01 September 2014

Give Manipur its Life Back, And Irom Sharmila Her Freedom

Freedom fighter: Irom Sharmila is the most Gandhian figure of this generationBy Shiv Visvanathan


Often a phase, a body, a story of a person hangs like a question mark over a nation; stating things in a way which is unique.

When a young woman called Irom Sharmila decided to fast over a decade ago, the Indian state misread her acts.

They thought they would outlast her, out-think her, slander her, but every shed has a genius which can outwit a coercive state. Over 10 years, Irom Sharmila became a symbolic foil to Army rule, to a state which could not think beyond the Army for any act of policy.

Recently, the District and Sessions court Judge A. Guneswor Sharma ruled that Irom Sharmila could not be arrested because hers was not an act of suicide. Sharmila was fasting but she did not refuse forced feeding. The same judge released her only so that the state could arrest her again.


Normalcy

Reasons of state are more compulsive than reasons of humanity or judgment of law. A fragile woman threatened a nation state and the latter, like a Puglian dog does the predictable, re-arrests her before the people can sense her sense of freedom. Irom Sharmila is the most Gandhian figure of this generation. Like each Gandhian she is uniquely different. She does not weave, she does not spin, the only threats on her are the plastic tubes stuck into her. Her regimen is as rigorous as an ashram dweller, but her home is a hospitable bed guarded by security forces.

Yet there is a joy and laughter no security force can suppress. She openly claims that she is no martyr, no fundamentalist, dying to sacrifice her life, for her life is too precious for that. She wants AFSPA to end so she can marry the man she loves, engage in ordinary things which can make life so meaningful.

She claims she just wants to return to the normalcy of living and refuses to be a monument or a statue to some cause. All she is saying, simply like Simone Weil in Manipur, is: "I have no right to enjoy life when that normalcy, that dream of walking and living without constraint or fear is not available to my people."

She is right. AFSPA is a draconian band against normalcy, a way of freezing life, at 4pm. So that the Army and insurgence can take over Manipur by 6. At 4 you can sense the tension, shops start shutting down, watch woman packing the bundles because the streets have to be deserted at six. This is the obscenity Irom is protesting.

Once you unleash an Army against your own people , the Army gets brutalised and citizens become more vulnerable, democracy dies a ritual death every day, and Delhi does not even give it a footnote as it is obsessed with security. What we have here is an apolitical impasse between an Army that will not risk its soldiers without AFSPA, which gives the demonic powers, and a woman who claims that a people deserve the normalcy of life, livelihood and living.

Over 10 years since her fast began, the struggle of Irom Sharmila reflects a deep need for change in Manipur
Over 10 years since her fast began, the struggle of Irom Sharmila reflects a deep need for change in Manipur

One has to go beyond the frozen script. Politics needs the humility to admit it has emasculated the lives of people, not only torturing innocence but destroying the innocence of Manipur. To re-arrest her is the knee-jerk act of a knee-jerk society. India as a society and the BJP as a new regime has to realise first that AFSPA is not the only solution and secondly, it distances other solutions.

Tyranny as order is not an act of problem-solving and sensitive judges and intelligent officers have realised this. I am not quoting seditious documents but reading from the Justice Jeevan Reddy report which needs a second look and time-bound application.

We need peace, and we need to realise that the last thing India needs to do is to behave like Israel and Gaza strip. As a nation, we have to realise law and order is a loaded term. It can be insensitive for the security forces and yet it can also be a beginning of grumbling, but welcoming normalcy.

Today, AFSPA has almost become a frozen contract between the Army and insurgence to freeze politics. Irom's rearrest merely confirms this.

Let us realise that Narendra Modi cannot relate to SAARC till he renews the border areas in the North-east. The two cannot be isolated. To even think so is silly. This is a domain which will open further as a new railway line will be built across Manipur, all the way to Burma and Thailand.

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The government has to realise that it is not the middle class in Delhi that wants change. The people in Manipur also do. It needs the humanity which realises that the brutalisation of Manipuri students in South Delhi and devastation of the state may both come from the suppression of Manipur.

