Richana Khumanthem: Please state your name.
Laishram Sharat Kumar Singh: My name is Laishram Sharat Kumar Singh. My father’s name is Apabi and my mother’s name Ibemhal. My parents also did the same work as me. I started working with them at a very young age. As a child I used to go to places where Raas leela and other performances would take place and dress up the dancers as well as charge a fee for borrowing the costumes. That is how we made our living. I have educated my children in this profession.
R.K.: How many years have you been dealing in Potloi and raas costumes?
L.S.K.S.: Since I was born. I lack in formal education because this is what I have done since I was a little kid.
R.K.: How old are you?
L.S.K.S.: I was born in 1954 so I am 62.
R.K.: And what is this locality called?
L.S.K.S.: Moirangkhom makha lotlaobung.
R.K.: So you have been dressing up the Radha and Gopis of the Raas leela that is performed in the palace every year. Being an expert, could you please share some information about Raas leela with us?
L.S.K.S.: There are five types of Raas leela in Manipur, out of which two are for the public. The other three are performed at Shri Shri Govindaji temple: Basanta raas on a full moon night in the month of Shajibu, Kunja raas on the full moon night in the month of Mera wakhiba, and Maha raas in the month of Mera waphukpa [coinciding with the month of Kartik]. So these three raas are for the Govindaji temple, while the two raas performed for public are Diva raas and Nitya raas. Unlike the other raas, Diva raas is performed during the day. It was started during World War 2, when raas could not be performed at night. The costumes are the same, there is no difference.
Nitya raas is a form of raas that can be performed anytime, by anyone. It is not seasonal. For the three main raas performed in Govindaji temple, the koktumbi costume is worn.
R.K.: Can you please show the koktumbi to us?
L.S.K.S.: This is the koktumbi. It is placed on the head, slightly on the left side. The silvery tassel is hung on the left side of the head. The thin veil is then put on top of the koktumbi, covering the face. This is called koktumbi costume.
R.K.: So which forms of raas wear this costume?
L.S.K.S.: This is for the three main raas performed at the Govindaji temple.
R.K.: For public raas like Diva and Nitya raas they don’t wear this?
L.S.K.S.: It is not that they don’t wear this at all in public raas. If they wish, they sometimes wear it. But the jhapa costume, on the other hand, is not allowed in the Govindaji temple at all. This is jhapa kurak paibi (jhapa with butterfly). This costume was introduced after Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi married the Bor Saheb (P. Maxwell, a British political agent in Manipur in the 1890s). The princess wanted to perform a raas. But since she had married a foreigner, she was asked by the caretakers of the temple not to wear the koktumbi costume and to wear something else. In 1904 she performed the raas wearing the jhapa costume. The jhapa costume does not cover the face. It covers just the back of the head. The poswan is always there though.
R.K.: Both the potloi and poswan are there in both types of raas costumes?
L.S.K.S.: Yes, they are there in both. The only difference between the jhapa and koktumbi costume is that in koktumbi, the khaon (bag) is used across the shoulder on the right side for gopis. For Krishna two khaon are used, one on each side. This silvery tassel on the koktumbi is known as chubarei. The khaon comes on the right side, and the chubarei on the left side of the head. The meaning behind the koktumbi is this. Gopi is prakriti, earth. Shrimati Radhika wears green to signify earth. Earth is again a combination of various hills and water bodies. Ganga was released from Mahadev’s hair. If there is a tall mountain, a stream usually flows down from it. This is the concept behind the koktumbi. The covering of the face with the veil signifies bhakti ras. In Manipur, the performance of the five raas has different reasons, people offer raas performance for different reasons. For example, in the olden days, a person who renounced worldly pleasure, jhuli kupin (we can no longer see them now), used to be dressed like a lamboiba and go to houses asking for alms. So when these people offer raas, the reason is their desire to be closer to god. They pray, asking God for a place for themselves in Brindavan after their death. In our society, when someone dies, it is said ‘brindavan prapti oikhray’ meaning he/she has reached Brindavan. Brindavan is a far off place. But in Manipur, the devotees make their own Brindavan. Someone who organises a raas performance in his property, keeps that space where it was performed cordoned off. When he dies, he is carried to that place. This is considered ‘brindavan phangjaray’ or that he has gone to Brindavan. I was once told by someone that Manipuri dance is classical dance and that efforts should be made at all times to upgrade it. But old Meitei womenfolk go to Brindavan and dance near the Yamuna river in whatever they are wearing, without the proper costume. The person was of the opinion that such a thing is counter-productive to upgrading the dance. So I told this person that the womenfolk come there with an aim to be closer to Krishna, to be where he was born, raise their sin-marked hands and perform a few steps of raas in his name. That, to them, is not only dancing, but a way to be closer to Brindavan prapti. Raas is not about the decoration or maintaining a standard. It is about washing away our sins through devotional dance.
R.K.: Please tell us a bit more about the potloi and poswan.
L.S.K.S.: The potloi has evolved through three stages. In the first stage it was not stiff. It was a heavy, A-line skirt with embellishments. Then came the chebon style, which gradually evolved to the potloi in its form now. We are children of Pakhangba. The embellishment on the potloi follows a certain pattern. This is the pattern of Pakhangba. The upper part here represent the dorsal scales of Pakhangba. This line of triangular shapes dividing the upper and lower portion of the potloi represents the area on his body where the dorsal and ventral scales meet. And this is his stomach. His stomach/ventral side is said to be white and shining, so mirrors are used to give that effect. The white border of the potloi signifies heaven, where there are no worldly sins or temptations.
