Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Notes from a Pilgrimage

Finally, I'm ready to talk about the other theme of this blog - dance. A trip to the Mecca of my form of dance seems like an auspicious beginning.

A few weeks back, I visited Manipur along with a motley group of people comprising my mother, daughter, mother's friend, two students and a student's mother. I was visiting after a long gap of four years and I didn't really know what to expect. Added to that was my trepidation about the increasing insurgency threats and consequent security concerns. I was responsible for the safety of other people, including that of my mother and daughter, and the pessimist in me collaborated with my overactive imagination to give me visions of abduction, torture, getting caught in the crossfire....

We arrived in Imphal after a gruelling 16 hour bus journey from Guwahati (which was preceded by a 22 hour train journey from Kolkata in 3-tier comfort!). Expecting verdant valleys and the splendours of nature all around us, we found ourselves in the middle of a busy market place (rather like Burra Bazar in Kolkata). Enthusiasm Counts slipped a notch or two. Hopes of a cooler climate too were thwarted by the blazing sun. Finding a hotel proved a tough ask too. If after many sweaty hours we managed to find something decent, there did not seem to be too many eating joints around. Plus, the language problem became apparent. Though most people talk broken Hindi the gap between our intended meaning and their understanding was huge - and I wasn't yet feeling adventurous enough to try out my broken Manipuri! The crowning glory was an evening spent without electricity, cooped up in our hotel rooms. The E.Cs were dropping faster than the current-day sensex. (Only my six-year-old daughter Ana seemed to be enjoying the rare privilege of spending endless hours with me!)

However, even this day of trial for the helpless big city people in a less privileged world had its rewards. And that was a visit to the Ima market - a market run entirely by women, made famous recently by Discovery Channel. It was just two minutes away from the hotel and the local handloom products had us engrossed for one happy hour and we came back satiated. However, my anxiety about the E.C. remained and I started to think of this trip, rather fatalistically, as an unqualified disaster.

And then we went to Moirang on Day 2. It's a border state, the famous place where Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj planted the first Indian flag in his bid to overthrow the British Empire. Moirang is better known among the Manipuris as the birthplace of their ancient festival of Lai Haraoba. The moment we heard the sound of Pena (an ancient string instrument, somewhat like a makeshift violin) from outside the enclosure where the festival was going on, our spirits lifted. We watched the Maibis (female priestesses who get the 'call' to serve god and devote their lives to worship and social work) perform with inimitable grace, a little child, barely 4 or 5 years old, performing the trademark steps with great confidence and the entire community gathered to take part in this re-enactment of the creation of the universe. The E.C.s began their heady ascent into hitherto unknown heights!

Since then, it became easy. The Loktak Lake was breathtaking with its huge expanse, floating vegetation and the presence of military personnel from the army camp, in as much abundance as the vegetation. We were lucky enough to witness two more Lai Haraoba performances, this time within Imphal, where again the community participation enthralled us. When I say that everyone from six to sixty years of age took part, it's actually an understatement. Children and elders, who can barely walk, took part and one 70 year old man gave a spirited performance! A visit to the Govindaji Temple proved an experience in spirituality that I seldom encounter. An added bonus was a brilliant play by the celebrated director Kanhai Lal - an adaptation of Dakshyajagya rendered in a style that's uniquely Manipuri - stark, earthy, eloquent, poetic and wholly surprising.

What has always struck me most about Manipur is its paradoxical ethos. On one hand, you have the Assam Rifles men, with menacing looking automatics, placed a few metres apart, on almost every road you travel. On the other hand, you have the people - simple, friendly and demonstrative. We were overwhelmed by the love and affection showered on us - and especially on Ana, who wore a Manipuri Phanek (a kind of sarong) through most of the trip and delighted everyone who saw her. Of course I had to field uncomfortable and sometimes funny questions about whether I had married a Manipuri! By the second day, I was a little more adventurous with my spoken Manipuri and that immediately made people warm up even more towards me. We made friends in the Ima market (strangely enough, everyone knew our travel plans by the 2nd day); we were offered places to sit (a rare commodity) at the Lai Haraoba performances.

Manipur is a state that is less privileged and neglected in many ways. The infrastructure is poor, the power situation is nightmarish (barely 6 hours of electricity per day in most areas) and there are numerous problems, one of the biggest of them being the prevalence of AIDS. Yet, in spite of all these troubles, the Manipuris create unparalleled beauty through their art - the dance style is lyrical, the handicrafts are exquisite and the aesthetic sense and artistic sensibility of the man on the road, remarkable. It's difficult to imagine how such artistry, love and beauty can exist side by side with negligence, terror and violence.