Many experts and Army officers will tell you over tea that, "these people are different. They don't understand democracy". Irom's fast is an answer to such illiteracy.

It is the simple wisdom of a woman telling the Army, telling the insurgence that there is a world of life and living beyond them. If that is sedition, let me call it the highest form of patriotism, a patriotism which is a toast to life and which is intensely life giving.

One realises that politics is the art of the possible. Army officers often confess that they can't send the bodies in without AFSPA. I realise that the Army is only the wing of the state. All Irom's fast is asking for is return to politics and to citizenship.

A continued state of emergency desecrates the society and democracy. And this we cannot allow. This is the content of her appeal. It's a prayer to return the normal everyday to Manipuri life.

The writer is a social science nomad

Cowards Against The Brave

By Garga Chatterjee

It is not accidental that there are four lions staring down at anyone who might take the Satyamev at face value.


 

Certain truths are always hidden from public attention. Hence, beyond the affected victims, they do not form a part of public memory. In the year 1966, when the Indian Air Force was bombing large parts of Mizoram, including the present capital city of Aizawl, many Mizos were desperately trying to seek refuge to save their life. The sanitised term “collateral damage” was not in vogue back then.
Those were not the days of precision bombing. That there is no such thing called precision bombing even now is evident from Gaza to Baghdad, where those who claim precision in targeting undesirables provide a rich harvest of dead non-combatants.

When the Mizos were getting bombed with the kind of discrimination and precision using incendiary bombs that only an Air Force raised on Gandhian ideology can provide, many of the bombed people must have had a lot of thoughts rushing through their heads. It is my suspicion that some of thoughts were not exactly ones of affection towards the Union of India.

Legally, sedition involves incitement of disaffection towards the state. It is not entirely impossible that some Mizo fathers and mothers incited their daughters and sons to be disaffected towards the powers that were bombing them. And in doing so, they became serious criminals under the law of the Indian Union’s land.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had famously proclaimed that affection for the state (the Union of India in the Mizo case) could not be manufactured or regulated by law. However it is quite possible to create a situation where the grandchildren of bombed people are made to turn out in smart saffron, white, and green uniforms for August 15 festivities in Aizawl.

School children under the watch of armed personnel seem to be a favourite setting for affection manufacturing activities. Smiling children. Happy nation. Waving flags. Zero sedition. No one is a bigger criminal than a state that uses its armed might against civilians it considers to be its own citizens. Incidentally, Mizoram shares a border with the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Some things don’t change – the name of the aggressor and the victim may change.

Like most black laws that an anxious nation-state uses to curb anything that tries to puncture its mythology and glorious creation story, the axe is typically used to shut up those who try to adhere to the official Hindustani slogan “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone prevails). It is not accidental that there are four lions staring down at anyone who might want to take the Satyamev pronouncement at face value.

Very often, the lions go out to hunt in packs. Too many undesirable people, whose remains will never be found, know this well. That is how much of the instant justice for sedition is meted out. It is only when a relatively powerful person breaks the silence that the lions seem unsure what to do. They roar, but don’t bite.

Recently, there has been uproar against a member of the Indian Union parliament, and said member’s comments are said to have been “seditious.” Kalvakuntla Kavitha, a Telengana Rashtria Samithi member of parliament, allegedly said: “Jammu and Kashmir, and Telangana were both forcefully, and at the same time, annexed to the Indian Union. When I say I feel strongly, it’s because we were both separate countries, but were merged with the Indian Union after Independence. In 1947, we were not a part of India.”

Her father is the elected chief minister of Telengana, a newly established state whose contours resemble in a large way the Nizam of Hyderabad’s erstwhile dominion. Her father’s stature, her MP status, and the reading down of the sedition law in 1962 will ensure that no harm comes to her as far as the sedition case is concerned.

The hunted have always outnumbered the hunters, and anything that puts the focus back on the hunted expands liberty. There is no space for naiveté at the level of a parliamentarian, but even with its cynical calculation and political intent, whatever opening is provided, ought to be cherished and celebrated. Only rarely do the contradictions between the powerful come to the fore – when it comes to the origin myths of a nation-state like the Indian Union.

