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Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur

  • Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur
  • Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur
  • Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur

Inscribed in 2013 (8.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Sankirtana encompasses an array of arts performed to mark religious occasions and various stages in the life of the Vaishnava people of the Manipur plains. Sankirtana practices centre on the temple, where performers narrate the lives and deeds of Krishna through song and dance. In a typical performance, two drummers and about ten singer-dancers perform in a hall or domestic courtyard encircled by seated devotees. The dignity and flow of aesthetic and religious energy is unparalleled, moving audience members to tears and frequently to prostrate themselves before the performers. Sankirtana has two main social functions: it brings people together on festive occasions throughout the year, acting as a cohesive force within Manipur’s Vaishnava community; and it establishes and reinforces relationships between the individual and the community through life-cycle ceremonies. It is thus regarded as the visible manifestation of God. The Sankirtana of Manipur is a vibrant practice promoting an organic relationship with people: the whole society is involved in its safeguarding, with the specific knowledge and skills traditionally transmitted from mentor to disciple. Sankirtana works in harmony with the natural world, whose presence is acknowledged through its many rituals.

The Sankirtana is a ritual dance and music form of Manipur.The performing space is a square which faces the east and the performance itself is executed in a circle. This unique cultural heritage of Manipur was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of the UNESCO in 2013.

Early records state that kirtana singing entered Manipur in the fifteenth century during the reign of King Kiyamba (1467-1508) of Bengal. This devotional form soon developed as a distinctive cultural form within the Vaishnavite community in Manipur. The first kirtana was said to have been offered at the small temple of Lord Vishnu in a village called Vishnupur. Not much is known about this first kirtana.

In the eighteenth century, during the reign of King Garibnawaz (1709-1748) the Ramanandi cult was adopted by the King. It is a branch of Vaishnavism which emphasizes the worship of Rama as well as Vishnu, and the Bangdesh tradition of Kirtana became popular. The Bangdesh or Ariba Pala is a form of Manipuri dance where both singing and the pung or drumming are integral to the performance. This form became attached to the royal palace and other centres in Manipur and is still practised to this day. A further shift in the way kirtana was performed took place in the nineteenth century as a new style called Nata Sankirtana. It was introduced by Rajarshi Bhagyachandra during the reign of King Chandrakirti (1850-1886). In this style, the 64 rasas were presented over a span of 32 days.

The musician who sings the Kirtana is called the nata. In classical Sanskrit theatre, the nata denotes an actor who appears on the stage. The Nata Sankirtana is also seen as an extension of the Leela Kirtana of Narottama Dasa Thakura, the sixteenth century Vaishnava saint from Bengal. Like the Leela Kirtana, this form applies types of alapa, raga, tala etc. in the performance of devotional songs and the Goura-Chandrika (opening passage of a kirtan performance) is sung as a prologue to any Nata Sankirtana.

The performance of the Nata Sankirtan takes around five hours where songs are rendered in the various ragas and talas- tintala, duitala, rajmel and ektal- along with the gatis or movement called the cholom. The musical text of these performances are comprised of the padavalis (Vaishnava poetry focused on the Radha Krishna legend) composed by the various Vaishnava poets in Bengali, Maithili, Braj Bhasa and Manipuri.The four main styles of the sankirtana are the Ariba (Bangdesh) Pala, the Manoharsai, the Dhop or the Chaitanya Sampradaya and the Dhrumei.