R.K.: The bride (Meitei Hindu bride) at her wedding wears just the potloi and not the poswan. Why is that?
L.S.K.S.: Poswan is for married women. It covers the backside. The gopis were all married. Some also say that the poswan is inspired by our maibi’s (traditional priestess') constumes. They wear a white tasselled skirt known as sarong on top of their phanek. Poswan is said to come from that as well. The embellishment on the border of the poswan is again a representation of Pakhangba. The white cloth again reflects prakriti and its hills and water bodies. The Loktak lake in Manipur has nine names. From that come the nine pleats on the poswan for Radha. It is about five and half metres long. The gopis will have seven pleats, taken from the concept of lai nura taret (the seven goddesses).
R.K.: Lai nura taret is the same as helloi taret?
L.S.K.S.: Yes it is the same. (Helloi taret is a folk legend of seven beautiful sisters with magical powers to hypnotize and control men at their will. They are said to reside in clean places like pristine forests, mountains and deserted fields).
R.K.: And what is that you are holding?
L.S.K.S.: The vertical part is known as khwangnap and the belt is known as khwanggoi. This is placed between the two front pleats of the poswan. And this khaon comes on the right side.
R.K.: And this is the shirt?
L.S.K.S.: Yes, this red one. Radha wears red. These are the jewellery worn by her. The designs here cannot be said to be too old, or too new. I will name it one by one. There was an old design known as tharoi maning (tharoi meaning snail, maning meaning backside). The three marei necklaces we see here are copied from that. There was also a design called thangjing tangkhai (thangjing meaning fox nut, tangkhai meaning half). Now it is known as sandrembi. This one is hayaithanbi. The old name of the last necklace is heikru (gooseberry). Now it is called heibi mapan. And closest to the neck, a necklace called thambal mana (lotus leaf) is worn.
R.K.: Ok. Let’s confirm the names one by one, starting from here.
L.S.K.S.: Heibi mapan, heiyaithanbi, sandrembi, marei.
R.K.: You have told us about Radha and Gopi’s costume. Can you please tell us about Krishna’s costume now?
L.S.K.S.: Natavaravesh is the name of the costume worn by Krishna in Manipur. The silk dhoti has pleats in front and a tail at the back. This one is a readymade dhoti. The dhoti will be worn first, then this dhora will come at the waist. Now these two khaon will come on the left and right side, across the chest. At last the khwanggoi khwangnap will be added. After this jewellery will be worn. Here are the necklaces. The first one is called likyan-likthat. This one is kyam-likphan. This is not Manipuri jewellery. This style was gifted by the Pong king. This is Bokun pareng. Thangjing tangkhai is missing here. There is supposed to be a set of four necklaces. The last one is vanamala. It is supposed to be a garland of real flowers.
L.S.K.S.: Seasonal flowers, whatever is available at the time. Before you wear the jewellery, after putting on the khaon, this chest harness called pisindrai is attached to the shirt. The centre is attached to the front and the end is taken to the back. After wearing this, the person will be made to sit and khonggi leiteng will be tied around the ankles. Before putting the khonggi leiteng (khong meaning feet, leiteng means decoration) the traditional Manipuri sengao sarik will be worn on the ankles. The leiteng should cover the sengao sarik. After this come the hand accessories. This goes on the middle finger like this, then this is tied at the wrist. Khutnam topi (khutnam meaning back of the hand, topsanba meaning to cover)
R.K.: This is called?
L.S.K.S.: Ghungur nupur. After khutnam topi comes the male khuji (bangle). After that comes khuji thak rattan zoor. Next comes taal. Above the taan comes a single accessory called taan thak. So this is the complete hand decoration for Krishna. Khutnam topi, khuji popchaobi, khuji thak rattan zoor, taan and tanathak. There is one missing here. Taan kha is suppose to come below the taan. And the male chandon (chandan) is to be put on the forearm.
R.K.: Please tell us about the headgear now.
L.S.K.S.: This is just one part of the headgear. The complete form, with all the parts is called mukut. But where this is made, each part has a different name. The black fabric is known as nakhum. The white border is called koknum. This length dangling here is known as chubarei. This base is called mukut makhong. From here till here (the vertical part of the headgear) is called ukang. And this thing with shiny discs is called chirong. Chirong is the horn on Pakhangba’s head. Pakhangba’s whole body is gold, and chirong is silver, hence the colour here. Now you wear it like this. Next we wear the kajenglei, old name leitreng. The kajenglei signifies the glory of god. This is called samjirei. It means 'flower to put on the hair'. Now since it is done in paper it is called cheyrei. This is like the way south Indian women wear long garlands of flowers in their hair. This was also made using peacock feathers. The feather was inserted at regular intervals. But that was not very handy and was of high maintenance. One of my uncles came up with this concept of folding. Now this comes at the back. The chura is now added.
R.K.: All of them together are called?
L.S.K.S.: The various parts are mukhut, chura, cherei and kajenglei. The whole costume is called natavaravesh. This is the complete set of costumes for Krishna.
R.K.: Yaam nungaijarey Ka (Thank you, Uncle!)