Family Connections

First published in Time Out Mumbai, August 15, 2014

What do Mumbai and Manipur have in common? A long association with Manipuri dance, for one. Thanks to a little wanderlust, Manipuri, a classical dance that was deeply entrenched in the socio-cultural fabric of the Meitei community, quickly gained resonance outside its home state in the pre-Independence period. It was a popular creative resource in the modern dance world and attracted scores of urban dance students interested in exploring new dance forms. Referencing this itinerant history, the annual August Dance Residency at the NCPA hosts Manipuri Nartanalaya, the dance institution founded by the renowned Manipuri choreographer and teacher Bipin Singh.

Over three days, the residency features performances, masterclasses and seminars by Singh’s wife and daughter – Kalavati Devi and Bimbavati Devi, based in Kolkata, and his key Mumbai-based disciple Darshana Jhaveri. Veteran dance historian Sunil Kothari joined the residency, visiting a suburban college to speak about the history of Manipuri and its links to Rabindranath Tagore. Of his talk, he said, “Tagore saw Manipuri in Agartala and requested the Maharaja to send a teacher to Santiniketan. He used Manipuri in his dance dramas, drawing attention to classical dance forms in the 1930s.”

Manipuri also influenced the work of modern dance practitioners like Uday Shankar and Madame Menaka. It was with Menaka that Singh first worked, teaching at her school in Khandala and learning the rudiments of other classical dance styles. Subsequently, he began to teach Jhaveri and her older sisters – Ranjana, Nayana and Suverna, in Mumbai. Over several decades, Singh collaborated with the Jhaveri sisters, researching Manipuri’s connections to Meitei traditions and its links to dramaturgical texts like the Natyasastra. Under his tutelage, the Jhaveri sisters also explored the musical traditions surrounding the dance, becoming competent drum players and also weaving the playing of the pung cholom, a percussion instrument usually played by men, into their performances.

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