Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Meitei Pung drummers at a Nat Sankirtan performance

Manipuri Vaishnava Music and the Sattriya Ojapali Music of Assam: A Fresh Look – Part 1

(From the volume “Confluence Essays on Manipuri Literature and Culture” by the author, compiled and edited by B.S. Rakumar)



The present essay attempts at to explore the seeming similarities and historical connections between the Sattriya Music Tradition, specially the Sattriya Ojapali of Assam and the Nata Sankirtan of Manipur. At the outset, we can have a short introduction of the two neighbouring states (Manipur and Assam), situated in eastern India. Manipur is a small state, but Assam is much bigger in size and population than Manipur.


Manipur was an ancient Kingdom in north eastern India. It is generally agreed that the civilization of Manipur goes back to several centuries before the Christian rea. But recorded history of Manipur began when Nongda Lairen Pakhangba who ascended the throne of Manipur in 33 c.E.

The present state of Manipur situated in the eastern frontier of India bounded in the east by Myanmar, in the north by the state of Nagaland. It lies between 23.83N and 25.68 latitude and between 98.03 E and 94.78E longitude. It has an area of 22, 327 sq. kms. Geographically. Manipur comprises of two parts – the hill and valley. The enchanted valley at centre is surrounded by the ranges of hills on all sides. The hills cover nine-tenth of the total areas of the state. The valley is the homeland of the Meitei, the majority community of the state. The hills are inhabited by different tribes. However, with the passage of time, and with fast pace of migration and settlement, valley’s population is more multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The population is about 28lakhs. Meiteilon which is the language of the majority Meitei community belongs to Tibeto-Burman family of language. Racially the Manipuris are Mongoloid people.


Assam is the modern name of the state situated in the north-eastern part of India. It was called Pragjyotisha in the Epics and Kamarupa in the Puranas. The modern name of Assam came to be known when the Ahoms had overcome and occupied the land. The Ahoms were a tribe of Shan who migrated to Assam in the 13th century. After the 13th century the Ahom ruled the state for about six hundred years. In due course of time, it was annexed to the British Empire in 1826. It was then that the modern period began in the history of Assam which is now for the first time become politically and administratively an integral part of India, through actually it had always been a part of Hindu India.

Sattriya Music Tradition:

The Sattriya Music Tradition is very vast and varied. It may mainly refer to the large repertoire of music, songs and singing associated with the Sattriya dance (Sattriya Nritya, a classical dance of India) which was introduced by Shrimanta Sankardeva (1449-1568) in the later part of the 15th century in Assam, Sankardeva, a non-Brahmin, was born at Bardowa, district Nowgaon, in the family of Bara Bhuyan Chief (Kusumavara). Later in his life, he took the duties of a Siromoni Bhuya. He was a famous saint and preacher, poet and playwright, philosopher and reformer, artist and composer – all rolled into one. Sankardeva with his worthy disciple Madhavdeva, the successor of Sankardeva’s Vaishnava Order, had brought about the Neo-Vaishnava Movement (Bhakti Movement) in Assam. The age of Sankardeva marks many changes in the literary, religious life of the people of Assam. The neo-Vaishnavism preached by Sankardeva brought in an all-pervading resurgence in Assam. The Sattriya Music and dance were together an upshot of the great movement and an aspect of the efforescence of various art forms drama, music, dance, painting etc.

Sankardeva had systematized the form Sattriya by using ancient texts and introduced drama and expressive dancing (nritta and nritya) as a form of community religion for emotional devotion to Krishna. The Sattriya art grew as a part of Vaishnava Bhakti movement in Hindu monastery called Sattra. The art was developed and practised by monks in the dance-dramas about the legends and mythologies of Krishna, particularly from the texts such as the Bhagabata Purana. One distinctive part of the Sattriva dance temples and monasteries is that the dance is not celebrated before any idol, but is performed before a copy of the Bhagabata Purana placed in eastern (sun rise) corner called Monikul of the dance hall called Namaghar or Kirtanghar. So the twin Institution of Sattra and Namaghar is very important in Sattra performance tradition. A Sattra includes a house, where bhaktas assemble and the huts, where monks stay cloistered together.

The central structure within a Sattra is the prayer hall known as Namaghar or Kirtanaghar. The Namaghar has a specific design and structure for a dramatic performance. The dramas of Sankaradeva known as Bhaona or Ankia-Bhaona is a religious play or ritual play and they do not follow any particular model – a distinctive indigenous style having its own structure and design. It is a fact that the Sattra institutions of Assam is an important, sacred place where religious forms of music, dance and drama are preserved, pursued and practised. Dr. Pradip Jyoti Mahanta says – “The Sattra with Kritanaghar or Namghar as its centre-stage has for ages been a place confluence of diverse communities and promotes liberal collectivism. Thus the Sattra dance with its paraphernalia-religious and social is very much all enduring tradition”. (The Sattriya Dance : An Overview”, Directorate of Cultural Affairs, Assam, 2000).

