Dancing with the times

It is important that composers and performers cater to the demand of the time. But the question is how to maintain a fine balance without losing the essence.

A scene from JNMDA's ballet 'Moirang Sha' (Pic courtesy: Moirangthem Ranjit)

Dance, like any other performing art, does not exist in a vacuum. Like a living organism it has to evolve. In its evolutionary process, it goes through certain changes. It cannot remain static. What is important is the essence which should be at all times kept intact and preserved. The essence is its identity, its roots. But then, any attempt to navigate through the imports of “identity” and “roots” is not an easy task. Scholars often fumble in trying to negotiate the elusive terrains when the two lexes come into play. Yet, not too long ago, an Imphal-based dance and music repertoire on its foundation day embarked on a unique trend. The organiser, in a departure from the conventional formal function, initiated a discussion on its foundation day. ‘Identity, Roots and Trends of Manipur Classical Dance Compositions’ was the theme of the discussion. The patron of the repertoire, who is a respected dancer, has also taught Manipur classical dance for many years. He made it clear the felt need of initiating a dialogue on the given theme. Among his expressed anxieties on Manipur classical dance is the necessity of innovative compositions without compromising its essence while adhering to contemporary taste.

To borrow Faubion Bowers’s words, “Soft, flowing, unintellectual and restful style” of Manipuri dance swept the country during the arid period of India’s dance history when “mathematics and perfectionism had until then precluded the entry of amateurs.” He noted that innate grace and natural mode of living give Manipur dancers an advantage. Most of the dance forms of Manipur are also deeply influenced by religious and spiritual moorings. With the passage of time, performances which were strictly confined to religious space have now come out of it. They are now performed elsewhere – on the stage, and sometimes in open playgrounds as a part of an ‘opening ceremony’ of a public event. These changes are inevitable.

It is important that composers and performers cater to the demand of the time. But the question is how one maintains a fine balance without losing the essence. In this regard, works and lives of celebrated composers like guru Maisnam Amubi and guru Rajkumar Priyogopalsana would throw divine light. Their dance compositions have left an indelible mark and are still appreciated today. The fragrance of their creative exuberance is still fresh. These gurus must have had also faced challenges of their times. But how do they steer their way through is something which we need to relook at. Guru Amubi had superb command over sports. This intrigued his disciple and asked him why he did not join the army like his father. The guru replies, “A Manipuri child is taught from the womb to bear tribulations and joys, to enjoy clashing of the swords and tinkling of the bells together. The best dancer is the best fighter in the land.”

Although we may have that “innate grace” till today, but Bowers’s observation of “natural mode of living” of the dancers is doubtful with the sweeping change in lifestyle. It would not be an exaggeration to point out that our society is also going through an aesthetic crisis. The crisis has become even more pronounced with the coming of the globalisation. How do we mitigate the crisis as an artist and as a citizen? Perhaps we can begin in a small way by learning to begin a public function in time, followed by an informed dialogue with mutual respect.

By Senate Kh

First Published:Sept. 18, 2020, 2 p.m.

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