Basak: A dying art form

Rekha Konsam *

 Basak (Utkantha) performance by a group of women, the Kongpal Nupee Ishei Marup on 17 January 2021
Basak (Utkantha) performance by a group of women, the Kongpal Nupee Ishei Marup on 17 January 2021 :: Pix - TSE

On the 17th of January 2021, I was fortunate to witness a Basak (Utkantha) performance by a group of women, the Kongpal Nupee Ishei Marup, an organization that has its roots as a neighbourhood group or ishei marup.

The occasion was my first time attending a full Basak performance. Reference to such performance goes back to childhood days, particularly the kang (rath) festival, but at the time it always seemed to go together with khubak ishei and I never could distinguish the two neither did I ever get to watch the performances for more than a few minutes.

References to Basak did often come up, however it was not in context to performance per se, rather it was usually in reprimands to admonish an unheeding child of the repeated words by an elder/parents.

Curiosity led me to a hunt for lexicon. The dictionary gives three possible meanings to the term 'Basak' –
(a) a plant whose scientific name is gendarussa vulgaris;
(b) fragrant flowers and
(c) bed chamber.

The term 'utkantha', on the other hand, meant yearning for the loved one.

In essence, the theme of Basak performances are the nocturnal rendezvous of Radha and Krishna. The settings of these meetings are imagined as filled with fragrant flowers of various kinds. In the Vaishnava philosophy of Krishna worship, the divine love of Radha-Krishna is the bedrock of the bond of love between the worshipper and the worshipped.

In Manipuri Vaishnavism, this bond is most eloquent in its devotional performances for it is one form of Hinduism which is practice oriented. There are no 'audiences' in such devotional performances because everyone is a participant and each is in an emotive state fuelled by bhakti prem to experience the joy of being one with that larger expanse of prem sagar (nungshibagi ipak).

Basak is one such devotional performance within the Nat Sankirtana tradition. It is an expansion of Raslila. Based on the Lord Shri Krishna's Niti lila, Basak performances are centered on the theme of Radhika's meeting of Shri Krishna at Nivitwa Nikunjavan.

Radhika lovingly decorates a floral chamber at Nivitwa Nikunjavan with fragrant flowers and waits for Shri Krishna but he fails to make appearance for he is busy visiting other gopis. Radhika's initial anxiety at his non-appearance turns to anger and, in her anger, she wreaks the lovingly arranged flowers.

Her friends (sakhi) run helter-skelter searching for Krishna. They finally caught up with him at Chandravali Kunj. He is told of Radhika's anger and brought back to her. Seeing her beloved, Radhika's anger slowly wanes and they then play Basak together.

In the practice of Manipuri Vaishnavism, there are different types of Basak performances such as Bipralabdha, Khandita, Utkantha, Kalhantarita, Proktak, Bhatika, etc. These are different segments within the same broader theme. The Utkantha segment specifically focusses on Radhika's distress and deep pangs of yearning for her beloved Krishna at Nivitwa Nikunjavan.

As much as it is thematically based in religion, what is interesting is the exploration of emotions in the singing performance–the emotions of love, longing, expectation, anxiety and finally reunion. These emotions are relatable in the lives of every person in varying degrees.

It makes one wonder how these emotions have been employed in the musical tradition and more specifically how they are expressed in the Sankirtan traditions and what implications, if any, does it have along the gender lines.

Reflections on a Basak performance : As someone not educated in musical traditions but occasionally enjoying musical flavours, I wondered about the raga used and the set time when a Basak is usually scheduled while the Sociologist in me was curious about the structure of its performance.

To this end, my interaction with the performers of the day revealed more of their interest for pursuance rather than an informed knowledge. They shared their wish to know more and have more sessions to train themselves so that they can do a better job.

For the lead drummer, it was his first Basak performance after a gap of 20 years. When he was an apprentice drummer being trained under his teacher, such events used to be held quite frequently in most neighbourhoods. This kept them busy and they did not lack practice but they have since long been discontinued.

As patronage for Basak declined, these events gradually became rare infrequent events. The implication for this turn of events for the performers is that it meant less practice leading to gradual distancing from the said devotional art form.

The performance itself was a good attempt and, for me, an opportunity in itself to attend a full Basak presentation. However, as with many others, it also has scope for improvement. The singers come across as enthusiastic.

However, as we proceed into the performance, one misses the nuances of emotive inter-play in the singing. Radhika's pain and anxiety of yearning for her beloved fails to be conveyed or move the gathering.

One of the founding principles of Manipuri Vaishnava devotional performances is that there are no audiences per se. Everyone is a participant. A person does not come to 'watch', they 'attend'; just as the performance is not 'performed' but 'offered'.

There is a sense in which a performance is oriented inside-out requiring the performer the ability to emote. This ability to emote and move the audience through the performance is important more so if one were to approach the Basak as an art form rather than a devotional performance.

The drum also needs to be well versed for it carries the responsibility of setting the rhythm for the singing. It is in no way to be considered only as an add-on to the singing. In any performance, each and every piece has its place in the whole and the whole is comprised by its component parts.

At the end of the day, it was encouraging to witness the participation of women in the neighbourhood public space. More so in the arena of performance which seems to have weakened considerably to the point of extinction where it concerns non-professional or informal neighourhood groups that once used to flourish in various localities as ishei marup.

Women's performances in Manipur have tended to be delimited, traditionally and otherwise. One might say that the Maibis are examples of women's participation in these arenas in the Manipuri society. However, it is beyond a shadow of doubt that the maibis are more of an exception rather than an example.

Despite such delimitations, there seems to have been times when women actively participated. The neighbourhood ishei marup appears to have been one such instance but today, most of these groups have ceased to exist.

Interestingly the Kongpal Nupee Ishei Marup traces back to 1970s in the words of its President, Th. Tondonbi Devi and it was led and kept alive by elders who were themselves actively involved in singing.

The event organized by Kongpal Nupee Ishei Marup seemed to spark an interest among the performers to hone their skills in performing the Basak. This is a positive sign for it is crucial that the performers are informed about the performance they are involved in and can speak about it. It is also good news for a dying art form if it is able to receive a new breath of life.

Where there is a willingness, there is always hope.

* Rekha Konsam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on February 19 , 2021.

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