Menaka P.P. Bora and Hanglem Indu Devi, two young dancers who recently received the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar of the Sangeet Natak Akademi for excellence in Sattriya and Manipuri dance respectively, exemplify the personality spectrum of India's classical artistes. One is well acquainted with the world at large, articulate in English and currently pursuing doctoral studies in London in a field pertaining to her chosen art, while the other lives a relatively quiet life in Manipur, more at home in her native tongue than in English, and asking us to accept her “simple and sincere” answers to questions.
There is no doubt both are immensely talented, energetic and riding the peak in terms of performance levels. Menaka, daughter of dancer Indira P.P. Bora who first brought Sattriya to the attention of Delhi audiences and cultural administrators over 15 years ago, inherited a rich artistic heritage and understanding of the art world in general. She combines her natural talent and hard work with the best academic education India and the West can offer, in the process becoming not just a performer but also a spokeswoman for the art. Indu, on the other hand, as one of the rare Manipuri practitioners to magnificently combine singing with dancing, is more likely to let her art do the talking.
But despite their differences, the two youth icons sound strikingly similar in their approach to art in modern India. Here are excerpts from email interviews with Indu and Menaka, who share their thoughts on two dance forms still considered less than mainstream and which, moreover, retain strong devotional associations within their local milieu even as they transform into proscenium arts.
What initially attracted you to this art form?
Indu: During my early age I witnessed different forms of Manipuri Ras dance enacted in the localities of Manipur. The solo dance of Krishna accompanied by Sutra song sung by Sutradhari attracted me first to this art from.
Menaka: As a child I used to watch my mother-guru Indira P.P. Bora training and performing Sattriya with traditional gurus and musicians from the monasteries. After many years of watching them rehearse and practice at home, I was allowed to learn the dance from the gurus who had worked with my mother. Even when I was studying for my school exams at home I was drawn to the live sounds of the khol playing in the rehearsal studios. It was an organic process for me to absorb, watch and learn Sattriya dance alongside learning to play the khol and bhortal (big cymbals).
What for you is the best thing about your art?
Indu: The combined form of dancer as well as a singer is my favourite element in my dance form.
Menaka: For me Sattriya dance is like performing a daily ritual. As a child growing up in Assam, I learnt to sing the devotional prayer songs along with my mother every evening and that's what I love most about Sattriya — its Bhakta rasa. This is the most challenging aspect to perform as a young artiste on stage. Besides, I am beginning to appreciate Sattriya tradition — as a philosophy that promotes a universal message of peace through a regional language (Assamese and Brajavali), peripheral raga system (Borgeet) and the colour white (used in costumes and daily wear of monks).
Is it popular among your peers — young adults, college-going students etc.
Indu: Yes, talented artists of different age groups are now attracted towards this art form as there are only few gurus and artistes in this precious form of art in Manipur.
Menaka: Yes! From my own experience, general public are beginning to appreciate Sattriya on different levels — musically, dance technique, costumes, etc. Some of my friends like the lyricism of Sattriya and the way Krishna is celebrated through symbolic and religious themes. In the U.K., I teach a module on World Dance and music in museums and universities and here many young international students are learning basics of Sattriya dance and music. In the West, many classical ballet and contemporary dancers have appreciated the execution of non-stamping foot movements in Sattriya dancing. Indian classical dancers of other styles love our unique hasta application tradition, 17th Century Srihastamuktavali text.
Do you ever have difficulty relating it to everyday life in current times?
Indu: No, because I am a professional Nata Singer and Ras Sutradhari of Manipur. I got regular engagement for public performances in Manipur.
Menaka: For me, Sattriya is about my own cultural identity as an Assamese performer. The dance training is embedded training in yoga practice and devotional meditation which is very relevant in current times both in Asia and the West. As a young modern Indian woman, Sattriya helps me to explore my roots while remaining open to other cultures. I am now exploring the link between rituals of Sattriya and modern day science.
Have you or your guru made significant changes to transform this art from a form of worship to a performing art?
Indu: Yes, significant changes are made to transform this art form to a performing art. For example Vasanta Ras one of the main forms of Manipuri Ras dance is based on Geet Govinda which may be transformed into a creative ballet form without disturbing the originality of this rare art form.
Menaka: My mother, as one of the first female pioneers of classical Sattriya dance, has introduced the margi technique to Sattriya dance training — the ability to codify each and every movement without losing its essence. While presenting a traditional form as a concert art form, it is important to emphasise good presentation, visual aesthetics and costumes that draw upon the lived experience of the monasteries while allowing the artiste to remain creative. I have been experimenting with presentation methods as part of the dance performance to communicate to wider audiences. As soon as we bring an art form to the context of public performance, we have to communicate well through dance and more importantly, good dance.
Does it sometimes worry you that ritual and sacred arts are brought to the stage as tools of entertainment/theatre?
Indu: Yes, there are many restrictions (dos and don'ts) in rites and rituals and essential formalities to be observed in bringing out this art form to the stage for entertainment.
Menaka: For me, dancing on the stage is a form of worship. Every great performance that touches our soul also entertains us but not in a vulgar or pedestrian way. I do not see ‘entertainment' and ‘theatre' as separate entities. I cannot speak for others. But if one looks at the postcolonial history of Bharata Natyam, Rukmini Devi Arundale's dance theatre productions are both global and local at the same time and entertain us with deeper meanings of life and spirituality. Pina Bausch's dance-theatre is deeply spiritual without any religious context. I am deeply inspired by such works. For me, sacred dance is not about promoting a religion but about spirituality. On human level, it is not necessary to be religious to practice spirituality and philosophy of higher truths.