Priti Patel, renowned Manipuri dancer, says the dance form is manifestation of a deeply ritualistic tradition

The green room of Chowdiah Memorial Hall is surely not the ideal location for an interview but the sound-checks and the flutter of excitement backstage did not matter once the conversation began. Manipuri dancer Priti Patel was in Bangalore to perform and lecture at the dance workshop organised by the Karnataka Sangeetha Nritya Academy as part of the World Dance Day celebrations. “Most of our dance forms be it Bharatanatyam or Odissi were born in the temple. But there is a difference between the Devadasis in Odissi and the dancers who danced in the temples of Manipur. The priestesses used to dance and this was born as a form of worship and not entertainment. Scholar Kapila Vatsyayan has said beautifully in her book that Manipuri is the ancient most form and yet at the same time a very modern form,” explained Priti.

The context, be it historical, political or economic has always been crucial to Manipuri as a form. “When Manipur became a Hindu State, with Vaishnavism came Sanskrit which brought raag, raagini, taal, roopak, chaartaal into Manipuri,” she elucidated.

These influences, Priti points out, prove that Manipuri is ‘a manifestation of a deeply ritualistic tradition' that is still prevalent and followed in Manipur. “Manipuri dance is a social need. It is a part of their lives. Whether it is a marriage or death ceremony — it is accompanied by dance and music. The dance is an intrinsic part of the rituals performed in the daily lives of people which is why while every other form is just on stage, Manipuri is still a living form,” she explained.

The traditional venues for these rituals are the temples of Manipur and Priti explains that therefore, the challenge for every Manipuri dancer, in this age of commercial shows and showmanship, is in bringing the form onto stage. “To tell you very frankly, personally, I do not like the stage very much. All our traditional forms were always suited to be within the venues where they were born. For example, in the temple courtyard, the dancer is facing three sides which changes on stage. So a rasaleela performed in a temple will change when it is performed on stage. The moment you are on stage, showmanship comes in. So you have to choose compositions that comply with the stage. You don't use deeply ritualistic compositions on stage,” she confessed.

Bhakti Rasa is the soul of Manipuri compositions, which Priti, explained, is one of the relatable aspects of Manipuri for an audience that is foreign to the State and their culture. “But compositions are adopting different themes now,” argued Priti. Privy to the present political and economic instability in Manipur, Priti said that here again the backdrop of the situation in the State naturally has an impact on the dance form as well.

“I have been visiting Manipur since 1977. There was much more richness in the art form prevalent then than now. Earlier the rasaleela used to be performed from eleven in the night till two in the morning. Now we are forced to cut it short and even shorten the rituals because of the curfew. While the dance is a social need and continues to survive as part of the daily rituals, for the art to survive, there is not enough money,” said Priti.

She went onto describe how extreme economic instability is forcing people to either move out of the State in search of jobs or start earning at a young age which means that not many people are coming forward to learn the form. The troubled context also impacts the themes of compositions for the dances. “The political scenario has affected the common man's psyche. Psychologically, they are totally broken. So as a living exponent and disciple of the form, I cannot be oblivious to the form. We have taken up themes of strife and struggle and incorporated them in our performances,” said Priti.

From her own personal experience of witnessing strife during her visits to Manipur from Kolkata, she said that art needed to wake up from the fantasy of sheer devotion and narrations of mythic tales to face the reality that surrounds the people.

She then narrated a four line-poem called “Olive Green” written by Ojha Samarendra Singh, which she later used as the base to choreograph a piece called “Khuman, The Black Sun”. She spoke how when she performed the first part of “Khuman”, the audience in Manipur broke into tears.

“O Manipur, you are so beautiful with your orchids and flowers and mountains. But there is just one thing which is out of place and it is the colour olive green,” she said poignantly.