What is left unsaid in the slogan “truth alone prevails” is “when.” Does truth prevail by its own merit as if my magic, is it allowed to prevail strategically to earn points for openness so that more damaging truths can be suppressed?

Section 124(A) of the Indian penal code deals with sedition. Sedition is a law for the powerful against the powerless, of the anxious against the confident, of fiction against fact, of the rulebook against dreams, of the coward against the brave.

An anxious nation-state fears plebiscites. A humane state embraces the people’s will. People who expose origin myths as well as the crimes of the government under whose jurisdiction they live are typically targeted as seditious. They disrupt the long lullaby of the non-violent creation of India and Indians. To consider a nation-state and its political mythology holy is a slur to the sacred – the kind that predates all man-written books, laws, and constitutions.

We must all be fearful of lions because a beast that has tasted blood does not rest even when it is not in the jungle. The shrillness with which K Kavitha has been demonised only shows the weak and tense foundations of the India-making project. And she hasn’t even gone halfway down the path of the parliamentarian, the departed GG Swell, who showed bomb-covers in the Lok Sabha when patriotic tricoloured lions refused to own up to their aerial hunt in Mizoram. Lions love Section 124(A). As long as the hunter holds sway about the story of the hunt, sedition laws will remain. The browns are an unfortunate people.

Brus Demand Status Like Kashmiri Pandits

Agartala, Sep 1 : More than 30,000 displaced Reang/Bru tribal people from neighbouring Mizoram, sheltered in seven camps in North Tripura district, have demanded a status like Kashmiri Pandits or Tamil refugees.

The Mizo Bru Displaced People’s Forum (MBDPF), the only organisation of the inmates, submitted a 13-point charter of demands including the status like Kashmiri Pandits or Tamil refugees to a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) delegation led by its Additional Secretary Rajib Gauba when it visited the camps, MBDPF general secretary Bruno Mesa said.

Mesa said the inmates were living in “inhuman” conditions for the past 17 years since they trickled into the camps following ethnic clashes with the Mizos. “There is no school for the children. Though a few schools were being run by some NGOs, they closed down due to funds crunch. There is hardly any healthcare provision for the inmates. Infant mortality is high because there is no vaccine or nutrition for them,” Mesa alleged.

He said, since repatriation would not be possible soon, the living condition of the camp inmates should be improved and they should be given proper healthcare and opportunity for education.

For a permanent solution, the Bru people should be repatriated in their homeland in Mizoram with adequate land, compensation and proper security, Mesa said.

There are 30,289 people in the seven evacuee camps. The MHA team would submit its report to the Ministry by September 12.

12-hr Naga Bandh Peaceful in Manipur

By NGANGBAM INDRAKANTA SINGH


Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh and deputy chief minister Gaikhangam (left) visit the injured in Imphal on Sunday. Picture by UB Photos

Imphal, Sep 1: The 12-hour strike called by the All Naga Students’ Union, Manipur across Naga-inhabited areas of the state since last evening against the killing of two protesters in police firing at Ukhrul yesterday passed off peacefully.
The Manipur government announced ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the victims.
Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, who declared the ex gratia, also assured financial help to those injured in the police action and were undergoing treatment.
The chief minister, who visited the injured at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences this morning, said maintaining law and order was imperative to protect the lives and property of the people.
“Deployment of security forces and imposition of prohibitory orders are not to harass people. The security personnel deployed at Ukhrul have been instructed to ensure that such unfortunate incidents are not repeated. We are waiting for the post-mortem report to institute any inquiry into the incident,” he said.
The chief minister was accompanied by deputy chief minister and home minister Gaikhangam, Deputy Speaker Preshaw Shimray and health minister Phunjathang Tonsing.
Police resorted to firing after protesters at a rally allegedly turned violent and set two vehicles carrying police personnel on fire.
The rally was organised to protest against the deployment of security forces in the Naga-inahbited areas, particularly in Ukhrul district, by the state government “in utter disrespect of the Indo-Naga ceasefire”, state government’s “disrespect for the tripartite talks” between the Centre, state government and the United Naga Council on an alternative administrative arrangement, “which has progressed to a logical stage” and the state government’s policies that encroached upon the ancestral lands of the Nagas and other indigenous communities.
The victims were identified as Ramkashing Vashi and Mayopam Ramraor, both from Teinem village.
The situation in Ukhrul today remained tense and highly volatile.
The district administration has requisitioned army and Assam Rifles, which kept a tight vigil.
The UNC has submitted a memorandum to Prime Minster Narendra Modi asking for urgent intervention of the Centre on the situation of the Nagas in Manipur.
The memorandum stated that the state government was making all efforts to destabilise the Indo-Naga ceasefire through militarisation of Naga areas on the pretext of law and order and thereby prevent early settlement of the decades-old Indo-Naga issue.
The council has called upon the Naga people to be prepared for any eventuality.
29 August 2014

