by Aarti M Bodani, Chennai 

August 2001

I love attending workshops; we learn so much from them. And one of the nicest was Khamba Thoibi, a 7-day workshop in the third week of July on Manipuri folk dance. Birohini and Biseswar who had come all the way from the North Eastern Indian state of Manipur at the invitation of The National Folklore Support Centre were our guides to this wonderful, graceful dance style. The workshop was held in Chitra Visweswaran’s dance school and was an eye opener in the sense that what we see as simple, unenergetic movements are actually full of internal verve and energy that can be experienced only when we ourselves do the dance movements.  

The few of us who had enrolled for this workshop were quite ignorant about Manipuri folk dances. On the first day, the teachers performed for us. From a Bharatanatyam dancer’s point of view, maybe even from an audience point of view, the movements looked very boring and repetitive, as if there were almost no particular steps. I thought the whole thing looked so effortless.  

When we started our actual class the next day, I discovered otherwise! As a Bharatanatyam dancer used to firmly delineated movements, I was surprised to find that it was quite difficult to make the gentle, wavy finger movements and suffuse the movement with controlled energy. We literally had to soften our fingers. Another thing was the intricate footwork.  

An interesting aspect was that the Manipuri costume being narrow, like a wrap around skirt, our feet were close together and we had to exercise our energy levels to move our feet within the confines of our costume. Bharatanatyam dancers use a lot of space and move around, but we had to learn to move lightly on our feet, yet imbue the movements with weight and energy. 

Sets of about 21 steps were taught to us everyday 3 at a time before lunch. After lunch, Birohini explained about Manipuri folk art and told us the local legend of Khamba and Thoibi on which our dance was to be based. The post lunch session on the second day was spent in singing a Manipuri folk song. It was great fun. Birohini sang line after line which we followed though the words were in the Manipuri language and difficult to follow. But we ultimately did learn the lines of the beautiful song; it was so soft and melodious.  

After the story telling of first day and singing on second day, it was costume and make up lessons on the third day. We were taught how to wear the Manipuri costume and how to put chandan mark on the forehead. Married Manipuri women wear this chandan mark, the male dancers too. I got into the spirit of the dance once I got into my costume. I felt I was able to do the gentle Manipuri dance movements more naturally and with more energy and grace befitting the dance. 

The remaining days of the workshop was spent in learning more Manipuri folk music and combining the steps we had learnt into a coordinated choreography. Without actually using musical instruments, the slapping of our hands against our thighs provided the rhythmic sounds. Birohini taught us how to use our fingers to mimic the playing on a percussion instrument. As for facial expression, there were hardly any eye movements; we just had to have a pleasant smile through out. Birohini was very meticulous in handling the different aspects of the workshop. 

We performed what we had learnt on the last day. As there was only one sample costume to go around, I danced in a long silk skirt and blouse. The whole week was full of fun, yet such an enriching experience. This workshop was a boon to all of us living down south. Yet the response from local dancers was so poor, there were only a handful of us who participated. The timings could have been a problem, with a lunch break too. The high fee could have been another factor. To ensure that more participants benefit from such workshops, the dancers or non-dancers, themselves could come forward and speak to the organizers and work out an amicable solution to this eternal timing and fee problem that is the bane of most workshops. 

Aarti Bodani is a senior member of the Arangham Dance Ensemble.