Sankaradeva’s bhakti creed is known as ekasarana namdharma. It’s main principle is the worship of one God, that is Vishnu specially in the incarnation of Krishna. It mainly consists of satsang (the assembly of bhaktas as a means of bhakti), nama (Kirtana or prayer as a main form of devotion). Amomg the nine kinds of bhaktis, Sankaradeva had taken Sravana and Kirtana as important bhaktis. The initiation mantra is Rama Krishna Hari Narayan. There is no place of Radha in his worship. The Sankaradeva school of Vaishnavism preferred the worship of Krishna as boy Gopal and took dasya bhavas an important bhava. Sankaradeva wrote many plays, songs and other religious books for the worship and propagation of his new religion. Among his writings, the Kirtana-ghosa. (The book of songs and refrains, with 189 kirtanas and as many refrains) forms one of the cornerstones of Assam Vaishnavism.

The Sattriya Ojapali, with its two varieties – the Biahgoa and the Sukanni are important forms of Sattriya music. The Sukanni music is not Vaishnava in nature, mostly Manasa songs. The Biah-goa may be put under Vaishnava tradition. Of the two Ojapali music streams, the Biah-goa music has some similarities with the Vaishnava music of Manipur.

The Manipuri Vaishnava Music Tradition:

The Manipuri Vaishnava music is very vast and it has many forms which include Bangdesh Pala (Ariba Pala), Nata Sankirtana, Manoharshai, Dhop Kirtana (Chaitannya Sampradaya), Dhrumel Sankirtana and other minor forms.

Vaishnavism came to Manipur during the reign of Kyamba (1467-1508). In 1470 A.D. Manipur and the Kingdom of Pong invaded Kabaw Valley (Upper Burma), conquered it and shared it between themselves. Celebrating their victory, the king of Pong Khekhomba presented an image of Vishnu (riding over the Garuda) to the king of Manipur. On inquiry and verification, it was found that the image was that of Vishnu. King Kyamba directed to find some Brahmins who would be able to worship the image. It may be mentioned that some Brahmins, mostly from Bengal (the Bangladesh area) had already settled in the Manipur valley. The Brahmins were entrusted by the king to worship the Lord Vishnu. A Vishnu temple of brick was constructed at Bishnupur which was for some time the capital of the Kingdom. Some kind of Kirtana singing was offered at the Lord Vishnu Temple. But very little is known about the type of Kirtana singing. Kyamba’s reign was important landmark in the cultural history of Manipur. For the first time, image worship (the image of Vishnu) started from this time. The seed of Vaishnavism was laid during this time.

Bangdesh Pala Music:

The new form of Kirtana singing known as Bangdesh Pala (or Ariba, old Pala) came to Manjpur during the time of King Garibniwas (1709-1748). Bangdesh is a corruption of BangIa Desh i.e. East Bengal now called Bangladesh. The king adopted a Ramanandi cult of Vaishnavism. The Bangdesh Pala was offered at the worship of Ramji Prabhu.

In this type of Kirtana, there is a portion called raga by what is now called Gour Chandrika which in turn is followed by what is now call Niti Leela. The singers use a kind of cymbal which is neither a jhal nor kartal. The Bangdesh Pala is the oldest pala in Manipuri music. It is also performed at the Astakal service of Shri Govindaji at the royal palace. Bangdesh pala is also known as Ariba pala, with the addition of Gourchandrika and some other songs in later period. The Bangdesh pala has been created after Padakirtana of Bengal. But now, many changes have been made in the old form of Manipuri Kirtana. In this contex, the eminent scholar Shri RK. Singhajit has observed – “The musical style and presentation got thoroughly modified to suit local taste, sensibility and talent and took a new identity. Both singing and drumming got gradually modified and developed to suit native aesthetics and spread over the ‘whole valley to solemnize the religious rituals of the land. The metamorphosis was so complete that we hardly find any trace of Bengali music in Ariba Pala (Bangsesh Pala). Interestingly enough, we find aspects of resembling Maibi chant and Pena music (“Contribution of Manipuri Dance to Indian Culture” a paper presented at a seminar). Although the Bangdesh Pala (Ariba Pala) is closely related to the Bengali Kirtana tradition, Shri L. Birendra Kumar Singh, a well-known musicologist of Manipur has made some observations regarding the resemblance between the Ojapali music of Assam and the Bangdesh Pala (Ariba Pala) especially the Mallab raga and the rendering of Rag Aalaap. This is an interesting area of study which requires further critical study, examination and investigation.

