Dance of diversity

Dance of diversity

grace & beauty The ‘Pung Cholom’ dance of Manipur.

The Octave, according to Oxford English Dictionary, is “The day week of a festival, eight days, including festival and its day week.” In music, an Octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. This phenomenon is considered as the “basic miracle of music.”

At a recent festival of dances held at the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, Kolkata, the nomenclature for the event, “Octave”, merged both the elements. If not in the number of days — three days actually — the festival showcased the virtuosity of the folk dances from eight states in the North East, a slight extension of the ‘seven sisters’ group of NE states that is Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura with the addition of Sikkim. These states extending from the foothills of the Himalayas have a certain homogenous quality, though the differences are as great in performing arts. 

Most of the dances on display made it amply clear that the folk dances of the region are basically based on agriculture and celebration of Nature. Spring — a time to plough the field for sowing and harvest are of supreme importance to the farmer community and folk dances and songs are woven around them all across the world. The essentially folk beliefs and elements have now entered into the urban milieu as folk art traditions of a country or region. 

The spring Bihu or Rangali Bihu (Bihu of joy) of the Brahmaputra valley is now firmly ensconced as a symbol of Assamese folk dance. The vibrancy, the nymph-like movements of the women resplendent in Muga mekhela-chadar who whirl to the beat of the dhol, is now pretty familiar to the audience across the country. Why, even abroad! The group that came to perform in Kolkata  has also travelled to New York and other cities.

But less well-known are dances like Eme-Relo dance of Arunachal Pradesh or Hozagiri dance of Tripura. In Eme-Relo dance, women dress in black and white sarong-cum top dress. They belong to the Galo tribe of the Adis living in the West Siang district. The theme of the dance is based on the creation of rivers and animals living in the water.

The Hozagiri dance of Tripura was a discovery of sorts for most city-breds as they are less exposed to this folk dance. It belongs to the Reang community who, next to the Tripuris, constitute the second biggest group among the tribal population of Tripura. It is believed that they migrated to Tripura from somewhere in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the middle of the 15th century. However, some pundits point out that since in older times the boundary extended from Burma (Myanmar) to the Bay of Bengal, including the Lusai Hills (Mizoram), they were the original inhabitants of Tripura and have similarities with some tribes of Burma.

The women dancers dress in black sarongs and striped material tied at the back like a kachuli to cover the upper part (Pachra and Rea); heavy chains made of coins completely cover the upper part. They move to the beat rhythmically creating wonderful waves of lasya while round plates made of metal twirl around their fingers.

Only the lower portion below the waist moves since the dance also involves acrobatic movements. More awe-inspiring is the way they keep on moving even as they prop themselves up on earthen pitchers with a bottle on the head and a lighted lamp on it but never missing a beat. The dancers even form acrobatic formations with one girl standing on the shoulders of another, all the while keeping the lighted bottle intact. Musical instruments like Khamb, flute made of bamboo and bamboo cymbal are used.

From Meghalaya came the dancers of Masieh associated with the Nongkrem dance festival. Nongkrem dance is a part of the original autumn festival of the Khasi people which is held in autumn. The festivities are to celebrate a good harvest and appease Ka Blei Synshar, the ruling goddess of crops.

The Nongkrem dance is actually a part of the pom-blang (goat killing ceremony) performed by the Siem (king) of Khyrim (or Nongkrem). Traditionally, the Siem sends words to all villages to congregate with their offerings for the worship. The dance called Ka Shad Mastieh (dance of men) starts with men with sword and shields and chowries (fly-flaps or whisks) They are dressed in black and white attires of dhotis, full sleeved shirts, embroidered sleeveless coats and turbans which are adorned with cock’s feathers (U thuiyah).

The women, usually unmarried debutants, dance at the centre taking tiny steps, barely lifting their feet from the ground. Their dance is called Ka Shad Kynthei. The women wear rich silk clothes and silver or gold crowns with plates and hold down their arms to the sides and their eyes are demurely cast down.

Tiew Lasubon (a rare sweet scented golden coloured flower found only in the deep jungles), worn on the crown indicates the purity of women. The hair is worn tied in a knot behind the head but with a long tail hanging down and adorned with silver ornaments at the end. They also wear an assortment of silver and gold chains, coral beads, bracelets and earrings.

Meanwhile, to the sound of Tangmuri (pipes) and drums, the men dance round the south side of the circle of women holding their swords on their right hands and whisks in their left. The sword symbolises the man’s defence of himself, his house and his family and his mother, and the whisk signifies his care and sound advice.

The Cheraw dance or bamboo dance of Mizoram which was also on display recently made news by figuring in the Guinness World Records as the largest and the longest dance ensemble in the world. A total number of 10,736 dancers in 671 bu or groups performed this intricate dance. In the dance men sit face to face on the ground and tap long pairs of horizontal and cross bamboo staves opening and closing in rhythmic beats. Girls in colourful Mizo costumes of  Punchei, Vakiri and Yhihna dance in and out between the beats of bamboo to the accompaniment  of gongs and drums.

Cheraw is a very old traditional dance of the Mizos. It is believed that the dance form goes back to the first century AD, while the Mizos were still somewhere in the Yunan province of China, before their migration into the Chin Hills in the 13th century AD to the east of present Manipur-Nagaland border and eventually to the present Mizoram. Some of the tribes living in South East Asia have similar dances in one form or the other with different names.

The performance of other dances from the NE as part of the festival, like Nuknarar Tsungsang dance of Nagaland, the whirling-drum Pung Chalam dance of Manipur in Vaishnavite tradition, vindicated the diversity of North East not only in flora and fauna but also in folk traditions. Not to forget the Buddhist tradition reflected in Singhi Chham dance of Sikkim where dancers are attired as snow lions the guardian deity of the land as decreed by Guru Padamsambhava. He is revered as the teacher who first spread the word of Buddha in  Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet etc. The dance performed in autumn is also  a tribute to mount Khan-Chen Dzongpa, or the Kanchenjunga, worshipped in the land.

Octave rightly showcased how every corner of India has a unique folk dance tradition to offer.

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