Interview Upendra Singh and W. Lokendrajeet Singh of the Jawaharlal Nehru Dance Academy on their work and inspiration. TAPATI CHOWDURIE
Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, Imphal, a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, celebrated a Festival of Dance-Drama at Rabindra Sadan in Kolkata. On the occasion director, Upendra Singh and choreographer W. Lokendrajeet Singh answered a few questions about the festival and their work.
What made you choose Kolkata as the venue of the festival?
Upendra Singh: Bengalis and Manipuris are co-sharers of the cult of Vaishnavism and its philosophy, which is one of the main reasons for choosing Kolkata for our festival. Culturally we are very close, being in the Eastern region of the country. Also, the audience in this city is very receptive and appreciative of good productions and great connoisseurs of music and dance. Bengal loves the Manipuri dance style right from the time of Rabindranath Tagore.
Who is the inspiration behind your taking to the arts?
Upendra Singh: The many sided genius and versatile Ratan Thiyam, who was born in Nabadwip in Bengal, was my greatest inspiration. I got interested in acting on account of him. I also wanted to follow the footsteps of Kesav Kothari and wanted to be a good art administrator, and I have managed also to land a job involving administration.
Who were your mentors in Manipuri dance?
W. Lokendrajit Singh: I used to love playing the pung initially, but my stepfather was greatly interested in dance and music and I was therefore naturally drawn to it. My first Manipuri teacher was L. Amuyaima Singh and Th. Babu Singh. My later specialisation in Manipuri was at the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, Imphal. Kulla Singh, L. Bokul Singh, Th. Babu Singh and N. Gulamjit Singh taught me to play the pung. I received training in Thangta from Debavrata Singh. I graduated in choreography from the Natya Institute of choreography, New Delhi under the guidance of Maya Rao.
What made you choose to choreograph Shakuntala and Moirang Shah as dance dramas?
Lokendrajit Singh: Kalidas’ “Abhigyan Shakuntala” is very popular in Manipur because it has been translated into the Manipuri language. Besides Professor N. Tombi Singh — scholar, and critic and vice chairman JNMDA — taught me the text so well when I was doing my B.A. that I had made up my mind then and there to choreograph it in Manipuri dance style if I ever got a chance. The legendary elephant Moirang Shah is said to have lived in the palace of Maharaj Chandrakriti of Manipur who ruled in the 19th Century and was known for his legendary wisdom and seems to have tried to scuttle the meeting of the Maharaj with the British to be held in a ship for the annexation of Manipur. The legend of Moirang Shah, I thought, was interesting and poignant — a tale which could be told through the language of Manipuri dance. Also, the story of Moirang Shah gave me enough scope to be creative, both in the aharya as well as the nritta abhinaya. In the aharya abhinaya I used a costume that had the colour of the skin of the elephant. The wrinkles in the elephant’s jaw were made evident with a garland made of cloth in ash colour, and a white paper garland signified its white task. The dance movements also had to be innovative to bring in the elephant-like gait.