On a warm evening at St Kilda Road, dancers from India’s north eastern state of Manipur enthralled an audience and had them wanting for more. For many, this was their first peep into a culture and tradition born of a state which despite its small size has so much to offer. In fact, India’s art and dance is not complete without Manipuri dance, which is pristine and unique in more ways than one.
The group of eight dancers and drummers were especially sent by the government of India through the Indian Council For Cultural Relations to perform as part of the Indian community’s fund raising concert for Victorian flood relief. The performers offered a glimpse into Manipuri style of Indian classical dance and the hall packed with people were treated to some of the best dances from the region including pung kortal cholom, Krishna jagoi and thabi kakpa, to name a few.
The first dance was dedicated to Lord Krishna. Manipuris are worshippers of Lord Krishna and Manipuri classical dance is associated with religion. In this performance, Krishna comes to the appointed grove Kunya on a full moonlit spring night to play Ras Lila (aesthetic dance) with his lover Radha and Gopis (girls). “Unfortunately, this time we had no Radha in the performance because everything was arranged in a hurry and we were asked to carry few members only. Otherwise, the Krishna dance is always accompanied by Radha and Gopis,” said Kamiljit Wahengbam, the performer. It is said that the Radha-Krishna Ras-Lila is one on the most chastest, modest, softest and mildest but the most meaningful dances of the world.
The stick dance also held the audience spell bound. This is a martial art form of dance where the artist shows his balancing skills with a big stick holding two thin sticks. He makes various patterns and shaped with these sticks. And perhaps the most daring performance of the evening was the thabi kakpa or blind cutting. Here the artist having been blindfolded with a piece of cloth cuts a cucumber pressed on the belly of a live person. It is a breath-taking act which requires a lot of practice and perfection. Said 25-year old Romeo, who was the cutter, “We coordinate the movement with the sounds of the drums.”
The show was wrapped up with a performance of dholok cholom or the drum dance which is performed during the festival of holi. The dance embodies movements full of joy, and other acrobatic movements in wild ecstasy.
After the show, the dancers interacted with the audience particularly the Manipuri diaspora in Melbourne, who had turned up in full strength to show support. Thanking the artists and the audience, outgoing Consul General Anita Nayar said, “They (artists) have been very kind and adjusted in this small stage, can you imagine what it would have been like in a big stage.” She hoped there would be a continuation of such events in the future.
Wahengbam said the troupe was on a seven-day tour of Australia wherein they also performed in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane being their last stop. Asked about their Australian experience, he said, “It has been very good, the people saw our performances for the first time and appreciated watching Manipuri culture for the first time. It was something very new to them and we also gave our best to make them enjoy. It is heartening to know too that we made a good impression.”
The performers belong to the Narayana Nrityalaya school and are seasoned dancers who in the past have toured the US, Canada, Russia, UK, Europe and China. The youngest in the group Romeo said, “I love world tours, there is a nice feeling because you are seeing something you have not seen at all. Besides, I am travelling on the strength of my merit and showcasing my talent.”
At the end of the day, Melbournians did have a taste of paradise on earth, as Manipur has rightly been called.