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Sunday, September 18, 2011


An exciting proposition. (Review by Varsha Sharma)

This year marks the 5th year of the Shared History Festival. Sanjoy Roy, Festival director, has once again brought together a colourful ensemble of musicians, theatre personalities, dancers, writers and – yes, even tantalizing Indian cuisine! For dance-lovers, the festival has brought to our shores (for the first time), Rhythm Divine, a work by world-renowned Astad Deboo.

Choreography is by Astad Deboo and collaborator Guru Meihoubam Seityaban Singh. Rhythm Divine has Deboo sharing the stage with eight Pungcholam Drummers of Shree Shree Govindaji Nat Sankirtan who deserve special mention - Ibungo Singh, Handsome Singh, Santosh Singh, Sanasam Shantikumar, Nelachandra Singh, Narendra Singh, Ojit Nongthobam and Dharmendra Singh.

The work opens with all nine performers on stage. Deboo himself takes centre stage encased in plastic, surrounded by the other performers who are crouched on the floor in what resembles the foetal position. The dancers slowly and methodically move through the choreography finishing of in the same positions that they began in.

The music and dance of Manipur is known for its devotional quality. The second segment with the eight Pung-Cholom drummers reflected this. The piano and violin in the supporting soundtrack is soul stirring. Here I found that the drummers looked a little strained. Without the support of their drums and moving to a western orchestration, I felt both nervous and stressed for them. This “fish out of water scenario” at times left one feeling like the movement and the music just didn’t correspond. However, as I was drawn in by the soulful violin I couldn’t help but feel a sense of excitement as if something mysterious yet magical was enfolding. The movements and music which at first appeared starkly opposing, slowly began to merge into a world of its own as they began to let go and embrace the new.

Deboo’s solo was clearly in contrast to the movements of the drummers. However, his movement and agility with his innate ability to reflect the soul of the music in his body never fails to amaze you. Joined by the drummers - this time with large hand-held cymbals (manjiras) - the pace of the choreography began to increase. Strangely enough, the long and bright red threads of cotton tied to the cymbals added a burst of colour to a work which was otherwise painted from a palette of greys and whites. Costume Design is by Archana Shah, Hiloo Mehta and Seityaban Singh. Keeping to traditional Manipuri dress was a good choice, anything else would have been inappropriate.

Eventually the drummers are re-united with their drums. Here they truly come into their own with an energized acrobatic display of martial movement supported by vibrant bols (drumming syllables). Deboo shares the space with them and us, the audience, as we become a part of this exciting dialogue of rhythm. Be it through clapping of hands, stamping of feet, vibrant dance syllables or acrobatic leaps, an exciting tapestry of sounds and tempos were being weaved and they revelled in it!

Music by Yoichiro Yoshikawa and Dawn Upshaw is soul-stirring and manages to draw you into the world the performers are slowly creating. Lighting was minimalistic. Designed by Pushan Kripalani, the dim lighting and extensive use of floor lighting helped perpetuate the mood and movements. Initially slow, the choreography eventually grows to a heightened fast-paced crescendo. Deboo has a methodical approach to the choreography for the performers. Throughout dancing in unison, he pays attention to symmetry and seamless transitions from one formation to the next and doesn’t fail to bring forth the highlights and salient features of this mesmerizing dance tradition of North-East India.

I have great respect for tradition and do believe that there are some things that need to remain in its original form. But this collaboration shows yet again (as many others have and continue to do so) that looking ahead doesn’t always mean forgetting one’s roots but emphasizes that ideas, designs and the creative process needs to be progressive. So for me, Rhythm Divine is an exciting proposition for two entities that embarked on a journey from opposite ends only to meet not in the middle but somewhere far ahead.

Rhythm Divine runs in the Playhouse Drama till September 17. – Varsha Sharma