Sunday, August 10, 2014

Manipuri Dance in Indian Cinema and the Beautiful Dances in Sanabi (1995, Manipuri)

Reading about Manipuri Dance in books about Indian dance, especially those written pre-1990s, has always been quite entertaining to me. There is a distinct exoticised "othering" seen in statements like "the Meities, a people of slight build with slanting eyes...are a deeply sensitive and artistic race..." [8] and "The country abounds in myth and legend...since earliest times, the people have shown an innate love and a gift for expressing their emotional and religious fervour through dance and music." [2]. The dances are described in glowing but simplistic descriptions laden with pleasantries.

A refreshingly-different perspective on Manipuri dance is offered by Faubion Bowers in his 1953 book The Dance in India. Faubion had an interest in Asian dance and drama and was one of the early and well-known Asian Studies writers starting in the 1950s (and was instrumental in the preservation of Japanese Kabuki). In this excerpt Faubion departs from most other writers of his day and argues that "Manipuri dance" as it was known outside of Manipur at that time and as popularized relatively early by renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore was a complete misrepresentation, and of excited interest to this blog he also covers its popularity and misrepresentation in Indian cinema:
“[Rabindranath] Tagore hoped that by transplanting the dance from Manipur to India proper he would have the secret of regenerating dance throughout all India.... Shortly after his visit, Tagore installed a dance teacher from Manipur at Shantiniketan, an all-India school of arts in Bengal. Apparently Tagore was too definite about the use he wished to make of Manipuri dancing and too opinionated as to what he thought the art of dance should be in general. He selected bits and pieces of the teacher’s instruction and molded them to fit his own romantic dance-dramas. By simplifying the dance he made it possible for his students to be dancers and brought the art well within their reach. What became known as “Manipuri Dancing” was actually this Tagorean simplification and its latitude of interpretation. During this arid period of India’s recent dance history, this Manipuri-cum-Tagore style swept the country. People responded to its soft, flowing, unintellectual, and restful style. Mathematics and perfectionism in classical dancing had until then precluded the entry of amateurs into the dance field. Tagore’s Manipuri dancing filled a vacuum and answered the cry of amateurs.
Morality also played a part in the easy acceptance of this style of dancing. The stigma on India’s classical dances was still heavy; Manipuri dancing was completely new and unknown. There were no preconceived prejudices against it, although had people understood many of the movements or known the inner nature of Manipuri dancing, they certainly would have developed a reaction against its eroticisms. Sarojini Naidu, that grand old lady of Indian politics, made dance history when, after the performance of Amubhi Singh, one of the first Manipuris to perform outside Manipur, she publicly exclaimed, “Here is a dance with no crude form of movement; a mother may see it with her son.” The amateur was now, with her blessing, safe from attack on moral grounds.
Sinuous curves, flowing turns, hoop-skirt costumes, and snaky arm wriggles which passed as Manipuri dancing invaded the movies and almost dislodged Kathak from its senior position there. Year after year Tagore’s school turned out graduates. Even some international artists, whose standard ought to have been higher, continued the perpetuation of this charming deceit. In that period of drowning, perhaps India’s art had to clutch at any straw. All India became aware of Manipuri dancing. No artist or critic dared ignore it. Some dancers even specialize in its style to the exclusion of all else.
The fact is, oddly enough, that the style of dancing has no historical basis. It has only the most tenuous connection with Manipuri dancing itself, and in Manipur, when films of Indian dancing are supposed to represent Manipuri dancing, the audience rather cruelly roars with laughter. The myth is perpetuated for two reasons. No dancer of India has ever taken the trouble to study in Manipur. Secondly, the few Manipuris who have come to India as drummers or teachers are in so precarious a financial position that they are at the mercy of their students. They themselves call the dancing the teach “Oriental”; but the public continues to regard it as “Manipuri.” Were the dance of Manipur inferior to its paste diamond, which sells so well, such as state of affairs would be justifiable. It is, however, in every way superior to its humbug. The dance which inspired Tagore to bring Manipuri into the open world,  the dance whose imitation is mimicked the length and breadth of India and even abroad, remains locked within its lush and fertile valley."
Faubion's perspective is certainly quite negative, and his assertion that "no dancer of India has ever taken the trouble to study in Manipur" seems odd given that the well-known Jhaveri sisters of Gujarat have said they studied Manipuri dance in the state of Manipur in the late 1940s. But Faubion's viewpoint offers a counterbalance to what seemed to be an incorrect assessment and misrepresentation of the dance at that time, and my guess is he was probably right!

