Laihui at Symphony Space, New York, May 11, 2007
As an experienced performer of Manipuri dance, who has visited and stayed in Manipur several times, I knew what I was going to see, in general terms. But I had no idea what a powerful effect this performance would have on me and other members of the audience. Many Manipuri people were present at the event; I saw the faces of friends and caught a glimpse of traditional phaneks and inafies (hand-woven sarongs and veils) adding color to the crowd. There were also a large number of non-Manipuris, who came in the spirit of adventure and curiosity to experience a bit of an unknown culture. They all listened with interest as Somi Roy introduced the ensemble and explained what was to be presented. Mr. Roy's commentary was effective in outlining the content and significance of the performance without lecturing or spoiling the magic with too much detail.
As the musicians entered, I was delighted to see the authentic costumes, ornaments, and headgear of the troupe. Seeing the two pena-khongbas (small one-string viol players) sitting majestically on stage left with their towering white turbans and golden armbands, I was transported in memory to the first time I witnessed the recitation of the Moirang Parba by a bard such as these, during the Ariba Pala (Ancient Song) Festival in the early 1980's, on the grounds of the Dance Academy at Imphal. I was delighted to see that these talented artists, Mayanglambam Mangangsana and Heikrujam Mahesh, had taken up the task of continuing this ancient art form. The two sister-vocalists, Ahongsangbam Aneshori and Ahongsangbam Priyarani, gracefully took their places, while the audience admired their glamorous attire of elegant embroidered phaneks, crisply starched inafies, and heavy golden necklaces. The ensemble was completed by the dignified presence of Leimapokpam Subol, who presided over the large drums.
The audience was hushed and fascinated as the music and chanting began, accompanying the serene movements of the invocation dance by Ima Amaibi Tondon, who, though youthful, has a solemn and mature presence while performing. In fact, when I met this Maibi after the performance, I was surprised to see how young she really was. While on stage, she seemed ageless, as she performed the time-blessed ritual motions recalling the creation of the world and the lessons passed down to the children of the first Meiteis. The rhythmic jingling of the pena bows and the sonorous beating of the great drum pulled the entire assembly into a sympathetic whole; our hearts seemed to beat as one.
I myself would have been even better pleased if more of the ritual objects used in Lai Haraoba could have been displayed. There is a magic in the music and dance, but there is also a magic in the waterpots, images of the lai and lairembi (local ancestral deities), fans and parasols, flowers and fruits, that might have given the audience an even richer experience. I was happy to see, for example, that in the photograph of Manipuri Laihui's opening prayer at the United Nations (www.e-pao.net), they did bring some ritual objects with them. Somehow the symbolism of these objects, the basic accoutrements of life, add gravity to the proceedings, and remind us of the things we cannot live without; water, food, clothing, shelter, and art.
The second part of the program was a dramatic rendition in song of a segment of the Moirang Parba, Manipur's grand epic poem. It was performed beautifully. In the past, I had heard a similar segment sung by a single performer. In this case, the participation of all five artists at different points in the story made the tale colorful and somewhat easier to understand. However, I have some knowledge of Meiteilon, and have read the story in English translation, so I was able to follow along with the artists as they moved through the tale. The rest of the audience was not so lucky. Though they could admire the music and appreciate the facial expressions and gestures, the segment went on too long to keep their attention. When I laughed at some of the jokes, my companions looked at me in shock and asked, "Do you understand?"
In future presentations before foreign audiences, I suggest that the several opportunities to add movement to the poetry be utilized. In one segment, Princess Thoibi is bidding farewell to the Burmese chief who has sheltered her. He reminds her that her fame as a dancer is well-known, and requests her to dance for him as a parting gift. At the moment that the female vocalists began singing the familiar lines of the dance of Khamba and Thoibi from the Lai Haraoba, "Heyrang koini da," I saw in my mind's eye the languorous steps of the Leima Jagoi, the dance of the princess before the shrine of Thangjing at Moirang, which is repeated by young women all over Manipur on the occasion of Lai Haraoba festival in their own municipalities. This was surely a missed opportunity to enrich the presentation. That being said, my own experience of the event was highly charged, with the dramatic vocalizations frequently bringing tears to my eyes, as I felt the powerful waves of emotion emanating from the stage.
After the interval, the performance became more lively, with an engaging set of performances by the dancers. The Ima Amaibi gave a brief (somewhat unconvincing) rendition of the process of falling into trance, at which point the other women ran forward to cover her head with a white inafi, which they secured by knotting the corners in back. Thus arrayed, with a polo mallet in one hand and a fabric ball in the other, she danced with great abandon, running to the four corners of the stage and swinging the polo stick vigorously around her head, until she finally knocked the ball into one corner. This was followed by the charming duet dance of Panthoibi and Nongpok Ningthou (King and Queen of the gods in ancient Meitei Manipuri pantheon). This was the most romantic sequence I have ever seen in Manipuri dance, and while the music rose to a crescendo, the two dancers almost embraced on the stage, their movements very closely mirrored one another, and the implication of divine love was at once earthy and spiritual.
The final segment
of the performance was a ritual farewell to the stage, with a reference
to the martial arts of Manipur, which also have an important place in the
Lai Haraoba tradition. As the pena players chanted and bowed their
instruments vigorously, and the great drum rang out, Ima Amaibi Tondon
drove the evil spirits away from the four corners of the stage, using her
double knives to symbolically protect the area from harm. During the segment
known as Lairen Mathek, one dancer followed her as she traced the
path of the serpent's coils on the ground. Of course in Manipur itself,
the entire assembled community would have followed the mystical labyrinthine
pathway, and I certainly wished the whole audience could have followed
the pathway right out into the streets of New York, to protect all the
denizens from harmful influence for another year. I was so delighted to
see this young company of performers presenting a solidly rehearsed, strongly
artistic, yet richly spiritual program in one of New York's premiere performance
spaces. I know they will return again, because I saw a flower fall from
Ahongsangbam Priyarani's hair onto the stage during the performance. I
learned from the ojhas (Manipuri gurus) that when part of your headdress
falls on the stage during dancing, it means you will dance again in that
space. I can hardly wait for the next performance by Manipuri Laihui, and
I congratulate the presenters on a magnificent success.
Christel Stevens is a Manipuri dancer and Performing Arts Specialist.