The Ramanandi cult of Vaishnavism was short-lived in Manipur. This was followed by Chaitannya School Vaishnavism.

Nata Sankirtana:

The Bengal school of Vaishnavism, known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism came to Manipur in the later part of 18th Century during the reign of Rajarshi Bhagyachandra (1764-1789). King Bhagyachandra adopted Gaudiya Vaishnavism as spread by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) with some modification and additions suited to the local sensibility. He made it state religion. The image of Lord Govindaji (Shri Krishna) was installed in 1776 at Canchipur (the present Manipur University campus) and 5 days Ras Leeln was enacted in 1779 A.D. for the first time and the world famous Raas Leela was performed at the installation ceremony of the image of Lord Govinda. The Nata Sankirtana was also performed before the performance of Raas Leela. Because Raas Leela is an extension of the Nata Sankirtana. Rajarshi himself played on Pung (Manipuri Mridanga). Nata Sankirtana is an inseparable part of Raas Leela.

The Nata Sankirtana of Manipur represents an extension of Leela Kirtana of Thakur Narottom of Bengal but many things have been added to suit local sensibilities. To tell the truth. Bengal Vaishnavism came to Manipur to be reborn, enriched and energized with particular Manipuri aesthetics and sensibility. It was not something brought from outside the state (Bengal), but it was enriched and perfected by the great gurus of Manipur in keeping with the religious context in the history of Manipur. The Manipuri Vaishnava music is endowed with an ethno-culturally distinctive performative form which is indigenous synthesis of the state’s long tradition of pre-Hindu religious forms such as Lai Haraoba, Thang-Taa, Khunung Ishei, folk music, etc. This is seamless fusion and synthesis effected between the Meitei folk aesthetics and the Gaudiya aesthetics. Thus, some scholars of Manipur are of the opinion that the process of Hindu conversion in the 18th Century is to be read as a Manipurisation of Hinduism and not Hindunisation of Manipuri culture.

The Manipuri Nata Sankirtana has the foundation in classical ragas and raginis and folk style in this mode of presentation. It has 6 Raga Purushas (Mallab, Mallar, Shri, Basanta, Hindol and Karnataka); 36 Raginis, Raga Dasas and Dasis (each Raga Purush has 6 important servants and each servant has 6 dasis); about 40 Uparagas; more than 100 talas are used; it has 64 rasas (Sambhog -32 and Bipralambha 32) etc.

The Nata Sankirtana has a well-defined and codified structure of performance. They are i) Raga Houba, ii) Raga taba iii) Mel, iv) Tanchap, v) Menkup, vi) Swadhin and vii) Bijoy. The rendering of raga is as follows Ta Ah Ri E Ta Na and the beginning of raga is done by pung (Meitei Mridanga) which is followed by Ishei raga (song raga). The swara alaap is sung in Ghar, Pancham and Dirgha modes. The Manipuri Vaishnava music follows all the nine kinds of bhaktis. The numbers of palas are as follow – 64 or 32 or 16. The main rasa of the Nata Sankirtana is bhakti rasa, especially the Madhura Premrasa. Manipuri Nata Sankirtana and Ras Leela is not erotic at all in content, it is not for entertainment; it represents a high spiritual realisation with great devotion and humanity. It is a jnajna and an offering to God. To Manipuri Vaishnavas, Bhakti (Madhura Premarasa) is far superior to mukti, because the bhakti-rasa is Shri Krishna himself as the Rasaraja. Manipuri Vaishnava worships Radha-Krislma in the form of Jugal Murti.

Manipuri dance and music is inexplicably woven into the social and religious fabric of the people, an isolated study of the art without understanding the matric can even be misleading. Right from the beginning, any and every kind of religious rituals and festivals (Swasti puja, namkarana, marriage, Sradha (dead ceremony), phiroi etc.) of Manipur has music and dance as indispensable ingredients. Dance and music is a living tradition in Manipur.

Manipuri Nata Sankirtana (with other forms) and Raas Leela (with other kinds) represent the supreme flowering of the Vaishnava faith and constitute a contribution to Indian culture. The Manipuri music and dance have crossed the political boundary of Manipur and has got a respectable place in the cultural map of the world. No doubt, the two of the richest classical traditions in human history – the Raas LeeIa and Nata Sankirtana (and their many offshoots) are the gifts of the Manipuri genius to the world.

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