Ksh. Ibetombi and Louise, 1957 (src)
Another outsider who was concerned about the misrepresentation of Manipuri dance in those days was Louise Lightfoot of Australia. In her 1958 book Dance-Rituals of Manipur, India, she writes, "Many fine books have been written about the Dances of India both by Indians and Westerners; but invariably the chapters or paragraphs about Manipur have been both inadequate and incorrect." Louise stayed in Manipur for two years to write more accurate information about Manipuri dancing, and while in her book she focuses mostly on descriptions of the dances' rituals and history, she writes in an earnest way that for the most part sees the Manipuri people as human beings, not strange subjects to be studied and written about from afar. Speaking about the influence of film dance, she writes, "Mixed dances, in imitation of Indian cinema dances, are common in Imphal today, and unattractive hybrid compositions are frequently announced from the stage as "Bharatha Natya" or "Kathakali" because no one in the audience has ever seen these great arts of India or can criticize the announcements."

While writings about Manipuri dance and history are much improved in recent decades, one still gets the feeling that some writers still approach Manipuri dance as an "other" that doesn't deserve the same coverage as other dance forms. In her 1993 review of the book Dances of Manipur: The Tradition edited by Saryu Doshi, dancer-scholar Uttara Asha Coorlawala rightly calls out E. Nilkantha Singh for his "patronizing colonial tone" in his choice of words to describe the Meitei's religious beliefs and his privileging of Hindu over Meitei practices. Uttara defty notes that the book "bears witness to the hollowness of describing deeply felt intimate relationships with movement in an alien language to an alien culture."

Manipuri Dance in Indian Cinema

While I am just a beginner in understanding the nuances and movement vocabularies of dances as found in Manipur, it seems quite obvious that Manipuri dance as represented in Indian cinema is particularly unfaithful to the source, even more than other classical dance forms. After watching some authentic, real-life footage of Manipuri dance (such as the lovely Bimbavati Devi or this compilation of Darshana Jhaveri's group) the "Manipuri" dances found in the rest of Indian cinema seem wholly unsatisfying caricatures of the real thing.

Though a number of dance forms with varied movement vocabulary fall under the moniker "Manipuri Dance," the most developed and "classical" forms are the lasya-oriented Ras (aka Raas, Rasalila, Ras Leela) dance dramas and the Sankirtan with its energetic drum and cymbal-based choloms. For many people, Manipuri dance is synonymous with the image of a female dancer in the glittering stiffened skirt costume of the Ras and this seems to be the most popular representation of "Manipuri dance" in Indian cinema with an occasional male Krishna character thrown in for good measure. But the film dances only depict the most serene and contained movements of the gopis in the Ras and completely ignore the wider variety of movements that can get quite energetic especially in the dancer depicting Krishna.

Sandansha Hasta in Manipuri
Despite restricting the movements to such a narrow category, the film dances seem to confuse simplicity with sloppiness, and the choreographers seem to have been fooled into believing they have captured the essence of the dance. Grace and poise is abundant, but it isn't channeled into precise or codified movement and looks disorganized and amateurish compared to the real thing. In the slow movements of the female gopis of the Ras, the hands scoop and wrap in and out, the hands are often held in the Sandansha (aka Samdamsha) gesture, the legs bend gently at the knees and pivot in spins, and the hands sweep in controlled arcs and angles. [Note: Regarding the identification of the Sandansha hand gesture/khutthek, I only found two publications (Bhavnani's book and a Marg issue) that named the hasta as such, and this video demonstration uses a different name, so I'm still not confident regarding what the gesture is called today.] It looks deceptively simple at first glance, but all the movement is done intentionally and in constant flow. It would be quite easy to simply feign elements of these movements, but the film dances incorporate hardly any of these specifics.

