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Manipuri Ras Lila is one of the recognized classical dances of India

Rabindranath Thakur and Manipuri Dance – Part 1

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


Rabindranath’s School of Dance

The school of dance created by Rabindranath (1861-1941) is known as ‘Tagore School of Lyrical Dance’. Rabindra’s is a divine life. Like what the Sparsha Stolle or the Philosopher’s Stone did, whatever he touched, nothing else occurred except that it turned into gold. There was hardly any sphere which he did not touch. Never was his a simple touch or just a plain laying hands on; the way he laid his hands on something always made it the first ever of the kind, which always resulted to an entirely novel craftsmanship. An example is the Rabindra Sangeet. Thus, his creation in the world of dance too, is a novel one. In the history of Indian modern dance, Rabindranath’s contribution is unique and invaluable.


Leaving behind the din and noise of Kolkata City, Rabindranath first established a small school at Shantiniketan about 100 miles away from Kolkata in December 1901 CE. After twenty years, this school grew into a University, and after the poet passed away in1941 the Government of India took it over, following which they gave it a new name, Vishwabharati. Gurudeva who won the Nobel Prize in 1913 is the first Asian who did so. It was 1919 that he introduced a Dance Section in this school, which he raised at Shantiniketan. Within a few years only after this, he, employing Manipuri Dance teachers, tended so that Manipuri Dance is included in the section and they begin to teach.

The Influence of Dance in Rabindranath and His Impression

Rabindranath belonged to a family, which loved dance and music, as well as, art and culture; a family well known in Kolkata and respected by entire Bengal. Thus, beginning since his childhood days, Rabindranath grew up in close familiarity with dance and music; and moreover, he was a man who delved to the core in the studies of Indian art, dance and music. When he attained youth, he watched an opera performance in England. Next, he toured around Java, Balai, Thailand, China, Japan etc. and saw the dances of these countries. Especially, he loved the soft, mellow and lyrical form of Java dance. He felt impressed with the stylised body movements at the ‘No play’ shows of Japan. In addition to these, he observed various dances of Cochin, Malabar and Manipur. He could see the power of dramatic expressions revealed by Kerala’s Kathakali. In this way, since the very early days of his life, for a pretty long time, Rabindranath had begun to develop a keen intent, concealed in his mind, to bring out a neo-creative dance. All these, he began to take up as a project when he set up his school at Shantiniketan in 1901 CE. Not only teaching dance, but also teaching music, acting and painting too, he opened at this Shantiniketan School of his. It was the pioneer institution in India to start such a form of education. Rabindranath himself taught dance and music, sang songs and acted in the dramas himself. He made the members of his own family dance and sing. Children of the families of the riches and higher ups, he taught them how to dance and he let them dance. Getting rid of the degrading outlook towards dance in the society those days, he tried too, to open up a new evolutionary pathway towards the general regards for it.

Rabindranath and Manipuri Dance

It was through the kingdom of Tripura (Takhel in Manipuri) that an acquaintance and kind of a touch for each other between Rabindranath and Manipuri dance occurred. Those first teachers of Manipuri Dance at Gurudeva’s school at Shantiniketan were Manipuris who inhabited in Tripura. There is a long story on the association and friendship relation between Rabindranath and the kings of Tripura. The treaties entitled ‘Rabindrnnath o Tripura, (Agartala, 1961) reveals this matter very clearly.

Rajkumar Budhimanta and Thakur Nabakumar

Rajkumar Budhimanta Singh and Thakur Nabakumar Singh of Tripura were the first two who became the teachers for Manipuri dance at Gurudeva Rabindranath’s Shantiniketan. Vishwakavi (Universal poet) Rabindranath and the King of Tripura were very friendly. Rabindranath visited Tripura seven times; the first visit occurred during the time of Maharaja Radhakishore in 1899. During the poet’s visit, they showed him Basanta Utsav and Manipuri dance at Kunjaban of Agartala. During another visit-trip of his, when he watched the Manipuri Raasa in the palace with Maharajkumar Brajendrakishore, the Prince, the poet remarked, ‘Having seen this dance, my visit in Purbabanga (the then East Bengal) has become fruitful, rather fulfilled.’

