by Chitra Ahanthem
Most people say that those born in Manipur have an innate sense of dance. Often, elders “teach” or rather, introduce small babies to body co-ordination movements by saying, “taadhing dhin, taadhing dhin”. A majority of us would have had something to do with dance at one stage or the other: either taking part in Lai Harouba or performing at school/college or University functions. Manipur has a rich legacy of dance forms that reflects its vast diversity and the folk forms of dances are as renowned as the Classical dance form of Ras Leela.
Growing up in a neighbourhood that did not have its own Lai Harouba function and a rather strict family that kept the sole focus on studies, one did not have much to do with dance except at school functions where I had my first induction into Manipuri dance forms. Over the years at school, we ran through Kabui dance, Thougal jagoi, a Dus Avataar rendition amongst many other forms ( the most memorable being a mix between a folk dance and a Physical training exercise drill with ribbons tied on our wrists and attired in tribal dress!). One thing that remained with me was being totally confused over why the dance teachers who came in to train us in the various dances would insist that while performing, it was imperative that we kept expressions out of the performances and that we were not to look beyond our hand movements. A rather excited look on my face at a dance rehearsal led to a teacher led to my knuckles being rapped and much later, it was while in college performing a Manipuri group dance for a total Punjabi audience in College (who are known for their boisterous ways and total animation!) and subsequent reflections and discussions with friends that it dawned on me that the lack of facial animation in Manipuri dance forms could also be reflecting our own lack of emotional communication within the Manipuri society. While at hostel during College time, it was disconcerting to see the kind of emotional expression and affection that parents showed to their children or among siblings since family communication in our own Manipuri society is often stilted. But coming to the dance performance at College, there were only two refrains. The first was, of course that the dance movements were beautiful and full of grace. The second was a question and complaint, “why cannot all of you smile or look at the audience?”
Another interesting insight into the many mysteries of dance came quite by chance: Angana Jhaveri, a dance enthusiast and film maker was video documenting dance and symbolisms in Manipur. She wanted me to assist her in the logistics of the film with translations and accompanying her to shoots. Her film was mainly to look at dragon motives found in South East Asia. Accompanying her on a shoot to interview Padmashree N. Khelchandra, it was fascinating to learn that the grace seen in certain dance movements are taken from martial arts. When asked how martial arts which is about toughness resonates in the grace and subtlety of hand movements, the martial arts expert simply smiled away softly and still remaining seated did the sword/thang -ta movement where the wrists are rotated with great dexterity and swift movements in rhythm. He gave accompanying sounds with his mouth and then, the fast rhythm slowed down and suddenly, it was the soft movement of the hands and wrist doing the kajeng leiba that is a feature in Thougal jagoi!
Around the world, dance forms are a natural flow of social norms, its ways of courting and socializing. There are the imprints of religious fervor and devotion in some while others reflect the soul of being marginalized. Over time, not only have new dance forms come up but there are now many people who have begun to find out ways of looking at dance as an integral element for therapy. The announcement of a training on Creative Dance Therapy for Care givers at Imphal recently was a bit of a surprise since not many people here have looked into this arena. A bit of inquiries later, it came to light that the training was being organized by the Human to Humane Trans-cultural Centre for Torture Victims (H2H), an independent health and humanitarian service for survivors of Trauma and Torture in Manipur, India. Participants at the training included not only people dealing with people undergoing various forms of violence and trauma but also those dealing with people living with HIV/AIDS.
The sessions were being held under the guidance of Tripura Kashyap, who is not only a dance performer herself but also a trained and experience dance therapist. Asked how dance could be used for therapeutic purposes, Tripura also an author of a book “My body, My wisdom – A handbook of Creative Dance Therapy” published by Penguin said that it entailed not only dance as a performance but a process of dance forms to explore mental, emotional, physical awareness and communication. Thus, by modification of music, movements and props to suit specific needs and problems of people with disabilities or undergoing trauma were developed and taken up in stages. The book had interesting anecdotes of her experiences of working with autistic children and those with hearing impairment. But the best part of being an observer at the training program in bits and parts was the absolute freedom that participants (ranging from young children to people in mid life) exuded in their dance movements. The difference was palpable even within the short 2 day exercise: day 1 saw most women participants being a bit stiff and closed starting from their apparel (married women came in full sarees) but day 2 saw them more lively, interactive and more free in their movements. The dress too was on the comfort quotient: smart kurtas and leggings.
The training program could well be the beginning of something unique in Manipur for there is certainly no doubt that there is a need for therapy for the many people undergoing various forms of trauma, difficulties or suffering. And what better to undergo therapy than doing it through dance moves?