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What is the best thing about Lai Haraoba? Perhaps its music. Yet there are so many other things that characterise this festival, which is full of traditional and cultural charms.
Around a rivulet in the quiet hilly area, there is always an inimitable natural music coming out of the flowing water, the soft breeze, the rustling of leaves and the chirping of the birds. It is a unique melody that no state-of-the-art recording studio can recreate. Quirte similarly, the Lai Haraoba music is unique and inimitable like that of the brooks.
Essentially, its sound is monochromatic, comprising the euphony from a very few instruments like a dhon (drum), pena (a one-string instrument) and a basi (flute). In its raw sophistication lies the magic of Lai Haraoba music. It brims with folksy tunes and has a melodious repetition that sometimes produces a psychedelic effect especially when the small instrumental ensemble is combined with the chants. There are different kinds of music, depending on the kind of ritual or dance.
Along with the lyrics on the creation of the universe, there are also songs in Lai Haraoba, which are overtly raunchy and titillating. This kind of songs reminds us of the realities of our supposedly conservative society where there lies a strong undercurrent of debauchery. In our present generation, the conservatives are disquieted by the moral decadence that we have plunged into.
Another thing appealed to me for the first time during my early teenage days though on a level far from the standards of a usual Lai Haraoba. On other occasions, on any other day throughout the year, it was next to impossible to go out of the house after sunset. Yes, understandably. However, the five to seven days of Lai Haraoba celebration were an exception as the festivities would continue all through the night.
The perfect excuse, which we had found during these days for staying out late was one of its kind we had never came across such freedom in our little lives that we had lived in a little way. We would wander, not searching for gods and goddesses with the newfound liberty but in those days of great curiosity and great experimental minds, we did the things that came quite natural. In short, we misused it. I learnt to smoke and drink during those nights of freedom.
Some years before this encounter with the great freedom, we saw that it was not mandatory but some kind of a must-do activity for the kids to take part in the dance programmes. It was unaffectedly fun. Our parents would hire a local teacher and there were so many choices when it came to dance forms - right from the Mao-Maram Jagoi to Khamba-Thoibi Jagoi. We danced like no one was watching.
Another remarkable feature of this festival is collective participation. We live according to community ethos and it is on show during the festival. Our neighbourhood smells of strong festive flavours during the Lai Haraoba. Before daybreak, the Pena Yakairol, with its heavy ritualistic and folksy tune, wakes people out of their slumber. During the day, there are only very few rites and rituals performed at the venue. At sundown, the world culminates at the centre of the Laibung the Manipuri term for a pulpit where the main programmes are held. From a newborn to the oldest person, everyone sits around it, watching the events with awe and delectation. Needless to say, naysayers would contend that it is not the merrymaking of the gods and goddesses but of the mortal sinners.
In these days of socio-political mess, it is notable that the Lai Haraoba stands out, unblemished of our follies. The Manipuri Weltanschauung is safely defended and imprinted on it, no matter how much we have polluted our own identity through proselytisation and other fallacious historical narratives that have pushed us into this dingy corner of our existence. As a matter of fact, we are drowned in a deep identity crisis but we find some solace in the Lai Haraoba.
On the last day of the festival, we have the Lairoi. We realised only during our college days why our parents had earlier forbidden us from watching the last-day programme even if we were let free all the previous nights. The maiba and maibis, the priests and priestesses would indulge themselves in obscene dances and songs as a part of the rituals though it does not necessarily border the promiscuity that we find in our daily mundane life. This year's festival concluded last week. I saw that the maiba, after taunting the maibis, offered his symbolic faeces to a couple who have failed to conceive. It is believed the lady will now become pregnant in the coming few months.
(Lai Haraoba is an annual festival of the Meiteis usually held during the rainy season (MayJuly) in Manipur. It literally means merrymaking of the gods and goddesses. This celebration with several graceful dances, indigenous music and a host of rituals narrates the creation and evolution of the universe according to Meitei traditions and belief system. There are several types of Lai Haraoba and this essay is about a small portion of my reminiscence of the Kanglei Khamlangba Haraoba which is celebrated in my locality.)
More about Kapil Arambam
Kapil has completed MA in Mass Communication and wants to build a media empire. He is, as of now, a confused sub-editor, living a life flooded with existential dilemmas and shuttling between Imphal, New Delhi and Guwahati. Also an avid blogger, Kapil writes prose and poetry and in his spare time and occasionally dons the mask of a graphic designer. He also plays the pena, a traditional Manipuri instrument with a single horse tail hair string.
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