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Festival of Dance Drama: An Candid Revisit

By Bobo Khuraijam
The swirls and the sways, gentle undulations of bodies in motion along with tunes and rhythms of well composed music, specifically designed to blend with the narrative of the play lifted the audiences to a height of evening glory. Shivering weather of Wakching was shooed away by the dancers of Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, Imphal with their three day performance of dance drama, celebrating completion of forty years’ journey of its Production Unit, in January this year.

Forty years of performance is indeed a long journey for the Production Unit. As rightly observed by renown commentators, what is even more significant is the number of countries the Unit have visited across the globe – forty countries. This Unit of JNMDA is in a way one of the leading cultural ambassadors of this region and the country.

In past the Academy has been nurtured by none other than masters like: RK. Proyogopalsana, Th. Tarunkumar Singh, Th. Babu Singh, S. Tondon Devi, Th. Suryamukhi Devi, S. Thanil Singh, Th. Chaotombi Singh, and Thouranishabi Devi; at present the artistic responsibility is being shouldered by W. Lokendrajit Singh, N Amusana Devi, Th. Ibemubi Devi and S. Noyonsakhi Devi, the Unit has graciouslymaintained the tradition of excellence.

To be given time to have candid chat with artists such as W. Lokendrajit, a choreographer who also looks after the Production Unit, N. Amusana, O. Jiten and P. Reepa is indeed a rare opportunity.

The Preparations: To perform three different productions consecutively for three days is something which demands not only commitment and expertise but also a deep sense of veneration towards the art form of dance drama. All the three plays arethoroughly based on Manipuri dance, which is unimaginable to disconnect from the mythical and spiritual moorings of the Manipuri civilisation itself.

“It was a difficult exercise to put into shape all the three plays which are unique in their own ways. KabuiKei Oiba was one of the most challenging plays. Choreographed by stalwart like guru RK. Priyogopalsana during mid-1970s, we were concerned to retain the original appeal as much as possible”, Lokendrajit said, in between some tally works, which had already occupied him much before my arrival at the Unit’s office chamber. With him was also Jiten, already a known face of popular Shumang Lila plays, seated across his table. Jiten also took key roles in the three productions.

What about the music which was composed way back in the 70s? Audio recording facility was almost non-existent during those days. “We are fortunate to have guru Th. Chaotombi and the pung artist Ng. Chandra who were involved in the early production of Kabui Kei Oiba. Both of them have guided us considerably in retaining a level of standard of the play. But it was not easy”, Loken added.

It came as a surprise when Loken revealed that the music of all the three plays was played out from recorded pieces. This was on the remark that the music and the audio system blended well with each other. He said it is cumbersome to assemble the whole of the orchestra unit. There are issues of logistics, mixing of the sounds which are technically demanding, and also orientation of the wings and the stage can haveunwanted resultant effect on the overall performance. “Western-European countries have auditoriums which are perfectin every aspects”, Loken declared earnestlywith a smile. Yet, as an audience one still nurse the desire to witness the play with live musical orchestra.

On Moirang Sha: Having choreographed and directed the play MoirangSha, Lokenin addition gave a moving performance taking the role of an elephant in the same play. Moirang Sha is an elephant that has human sensibilities, having brought up under the care of a loving mother in Moirang. The bodily movements and expressions are solely based on the Kartal Cholom, which is beautifully conveyed in the ‘angular sidesteps of the dancers’ feet and the delicate swaying and rounded curves of the arms’, as observed by noted a scholar commenting on Cholom.

The choreography subdued Moirang Sha in such a manner that the character rarely performed full frontal,which is unusual, particularly in a dramatical performance. Yet it won many a hearts of the audience. To this, Loken explained, “It was intended, such that a sense of ‘yearning’ to see more of MoirangShais kept alive”.

It must have been a testing time for the Unit to prepare the three plays. Loken agreed, “Yes. We had to rehearse for long hours, even one play after another on a single day. All artist of the Unit really worked hard. They can tell you more on it”. Immediately, Jiten seemed to be ready, almost on the verge of firing out staccato of words. But he was calm, like the characters he played.

“Well, I have never felt this way. My body drained out so badly. I have acted in theatrical plays and shumang lilas. The experience in dance drama is totally different. Alittle slip upin the movement can be so loud to the audience. It demands accuracy andfocus on our part”, said Jiten. Loken’s performance in the 90s inspired him to learn dance. He had also acted in theatre and shumang lila as an experiment. “There is a sense of immediacy in the way I get connected with the audience in shumang lila performance. Then again dance drama is altogether another experience which is not easy to describe”, Jiten chipped in.

Hers’ Story: Akademi awardee, N. Amusana Devi, who is also Senior Production Assistant of the Unit fall in love with dancing since very young. “I remember my cousin hitting me with a stool for going to dance classes. The family members were out right against it. But I managed to learn somehow. And here I am today, feeling well-heeled to be able to dance in most of the productions of the Unit”, said Amusana, sipping tea that was just served by someone from her family.

Meanwhile P. Reepa along with her husband, Nokuljit had also come to the house to join the chat. Reepa took the lead role, Devayani, in Bidai Abhishap. This talented young dancer is also a product of the JNMDA. “I begin to dance over film songs when I was a kid in the leikai and elsewhere. My introduction into JNMDA was a correct decision I made as a dancer, I think”, Reepa said with her coy smile. She has been able to complete her formal education till post-graduation alongside her dancing.

So how was Bidai Abhishap born as a dance drama? The play is a stage adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem of the same name. Amusana, the director & choreographer of the play had already revealed in her note on the challenges she faced while envisioning the play. Yet, she had little inhibition to tell more. “I must thank Oja Ratan Thiyam, the theatre guru, who had translated the poem into Manipuri. I initially went to him asking for a script that could be dramatized. I was perturbed when he handed over me the poem. So I requested for his help, to which he denied, saying that it should be my call”, she told.

It is heartening to learn how a famed artiste like Ratan Thiyam encourages younger artiste to hone their own skills, even to the extent of pushing their boundaries. After all, to be able to embark on a work of Tagore requires a certain degree of mental rectitude to begin with.

Where To Devayani: In the play, the choice of Reepa to take the role of Devayani has been a subject of discussion. Earlier, Chandan used to play the role, who is known for her prowess onstage, and also for her looks. Reepa was quick to unwrap her fears. “Anxiety ran all over mewhen I was told to play the role. I was worried to move into eche Chandan’s shoes. She is so perfect in so many ways. Even after the rehearsals at the JNMDA campus, Nene Amusana coaxed me into practices at her home in the evenings. I was so tensed even during the play”, she said.

Not to overstate, Reepa did justice to the role in spite of her anxieties. The climax scene of Devayani’s damnation of Kuchch on his departure to heaven will remain etched in the audiences’ memory. Amusana added, “I have seen and known her talent for some time. I was sure that she could deliver. I would love to see talented artistes like her to grow more”.

How about Devayani wearing nail polish in the play? Amusana replied, as Reepa struggle to bury her awkwardness, “Yes, they need to be very careful of such things, which could demean the play”. And how do Amusana see the dancing scenario in the present generation? Is the enthusiasm among the younger generation increasing or decreasing? “To be frank, I see lot of youngsters recruiting themselves into dance schools. No doubt it’s a good trend. But what is needed is one has to fall in love with it. Not just dance for the sake of it. I am retiring soon from JNMDA, but I would still love to dance as long as I can”, she said.



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