Manipuri dance, to the rest of the world, i s p r e - dominantly the essaying of ‘Raslila’. A highly evolved dance drama, it involves a group of dancers representing Lord Krishna and the Gopis. Bimbavati Devi states at the very outset that she is a soloist.
“The Manipuri dance that people identify with is the image of Raslila, performed with elaborate outfit. That is just one aspect about Manipuri dance and the land has numerous other genres of dance and music.
” As the daughter of veteran dancers Guru Bipin Singh and Kalavati Devi and a partner of their premier dance school in Kolkata, Manipuri Nartanalaya, the onus of salvaging the dance from being typecast was imperative. “There are two facets to my dance.
One is the pure classical, which is like a universe in itself. Even what my parents have created, I will not be able to complete in this life time. At the same time, I would also like to add t o t h i s classical repert o i r e i n my own humble way.
So, I am creating a few new compositions and also slightly re-choreographing some of the items composed by my father,” says Bimbavati who was in the state to take part in the ongoing Mudra dance festival. She, along with her mother, has taken up yet another ambitious project - to bring into the mainstream dance repertoire traditional Manipuri songs.
“We have a rich musical heritage in Manipur. There are songs in Manipuri and Sanskrit and also old Bengali, which was popularised by the medieval saint Chaithanya Mahaprabhu and his Viashnavite cult.
Many of these songs are not used to compose d a n c e items. So we are creating compositions based on them. ” Her dance drama based on Rabindranath Tagore’s celebrated work ‘Chirangada’ had earned her much praise. But it is the adaptation of a concept elucidated in Geetanjali that she found most challenging, says Bimba.
“The concept explored the relationship between the supreme power and the poet, a mere mortal. It was a very abstract concept and I had found it extremely challenging to give it a tangible form.
In another composition, I also experimented with voicing the inner turmoil of Vishnupriya, the wife of Lord Chaitanya; her sacrifice as a woman and her ultimate reconciliation with the path chosen by her husband.
” The liberty she would take when experimenting with the dance form will always stop short of intruding into the essence, she says. “I would not tamper with the basic framework.
For instance, I would not wear a slack or T-shirt even if it is a very contemporary composition. My mother would kill me if I do that,” she laughs and eyes her sleeping mom. “But when I did Tagore’s dance drama, I wore a different kind of dupatta and went on stage with out a trace of make-up.
There would be some perceptible difference about the costume, but it would still look very Manipuri,” she says.
Her comp o s i t i o n s have come to reflect the many genres of dance and music native to her land and which are complementary in many ways. The movements are evocative of the folk traditions and Thang ta, the native martial art.
“I have learned just enough of it to use it in my dance and it lends a very exotic touch to the footwork and postures. ” She refuses to acknowledge the similarities drawn between Manipuri dance and Kerala’s Mohiniyattam.
“Just because they both have slow movements, it does not make them similar at all. ” She demonstrates the difference in character by tracing a wide circle with her torso, one of the signature movements in Mohiniyattam.
“This is essentially absent in Manipuri dance and the basic movement is a side to side swaying of the torso,” she says and moves her nimble form, capturing the grace of it all with that lightest of gestures.
Nevertheless, she has been enthralled by the beauty of Kerala’s traditional dance forms.
A devoted fan of Bharati Sivaji’s Mohiniyattam, she says she was spell bound by a Kutiyyam performance by Kapila Venugopal. “I have a lot of Malayali friends and I call Bharathi Sivaji, ‘Chechi’ like everyone else at her school. I admire Keralites for preserving their tradition,” she says.
She rises and straightens her traditional Manipuri dress, which she says is her most preferred outfit. Then, like a very eager child, she invites you to look at the gossamer dance dress she was going to wear that evening.