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Prabir Kumar Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2015-12-05

Maha Raas – The Aura of Manipuri Raas-Leela


Kangleipak as fondly named during the ancient times, Manipur is one of the eight North-Eastern state of India bordering Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram and Myanmar. Blessed with rich flora and fauna and nestled between valleys, Manipur is a treat for nature and tranquility lovers. It doesn’t end with this, because round the year Manipur celebrate festivals with varied colour and traditions. Home to thirty-five different communities, including Meities and other tribal groups, one can experience this cultural fiesta in their annual program of ‘Sangai Festival’.

‘"This is my third time performing as one of the ‘Gopi’, and it has to be an odd number", Niroda quips. Niroda, a postgraduate student of Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy is practicing hard for the most grandeur and scintillating festival of all, The Maha-Raas. With the advent of Vaishnavism in Manipur during the late 1470s, worshiping Vishnu slowly and steadily became Manipur’s principal tradition. But Manipuri Raas-Leela only came into existence during the reign of the powerful and illustrious king of Manipur, Rajarshri Bhagyachandra. It’s been said that Bhagyachandra had revelation from Lord Krishna himself on worshiping Govinda as the prime belief and instituting Raas-Leela dance. Accordingly on 1779, on the full moon day of Hiyangei (November) Manipur celebrated the first Raas-Leela after King Bhagyachandra consulted with numerous gurujis and scholars. King’s pious daughter Bimbavati or popularly known as Shija Laioibi performed as the Radha of the first Raas-Leela. Bimbavati’s undying love for Lord Krishna is often compared with Meera of Rajasthan, another ardent admirer of the Lord.

N. Tiken Singh, Manipur’s illustrious singer fondly called as Guruji said, ‘’Without Rasa (Taste) there is no Raas (Aesthetic) and Manipuri Raas-Leela is completely based on Bhakti Rasa’’. Bhakti Rasa or Pure devotion is what makes Manipur Raas different from all other Raas- celebrated in different parts of India. There is no negativity and violence over here. With the celebration of the first Raas, Rajarshi Bhagyachandra went on to create three Raas-Leela namely, Maha Raas, Basant Raas and Kunja Raas. Later King Chandrakirti created Nitya Raas after modifications and Diva Raas was created by King Churachand.

‘Maha Raas’ is the epitome of all the Raas. It was first celebrated at Langthabal where Lord Govindajee was consecrated by King Bhagyachandra with all grandeur. King’s wife Hiramati performed as the lead Gopi popularly known as Makokchingbi and daughter, Bimbavati as Radha. King himself played as the lead drum player. ‘Maha Raas’ used to be played only at Shree Shree Govindajee temple during older days but now it’s performed at local temples though the first offerings should have been made to Govindajee temple only.

At the first instance of Shree Shree Govindajee temple, one will notice brilliant white marvelous structure and a beautiful mandap in the centre. The mandap is bounded by 12 pillars. Inside the Mandap, there will be a ‘chakrapith’. It’s a round table which revolves with the idol of Sri Krishna and Radha on it. It is to be noted here that ‘Maha Raas’ should be preceded by ‘Nat Sankirtana’ which is an indispensable part of Raas-Leela. ‘Nat Sankirtana’ is an extension of ‘Lila Kirtana’ of Thakur Narottama Das with brilliant uses of alaps and ragas. It’s a composite version of music, tala and dance combined to form a magical atmosphere of devotion and worship. Raas-Leela and Nat Sankirtana is way to connecting and merging our soul to the Supreme soul.

Niroda and several other women and girls started to dress-up with the beautiful ‘Manipuri Potloi’. As Niroda describes that many women and little girls try to take part in the Maha Raas because they believe by doing ‘pure devotion’ to Lord Krishna as a Gopi, their sins will be washed away. One tries to maintain an odd number of participation which means the first time of participation will be counted as ‘Birth’. The second time of participation as Gopi will be counted as ‘Death’ and then the third time as ‘Birth’ again. There is a peculiarity of dressing sense one will observe during Maha Raas. The idol of Govindajee when it was inside the temple will be dressed as white but when it’s brought down to Chakrapith, he will be dressed up with Manipuri Potloi which is known as ‘Natvavesh’. The design and colors of the ‘Natvarvesh’ of Shree Govindajee reflects the unity of the communities of Manipur. Radha’s potloi will have red color on the top with Koktumbi over the head and green color on the bottom which is called as Kumin. Every other Gopi except the Makokchingbi or the lead Gopi will wear green color on the top and red color kumin on the bottom. Rest everyone is expected to wear pure white top and lower. White in Manipuri reflects purity and clean soul.

Manipuri Classical dance is one of the two most outstanding and scintillating evolution of Manipuri tradition which forms the base of Raas-Leela. Once the Gopis enter the mandap arena their each move along with the Srimad Bhagvatam (Ras Panchadhyaya) slokas reveal the true story of Sri Krishna who remembered his promise to the Gopis upon seeing the full moon night of Kartika masa. He decided to play his magical flute and upon hearing the captivating sound of it, Gopi came forth and danced with him. Maha Raas main theme is to show ‘Eko Gopi Eko Shyam’ which means Krishna’s promise to the Gopis that each one of them will have him as their universal husband through the beautiful vocals of ‘Sutradhari’, Conch Player- Moibung Khongba, Rasdhari and orchestra. As W. Lokendrajit Singh, Manipuri’s famous choreographer puts that the moves of the Gopis are laced with grace and humility with almost serpentine movement and shyness in their eyes. Their face has to remain absolutely expressionless with brilliant but slow movement of hand and feet.

‘Maha Raas’ is all about Bhakti Rasa without the embodiment of any types of desire. Every year, women and girls will wait anxiously to the full moon night of Kartik Purnima so that they can wear the absolutely beautiful Manipuri potloi and worship the Lord Krishna. Their moves and the devotional slokas heighten the grandeur and devotional fervor which lifts the audience and participants into a world where only pure love exists.

Prabir Kumar Talukdar

( Prabir Kumar Talukdar is a freelance journalist. He travels around the country to capture stories. He can be reached at prabir008@gmail.com )


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