Dance of grace

Dance of grace

The traditional Manipuri dance still shines due to its new and varied dance styles, while its basic idiom remains a sinuous free-flowing movement, writes Hema Vijay.

If there is one Indian dance tradition that is not in danger of fading away due to popular culture, it has to be Manipuri dance. Every Manipuri — male or female, young or old — can dance; they don’t think twice before leaping into the dance arena during festivals and gatherings. The temple dance tradition is very much alive still in this land; Khamba Thoibi, the Manipuri god of dance is as revered as Krishna. In Manipur, dance is as much a part of every child’s school curriculum as math and science.

Meanwhile, it is not just the stalwarts who have dedicated their lives to dance, like Hanjaba Guru Bipin Singha, Guru Chandrakanta Singha — Nartanachrya, Guru Nilmadhab Mukherjee, Guru Haricharan Singha, Bibhaboti Devi and Kalabati Devi et al are sought out to stage Manipuri dance across the globe, mesmerising onlookers with their easy grace and sinuous movements.

Performing professional dancers often turn out to be students pursuing some other career or people established in other careers. In a sense, festivals of Manipuri dance are perhaps not required by the Manipuris themselves, but only by the rest of us — to gape at the vast spectrum within the Manipuri dance and to take inspiration from this culture, where dancing is truly a way of life.

Dance diversity

“Young Manipuri people do continue to want to learn our dance traditions, but the problem is that there aren’t many producers or stages for it in Manipur. The danger is that without local stages, contemporary compositions and productions will not have enough impetus to sustain it as an evolving dance idiom. We do need to keep generating elaborate compositions,” rues S Sharat, a Manipuri dancer who was in Chennai city recently, courtesy the Festival of Manipuri Dance, organised at the beautiful Dakshina Chithra heritage centre.

The diversity of Manipuri dance forms is perhaps impossible to document. It is not just that Manipuri dance has five forms of Ras Leela alone. There are probably as many dance styles as the number of villages there are in Manipur. “Many of our villages often may evolve a new style every year, incorporating dance iconography that they pick up from nature — from birds and beasts as well as trees and winds, or incorporate idioms from the dance forms of other villages,” says dancer N Bipin.

Consequently, a constant churning happens in Manipuri dance, though its basic idiom remains a sinuous free-flowing movement. Manipuri dance does have its mudras with even distant ties with the mudras of Bharatanatyam. But Manipuri dance is more freestyle than structured because it takes inspiration from the nature, from the verdant hills and streams that dot the region. Manipuri dance is also tightly bound to divinity and are key elements of Manipuri religious rituals.

There is the Lainingthou male god and the Lairembi female god in several dance compositions. In places, Manipuris look at Shiva as guru and the god of dance. There is the classical Geet-Govindam; then of course, there is Ras Leela, the exalted celebration of Krishna. “Our Ras Leelas are famous now, but people outside Manipur are scarcely aware of our numerous other dance forms,” points out Bipin.

Lesser-known forms

For instance, there is our Maibi Jagoi, (Maibis being the high priestesses of the ancient Manipuri tradition before Vaishnavite worship entered the scene here) that includes rituals, with the Maibis performing dances to awaken their deity from slumber; Lai Haraoba (meaning ‘merry making of the Gods’) to please the deities known as Umang Lai, with dances centred on concepts like creation of the universe and evolution; Pung Cholom (drum dance) that synchronises body movements with drum beats, with the same person drumming as well as dancing, with somersaults, mid-air spins and acrobatic leaps; Artal Cholom or Cymbal Dance that begins sedately, gradually picks up speed and ends in a crescendo; and then there is the beautiful and seductive dance of Thabol Chongba.

“Devotion and grace are the key to our dance, and both facial expressions and body movements revolve around this. So, Manipuri dancers are trained to keep our footwork light, never striking hard against the ground without jerks, sharp pauses or even straight lines. But we do have the step or weave pattern,” explains Sharat. Manipuri music and their instruments are inseparable from their dance. There is the Pena, supposedly the oldest string instrument of Manipur that accompanies Maibi Jagoi; the Pung, which is a cylindrical drum; small cymbals; the flute that is used liberally and the voice of the singer.

Well, ever since Rabindranath Tagore discovered Manipuri dance and set it on world stage, the world remains mesmerised by graceful Manipuri dancers. No wonder the legend endures that the light-footed and graceful Manipuris are the descendants of Gandharvas, the divine dancers of the Gods.

A way of life

It is not just dance that Manipuris live by, but also martial arts. Martial arts are looked upon more as an art form than a war form, and martial arts as a performance art is inevitably clubbed with dance genres by the Manipuri people.

A parallel to this can be seen far south in Kerala in recent times, with kalaripayattu and kathakali complementing each other. “In Manipur, martial arts were once the exclusive prerogative of royalty,” informs Sharat. But today, every mainstream school teaches both dance and martial arts to all its students.

The most famous of them all is perhaps the Thang-Ta, meaning sword and spear. “The sword symbolises the body, and the spear represents the soul,” explains Sharat. Thang-Ta is one of the oldest forms of traditional martial arts of Manipur. In Thang-Ta, the sword, the spear and the shield wielders have their own techniques, which might take on both decorative and combative styles. And yes, even today, many Manipuris perform Thang-Ta with real swords.

While the combative movements can seem quite menacing, the decorative movements of Thang-ta take on the typical fluidity of Manipuri dance and call for elaborate footwork that takes the performer all round the stage. It is a show of dexterity and agility and fantastic body coordination. In fact, body coordination in Manipuri dance and martial arts extends not just within the dancer/warrior’s individual body but to the entire group, making for a fluid performance.

A simple folk who relish their rice-dal dishes and aloo based chutney, Manipuris remain deeply connected to nature, living a sustainable life out of choice rather than out of need. Every Manipuri can weave a bamboo basket, and dancers often weave baskets between dances, tearing the strips from the bamboo reeds that are raised in every Manipuri home. Perhaps, it is this oneness with life that makes Manipuri culture in general and Manipuri dance in particular such a vital and throbbing art form.

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