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'Narta Sutra: The Dancing Thread' by Anjika
- Nita Vidyarthi
Photos courtesy: Anjika

February 17, 2019

'Narta Sutra-The Dancing Thread' recently staged at Kalamandir Kolkata by Anjika Centre for Manipuri Dance and Movement Therapy, was a sample of the spectrum of Manipuri dance blended into a new thought provoking, surprising mix that changes every day - the weaving, the fabric, literally and metaphorically. The Priti Patel production was a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary by celebrating, honouring and supporting the tradition of handloom through Manipuri dance. It was creatively supported by Weavers Studio, Kolkata, well into its 25th year and its founder, Darshan Shah, whose passion for hand crafted textiles has not only led to the opening of this treasure trove of sophisticated traditional weaves but has also been working for the cause of craftsmen thus making them self-reliant. A series of definitely prescribed Manipuri dance movements in its traditional richness and restraint choreographed by the renowned dancer Priti Patel, mythology, folklore and rituals with a splash of colour, explored the story of textiles and their creators in Narta Sutra-The Dancing Thread.

The spring and impulse of Narta Sutra stemmed from the agricultural economy of Manipur. Some of the agricultural plants and their produce are prominent offerings made at the Lai Haraoba festival - the ones important being the musaceous plants and the morus alba or the silkworm mulberry, bamboo and cotton too. Incidentally, Manipur is famous for its special fabrics like moiraing phee, leirum, raniphi and many more.

The imaginative choreography touched history and was elaborate yet simple. The presentation commenced with an invocation through blowing of conch shells, playing of drums and pena (a stringed instrument). The sequence, the structure and the narrative chimed true to memory as it began with the handloom textile market being gradually overpowered by produce of the power looms of European merchants. This was a massive threat to the innumerable weavers thereby heading towards destruction. Thang-ta artists and drummers captured the situations best with their skilful martial arts movements. Thus the colours of happiness submerged into the dark hues of dismal events and was expressed in the canvas of warp and weft which also carried the story of the journey of the weaves and the weavers. However it was Gandhi's coarse cloth Khadi and the spinning wheel that was a symbol of protest against the British rule in India through non-violence. The warp and the weft, for that matter the cloth has been used with artistic depth both on stage as props and also metaphorically as imagery of weaving hope, despair, the journey of life or death and eternity encasing the visual splendour into a spectacle. Appropriate light designing enhanced the texture of the rich idiom and the beauty of its execution. An experience of complete aesthetic surprise came through horizontal and vertical criss-crossing of threads across the stage which appeared as the loom. Lengths of colourful and exquisitely woven fabrics enlivened with motifs from nature carried a great emotional charge. As the cloth was woven and clothing stitched the human understanding of the world crept into the threads encasing them in the folds and stitches as cloth indicates culture.

So Patel has incorporated delicate Lai Haraoba movements, chalis and bhangi parengs with songs steeped in traditional music and group dances to portray the ethos of the people of Manipur. Through the coherence of dance and musical rhythm, the competent group of dancers in the sequence of plucking of cotton balls and the pung players enthralled the audience showing fine coordination and training. The presentation included the folklore of Lord Vishnu, giving birth to the cloth from his navel.

The finest muslin and silk came from the same navel from which sprung Brahma, the father of all living creatures. This thread was given to the weavers, so that they could weave cloth for the gods. Thus, fabric is the gift of Vishnu and all this expressed by subtle graceful step vocabulary.

The mystic of Muslin was described as woven air, flowered and figured, like the skin of the moon. Lengths of gossamer veil were dropped from the upper rigs of the stage at different spacings with the dancers involved with delicate steps caressing them. This made for an ethereal experience, the spectacular thread - cloth - being visualised like the light vapor of dawn. For many, cloth became a canvas to express their devotion. To hold the fabric and gaze upon it is to be transported into a timeless past.

Patel used the classical sequences and shaped them into kaleidoscopic, crystalline patterns. And to watch her dance with others amidst these shimmering lengths of fabrics was a great privilege. The sheen of antiquity on the soft cloth was heightened by luminescent afterglow lights than a lover's sigh, softer than a butterfly's wings. Its transparent simplicity lay in its subtle pull upon the imagination of the poets as expressed in 'The Silk-worm' by Rumi. And finally the journey ended in the silence of the looms, though only momentarily, for it emerged yet again in another form, in another time.

Patel expressed all these with subtlety in her imaginative lyrical choreography to showcase the poignant story of the human spirit's triumph over adversity. The breathtaking agility of the martial arts artists, their acrobatic feats expressing agitation and the expertise of dhol cholom players attracted applause. A superb production, a memorable experience, "The Dancing Thread" can be seen again and again. A special mention for the invitation card nicely tucked in a mesh of thread resting on a slick bamboo frame resembling a loom.

Dr. Nita Vidyarthi is a veteran critic of performing arts and writes on dance, music and theatre in leading publications.