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Ranganiketan: A House of Colors Open to the World

Manipuri dancers inspire audiences with a glimpse of Manipur’s Vaishnava culture.

During the early 1970’s Srila Prabhupada expressed to Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami that the Manipuri traditions of music and dance, such as rasa-lila and sankirtana, are so infused with the Vaishnava culture that they are cultural representations of Krishna consciousness. If properly presented, he said, these cultural expressions could be powerful and inspirational. Taking heed of Prabhupada’s words, Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami formed Ranganiketan in 1987.

“Ranganiketan,” which means House of Colors, began its first international tour in 1990, with engagements in Europe and North America. Since then the troupe has put on nearly 400 performances for more than 250,000 people on four continents. It has appeared at the University of California (Berkeley), at EPCOT Center (Walt Disney World), and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Ranganiketan is the most extensively booked performing arts company of its kind from India.

The troupe gives special emphasis to educational programs. More than half of Ranganiketan’s performances take place before young audiences. Carefully created instructional materials prepare students for the performance, and lectures and demonstrations help them further understand what they’ve seen.

The cultural activities of Ranganiketan don’t stop at the stage. Troupe members are also adept in various offstage arts, especially the creation of Manipuri prasadam, the traditional cuisine, which has delighted people wherever the troupe goes.

Ranganiketan performances give samples of the music, dance, and martial arts of northeastern India. Thang-ta is a weapons- oriented form of martial arts that dates from the time of the Mahabharata. Both men and women learn these arts from an early age. With precision and strength, Ranganiketan artists demonstrate the various forms of Thang-ta, using swords, shields, scimitars, and occasionally their bare hands.

The acrobatic drum dances are powerful demonstrations of sankirtana that blend complex beats with the devotional mood of Narottama Dasa Thakura. Performed with the pung (Manipuri mridanga), the drum dances serve as an auspicious invocation before the performance of the rasa-lila.

The classical rasa-lila is the most important of the various types of Manipuri devotional dance. It expresses the quintessence of Vaishnava culture and philosophy—the yearning of the individual soul to surrender to the supreme soul, Lord Sri Krishna. Through that surrender, the soul attains transcendent happiness and the highest fulfillment of spiritual desire. In Manipur, rasa-lila performances can feature 108 dancers and last up to twelve hours. On tour, of course, the dances are shorter and the dancers fewer, but they give an authentic taste.