The bad imitations would seem excusable if the film Manipuri dances were choreographed by dance directors unstudied in the form, but as you will see below, real-life Manipuri gurus were often associated with the dances. I think Faubion Bowers' views regarding the alterations to the form made by outsiders like Rabindranath Tagore (which I think can also be applied to Uday Shankar) and the economic needs of the gurus explains a lot of it. And certainly the goal of most popular film dances is not to present an authentic dance form but rather entertain viewers, and with Manipuri dance there seems to be the additional benefit of adding some exotic "culture" from a far-flung, "mysterious" part of India.

To illustrate how badly Manipuri dance fares in Indian cinema, watch the exquisite dances from the Manipuri film Sanabi below, and then compare them to everything else in Indian cinema in the playlist that follows. 

The Manipuri film Sanabi

It is no surprise that the best representation of Manipuri dance in Indian cinema I was able to find is in a Manipuri-language film made in Manipur by and for Manipuris. Sanabi ("The Grey Mare," 1995), which won the National Award for "Best Feature Film in Manipuri," revolves around a Manipuri classical dancer, Sakhi, and a man who pursues her affections. Sakhi's dances with her troupe in both practice (yay! Manipuri practice dances!) and stage performance are featured multiple times throughout the film in short sequences with minimal editing. The performances are taken straight from life and are filmed head-on which lends them a sort of sacredness and peace that I find engaging to watch. Most exciting of all is the range of dances and costumes displayed with authenticity. In addition to a Ras dance (depicting the Maha Ras subgenre with Krishna and Rhadha authentically portrayed by children), the viewer also gets to see two practice scenes, a solo lasya-style dance, and most rare of all, a Lai-Haraoba dance! Luckily, Sanabi can be watched for free at the NFDC's Cinemas of India page. I'm not able to embed the film, so I've screencapped the dances below with the timestamps listed underneath. Also worth seeing is the traditional wedding at 55:16 in which the bride wears the customary Potloi dress!

Scenes pictured clockwise: 7:59 (Lai-Haraoba dance), 23:33 (practice scene),
25:40 (solo lasya dance), 31:15 ("Maha Ras"), 38:36 (practice scene)

Manipuri Dance in Non-Manipuri Indian Cinema

Here is a playlist of the other Manipuri film dances I was able to find in Indian cinema in chronological order. Two dances from Kalpana follow separately. I know there are more out there—feel free to send them my way and I'll add them to the playlist!


Kalpana - Alternate link


The Dancers and Gurus on Screen

While the Manipuri dances in the above playlist are almost all quite inauthentic, they are historically important because of who was captured on screen and who was associated with the dances. Eminent dancers of Indian classical dance forms were often seen on screen in the 1940-60s. While male gurus and nattuvanars were mostly involved behind the scenes in other Indian classical dance forms depicted in cinema, Manipuri dance was often depicted with real-life traditional gurus and male dancers dancing as themselves.

