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Jewel from Manipur treasure trove
Photos courtesy: Bimbavati Devi

October 23, 2020

When Guru Bipin Sigh (1918-2000), hailing from a traditional Vishnupriya Manipuri family, shifted base from his homeland to Kolkata, he had his childhood vocation of singing and grooming in Manipuri dance - under Guru Amudon Sharma with the support of Manipur king -- to fall back upon, but he did not lose his burning desire to expand knowledge of the traditional dance form in the flourishing eastern metropolis. On the lines of his 'Govindji Nartanalay' dance school for women in Imphal, he founded 'Manipuri Nartanalay' in Kolkata in 1972. After Tagore's initiative into bringing Manipuri to Santiniketan, this was the first organized effort in training and innovating in the traditional art form in the East, producing a bevy of excellent dancers and - after him, under his dancer-wife Kalavati Devi and highly talented daughter Bimbavati Devi -- there has been no looking back since..

Ima (meaning 'Mother' in Manipuri) presented online on October 16 by Bimbavati is a startlingly new choreographic work of hers, with innovations seen in multiple dimensions. At the outset confides Bimbavati, "Manipur has much more than meets the eye. Although Manipur is popularly associated with Vaishnavism and the performing traditions revolving around the life of Lord Krishna, it is a part of the Himalayan Tantric belt; Shakti cult also plays a vital role in shaping the land's cultural edifice". The twin spirit is inextricably interwoven in the crystalline presentation.

My mother is like fire
You can't approach Her...
But once in a while my mother is like water
Inviting everyone to bathe in Her...
The most often my mother is like earth
Healing all the wounds in your heart
Sometimes also my mother is like air
Storming in your worldly affair
Endlessly my mother is like space
Pervading endless inner peace
She burns the ego...She waters the faith
She grows the strength...She blows the doubt...She is the Ultimate Truth...

Penned by Anais Carmen Bourquin (Anandi), Bimbavati's dancer-poet friend from France, the above verse provides the anchor for her visualization of the five primordial elements in the image of a Divine Mother. Taking the backdrop of an ancient temple, the lead dancer allows the metaphors grow from her body - like the opening of the lotus petals - descending down the derelict steps to let the paradigm unfold, one by one.

Somewhere the rituals merge and from the classicism of a universal mother emerges Manipur's very own folk-goddess, Panthoibi, the pre-Hindu Meitei goddess of power, prosperity, love and peace. She is invoked in lilting Panthoibi Seitharol - folk songs describing her prowess, to the accompaniment of Pung and Pena. Her valor must be enumerated, hence comes the martial arts of Thang Ta, with swords and virile steps, moving from slow-paced to rapid leaps.

The dancer-trio then takes over to bring in the mother image in its most explosive narrative on the vaginal concept of fertility. Again, the lingo of the musical lyric shifts imperceptibly from eulogizing the folk-goddess Panthoibi to offering ode to Durga as in the epical Shri Shri Chandi. To a query on the happy blending of the pre-Vaishnavite and the later traditions, Bimbavati opines, "There are many beautiful lesser known performing traditions of Manipur and I will always strive to spread the richness of the cultural heritage of Manipur, to bring forth the hidden treasures of the land by aesthetically using them in my work." Well done!

The artistes are: Dancers - Bimbavati Devi, Kankana Singh and Ivana Sarkar; narration - Bimbavati Devi; Thang-ta - Huirem Indu; Panthoibi Seitharol - Thokchom Lansana Chanu; Pena - Koijam Prem Kumar Meitei; Pung, Dholok and Langden - R.K. Upendro; with vocal support by N. Romila Devi; music arrangement and video editing by Suman Sarkar; and camera by Suman Sarkar and Souvik Banerjee. Financial support was provided by Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre.

You can watch the presentation on Facebook

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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