Manipur Governor V K Duggal Resigns, 9th Gov To Go After NDA Came To Power

New Delhi, Aug 29 : Asked whether he was asked to quit, 69-year-old Duggal said "I have resigned on my own accord".

Vinod Kumar Duggal on Thursday night resigned as Manipur Governor becoming the ninth governor appointed by the UPA regime to quit since the NDA Government came to power in May this year.

Duggal, who holds additional charge of Mizoram as well, arrived in Delhi and called on President Pranab Mukherjee where he handed over the resignation.

“I have submitted my resignation to the President,” Duggal, a former Union Home Secretary, said.
Asked whether he was asked to quit, 69-year-old Duggal, who became the Governor of the Northeastern state on December 31 last, said “I have resigned on my own accord”.

Duggal, who served as Home Secretary from 2005 to 2007, is the second Governor to have put in his papers this week.

Earlier, Sheila Dikshit resigned as Governor of Kerala on August 26.

With this, Duggal, as IAS officer of 1968 batch, becomes the ninth Governor to have resigned since the Narendra Modi government came to power on May 26.

Five UPA-appointed Governors — M K Narayanan (West Bengal), Ashwani Kumar (Nagaland), B L Joshi (UP), B V Wanchoo (Goa) and Shekhar Dutt (Chhattisgarh), have already resigned after being nudged by the NDA government.

V Purushothaman, the Governor of Mizoram, had resigned after he was transferred to Nagaland in July this year while Maharashtra Governor K Sankaranarayanan tendered his resignation on August 24 after he was shifted to Mizoram.

After the new Government assumed office, two Governors including 87-year-old Kamla Beniwal, who had a running battle with Modi when he was Gujarat Chief Minister when she was governor of the western state, were sacked.

Lt Governor of Puducherry Virendra Kataria, a former Congress leader, was also sacked.

Uttarakhand Governor Aziz Qureshi has challenged Centre’s moves to ease him out of office, bringing the controversy over removal of UPA-appointed Governors under judicial lens.

Mizoram Grapples With Narcotic That Gives A Kick, Addiction it Can’t Cure

By Adam Halliday

In Myanmar, source of the narcotic, a seized consignment of methamphetamine is set on fire. ( Source: AP )
In Myanmar, source of the narcotic, a seized consignment of methamphetamine is set on fire.

Aizawl, Aug 29 : Raw material through state returns as methamphetamine from Myanmar.
The best quality of methamphetamine, a highly-addictive narcotic with no known medical treatment, has been trickling into India from Myanmar and caused panic in Mizoram, where large consignments are regularly being intercepted, the latest during the weekend of 20,000 pills worth Rs 70 lakh.

“We are facing an onslaught of a narcotic that is more harmful than any we have experienced so far… Methamphetamine is not to be taken lightly, and every family should prepare itself to counter it, every community-based organisation should make battling it a top priority,” the state’s excise and narcotics department (END) said in a public appeal issued last month. Local newspapers frequently carry opinion articles about the narcotic while the Young Mizo Association and church organisations have regularly held awareness campaigns.