Sadhona Bose in Raj Nartaki
In Raj Nartaki (1941, aka "Court Dancer"), which seems to be one of the earliest surviving representations of "Manipuri dance" in Indian cinema, the main dancer and central character of the film was played by Sadhona Bose (1914-1973, aka "Sadhana") who was among the early upperclass/caste women who took to dance in Calcutta during the "dance revival" and was an important part of Manipuri/Tagore dance circles, theater, and Bengali cinema. She learned and performed Kathak and Manipuri dance, acted in Bengali films, and choreographed ballets—some of which were supervised by Rabindranath Tagore and others were adapted into or composed by her for cinema (such as the film Dahlia and the dance and "Broadway/Hollywood inspired Orientalist spectaculars" like the films Kumkum, Raj Nartaki, Shankar Parvati, and Vishkanya, some of which were directed by her husband Madhu Bose [6]. She seems to have been quite the giant in the Calcutta dance world in her day. How I wish I could see the dances in Kumkum, Shankar Parvati, and Vishkanya! Judging from posters/images of the films from Osianama's collection, only Raj Nartaki features Manipuri-inspired dance. Raj Nartaki is quite special because, as explained in the credits, it tells the “the story of the inhumanity of social barriers and of a Court Dancer in the Kingdom of Manipur in the early years of the 19th Century.” While dance direction is not mentioned in the credits, I think it's safe to assume that Sadhona choreographed or was an instrumental part of all the dance numbers. Despite the Manipur setting and Sadhona's direction, the dances seem inauthentic and fit more with general cinedance of the day. Thanks are due to Tom Daniel who has posted a beautifully-cleaned up version of the film.

Kalpana (1948, Hindi) is the most important example of Manipuri dance in film because it preserves on screen the images of real-life, male Manipuri gurus/artists on screen. The credits read "Manipuri dance by: Guru Amobi Singh" and "Assisted by: Mahabir Singh" ('assisted' was determined from a credits listing of Kalpana in Mohan Khokar's book), and since both men were part of Uday Shankar's school and/or troupe it makes sense that Shankar would want to feature them on camera as well as behind the scenes choreographing. Guru Amubi (aka Amobi) Singh "had impressive and far-reaching consequences...among the gurus who addressed themselves to effecting a resurgence in Manipuri dance.... Emphasizing the beauty of the lasya element in Manipuri dance, he created a definitive gharana (school) noted for its languid and lyrical grace. His association with Uday Shankar and his exposure to other forms of dance proved stimulating, and inspired him to develop techniques and themes suitable for the stage. His contribution played a significant role in transporting Manipuri dance from the sacred precincts of the temple to the proscenium of the auditorium..." (source unknown, Minai unable to locate again!)

Below is a screencap of the first male Manipuri dancer in Kalpana followed by two known photos of Amubi Singh. Despite the different nose shapes likely due to the different lighting, the similarities in the eyebrows, downturned mouth, and collarbone seem to confirm that the dancer on screen is Amubi Singh and he did not simply choreograph the number behind the scenes.

Left: Man in Kalpana  Middle: Amubi Singh (source: IGNCA)
Right: Amubi Singh (source: [9])

This is a screencap of the second male Manipuri dance in Kalpana, and I assume that he is the Mahabir Singh of the credits who, according to Ruth Abrahams [1] performed a solo "Pung Chalam" [Cholom] number as part of Uday Shankar's real-life troupe at one time.

Might this be the Mahabir Singh of the credits?

In the closing song of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955), Gopi Krishna is in his element as a wild drum dancer joined by Sandhya with her cymbals, and the song later transitions to the grand finale featuring women in skirts with weighted bottoms that swirl, bounce, and unfurl with the dancers' movements in a strange inspiration from the Potloi costume. Although the film credits name Gopi Krishna as responsible for all of the film's choreography, director V. Shantaram has said, "Guru Bipin Singh had associated with me during the production of my film Janak Jhanak Payal Baaje and this happy association continued for quite some time" [7].

Alongside the early, great gurus Amudon Sharma, Atomba Singh, and Amubi Singh, Bipin Singh was one of the instrumental figures in the history of Manipuri dance whose style came to considered as a separate gharana/school. It was while directing film dances in Mumbai that Bipin met the Jhaveri Sisters from Gujarat who would become well-known Manipuri artists under his tutelage and collaboration. The collaboration was important to Manipuri dance research and the dance's translation to the stage and the development of innovations and a solo repertoire. Though Shantaram's quote makes it sound as if Bipin choreographed for many other of Shantaram's films, I was not able to find any dances in them after Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje that look like something Bipin would have been remotely involved in.

