What better way to soak the essence of the rich culture of Northeast India than to bear witness to its traditional folk dances. The music, the clothing, the props and the dance steps all help tell us a story, and provide us a peek into an age-old culture that is untouched by modernity and colonisation.
We all have heard of the famed Bihu, Sattriya and the Manipuri dance; the last two can proudly claim to be two of India’s eight classical dances. But here are five lesser known folk dances from Northeast India. Each one boasts of a fascinating origin, dazzling props and passionate performers. To catch one of these dances at your local Northeast festival will surely be on your bucket list by the end of this article.
Lion and Peacock Dance, Arunachal Pradesh
The Monpa tribe are known for their theatrically expressive Lion and Peacock Dance. In this dance, performers wear masks and costumes of lions and peacocks and imitate the animals’ movements and postures. Storytelling lies at the heart of this art form. Hence, many stories relating to animals (snow lion and peacock) are portrayed, alongside the “protagonist” which is an elderly man with a long, white beard.
This folk dance is widely loved thanks to the dancers’ dramatic movements, and the stunning work done on the costumes, including the Snow Lion outfit that has two dancers inside the piece. These costumes are innovative inventions: they have mechanical eye lids that can be manipulated to open and close to make the lions “wink”. They also have adorable, fuzzy ears that can rise and fall, and jaws that can open and close. The energetic, wild dance is accompanied by backup musicians who play gongs and cymbals.
Fun fact: the Monpa tribe who perform this dance are recognised as one of the 56 minority ethnic groups in China (alongside the Yizu, Tu, Uighurs & more). The Monpa are spread out over west Kameng and Tawang district of Arunachal.
Cheraw Dance, Mizoram
The Cheraw dance is extremely popular in not only the Northeast, but all of India. It’s the oldest folk dance in Mizoram, and dates back to the 1st century CE. In this dance, two horizontal staves are laid on the ground. Then a group of six or eight men, hold bamboo staves vertically over the two sticks, thereby forming a grid.
The men clap the sticks rhythmically, and the women (in an equal number to the men) dance over them by hopping. Commonly, many “cells” of men and women perform beside each other, thus forming a large “hive” with many cells in it. The dance steps are influenced by movements in nature. Some express the swaying of trees, others the flight of birds, and yet others the harvesting of paddy.
But the performance is incomplete without the costume. The costume for women includes the Kawrchei (long sleeved white blouse with red, green and black patterns), the Puanchei (sarong of the same colours), Vakiria (headdress made of bamboo and decorated with feathers or other colourful items), and the Thihna (a necklace). Meanwhile, the men wear a Mizo shawl which is criss-crossed in front of their chests, a similar white blouse like the women, or have a bare upper body, trousers or a cloth wrapped around the waist, and lastly, a Khumbeu (bamboo hat) or bandana tied around the head.
Cheraw began as a traditional ritual to bring peace to souls of women who died giving birth. But today, it is showcased at seasonal festivals like the Buza Aih (festival of bumper harvest) and the Chapchar Kut (springtime festival). It is also performed in weddings, commemorations and cultural exhibits. That’s not to say that it’s a community dance. Only experts well-trained in this art get to perform it publicly, and traditionally on moonlit nights. Synchronicity and grace are essential to the success and beauty of this dance.
Over time, performances stray from tradition and adopt new styles. And Cheraw is no different. Traditionally, the instrument players play drums and gongs to accompany the dancers. This way, the rhythmic sounds of bamboo take the spotlight. But today, musicians aren’t afraid to experiment with the accordion, mandolin and guitar.
Fascinatingly, the Philippine dance, Tinikling, is similar to Cheraw as the dancers
also perform over sticks which are held and clapped by other dancers.
Once an ancient ritual for the mourning of the dead, Cheraw is now a cultural artform that spreads joy at harvest celebrations and festivals like the famous Hornbill. It is gaining international recognition too, with the dancers performing it at the 2019 International Dance Day programme in London. Moreover, it made it into the Guinness Book of World Records (2010) as the largest dance performance, having 10,763 participants!