The narcotic is not really new to Mizoram. The first seizures were made in the first two years of the last decade, with over 1,600 pills apprehended. For the next 10 years, however, meth disappeared from law-enforcement agencies’ radar. Since 2011, Mizoram has seen huge seizures of pseudoephedrine, a legal drug prescribed for colds and allergies, but which can be processed into methamphetamine. Close to 100 pseudoephedrine traffickers have been arrested and roughly 20 million tablets intercepted in three years by police, END officers, customs and even community-based organisations, but officials estimate just 10 to 20 per cent of all the consignments passing through Mizoram have been detected.

Most of it came from pharmaceutical companies in north and west India. Taken out of their strips and transported in gunny bags and polythene bags, they were being sent to Myanmar where, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says, these apparently harmless drugs are processed into methamphetamine by cartels and ethnic armies that, until a few years ago, supplied the drug to the “Golden Triangle” of Southeast Asia and used the money to buy arms.

These drugs have recently begun returning west, and India’s eastern borders and Bangladesh seem the main corridor. In the last two years in Mizoram, police and END have seized more than 2.5 lakh methamphetamine tablets and arrested 20 traffickers, half of whom are Myanmar nationals, while a police inspector has been suspended and an inquiry instituted against him.

The pseudoephedrine racket, meanwhile, has also brought in the names of a former health minister, political leaders, government officials, and some police and law enforcement officials, with consignments found in parcels sent through India Post, trucks, cars and even suitcases of students flying home from Delhi and other metros.

High and low
Methamphetamine pills come in bright red, pink, green and orange coatings and are invariably stamped with the insignias of cartels in Myanmar. These include “WY” (a brand the UNODC considers the “most popular, of highest quality and the most expensive” meth pills from Myanmar), “88” and “R”.

A teenage user says he has been hooked to meth for a year-and-a-half; he was introduced to it at a Valentine’s Day party. “The high… I danced the entire night, then I went to another party and danced and danced,” he said. “There was a feeling of confidence, and my sexual appetite has increased but I have also developed a dysfunction, so that does not make any sense.”

He came in touch with dealers and now buys pills almost weekly. He has also tried methamphetamine “chewing gum”, tablets he inserts into the anus and a powdered form that he injects into his veins.
Each pill costs him Rs 250. He admits to stealing from his father’s debit card. He used to be a good student but is now struggling to finish XII. He has trouble sleeping — “just two to four hours, if at all”— and complains of severe body pains and restlessness, conditions that have forced him to seek treatment at a daytime drug addiction cessation unit for opiate addicts.

“Sometimes I keep chewing my pillow because the pain is difficult to bear,” he said. He has been prescribed a strip of 100 mg painkillers and seven sleeping tablets a day.

Treatment challenge
Dr Lalchhanhima Ralte admits treating a methamphetamine addict is a new challenge, one he and colleagues are ill-prepared for. Synod Hospital, where he works, has been treating drug addicts for decades through a specialised division that has also caught the attention of the UNODC, which plans to set up India’s first methamphetamine treatment centre there.

“There is no treatment for methamphetamine addiction. At most, we prescribe antidepressants. There is no substitute like in the case of opiates,” Dr Ralte admits.

There is no properly compiled data to ascertain how many methamphetamine addicts live in Mizoram. “They are all definitely younger than 25. Their symptoms are all the same, but there is little we can do. The problem is that these few who have come are just those who have already tried methamphetamine long enough to want to quit it. We have no idea how many are hooked to it but have not thought about quitting,” said Lalrinawma Chhakchhuak, project manager at the cessation units.

Estimates put the number of opiate and pharmaceutical drug abusers in Mizoram at about 20,000 while END records show that since 1984 at least 1,240 people have died due to overdose, mostly of opiates such as heroin.

“When heroin began to be detected in Mizoram in the early 1980s, everyone said it’s a western drug and for developed countries. That was proved completely wrong,” said Chhakchhuak. “The fear is that it is going to be the same story for methamphetamine.”

Two Bangladeshi Chakmas Among Five Arrested With Huge Arms in India

One Bangladeshi arrestee said he was an activist of Rangmati-based PCJSS.
One Bangladeshi arrestee said he was an activist of Rangmati-based PCJSS.
Agartala, Aug 29 : Five Chakma youths including two from Bangladesh have been apprehended with huge quantity of arms and ammunition in the Indian state of Mizoram.