Sujata (1959)
In Sujata (1959, Hindi), the Sankirtan and Rasaleela dance styles are mixed together in a number performed by artists from the Little Ballet Troupe, the same group Simkie utilized in her choreography in the Awara dream sequence. The scene prior to the dance indicates by a wall poster that it is from Chandalika, a dance drama composed by Rabindranath Tagore. The Little Ballet Troupe has an interesting history. It was founded by choreographer Shanti Bardhan who had earlier learned Manipuri and Tipperah dance and had been part of Uday Shankar's school in Almora and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). In the film dance, at first I thought the male pung cholom dancer was Mahabir Singh as seen above in Kalpana, but as you can see below his face is clearly different from the man in Kalpana.  Thanks to S. Sudha for the tip about this film dance!

Not Mahabir Singh 
Edit: After publishing this post, I found another example to add to the end of the playlist from the 1990 Bengali film Rajnartaki, and to my surprise the lead female dancer is Sudha Chandran! As you'll recall, she played herself in the films Mayuri/Nache Mayuri depicting her courageous story as a dancer who continued to perform with a prosthetic leg after enduring a horrific accident. Every so often I find another one of her film dances--she seems to have danced in quite a few!


Some film examples I was not able to find video of. Randor Guy mentions a Manipuri sequence along with Kathak and Punjabi sequences in the 1946 Tamil film Udayanan Vasavadatta. Rabindranath Tagore acted in and directed the silent film version of his play Natir Puja which released in 1932, and it is said to have an interpretive dance by one of the actresses. The prints were supposedly destroyed but a compilation of the surviving footage is available. Another film possibility I came across while researching my recent find of rare Balasaraswati photos was the still to the left of a Manipuri film dance starring Waheeda Rehman (link to larger original here)! Does anyone know what film it is from? I'm stumped...







Costumes in Film Manipuri Dances

The costume of Rhadha and the gopis in the Rasleela is collectively referred to as the Potloi and consists of the cylindrical Kumin or Phumila or Kumil skirt and the upper Poswan or Poswak skirt (I've read so many variations of the names!). The Poswan has apparently evolved from a draped, loose upper skirt into its present-day stiffened, ribbon-likeness—the photo to the left from the book Manipuri Costumes Through Ages illustrates the difference. I was surprised to find that all of the Rasleela-inspired Manipuri films dances in the playlist above feature the non-stiffened upper skirt. One would think the film dance costumers would be more interested in the spectacle of the more visually-arresting stiffened costume. Interestingly, the credits of Raj Nartaki name Sadhona Bose as the costume designer.

In Louise Lightfoot's 1958 book, she commented on changes that had been made to Manipuri dance at that time such as wearing the hair up instead of naturally down and the use of ankle bells which were unknown in Manipuri dance till then and are unnecessary. Speaking of the Ras, she wrote, "The choice of a heavy, stiffened skirt for Rhada and the Gopis was not a fortunate one. Though it looks most beautiful, its purpose of 'hiding the feet from Krishna', and its bell-like stiffness, effectively hide the graceful movements which the traditional Fanek revealed to perfection in the Lai Haraoba.... Never-the-less the beauty of the Ras costume for its own sake has caused it to become the most famous girls' dancing costume in India. Girls in every Indian state try their utmost to obtain a Ras costume...together with the Kathakali designs of Kerala, it is one of the most popular advertisements for catching the eye of foreign tourists..."

In the Ras, the dancer portraying Krishna wears a distinctive costume from the gopis. Pushpadhanu (1959, Bengali) is the only film dance I found that depicted Krishna with the Mukut crown of peacock feathers. Many other elements of the costume are missing, though I wonder if Krishna's costume has seen evolution over the last century as well. In fact, the subject of how Manipuri dance and costumes have evolved is begging for more study!


When a cinema dance strays from the Ras Leela formula for depicting "Manipuri dance," it generally skips to the opposite visual extreme and depicts the "rustic" Sankirtan dances like the pung cholom (drums) and kartal cholom (cymbals).

Kartal Cholom in Kalpana
The other genres of Manipuri dance seem to be absent from non-Manipuri Indian cinema. Since the goal seems to be spectacle or excitement, the Lai Haraoba and other dances featuring the sarong-like Phanek dress have likely never been depicted in cinema outside Manipur.

