“It is Panchali Sapatham” said one lady to her companion who enquired just before the show what the dance was going to be about.
(Panchali being Draupadi and Sapatham being vow, it refers to Draupadi’s vow to bring about the end of the Kauravas when she is humiliated in an open court. It is a popular theme for “dance ballet” in Bharatanatyam.)
“But I thought it is Odissi or something?”
“It is Manipuri; surely Panchali Sapatham can be depicted in Manipuri as well, no? pointed out the lady.
Kalakshetra organised a series of dance concerts to commemerate Rukmini Devi’s birth anniversary; she was born – rather quirkily – on 29th February. Throw of Dice by the Anjika group, headed by Preeti Patel was presented on the last day. It proved to be somewhat more than what the title promises. The dance presentation was vocal in its political message, bemoaning the fate of Manipur, that Pearl of a country. “Today Manipur has become a playground of vested interests robbing the land of happiness and peace” said the voiceover, and not just once.
The stage lighting showed a dice board across the stage and in came two sutradhars who spoke in Manipuri about an earlier pristine life of man when he played no games, but led a life of “simplicity, happiness and love”. Male and female dancers wove together dainty steps characterestic of Manipuri and masculine movements drawn from other forms to present a vivid recreation of that idyllic, if possibly imaginary, world when “Man played no games”.
The idyllic world is soon lost and as Man steps into more complex lifestyles, he starts to play games of lust and power. The dice game of the Pandavas and Kauravas is “perhaps the most famous of the games Man has played”. Yudhishthira wagering his wealth and belongings, his kingdom and army, even his own valourous brothers and losing them all – and the violence of those very acts, were depicted with freshness and vigour. The dancer playing the role of Duryodhana gave a stunning display of agility and control while exulting over his victory. Even though it stood out as a separate segment with the clear intent of impressing the audience with its exotic nature, it did not rankle too much. Finally, Draupadi (Preeti Patel) makes her appearance and while that interlude somewhat dragged down the pace of the presentation, we still waited with bated breath for the presentation of the epiphany. (Strangely and a little disappointingly, Draupadi is shown as placatory. None of the righteous anger and rage that we associate with her character was depicted). The epiphany was vividly presented with two bales of sheer white cloth being held diagonally across the stage with Draupadi at the centre. Thankfully, no flute sounded. It is good to have one’s intelligence respected and not have everything spelt out.
And then comes the fate of Manipur. Male dancers rushing across the stage in choreographed movements with all kinds of weapons, the sound of the drums, the sutradhars shouting across the stage without any respite, created well the sense of intense turmoil. Finally, “Manipur” lies impaled on the stage. A dancer propped up on an inverted stool, with others pointing spears and such weapons at him, accompanied by some brilliant lighting, was a macabre and too explicit image.
This is when it struck me that it is all too easy a target for an artist. One hears that the plight of Manipur has been presented by other artistic groups too such as Ratan Thiyam’s. Plato wisely observed that it is only the bad man who is interesting in art and so he famously banished poets from his Republic. Another famous actor said, there would be no art if we just got along perfectly with each other… The question artists have to face when raising political questions is about their sincerity. Even Satyajit Ray was accused of selling India’s poverty abroad. In this case, do the artists go beyond their art to tackle the situation in Manipur? Do they even need to? Does sincerity demand that they go beyond just presenting their art?
Again, how does one take the development of the story from the idyllic world to the world of ugliness and games? Can one question its veracity? Or is it insulated from such questions because it is art? Immanuel Kant said it does not matter whether a work of art represents correctly, whether it is the result of much or little labour, whether it took a few years or a few minutes to complete. The artistic product is an aesthetic object whose appreciation is entirely free of such extraneous considerations. But then, when art is a comment on a real situation, what happens?
The dance presentation worked fabulously at various levels. The choreography, the dancers, lighting, costumes, music – all maintained high professional standards. It kept my two kids aged 8 and 5 rapt. “Will you give it an ‘A’ or an ‘A star’?” I asked my 8 year old. “A hundred stars”, she said without any hesitation.
It drove home the poignancy of the human situation in Manipur in a way only art can. One comes back from such a show and wants to know more about Manipur and what is happening there. And yet distrubing questions remain about art itself.