Laho Dance, Meghalaya
Laho is a major folk dance of Meghalaya which is performed in religious and cultural festivals. The happy dance is performed by the Pnar community, and usually sees participation from both men and women. The Pnars are known for their love of music, dance and colours, which is perfectly reflected in this dance.
The women sport gold-silver jewellery, and a colourful, traditional attire, while the males wear limited ornaments. Each woman links arms with a man on both sides before launching into dance steps which include swaying the body back and forth. In another routine, the dancers use shovels as props. Synchronisation and harmony are essential for the success of this show.
Often, we expect drums and pipes to accompany folk dances. But extraordinarily, Laho is danced to a man’s sweetly strong voice which recites couplets. These amusing, rhythmic recitations cause the audience to burst out in laughter and merriment. But other times, musicians are hired to back up the dancers.
Jowai and Wangala are well-known festivals where dancers perform Laho. Most popularly though, Laho is performed at the Behdienkhlam festivity in Jowai,
where the locals recognize and celebrate the well being and prosperity of Meghalayans. The annual carnival aims to bring forth blessings and get rid of evil spirits. Behdienkhlam means “chasing away the Demon of Cholera”; it is observed in July after the sowing period. In addition to Meghalaya’s prosperity, Behdienkhlam calls to God for a good bumper harvest.
Melo Phita Dance, Nagaland
Melo Phita (or Kuokelie Rulou) is a traditional folk dance performed by the Angami Nagas. The performance takes place at the Sekrenyi festival in February. Sekrenyi is observed for ten days, beginning from the 25th day of the month of “Kezei” which often corresponds to February.
This festival is an immensely important purification festival which is meant to wash away all past sins of individuals. The idea is to “renew” and “make holy” the “body and the soul”, and to strengthen ties within the community and spread joy. Sekrenyi also acts as an initiation ceremony for young people entering adulthood.
This dance is said to have originated when the Angami men went to war and hunted for heads. When they returned after victory, the women would greet them at the gates with food and wine. They would then walk home together while singing and dancing. They would then perform Melo Phita not only as a
purification ritual, but as a victory dance for winning the war and reuniting with their loved ones.
Both men and women participate in this dance, and wear their traditional tribal garb (which has black, orange, white and green hues). They complete the look with jewellery – women wear bead necklaces while men wear feather ornaments on their ears. The men’s big headdresses made of fur are a highlight which complete this look. The dance steps see the men and women hop on their feet and move in circles, while singing traditional songs.
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Chu Faat dance, Sikkim
The Chu-Faat dance is performed by the Lepcha tribe to honour the mountain peaks. ‘Chu’ means snow-covered mountains, while ‘Faat’ means worship. It is performed on the 15th day of the seventh month in the Buddhist Calendar.
The mountains are essential to the life and culture of Sikkimese society, offering them resources and forming an essential part of the state’s economy. So it’s not a question why tribes would perform traditional dances as gratitude to Earth’s oldest formations. It’s more than a folk dance. The mountains are a backbone to society.
The choreography requires dancers to carry butter lamps and green bamboo leaves in a graceful fashion. They hop on their feet, wave the leaves, and sway their bodies from side to side. They also form large circles or queues without interrupting the dance. These props symbolise gifts given by the mountains to their people. The purpose is to specifically thank the mountains for providing salt, grains, medicine and sacred text. And to pray that the peaks continue blessing them with abundance.
The five peaks to which dancers offer thanks are Mt. Kanchenjunga, Mt. Kabru, Mt. Narsing, Mt. Pandim and Mt. Simbrum. Kanchenjunga (or Khangchendzonga) is the tallest peak in India and the third tallest in the world. Thus, this massive summit is the lead deity of the Lepchas.
The Chu Faat Dance is performed at many fairs and cultural festivals, e.g. the Pang Lhabsol festival.
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