heritage

Tapati Chowdhurie |

NATA Sankirtana has been recognised by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity but then again, what really constitutes “cultural heritage”? History is proof that the natives of Manipur grew up as a martial race. They took up sword and spear — thang ta — against those who tried to usurp their cultural identity. They were deeply ensconced in their art form, Lai Haroaba — a representation of the pre-Vaishnavite culture of Manipur — when the Bhakti movement from Bengal came through Sri Chaitanya. Their deep cultural roots and indigenous martial arts blended harmoniously with Vaisnavite humility and from this union was born Nata Sankirtana, which is now deeply entrenched in Manipuri culture.
At the grand finale to the closing ceremony of the year-long festivities marking the diamond jubilee of the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, “Aharatri Maha Dhumel (Astakal) Kirtan” was performed featuring eminent gurus (14 in all) of the Nata Sankirtana. The form of Dhumel is based on the “Astakal Leelas” of Govinda with the sakhis in Vrindavan (Astakal refers to eight periods in a 24-hour cycle) and is a highly stylised and ritualised pattern of “Yajna”.
All the three layers of religious tradition — from the earliest animistic cult, moving on to the Purana tantric tradition of the medieval period represented by the Lai Haraoba festival and, finally, the Vaisnavite influence of the 15th century — intermingles seamlessly in Nata Sankirtana. 
Rajyashree Bhagyachandra (1764-1789) had introduced Nata Sankirtana, which found supreme expression during King Chandrakriti&’s (1850-1886) reign. In fact, Nata Sankirtana represents an extension of Leela Kirtan of Thakur Narottam Das of Bengal. According to Vaishnava aesthetics, rasa has nine forms of which there are 64 varieties of shrinagara rasa. The Nata Sankirtana presentation included all of them. Sri Chaitanya is Krishna himself, according to them, and they prayed to the “Yugal murti” of Radha Krishna and Nityananda.
The artists started the production by invoking deities through elaborate rituals. The performance space was called the mandala with the mandap mapu (literally the president) representing Nityananda or Madhavendra Puri, sitting at the southwest. A seat was allotted for the conch blower. In Manipur, two conches are played together. Gopeswar Shiva stood symbolically at the entrance of the mandap to prevent departed souls from entering and the assembled invitees were supposedly the gopis of Vrindavan. The Sankirtana began with joyodhwani accompanied by bold strumming of the pung, symbolising Gaur Nitai. After the preliminaries, the invocation of Gouranga, called “Gour Chandrika”, began. Appropriate Padabali songs were sung —in Manipuri rather than Bengali nowadays. Then the performers enacted the pilgrimage to Nabadwip followed by another to Vrindavan. 
The JNMDA director was beside himself with joy because as the Dhumel was in progress, down came the rain — solving the problem of providing water, an essential component for proceedings.
In Manipur, dance is seen not only as an art form but also as an integral part of life itself — a medium of expression closely connected with the social fabric. Not only is dance a form of enjoyment but also an indispensable part of all socio-cultural ceremonies.
The audience got a glimpse of Kabui dance from the western hill ranges of Manipur, with exquisite costumes and the accompaniment of heavy drums and songs in high-pitched voices. Mao dance, from the northern mountains, is a celebration of harvest time. Dhol Cholom, with singing, dancing and an intricate interplay of rhythms to the accompaniment of heavy drums, Pung Cholom — the soul of Manipuri dance performed during Holi — where the highly evolved and intensely lyrical rasas show the union of Krishna with his devotees and, finally, Lai Haroaba (a festival of the gods) was showcased on different days of the closing ceremony.
The presentation of “Valya Leela” of late Guru Amubi Singh was like a tasteful final course after a hearty meal. The theme was taken from the 10th Khanda of the great Vaisnavite text, Srimadbhagavatam. In the first scene, despite the entreaties of a little Krishna, the gopis refused to give his friends and him any butter. So they steal and the enraged gopis, having failed to tie him up, approached his mother Yashoda. Her words satisfied them. Following that, a scene showed Krishna subduing the poisonous snake Kaliya. He also played a practical joke by taking away the clothes left by the Vraja girls on a bank of the Yamuna, who prayed to the goddess Katyayani for granting them Krishna as their Lord. He returns their clothes, promising to dance with them on a full moon night. The story symbolises complete surrender to the Almighty.
The final scene was Maha Rasa. On the autumnal full moon night, the gopis rush out after hearing Krishna&’s flute. He humbles them by escaping with Radha. The last scene created the illusion of “Eko Gopi Eko Shyam” (One Krishna for each Gopi). “Valya Leela” was supervised by Guru Nalini Devi and performed by the students and gurus of the JNMDA.