How The Manipuri Ritual Of Sankirtana Celebrates Krishna

This ritual performance that puts Manipur on the world's cultural map is a resounding celebration of the state's rich traditions and diversity
Up to ten dancer-singers and two musicians perform before the devotees
Up to ten dancer-singers and two musicians perform before the devotees

The land of jewels shines with its rich repository of traditions and arts that have also won the world's recognition. One finds its mention in UNESCO's 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' list as well&ndashit is the ancient ritual performance of Sankirtana. The state's glorious history is not the only thing that finds expression through Sankirtana, but so does its multicultural character&ndashfor this ritual performance is practised by the Vaishnavites in devotion to lord Krishna. 

History of Sankirtana

How this Vaishnavite ritual performance was embraced as a symbol of Manipur's rich culture has a long history. In the 15th century, when Bengal's King Kiyamba secured Manipur's throne, the tradition of Kirtana singing bloomed in the hilly state. As time passed and various Kings succeeded, the practice evolved gradually to take on its current form. But it was during Rajarshi Bhagya Chandra's rule that it truly flourished and was embraced for its artistic intensity. The influence of Bengal's Kirtana tradition finds a vibrant presence in Manipur's Sankirtana as research suggests that Leela Kirtana (practised in Bengal) only differs slightly in terms of alap, ragas, taal, etc. 

&nbspIn Krishna's Devotion

&nbspIn Sankirtana, the lores of Krishna (Vishnu's avatar) and his deeds are the central themes guiding the performance and storytelling. Even though the words and gestures are soaking in the worship of Krishna, this ritual performance plays a crucial role in Manipur's social sphere. It acts as a conduit between the devotee and Krishna and as the adhesive that keeps the connection between the two intact. At the same time, this ritual performance finds its space in all significant rituals that mark a life's transition into the next stage&ndashchildbirth, ear-piercing ceremony, marriage, and funeral ceremony. Therefore, it also becomes a way to preserve an individual's relationship with the community and the society it belongs to. The ritual of Sankirtana evokes every emotion within the devotees and the performers, for it rides the waves of sorrow, joy, and hopefulness with equal zeal. 

The Performance

Sankirtana is not unidimensional. It has many subforms and elements that imbue it with passion and vigour. Before the main act begins, an elaborate ritual is performed, where the performers light incense sticks and lamps and chant elaborate ragas. The performers even offer prayers to the Pung, a drum-like instrument central to Sankirtana, as they compare it to Radha and Krishna. The central performance, usually within a temple, is visual and vibrant. Up to ten dancer-singers and two musicians (that play the Pung and cymbal) perform before the devotees. Their inimitable and expressive movements, coupled with the resounding beats and lyrical storytelling, packs intensity and passion that moves the audience to a trance-like state. 

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