By Jaganmohini Devi Dasi
On Dec. 6th there was a news in International section of TOI, mentioning Manipur’s Sankirtan, the famous tradition of ritual singing, drumming and dancing have made it to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This is indeed a distinguishing feat that would please Lord Chaitanya and all our Gaudiya Vaishnav Acharyas as it makes way to understand Sri Chaitanya’s Sankirtan mission which includes singing holy name of Lord Hari, dancing, drama, education and costumes all through just one culture – ‘Manipur Culture’ which has been identified by all acharyas as traditional Vaishnava kingdom. And such rich culture having featured in UNESCO heritage can never be diminished to be identified as a cult. Instead such recognition will make way to appreciate Sri Chaitanya’s mission at global level as a genuine traditional culture and not as an upstart.
For us, the timing coinciding with the eve of H.H. Bhaktisvarupa Damadora’s 76th vyasa -puja day was confirming Rev. Charles Gibbs’s tribute in which he mentions about Srila Sripada maharaj, ‘He was a man of remarkable heart and profound vision who also had the skill of translating vision into reality’
There is no doubt that Srila Sripada maharaj’s Ranganiketan team has significantly contributed to this recognition having travelled all over the globe for more than a decade since it was founded in 1989. Srila Prabhupada desired that the scientific conferences must include Manipur cultural programme.
More information about Manipur Sankirtan’s philosophy and Ranganiketan’s contribution is presented below. They are adapted from the publication Bhagavata Sevarpanam published in 2003.
‘Maharaja founded the Ranganiketan Manipuri Cultural Arts Troupe in 1989 in order to introduce the Bhagavata Culture of Manipur to the world. “Ranganiketan”, which means “House of Colorful Arts”, is a diverse group of dancers, musicians, singers, martial artists, choreographers and craft artisans. Ranganiketan began its first international tour in 1990, with engagements in Europe and North America and has since then toured all over the world on a regular basis. When arranging Ranganiketan’s world tours, Maharaja places a special emphasis on educational programs. More than half of Ranganiketan’s performances take place before young audiences. Carefully created instructional materials prepare students for the performance, and lectures and demonstrations help them further understand what they have seen. In 1993, Maharaja wrote a section for the Los Angeles County Unified School District’s Artsource. Artsource is a teacher’s guide used to educate the over one and a half million students of Los Angeles County. The materials written by Maharaja were descriptions of the Rasa Lila pastime of Sri Sri Radha – Krishna and of the beautiful nature of Vrindavan.
As director of Ranganiketan, Maharaja has, through approximately 600 performances at over 300 venues in over 15 countries, introduced Bhagavata Culture to more than a million people. Some of the prestigious places where Ranganiketan has performed are : The Kennedy Centre for the performing Arts, Washington D.C.; EPCOT Centre, Walt Disney World; The World Music Institute, New York; Los Angeles Music Centre; Seattle International Children’s Festival and Singapore National Arts Festival. Ranganiketan is the largest, most frequently booked, cultural arts troupe hailing from India.
The Government of India sent Ranganiketan on a mission of goodwill to Syria, Egypt and Iraq in 2001. Ranganiketan participated in the Bosara International Folk Dance festival, which had an audience of over 10,000 people. They performed in Damascus, Homs, Cairo and at the Babylon International Festival in Baghdad. They also performed at cultural functions organized at the Indian Embassy and Indian Cultural Centre in Iraq. Many of the people who witnessed performances were convinced that within the Bhagavata music, song and dance of Manipur there were common roots that could make the whole world united in peace, friendship and prosperity.
The Malaysian Ministry of Culture invited Maharaja and Ranganiketan for an international drumming festival in Kuala Lumpur, in 2000. The Minister of Culture, after witnessing Maharaja sing during some of the performances, in the spirit of cross cultural exchange, gave special permission for Maharaja to visit the Masjid Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, one of the world’s largest mosques. The Tok Imam Besar in charge of the mosque received Maharaja with great honor and respect and gave him a grand tour. In this regard, Maharaja has said, “Cultural art is a very significant part of life. People from various corners of the world will become much closer to each other, in friendship and understanding, through the universal language of art and culture.”
