To say that my first visit to Bangladesh was an eye opener would be an under statement. Having watched dance groups from Bangladesh render Tagorean dance productions in particular, one was aware of the extreme grace and presentational polish seen in dancers from this country. Invited by Sanskrit scholar and long time lover of India's classical dances Lubna Marium, the driving spirit behind Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy along with the Guru Bipin Singh Centenary Festival Committee with Guru's wife Kalavati Devi and daughter Bimbavati providing the inspirational thrust, it came as a great surprise that much more than Tagore's Bengal had united Guru Bipin Singh (settled in Kolkata) and his followers with Bangladesh.
Much before the Guru, his sister-in-law Shantibala Devi introduced Manipuri Dance to Dhaka's dance lovers thirty years ago. But the less known historical angle, even for Bangladesh people, is the fact that over two hundred years ago, families of the Bishnupriya-s of Manipur, escaping persecution during Manipur's Burmese occupation, had fled to Sylhet in Bangladesh and in the Kamalganj subdivision settled down to form the village of Ghoramara where people still speak the Bishnupriya language as Vaishnavites and not Muslims. It is amazing to see how an inherent talent for Manipuri running in the village inhabitants, coupled with Bipin Singh's wife Kalavati Devi's enthusiastic teaching of the youngsters, with Manipuri Pung specialist Brojen Kumar Singha from Silchar, teaching since 2014 and residing in Ghoramara for the last four months, the results produced are nothing short of miraculous.
Added glory is in the extraordinarily gifted Manipuri singer Promila (trained under Leiransingh and Sukhammema) with voiceproduction in the typical Manipuri mode with the high tremolo, with yodels, trills and breaks in the singing along with the throbbing emotion, is an asset which even Manipuri groups in Kolkata cannot easily command.
The credit for giving these village artists publicity through performance space goes to the indefatigable efforts of Lubna Marium who, over 26 years through the Trust Shadhona(1992-2018) engaged with Research and Development, Training, Creation and Production, Granting of Dance scholarships, Dance outreach and Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, has done yeoman service to the cause of performing arts in Bangladesh. Shadhona's 'Dhrumel' project has engaged and extensively worked with the local Manipuri community with Sweety Das Chowdhury who has made Bangladesh her home, travelling to Ghoramara (five hours by train from Dhaka) tagging along her two year old, the toddler having developed many friends in the village, to teach and help the Manipuri group.
The two-day festival, a tribute to late Guru Bipin Singh mounted at the National Theatre Hall of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, featured some talents from India along with the local Manipuri dance schools like Kolpotoru, Nrityam Nritttya Shilan Kendra, Bhabna, Dhriti Nartanalaya and Dhrumel. Ghoramara's Natpala Sangha an important part of the Manipuri community working with Dhrumal, produced the curtain raiser with 'Meihourol' or Fire Worship an auspicious invocation choreographed by Sweety Das and assisted by Thingbom Brojen Kumar with music of the Pena and Pung and Khartal players in eye catching formations performing in perfect togetherness. Simple but very neatly played rhythms with immaculate group discipline and unerring co-ordination made this a sight for sore eyes.
Guru Bipin Singh's daughter Bimbavati an animated dancer commenced her solo with 'Krishna Roop Varnam' an original Bipin Singh creation reset by dancer in her own individualistic fashion. Rendered with aplomb was 'Saajat Tanum', (resembling the Tarana) inspired by the animal and bird gaits so much a part of the Pung and Khartal Choloms -- Bimbavati's dance composition performed to taped music of Srijan Chatterjee sung by N.Romila Devi with R.K.Upendra providing Pung percussion. The dancer's highlight 'Abhisarika' was her recreated version of the Guru's original, with recomposing of Bols and interludes (Tikan Singh and Suman Sarkar), specially for the Guru Bipin Singh celebration on August 26th 2018. Here Radha, as Abhisarika (the nayika setting off to meet her beloved) is rehearsing in her own courtyard what she anticipates could be the forest hurdles, which her 'komala charanam' or tender feet, have to overcome before meeting Krishna.
Radha negotiating these imagined obstacles (vocalist Priyarani devi sing g on tape) showed not just an aesthetic dancer but also an imaginatively creative mind. 'Mahasakti' Bimbavati's own composition had all the 'hei hei' of the powerful creator Devi Jagaddhatri, destroying the undivine.
The local dancers, all Bipin Singh trained and the epitome of grace and winsome presence acquitted themselves equally well. Samina Husain Prema presented 'Manini Radha' a re-composition of the guru's work by wife Kalavati Devi, who also provides vocal support. Radha as Utkanthita Nayika eagerly awaiting Krishna, gradually becomes the Vipralabdha dejected with his non-appearance finally becoming the anguished Khandita angrily lamenting over the telltale signs of dalliance with another on Krishna's person. Wardha Rihab, trained under Sharmila Banerjee, Tamanna Rehman and Belayet Hossain Khan and now under Kalvati Devi , performed 'Mridu Uddhata Krishna Nartan', one of Bipin Singh's very vigorous numbers, inspired by Pung and Kartal choloms, in Tal Tanchep of 4 beats and Chartal of 14 beats, brought back nostalgic memories of Preeti Patel performing this item.
At the Shadhona Studio the next morning watching the rehearsals, where Ghoramara artists and Sadhona dancers combined, for the second evening's show of group productions, one was struck afresh by the commitment and involvement in these local dancers and the complete surrender they bring to bear on themes not part of their faith. And above all, the open-minded enjoyment of the audience applause and ovation! Jagoi inspired by Lai Haraoba movements and 'arthi' to Radha/Shayam was followed by Rang Holi with Brojen with the Ghoramara Pung dancers raising emotive cries of 'Sri Gauranga' (with both Usha Sinha and Promila in a jugal bandi jawab/sawal singing) touch in an emotive high pitch.