There is so much more about Manipuri dance that could be said! Discussing all the great gurus and dancers, a look at the wide variety of "Manipuri dance," investigating when the dance was first presented on stage and how it evolved to be "classical," Bishnupriya vs. Meitei culture, along with exciting tidbits like Bipin Singh's tour of Europe with Madame Menaka, Louise Lightfoot's tour with Manipuri dance Priyagopal Singh and Kathakali dancer Shivaram, Tagore's style of dance and "Rabindra Nritya" and "Rabindra Sangeet"...I could go on and on, but those things will have to wait for a possible future post (a Rabindra Nritya one is in the works!).

Cited Sources:
  1. Abrahams, Ruth. The Life and Art of Uday Shankar. PhD Diss. 1985.
  2. Bhavnani, Enakshi. The Dance in India. 1965.
  3. Bowers, Faubion. The Dance in India. 1953.
  4. Coorlawala, Uttara Asha. "Review: The Classical Traditions of Odissi and Manipuri." Dance Chronicle. Vol 16, No. 2. 1993.
  5. Lightfoot, Louise. Dance-Rituals of Manipur, India. 1958.
  6. Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Willemen, Paul. "Bose, Sadhona (1914-73)." Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema: New Revised Edition. (as reproduced at Indiancine.ma Wiki)
  7. Shantaram, V. "Dr. V. Shantaram: Film Producer/Director." In Appreciation of Guru Bipin Singh. 1989.
  8. Singha, Rina and Massey, Reginald . Indian Dances: Their History and Growth. 1967.
  9. Marg A Magazine of the Arts. The Drum and the Cymbal, classical dances of Manipur. Vol. 41 Iss. 2. 1988.
General Sources:
  • Bandopadhay, Sruti. "Manipuri Dance: A Lyrical Manifestation of Devotion." Dance Matters: Performing India on Local and Global Stages. 2010. 
  • Singh, E. Nilkantha. Manipuri Dances. 1997.
  • Singh, R.K. Singhajit. Manipuri. 2004.

More information on Manipuri dance:

7 comments:

  1. Looks like the deleted part of piya tose naiyna lage re song form The Guide. See @ 2:10 timestamp of this video.http://youtu.be/jG10krNPSfA
    You can see the manipuri cutout in front of the building. Mist probably the idea was to shoot waheda rehman dancing in all classical dances, maybe they changed it. Since in the story she is a classical dancer!

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    1. ragothaman - Ah! You may be right, and if so what a shame that they removed that bit! She looks slightly older to me in the mysterious production still, though it's hard to tell from the small size... It was fun to watch the Guide song again. I don't think I ever made it through that whole film...I think it's high time I sit down and watched it. :)

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    2. It is a highly recommended film of cult status. You should read the book as well. Well written one. In fact, Raju mentions Shanta Rao and Bala's name to motivate Rosie to take up dance again. :)

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  2. Minai, I think that you l;inked to a Manipuri dance here http://cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/rare-video-of-dancers-tara-chowdhary.html
    I am surprised that I could not find any Manipuri dances with Babruvahana themes. He was a son of Arjuna, also a king of Manipur, who killed Arjuna without realizing he was his father and later brought him back to life.

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  3. Apparently, there is a dance drama by Tagore about Chitranada, mother of Babruvahana and there are also movies https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAwYMpBAxv8

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    1. gaddeswarup - Yes, there is real-life Manipuri dance footage in that Net-film clip. Isn't it curious how they don't introduce the Manipuri dancers at the beginning, and it's only during the Naga tribe dance that the names "Suryamukhi Tombino Devi, Chitrasen Singh and Babu Singh" are given. They definitely don't seem to be given the same "status" as the other dancers in the footage. I'm not familiar with the story of Babruvahana. Looks like you have some more researching to do! :)

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  4. Well-researched post. Enjoyed reading and viewing the clips.

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