Manipur — The Land of 1,000 Dances



Sankirtana in Manipur; Khamba Thoibi dance in Lai Haroba
Sankirtana in Manipur; Khamba Thoibi dance in Lai Haroba
Amazing may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of Manipuri. For many, the iconic floating costumes of the Ras-Leela, arms waving over bobbing skirts, are both a charming image and the beginning and end of what is known about this amazing classical dance tradition of India; or rather traditions, as Manipuri dance actually comprises not one but five forms of dance with Ras-Leela simply being the best known outside of the state.

My entre to discovering the incredible depth and richness of this lesser known performing art of northeast India began with a 2x2 inch notice on a University of Michigan dance board announcing the availability of Manipuri Dance classes at the local community centre. That was in 1969 and I had never seen a Manipuri dance performance live or on film, only photographs in dance books and I knew that it was one of the four dance genres recognised as classical at the time of India’s Independence. My first teacher, Minati Basu Roy, a senior disciple of Guru Atomba Singh whom Tagore brought to Santineketan in the 1920s, inspired my desire to come to India to learn more of this lyrical form. I was fortunate to realise this dream through seven years of training under Guru Singhajit Singh and in Manipur studying Maibi jagoi with Ranjani Maibi and Kumar Maibi, Kartal Cholom with guru Thongjan Chaoba Singh and classical Ras-Leela jagoi at the JNU Manipur Akademi.

Manipuri remains surprisingly misunderstood even by dance cognizati, writers and artists of other genres, let alone the general public today. The satvik, internalised abhinaya for which others value as the aim of their art, is the core of the Ras tradition; yet there are those from other traditions who believe that there is no abhinaya in Manipuri. There are five principal Ras dances; of which four are linked with specific seasons, while the fifth can be presented at any time of the year. While outside of Manipur we see small slices of a Ras on the stage, at home the emotional and spiritual import is huge. Every parent would love to be able to afford to co-sponsor a performance as their child would be trained to become Krishna or Radha for the event. Viewers will lie prostrate before the child, as they are the deity for the time being with professionals dancing as Gopis. Every traditional home has a large open space for such performances, which are performed in the round for the community. During the Bhangi Pareng, a pure dance piece of intricate rhythms and patterns, no one in the audience can leave, as this is sacred. You have to get your cup of tea earlier or wait till it’s over!

Besides a few folk dances, Manipuri dances are devotional in a society that is deeply religious. Manipuri dance is sustained by its society; it is still part of religion, an unbroken religious practice, rather than a revival or reconstruction or neo-classical tradition. Because of this, artists from Manipur are reluctant to come out for more than brief tours and few have been willing to live in other regions of India to foster understanding of their art.

It is truly amazing that all forms of Manipuri, or Meitei, dance play a vital living role in day-to- day culture. Despite Herculean efforts by some dancers to recreate this sense of vitality in other parts of India, with greatest continuity in Kerala, it is only in Manipur where dancers work fulltime, performing as an essential part of life celebrations. Besides Ras and the other leelas, the other main dance forms of Manipur are Lai Haroba or Entertainment of the Gods and Sankirtana.

Each stage in one’s life is celebrated with Sankirtana performances — childbirth, upanayanam, marriage and shradha are all occasions for singing and dancing in Manipur. The Sankirtana of Manipur is unique as dance was added to Vaishnava singing of Sankirtana when it was added to the Hindu and Pre-Hindu spiritual dance traditions of Manipur through Bengali missionaries from the 15th century onward. What we see outside of Manipur on stage are the spectacular dancing musicians spinning in the air while playing the Manipuri pung mardala, or the drums of Holi, turbans flying off, after dancing and playing a very few of their 90 rhythmic cycles. Pung cholom borrows elements from the Manipuri martial arts Thang Ta and Sarit Sarak and also from the traditional Maibi jagoi dance. Although Pung Cholom is traditionally performed by men, there are women’s groups that are booked solid throughout the year as part of life cycle events!