There is an inborn grace in the way Manipuri lasya too is rendered. For Bipin Singh the gender divide did not exist, and his creations took movements from all male traditions like Pung Cholom and Kartal Cholom, the mix and match bringing together tonal variety of drum rhythms on Pung, Dhol, Khartal, mridang etc. And Bangladesh in presentational artistry is second to none. Lubna Marium engaged in Buddhist Vajrayaana text from Sanskrit to Bangla is also bent on preserving folk practices designated as intangible cultural heritage. In the same vein, Samina Husain Prema's school Bhabna, with Zeenat Afroza as advisor blends the classical with folk and martial arts and the aim is to combine classical dance with the Nazrul and the Tagore styles. Their 'Krishna Leela' with dancers in spotless white dhotis and turbans portrayed Krishna's childhood feat of destroying Bakasura followed by gorgeously clad Gopis and Krishna dancing in Brindavan, each Gopi feeling that she had Krishna as her partner.
Group from Nrityam Nrityasheelon Kendra an institution run by Tamanna Rehman, one of the leading Manipuri dancers of Bangladesh ( not able to appear in person due to ill health) presented Bipin Singh's Mangalacharan based on Sanskrit sloka, Krishnaroop Varnan in 12 matra chautal, and the Bengali song based Tamanna creation 'Suka Sari Kathakata', wherein the Suka praising Krishna and Kata eulogising Radha finally unite sorting out their differences, and Bipin Singh's 'Bajikarkhel', inspired by Cholom Tandav dances.
The group from Dhriti Nartanalaya founded by Warda Rihab, comprising her and the others, saw 'Leichan', Kalavati Devi's concept and choreography, directed by Warda Rihab, based on Manipur's ritual festival dances. 'Kathokchaba' the Sanaleibak Invocation of singing Krishna's glory followed by 'Basanta' the joys of Spring, Goshta Leela and finally Jaya Jaya Deva Hare inspired by the Chingnaba Manipur's Rathyatra festival showcased processions and dances. Under direction of Sweety Das and guidance of Kalavati Devi, Kolpotoru presented 'Nartan Malika', where Radha and Krishna Nartan, Pung Cholom, Khubak Ishei involving singing and clapping of hands, were all superbly rendered. Truly fascinating that Manipuri should be flourishing with such gusto in Bangladesh!
Kolpotoru's two day Rangashree Bharatanatyam exposition at Natmandal Dhaka University, on a smaller scale was designed and choreographed by Amit Chowdhury now under the guidance of Kirti Ramgopal trained under Bengaluru-based late Padmini Ramachandran of the Vazhuvoor Bani. His solo on the first evening right from Misra Alaripu and Narasimha Kavutvam showed a dancer moving well with clean Bharatanatyam profile, though the araimandi (while present) could be articulated further with the 'ghoravikra' Narasimha image through ragas like Arabhi and Athana presented with more force in the Khandachapu rhythm. The Varnam in Shanmukhapriya 'Devar muniwar tozhum paadam' with narrative episodic treatment of Gajendramoksham and Vamanavataram, seemed too abridged without the charanam refrain and solfa passages.
This fine dancer needs to evolve in interpretative dance as seen in the 'Pradosha samayati parashiva Tandavam" in Poorvikalyani where Shiva tandava ecstasy needed more abandon in portrayal. The Tillana in Hindolam followed by/with the concluding Pancha raga bit was very neatly presented. The only female solo dancer who presented 'Krishna nee Begane Baro' the Dasaraya Padam in Kannada, was very good in her expressions bringing out vatsalya rasa beautifully. With more pin-pointed guidance in expressional dance, Amit with his fine nritta foundation, has what it takes to grow in fame. His designing of the group items on the second day projected excellent ability for visualising group presentations.
Starting with Kolpotoru's tiny tots who in the Pushpanjali and Gajanana homage through Muttuswamy Dikshitar's lyric in Chakravakam followed by Alaripu impressed with good control on the sideways bent kshipta knee in 'araimandi', fine toe heel 'kudittumettu' movements (with some needing to work on the 'sundari' head shake), and excellent group coordination. Rajdeep Banerjee's visualisation of 'Pranavvakaaram Siddhi Vinayakam' in Arabhi saw the next group. Turaiyoor Rajagopala swamy's Sabdam in Kamboji, Shanmukhapriya, Mohanam and Suratii was followed by a Devi Stuti in Ragamalika dedicated to Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati and one must congratulate Amit on putting the youngsters through their paces. Minute foot placing corrections and hand stretches apart, the ability to punctuate the dance with frozen group cameos was an excellent idea.
The Devarnama 'Chandrachuda Sivashankara Parvati' in Shankarabharanam showing the Koormavataram scene with the ocean churned for ambrosia with Vasuki as rope held on two ends by both Devas and Auras, and Shiva swallowing the accumulated poison formed from Vasuki's breath, becoming 'Neelakantha', andthe final scene showing a flying Garuda were intelligently crafted meeting with involved rendering. The Tillana in Vasanta choreographed by Khagendra Burman, made for a fine conclusion. Such a resentation in another country commanding no allied Bharatantyam disciplines in poetry, language, music and gurus stationed there permanently is proof of the high degree of commitment in these youngsters. Art indeed knows no boundaries!
The writer is an eminent dance critic