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Astad Deboo and the dance of rebellion in Manipur

By Chitra Ahanthem for Rediff.com
Last updated on: January 13, 2015 10:37 IST
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After performing with Manipuri artistes the world over, Astad Deboo, India's greatest contemporary dancer, performed with artistes of the Shri Shri Govindajee Nat Sankirtan in Imphal for the first time.

Chitra Ahanthem was curious how Rhythm Divine: River Runs Deep would go down with Manipuri audiences.

 

Astad Deboo

Image: Astad Deboo performs with artistes of the Shri Shri Govindajee Nat Sankirtan in Imphal. All Photographs: Ritam Banerjee and Amit Kumar

I first read about the dancer Astad Deboo in the Sunday supplement of a national newspaper in 1996 or 1997 -- that he was working with Manipuri martial artists. A decade later, I saw him perform at the Jawaharlal Dance Academy in Imphal, but it was a solo dance so I still didn't know if he would venture where others didn't.

Most dance collaborations with artistes from Manipur steer clear of breaking the form or movements of the Manipuri elements.

Any deviation from the traditional style of performing arts were and are frowned upon in my state, which has no dearth of people or organisations ever ready to take affront at whatever they feel should remain sacrosanct.

Dhol cholom, one of the traditional elements in the performance

Image: The Dhol cholom, one of the traditional elements in the performance.

 

Let me give you an example. Manipuri films are screened by three different committees that look for 'outside influences.' The committees -- one each for costume, music and lyrics, and on screen representation including language -- have to be shown every film before it goes to the censor board.

The scrutiny on literature and cultural expression is even more stringent, with authors and poets being asked to use only Manipuri words even though there are many words in the Manipuri vocabulary that are derived from Hindi or Bengali.

And anyone familiar with Manipur knows that Bollywood films have been banned here since 2000, and that women who wear anything other than the phanek -- the Manipuri sarong -- run the risk of raised eyebrows or worse.

So I was majorly curious how Rhythm Divine: River Runs Deep, the bravely innovative Astad Deboo's collaboration with artistes of the Shri Shri Govindajee Nat Sankirtan in Imphal, would go down.

The Manipuri Pung Cholom, sans the Pung

Image: The Manipuri Pung Cholom, sans the Pung.

 

As I watched the rehearsal of the performance -- at a Sangeet Natak Akademi festival of dance -- it struck me how difficult a journey it must have been for two different forms to come together.

Deboo had started out with Indian classical dance and later taken on contemporary dance, the elements of which he was infusing with the rigid tenets of Manipuri Pung (a kind of hand-drum). And on the other were the artistes of Manipur schooled to perform for rituals and restricted to certain set pieces for performances.

When I asked Deboo if he was aware that the purists would have strong words about his work with the Manipuri Pung artistes, he said it was only natural for people to be uncomfortable about stepping into uncharted territory.

"But what matters most," the dancer said, "is that even as there will be people who will be uncomfortable with the changes, there will be others who will be able to recognise that I have not diluted any nuances of the great traditions that have been around."

"I have great respect for Manipuri aesthetics and I am lucky to be able to take its essence to the world stage," he said.

Astad Deboo

Image: 'I have great respect for Manipuri aesthetics and I am lucky to be able to take its essence to the world stage,' says Astad Deboo.

 

During the performance, at the Maharaj Chandrakirti auditorium in Imphal, a renowned Pung guru sat in the audience grim-faced, did not applaud, and walked out just about 20 minutes into the performance. A few others followed suit.

But a majority of the audience cheered and whistled loudly.

Unsurprisingly, they were the younger generation of Manipur, who are caught in the push and pull of the state's politics and who are stifled by impositions that must not be questioned.

Astad Deboo had an able ally in the choreographic rebellion -- Guru Seityaban, an acclaimed Pung practitioner who heads the Shri Shri Govindajee Nat Sankirtan.

Seityaban told me that he had been "up there" -- a particular Manipuri phrase that means being summoned by the powers that be -- hint, it is not the government -- and being subjected to rigorous questioning following which one's fate can be sealed with a warning or worse -- over his role in promoting Nat Sankirtan (the ritual practice involving artists performing the Pung and others singing along with cymbals) that resulted in the dance form making it to the cultural heritage list of UNESCO.

Astad Deboo

Image: Astad Deboo had an able ally in the choreographic rebellion -- Guru Seityaban, an acclaimed Pung practitioner who heads the Shri Shri Govindajee Nat Sankirtan.

 

"They wanted to know why we were giving importance to Nat Sankirtan over the pre-Hindi rituals and observations," Seityaban said with a wry smile.

"I said that Nat Sankirtan was an integral feature in the lives of the Meiteis (Manipuri Hindus) and to take it away would be a blow to the cultural fabric of the people. But I was saved from peril only because one armed group agreed with my stance."

The aesthetics of Pung performers was "something that touched me, inspired me and challenged me," said Deboo.

For Guru Seityaban, it was the shrinking space for his practice -- Pung is increasingly relegated to courtyards on occasions like deaths and marriages -- that made him go say yes when Deboo approached him.

For both, the challenges were the same and yet different.

Astad Deboo

Image: The aesthetics of Pung performers was "something that touched me, inspired me and challenged me," says Astad Deboo.

 

When Deboo travelled to Manipur, he would be met with a bandh or strike or never-ending power cut. Guru Seityaban would grapple with the everyday challenge of keeping his students involved.

Chakpram Narendra, 26, who was part of the collaborated work, says that when the artistes do not have any shows, many have to find ways to fend for themselves, including working as daily labourers at constructions sites.

"What we get from performing at social functions are minimal and our skills ends at the courtyard," Narendra said. "But when we perform on stage, we have the platform to showcase our talent and Manipur's rich culture."

Rhythm Divine: Rivers Run Deep mirrored that struggle and the difficulties of liberalisation of art.

As the artistes crawled on stage, it perhaps depicted both their struggle as well as the struggle of the common people of Manipur.

And as the renowned dancer cried out "Ningtamme (I am free)," Astad Deboo was articulating what every Manipuri wants to hear.

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Chitra Ahanthem for Rediff.com in Imphal
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