The magnificent Pung Cholom performances, impressive as they are, in Manipur are most often seen as part of the Nupa Pala, or Kartal Cholom, which encompasses passionate bhakti singing and dancing with heavy brass cymbals by a circle of dancer-musicians accompanied by a couple of Pung Cholom artists. The Nupa Pala acts as a prologue to the Ras Leela dances, besides an independent performance too, in connection with religious rites. Before the Sankirtana Cholom, artists lead a bridegroom from his home to that of the bride and a messenger from the wedding site at the bride’s home arrives to announce, “We still have the bride, do you still have the groom?” as tradition accepts elopement if either takes off before the planned marriage. It is quite a cacophony when the groom arrives with the Sankirtana music to compete with the brass band playing at the wedding venue! Even more amazing than the fact that dance plays an essential role in daily life in Manipur is that everyone dances! It is the norm to dance and during the festival of Lai-Haroba, the dance of the shamanistic Maibi spiritual mediums will be preceded by community dancing. In a long line dance one sees women from grandmothers to small girls performing a subtle and sophisticated dance that, along with the Maibi dances, was the base for creating the classical Ras. As part of this pre-Hindu annual ritual festival, teenagers from each neighborhood of the many festivals in honor of the 360 Umanglai ancestor deities of the Manipur valley compete as teams with new choreography of the lasya and tandav dance technique to depict the story of Khamba and princess Thoibi, the hero and heroine of a legendary Moirang romance.

The Maibi dances of the Lai Haroba are essential for the preservation of the world, or at least the world of Manipur! It is remarkable that this pre-Hindu tradition has not diminished with the advent of Vaishnavism, which coexists comfortably side-by-side. Maibis are both women, and men dressed as women, who evidence signs of being a Maibi, often as teenagers who have seizures that are not explained as epilepsy by modern science and are then turned over to Maibi gurus who train them in the ritual dances of the Lai Haroba as well as managing their seizures that result in shamanistic trances that help guide the Meitei people who come to them. This kind of shamanism can be seen only in Manipur and across Southeast Asia. There is no dearth of Maibis even in this day and age and it is not something one either wishes to become or avoid if it is so. The Maibi ritual dances include the whole Meitei cosmogony from creation through the creation of man, construction of houses, weaving and other aspects of living. There is even a Maibi dance of the deity playing polo, which originated in Manipur!

Thang-ta, the martial art of Manipur, may arguably be included as a form of dance. Besides the thang or sword, and ta or spear, shields and spears and other weapons are also used. Thang-ta can be practised as ritual, demonstration or combat. The first way is related to the tantric practices and is entirely ritualistic in nature. Demonstrations can be converted into actual fighting practices and combat application. Thang-ta is closely related to certain war-dances like thangkairol (sword dance) and khosarol (spear dance). Many ritualistic dances in Manipur were traditionally performed by martial artists such as the spear dance for funerals or the sacred thengou dance. The first time I saw the spire dance was shortly after the end of the war in Vietnam and I was struck by the technique of stepping forward after first swiveling the foot in front before stepping, which was clearly the wise way to move through knee-high paddy fields that might have stakes hidden throughout, as was the traditional practice used by the Vietcong.

The internationally acclaimed theatre of the brilliant director Rattan Thiyam, and other fine Manipuri theatre groups, is supported by actors, who have learned dance as part of their cultural ethos. Being part of a society that dances has given a foundation on which to build upon an incredibly evocative physical theatre. Manipuri dances use the entire body for expression, comparable to western dance traditions but with different aesthetics. Manipur is a land without stone for temples of sculpted figures. The dance is never static, never stopping in frozen poses, but rather subtle and elegant transitions of circles, curves and figure eights. The ankle bells of many Indian classical forms that clearly delineate rhythms through foot contact cannot be used in Manipuri where the subtly of rhythms are syncopated and the off beats may be demarcated by a bend of the knee or in the air besides by the foot. This makes it less visible to the less observant eye, but the reward of closer attention will reveal a world of ethereal nuance.

Sharon Lowen is a respected exponent of Odissi, Manipuri, Mayurbhanj and Seraikella Chau. She has an MA in Dance from Michigan University and 17 years of experience in Modern Dance and Ballet in the US.

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