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Celebrating Sankirtana of Manipur: India's Instangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity


Date: 04th Dec, 2019
Venue:  Banquet Hall, 1st Manipur Rifles, Imphal West, Manipur

organised by
Intellectual Forum of North East
in collaboration with
Manipur University of Culture, Department of Sankirtana;
Manipur University, Department of Dance & Music &
Manipur Citizen Forum  
Imphal, December 04th, 2019: Starting with ritual observances which involve singing and dancing in the temples of Manipur, Sankirtana encompasses an array of arts performed also in the home and the street to mark occasions of religious import and stages in the life of the Vaishnava people inhabiting the Manipur plains. The theology and lore of Krishna is central to these performances, but they assimilate in their rendering formal features carried over from music and dance in Manipur’s pre-Vaishnavite past. The core of Sankirtana practice is to be found in the temple, where it narrates through song and dance the lives and deeds of the Lord. These are typically presented in the round, in a hall (Mandapa) attached to the temple before devotees. The main repertoire consists of Nata Pala, which is performed all over the Manipur valley. The Ariba Pala and Manohar Sai Pala, less often in evidence today, are also temple-centred. Outside the temple, Sankirtana assumes forms such as the Holi Pala celebrating the festival of colours in springtime or Shayan performed in the winter months. Khubak Eshei is celebrated within the temple during the rains, marking the chariot festival of the Lord. In the setting of the home, Sankirtana is offered as prayer at all life-cycle ceremonies, such as the earpiercing ritual (for both males and females in childhood), the donning of the sacred thread (for adolescent males), marriage, and the rites of passage at death. Thus pervading the life of the Manipuri Vaishnava, Sankirtana is regarded as the visible manifestation of God.
The knowledge and skills of Sankirtana are traditionally transmitted individually from mentor to disciple. Currently, Sankirtana is also being passed on through institutional training alongside the traditional system. Performance takes place in a hall (Mandapa) attached to the temple or in the courtyard of a home designed for the purpose, with the audience seated all around. The performance norms are dictated by a strict code. The season of the year and the time of the day, among other factors, determine the nature of performance. As per norms, performers do not ask for a fee or complain if the fee offered does not match their professional standing. Once they accept an engagement, they must honour it. Performers enter the stage bowing to the deity, and to the audience, before taking their place. Professionals specializing in the associated rituals ceremonially offer sacred objects such as incense, lamp, sandal-paste and flowers to the deity before ‘sanctifying’ the artists and the spectators. Various instruments are used in Sankirtana performance, importantly drums and cymbals. In a typical Sankirtana performance, there are two drummers and about ten singer-dancers. However, Dhumel-sankirtana is a drum ensemble comprising fourteen drummers. The drummers also sing and dance while playing their instruments. The drums are capable of a wide range of tones from the softest whisper to the reverberating sound of thunder, enriching the experience of the narrative. The conch-blower plays two conches simultaneously at specific moments, enhancing the mood of the Sankirtana and establishing the sanctity of the performance.
Sankirtana has two main social functions today. In the first instance, it acts as a cohesive force within Manipur’s Vaishnava community, bringing people together in the temple, on the streets, and the home on various festive occasions throughout the year. At a time when communities around the world exhibit a tendency to break up under the pressure of economic forces, the importance of such an instrument of cohesion cannot be overstated. The connection Sankirtana has with the life of the individual, through life-cycle ceremonies, has a special significance in this context, as it establishes and reinforces relationships between the individual and community at crucial moments in life. Secondly, Sankirtana’s social function operates in the security it provides to its large population of professional practitioners. This ensures continuing recruitment to the art and its transmission to generations of artists. Culturally, Sankirtana works today, as in the past, to give expression to the innermost joy, sorrow, and hope of an entire people brought out through artistic devices fashioned in Manipur’s ancient past, and recast in terms of Vaishnava lore after that religion came to the Manipur valley. Thus Sankirtana assimilates the past in forms of durable beauty, making for cultural continuity, and inviting into its fold new generations of Manipur’s Vaishnavas settled within and outside the State. The meaning Sankirtana carries lies in the spiritual universe that it helps to create through aesthetic means, to which the Manipuri Vaishnava turns both for succour and a sense of identity. 
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