At first I was not convinced it would work: the Divine Mother of India’s ancient spiritual heritage used as a funnel for thoughts on modern day feminism. My fear was that the Divine afflatus would be reduced to a message about social justice.
Had I priorly known about the evening’s lead dancer and choreographer, Bimbavati Devi, I need not have worried.
Hailing from a prestigious musical lineage of north-east India, Bimbavati Devi is a highly regarded specialist in Manipuri, a style of dance that originated from the state of Manipur.
Her parents are considered legends in the dance world.
Her father, Guru Bipin Singh, was a pioneer who drew from the ancient texts known as Shastras to expand the Manipuri form, which is taught at his school Manipuri Nartanalaya, at which Bimbavati Devi serves as artistic director.
Guru Bipin Singh believed in teaching female dancers traditionally male aspects of the dance.
These included the Manipuri drum known as the Pung, as well as the Mridunga drum, cymbals, and the “leaps, jumps and cartwheeling” of the martial art Thang Ta, which latter was incorporated by Singh into the more acrobatic form of Manipuri developed by him (1 & 3).
Performing solo on the 8th November at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, Shri – The Golden Womb was an excellent showcase for Bimbavati Devi’s skills.
Moving as gracefully and fluidly as liquid honey, this exponent demonstrated the hallmark of Manipuri, which distinguishes itself among other classical styles of dance, by the merging of one movement with another in an unbroken flow.
The tradition has a mythical origin. Manipur’s inhabitants are said to be descendants of Gandharvas, renowned musicians and dancers of the celestial realm, who were married to Apsaras, female nature spirits akin to nymphs (2).
Bimbavati Devi’s set consisted of a series of dances, each addressing a specific concern for modern women. Clever use was made of several small props, such as a pair of cymbals and a woman’s shawl.
The unwinding of a yellow cord from the neck of a pot introduced a dance-meditation on social identity and personal freedom.
This content was executed with grace and exhibited a refinement of sentiment in harmony with India’s transcendent notions of the Divine Feminine.
This perspective is one forged in Manipuri’s spiritual and ecstatic roots, namely, devotion to Lord Vishnu. Thus, feminism appeared to be treated as a Ras Leela, a form of theatre shaped as an emotional dialogue between the individual soul and its higher Self, specifically Lord Vishnu embodied as the Divine Lover, Lord Krishna.
The core messages of the ballet pieces were not easily accessible to anyone, such as this writer, who is unfamiliar with Manipuri or the language of the song lyrics.
However, I certainly felt uplifted, to the point where I held my breath so mesmerised was I by the captivating depth and beauty of the performance. For me, this is what I seek from art. It is why I almost worship the consciously sacred arts such as Indian classical dance.
By lifting an audience’s vibration, sacred arts effect a transcendence of the mundane and render a powerful service to society.
Bimbavati Devi addressed her movements to the only object that shared her light on the stage, a golden trishula, a three-pronged spear adorned with a deep red cloth.
Typically held by Lord Shiva, it is also one of the weapons wielded by His consort in Her fiercest form of Durgā – literally ‘the one difficult to approach or know’.
Often described as the Mother of the Universe, Durgā personifies all the powers of all the Gods. Strangely for such a challenging Force of Existence, Durgā is possibly the most widely worshipped Goddess in the Hindu faith.
The presence of the trishula harkened back to the sacred origin of Indian classical arts, which are said to emanate from Nāda Brahman, the one eternal reality in the form of a primordial Divine Sound (Nāda) that pulsates forth in a vibratory dance, oscillating into Existence as the Many and dissolving back again into the One.
Usually that sacred reference is personified as Shiva in His form as the cosmic dancer, Nataraja, who holds a small handheld drum known as the Damaru in one of his uplifted hands.
Besides the trishula, Bimbavati Devi was alone on the stage, which had a shadowy cast, perhaps reminiscent of the obscure subconscious world in which the embodied soul moves and into which it must call the Divine to perform Its work of clarity and enlightenment.
Traditionally, the land of India is revered by its people as a form of the Mother Goddess, Bhu(Earth)devī.
I have to say that the soul and body of this deity seemed to me at one point to manifest upon the stage and I felt that it could almost be heard – the one eternal voice of the world issuing from the earth’s depths through the rhythms and language of dance.
For me, to feel such a sacred connection is the sign of a great performance and I feel blessed to have been introduced to this great artist.