Despite its small size and remote geographical location, Manipur in India’s northeast has more than one feather on its cap. It gave Polo to the world, it has produced eminent sportsmen and its Manipuri dance is touted as one of the top classical dances of India. But with not many proponents of this art form internationally, Manipuri dance is still shrouded in secrecy for many. However, Melbourne gets a peep into its rich culture this February as noted dancer Sinam Basu Singh showcases this rich theatrical tradition of dance in its archaic, animistic and classical forms.
According to Dr Chandrabhanu, founder of Melbourne’s oldest dance academy the Chandrabhanu Bharatnatyam Academy, who has been instrumental in getting Basu to Australia, “Sinam Basu is the exciting new face of Indian classical dance,” adding, “Critics all over India are buzzing with acclaim for this very moving artiste.”
Interestingly, Basu’s solo dance performance is a very challenging one given that Manipuri dance incorporates a lot of group-based narration. But it is his solo performance that has touched the hearts of many including Chandrabhanu who was witness to Basu’s magical performance at the Nartaka Award 2012 in Kuala Lumpur where Chandrabanu was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. So moved was Chandrabhanu by this Manipuri talent that he was soon working to bring him here to conduct workshops and enrich the Australian experience.
“When you think of Manipuri it is the standard group repertoire. So what I am trying to do is take the solo Manipuri form that Basu is known for and help him develop it.” The renowned dancer and choreographer is looking at a long term relationship with Basu so that he can teach Manipuri dance in Australia as also perform “Basu is in his prime, he has a lot of creative ideas. I would like to promote this dance form as much as I can,” says Chandrabhanu, adding, “Basu’s performance on February 14 & 16 has two surprise elements in the start.”
“The Manipuri dance tradition is not seen very much outside of India,” says Chandrabhanu. “Whatever development that is going on with the training and performance in Manipur is something the outside world is not aware of for them to tap into the possibilities. For instance, Odissi and Bharatnatyam all had their big revival in the 1950s but it has taken a while for the Manipuri dance to recognise the solo performance,” says the veteran dancer.
Acclaimed dance critic, scholar and historian Ashish Mohan Khokar also says, “To do solo format Manipuri is a huge challenge. This is because the group raas or traditions such as Lai Haraoba are core to its being.” But Basu, according to Khokar, surmounts all the limitations and makes Manipuri solo very watchable.
Basu explains that the classical Manipuri solo was conceived in 1936 and something he is trying to be an exponent of. “My solo numbers tell stories, there is a bit of freedom but the base is the raslila with all the nuances of play and expression.”
Grandson of a Meitei pung (form of drum) player of Nata Sankirtan, and trained in Manipuri Nartanalaya Imphal, Basu grew up in a typical leikai (suburb) in Manipuri where dancing was the order of the day. He recalls he was often the youngest who fell last in the queue. But as soon as sound of the pung rent the air, Basu stood out with his rhythm and grace. Soon alongside his studies he did his diploma in the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s premier institution. Here he learnt the learnt the five raas – basant, devya, nitya, kunja and maha raas in the true guru-shishya parampara or tradition. Further he completed his graduation and Masters from the renowned Vishwa Bharati University Shantiniketan, which marked the turning point in his career as a dancer. Currently he is also pursuing his PhD on the role of the Pena, an ancient musical instrument, intrinsic to Manipuri dance.
Manipuri dance, says Basu, incorporates the rich tradition of its indigenous belief system the Sanamahi which goes back to the Vedic times as also the Krishna bhakti form of Hinduism which became the state religion in the 15th century. The Lai Haraoba is one of the main festivals still performed in Manipur which has its roots in the pre-Vaishnavite period. Lai Haraoba is the earliest form of dance which forms the basis of all stylised dances in Manipur. “Manipuri dance is a living art form,” says Basu. Manipuri dances became nationally known after the Bengali philosopher, poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, saw Manipuri dances in 1919 and became a great admirer of them. He invited an important teacher-guru to teach them at Santiniketan, his own university.
The beauty of Manipuri dance, further explains Basu, is that it is a natural dance form where subtlety is the key. “It is an expression of devotion to God and respect is key. So for instance, you don’t go to watch the raslila, you go to pray and join the performance which is a form of worship. Dance is not for audience entertainment.”
A dedicated and promising young exponent of Manipuri dance, Basu is an approved artist of National Doordarshan and also empanelled for ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relation). He has been honoured with innumerable awards such as National Scholarship (ministry of culture), Nrityanjali – best male dancer of North East India, Sringar Mani, Natyasree, World Dance Day Puruskar, Kalaajeeva, Nritya Jyoti, and Nritya Shiromoni among others. For Melburnians, this is a great opportunity to have a peep into ‘one of the highest living art forms’, in the words of Basu.
By Indira Laisram