Following that experience of being an audience to Raasa Dance, something amazing, which he could not say what it was about, intrigue him. He got to thinking that he would be able to work it out as a real deed out of a dream which he had been aspiring since long. He wrote a letter to Maharajkumar Brajendrakishore, the son prince of Tripura King Birendrakishore, requesting to send a Manipuri teacher to teach Manipuri dance at Shantiniketan. Prince Maharajkumar, after consulting with his father, sent Rajkumar Budhimanta to Shantiniketan for the purpose. In addition to this, further request came again to send Budhimanta’s wife for teaching the skill of weaving, related craft-skill and other handiwork skills. But due to some social restraints Budhimanta’s wife did not go to the Shantiniketan. It was since the year 1919 CE that Rajkumar Budhimanta began to teach Manipuri dance at Shantiniketan. 100 years ahead of today, this Manipuri dance had begun to be taught outside Manipur, spreading beyond. That time it was only 20 years that western education entered in Manipur, no school for learning systematic dance and music then. In those days Manipur, surrounded by nine rings of hill and mountain ranges, yet remained a peaceful land without much of a touch with the movements, agitations and climate of its outside regions. In such a time, Gurudeva Rabindranath, having recognised its elegance and aesthetic worth, opened the Manipuri dance section at Shantiniketan, outside Manipur. Since that time till today, along all these 100 years, the administrators of Shantiniketan have been appointing teachers of Manipuri dance and the latter have been teaching it. In this long span of time, the institution has produced so many teachers and students of Manipuri dance. The person who identified and spread Manipuri dance for the first in the world is none other than Gurudeva Rabindranath Thakur. His contribution to Manipuri dance is highly valuable. It would not be a hyperbole to say that like he did, not a single Manipuri son had taken an appreciable role in this direction.

Next to Rajkumar Budhimanta came Thakur Nabakumar Singh. It was Thakur Nabakumar Singh who, as a Guru of Manipuri dance, shone at Shantiniketan as a star did. He was a creative dance composer, proficient enough, and was the dance teacher for the royal family of the king and the royal palace as well. As Rajkumar Budhimanta, after some time as a teacher at Shantiniketan, returned home at Agartala, Thakur Nabakumar became the second teacher of Manipuri dance at Shantiniketan.

Shri BiramangaJ Singh gives his comments about Thakur Nabakumar in this manner, “…Nabakumar Thakur was a distinctively accountable teacher in Tripura and Bharat, as regards to the history of Manipuri dance. He set Manipuri dance for the first time in the cinema of Bharat as ‘well as in the spheres outside Bharat. In Mumbai’s Hindi film “Vasanta Sena” he directed a Manipuri dance and his son performed therein. It was Oja Rajkumar Surendrajit, a renowned drum teacher in Tripura then, who accompanied the dance with drum percussion. In 1926, Nabakumar inserted certain Manipuri dance movements in Rabindranath Thakur’s drama “Natir Pooja”. Nabakumar’s name became famous as a dance teacher after this drama was staged. On this occasion when Nabakumar Thakur introduced Manipuri dance movements in the Natir Pooja Leela, Prabhat Mukhyopadhyay, the author of the Biography of Rabindranath, wrote down thus, “Manipuri Dance teacher Nabakumar Thakur has launched this Shantiniketan’ s novel dance. When the Vishwakavi toured in Purbabanga (the then East Bengal), he made an itinerary trip to Agartala as well. There the poet saw Nabakumar’s Manipuri Dance, and then he began to chalk out a plan to bring Nabakumar as a dance teacher at the Kala Bhavan of Shantiniketan. Nabakumar supplemented a new phase to Natir Pooja dance.” (“Tripurada Manipuri Sanskriti”, Manipur amasung Atei Wareng Khara, Shathoulup 2008 p78). One day a famous industrialist of Ahmadabad saw Nabakumar’s dance and he sought permission from Rabindranath for Nabakumar to teach Manipuri dance in Gujarat. Thakur Nabakumar taught Manipuri dance for a certain period in Gujarat too. Next, Nabakumar went to Bombay and established a school of Manipuri Dance. Thus, Manipuri dance extended up to Gujarat through the favour of Guru Rabindranath.

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