Authenticity amidst innovation - The Hindu, 11.04.2014 by LEELA VENKATARAMAN
Event Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy celebrated its 60th anniversary with a colloquium anda dance festival in Imphal.
Unlike an aging drab sixty-year-old, thanks to the combined efforts of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the State Government, propelled by a zestful chairman in the Governor of Manipur, the spruced up and refurbished Manipuri Academy at Imphal sported a bright new look. Apart from the predictably celebratory ambiance,the four-day event simultaneously became a stock taking 
exercise on the progress so far and what still remained to be done in attaining the goals withwhich late Jawaharlal Nehru, as early as in 1954, proposed setting up this institution.That the main pillars of Manipuri like Lai-Haraoba, Nata-Sankirtana with its main components Ishei, Pung and Cholom, and Ras-Lila, had received a shot in the arm through the training courses of the academy was obvious, though mediocrity is a plaguing factor with excellence not always within reach, and the pervading conditions of insecurity (vastly improved from what little one could gather in a week’s stay), had further complicated the work atmosphere for artists.

Leela Samson, Chairman of SNA in her inaugural talk raised the crucial question of how far teachers understood that passing on technique without the spirit accompanying our art forms, was equal to equipping youngsters with an empty shell. To make the student gradually understand why we do what we do, and its connections with the soil in which the culture has been nourished, was the way towards ensuring an evolving awareness of one’s real identity. Guru Singhajit Singh during the National Symposium with Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan (whose connections with Manipuri go back to her days as a disciple of Guru Amubi Singh) as Chairperson, delving into the unique features of Manipuri, said that preserving these was the need of the hour, without attempts at imitating other forms of dance. To recapture that devotional spark in Nata-Sankirtan, without being tempted by cosmetic edited versions for audience applause. Devjani Chaliha, one of the senior most disciples of Guru Amubi Singh, dwelt briefly on aspects of her training under the legendary guru.

Spirited discussion revolved round the subject of solo Manipuri, which, in what is traditionally a group form, has not acquired the kind of format for concerts seen in other classical dances. Priti Patel in her talk drew attention to the complications of having to change costume for each item, thereby making for inordinate delays, not allowing the programme to flow and attain a climax before tapering off. Venerated gurus intervened that a Lai Haraoba Jagoi which is a ritual for the Maibee, cannot be transferred to the proscenium without the traditional costume. Ratan Thiyam who chaired the session concluded that a traditional costume for a traditional item can be different from a costume with a Manipuri flavour, designed for a newly choreographed work. But with solo Manipuri, comprising individual items from the traditional repertoire, the solo dancer has little reprieve from constant costume changes. The idea of a general costume as in Bharatanatyam or Odissi is not possible in a form where the dancer is not narrator but donning a specific role. There was general agreement that more work was needed to widen the solo repertoire. One occasionally felt confusion caused by words from Sanskrit texts, while codifying grammar and technique in Manipuri, where words like ‘Pung raga’ have a different connotation.

Memorable performances

The performance part of the celebration saw some memorable Manipuri solos presented by S. Noyonsakhi Devi whose emotive communication had quiet strength, very different from the strong dancing of Th Ibemubi Devi whose definitive nritta and angikabhinaya had very convincing quality. Amongst the young gold medallists, Monika Devi’s Jagoi, one of the Lai Haraoba rituals, was interesting. Bimota Devi whose presentation had an element of theatre, Sh. Jaenswor Sharma and Sangeeta Thokchon were the other dancers. Edited sequences of group presentation by students of Lai Haraoba, of Holi-Pala with its vibrant energy and cymbals and Thang-Ta by female artists, and Nata-Sankirtana projected glimpses of the kinds of training in the Academy. The Vasant Ras presented on the inaugural day was particularly well executed. The Manipuri Repertory’s presentation of a dance drama “Bidai Abhishap” based on Rabindranath Tagore’s work choreographed by Amusana Devi, had an entrancing Devayani in dancer in G. Chandan Devi with Jiten Singh a convincing Kuchch, though the production needs tightening. The dramatic first meeting of Devayani and Kuchch and her later angry curse at having been rejected by Kuchch who has taken the vow of renunciation were effective. The recorded music, apart from being too loud, could do without touches on the synthesiser and other effects, and the lights one felt could be lessened, enabling the smooth flow of the narrative without constant changes. W. Lokendrajit Singh made a fitting Shukracharya.

Yet another Tagore play “Chandalika’’ was dramatised by the Sattriya Kendra, Guwahati, under the choreography of Guru Jatin Goswami. The visual impact notwithstanding, one would have wished for a stronger Sattriya identity in the choreography, which made the dance lightweight. Some strong nritta sequences could have been knit into the scene of all the hocus-pocus of witchcraft by the Mother, whose role was enacted by Anita Sharma with feeling. The costumes and the musical score (though the text was in translated Assamese language), in trying to imitate the Santiniketan/Rabindrasangeet mode, lost out on the Sattriya identity, which should have been maintained. Padmolochna Konwar made a convincing Prakriti. Music genre should ideally go with the movement character. Without that take-off base, intrinsic quality gets hurt.
The best of the performance part came in sequences presented from Moirang Sha by Lokendrajit Singh who has utilised the technique of Manipuri Sankirtan and Thang Ta and Manipuri Nupi Pala and cholom to such effect without diluting the communicating strength of the story of the tragic elephant. The baby elephant walk and separation from the mother, the sringar bit with the lone she-elephant and the final war scene when he is killed tied to a spot, were amazingly powerful in movement designing. And what creative costuming! Also enlightening were demonstrations of the ‘Pena’ being played and Cholom by Guru Shyamchand Singh.

Yet another unforgettable experience was watching the Nupi Pala and Ariba Pala in the JNMDA mandap. The interaction between the powerful singing and the pung specialists is unique and the Ariba Pala, unfortunately an almost disappearing tradition today, had an energy quotient which was incredibly powerful, the wave like undulations of calm and frenzied pung playing and singing providing constant contrast.

Also a part of the festival was a Kathak production visualised by Sharmishtha Mukherjee catching shades of Benares, the dance substantiated with some emotive visuals of life in Varanasi. Some sequences, like the hectic activity in a chowk, were well captured in the dance. Sharmishtha as a dancer has unexceptional nritta, exhibiting her best side in the abhinaya to the thumri “Raske bhare tore naina”. She certainly has potential for interpretative dance — but by acquiring more of that punctuational head tilt or eye glance or hand movement at the optimum fractional interval of tala or sama, her portrayal will gather that enhanced punch which only comes through these nuanced gestures. This applies to the singer Kumud Diwan too, who otherwise was very melodious. The deathlessness of the soul and its solitary nature, portrayed through the Kabir lyric “Udajayega Hans Akela” composed by Kumar Gandharva, was moving. But the general group sequences needed more synchronisation and better coordination. The various religious denominations portrayed in a row seemed too clichéd and like moralising.

What one would have liked was enhanced participation in discussions and presence of the students

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