Along with presenting Manipur’s Bhagavata Culture throughout the world, Maharaja has brought representatives of the world’s Bhagavata traditions to Manipur. Maharaja, as both a scientist and a saint, says, “I am doing the chemistry of culture.”
Martial Arts, Drumming and Rasa Lila dance dramas constitute the majority of a Ranganiketan performance.
The martial arts tradition of Manipur is inherited from their forefathers who had to defend themselves from the attack of neighboring countries. In the spirit of Chitrangada, the famed warrior princess of Manipur, women also participate in martial arts presentations.
The main drums of Manipur are called, Dhol, Dholak and Pung. Among them the two-headed pung drum, made from the seasoned woods of the Jackfruit and Wang trees, is an indispensable part of the lives of Manipuri Vaisnavas because it is used during Hari Nama Sankirtan which is performed at all religious and social ceremonies. Drumming, in Manipur, entails graceful, rhythmic and dynamic movements of the body involving the head and legs. The sounds of the Pung are characterized by the modulation of sound from a soft whisper to a thunderous climax. These virtuosic and acrobatic drum dances are powerful demonstrations of Sankirtan that blend complex talas with the devotional mood of Srila Narotama Dasa Thakura.
In Manipur, Rasa Lila performances can last up to 18 hours and can feature 108 dancers. Although shorter in duration and smaller in size, Ranganiketan’s performances evoke the same emotions in those who witness them. In this regard, Lewis Segal, one of America’s most respected dance critics, wrote in one of the largest newspapers in America, the Los Angeles Times, “The most exquisite export, however, was easily ‘Vasanta Rasa’, a classic ritual depicting the God Krishna interacting playfully with His milkmaids. Accompanied by flute, drum, tiny cymbals and a woman’s singing, it definitively reflected the humor, refinement and spirituality of the Manipuri people. In their layered short-sleeved tops over stiff wide, gleaming, bell-like skirts, these milkmaids looked like nothing else on Earth, and, showering Krishna with flower petals, they created a memorably joyous dance spectacle.“
Some of the highlights of the newspaper reports from around the world about Ranganiketan performances are reproduced below:
“National Geographic came to life…”
“Serenity and a special grace shone through the dancers, singers and acrobatic drummers”
Ed Conroy, San Antonio Express News
“Ranganiketan impressed both American viewers and long time dance aficionados with their flair and expertise.”
Ashfaque Swapan, India West
“A magical night! The public was amazed. An escape to the faraway lands of India.”
Midi Libre, Saint Laurent Des Arbes
“Ranganiketan opened up another world”
Der Landbote, Switzerland
“These artists look to find in their innermost selves what will make their performance a success for the soul.”
“The Ranganiketan Manipuri Cultural Arts troupe is a charming ensemble of young Manipuri men and women presenting their ancient arts with enthusiasm and vigor. The drumming is highly virtuosic and exciting, the dancing, in lovely costumes, graceful and elegant.”
Beate Gordon, The Asia Society
“The brilliant costumes, dance, stunning martial arts, dazzling weapons displays and hypnotic drum performances gave our Marin County audience an insider’s appreciation of the arts and culture of Manipur. It was a once-in-a-life-time experience for Americans to see the traditions of Manipur unfold throughout the performance and I am certain the audience will remember the evening for a long time to come.”
Jim Farley, Marin Center
“Words cannot describe the magic and beauty expressed in your cultural troupe’s performance in our summer festival. Countless audience members came up to me after the show and expressed their awe, amazement and delight at the fine performance your artists displayed.”
Courtney Bullock, City celebration, San Francisco
“This performance, made in cooperation with the city’s cultural services, gave us the opportunity to appreciate the gentleness, the seriousness and the very great talent of the Manipuri people. This show was outstanding in all respects.”
Paul Dardier, Mayor of Mirepoix, France