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Martial not belligerent

NO AMOUNT of backseat driving by well meaning elders can make the determined amongst us change track when once we have decided to follow a particular route. Manisha Bhargava is one such, firmly in the driving seat. At the wheel of a red station wagon, with her ponytail flopping jauntily right at the top of her head, Manisha might seem just another of Delhi's privileged youngsters. But as she explains that the clanging emanating from the rear of the car is caused by the swords, shields and other paraphernalia of Mayurbhanj Chhau which she practices, you know there is more to her than those svelte looks.

Manisha has always been interested in the structure, dynamics and aesthetics of movement. A certified aerobics instructor from Reebok she has is also a certified personal trainer. It was in the course of this advanced certification in the U.S. that her foray into Chhau had its origins. Shocked, first of all, that the `Jazz' dance she had been learning in India was an indigenous variant not related to the original, she took classes in Modern and Jazz dance along with the personal instructor's course and also applied for a Bachelors in dance at a university. Returning to India to wait for the result of her application, she came across Chhau, the beautiful martial art from Eastern India, through a friend. Having till then only seen the more commonly known dance styles like Bharatanatyam, Kathak and others, she felt her body and mind naturally responded to Chhau's dynamics and philosophy. By the time the much awaited acceptance came from the U.S. university, she had already decided to learn Chhau, and instead crossing the seven seas, it was across India that she wished to venture, to Orissa to learn about Mayurbhanj Chhau.

The inevitable arguments and compromises with family resulted in her remaining in Delhi and beginning her training in Mayurbhanj Chhau under Guru Janmejoy Sai Babu at Delhi's Natya Ballet Centre. That was in 1999. In 2000, she gave a debut performance at Triveni Kala Sangam. Recently she returned from the Monaco Dance Forum, where she was the only performer of traditional Indian dance. "To particpate in a dance event of such mega proportions was an enriching experience," she says, though "with absolutely no Government sponsorship or aid, it was financially pretty taxing, but at the same time essential, for I showcased Mayurbhanj Chhau, a magnificent form relatively lesser known mainly due to a lack of exposure and presentation."

With her guru, who tailors each choreographic piece to the individual pupil, Manisha takes interest in helping develop Chhau as a proscenium art, taking into account the aesthetics of costumes as well as choreography that embodies the essence of the technique without becoming repetitive as is the nature of a people's art that is performed throughout the night in its original village setting.

Today's concrete floors are hostile to the kind of foot treatment most of our classical dances call for. Many dancers fall prey to knee pain and joint deterioration due to striking on stone and cement floors. But in the case of Chhau, this aspect is compounded "big time," points out Manisha, since its technique requires so many leaps as well as pirouettes in which the body weight is born by the moving leg.

Trained in anatomy and physiology, sometimes Manisha finds herself wondering why "our forms are so unscientific," but she feels the solution is to be more scientific in training. Warming up properly, being gentler in certain knee lunges, and not overdoing the use of some movements that pose undue stress on limbs, as well as devising proper floors for dance are some of her suggestions. And she may sound like a dour doctor with her technical warnings, but when she does those "unscientific" moves - it looks too good a thing to be stopped.


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