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Manipuri opera limps back to centrestage

An opera tradition that was banned in Manipur by a Hindu fanatic in the late 19th century for its radical presentations is slowly making a comeback, though with some alterations to suit contemporary taste.

So from plain narration of the epic love story of Khamba and Thoibi, Moirang Parva has stretched its ambit to include discourses on state politics, women’s empowerment, oppression and whatever the director fancies.

Earlier this month, Theatre Mirror Manipur and the state Shumang Lila Council organised a Moirang Parva presentation at Iboyaima Shumang Lila Shanglen, Imphal, at the end of a monthlong workshop on the opera form. Director Naba Wareppa did not hazard interpolations though, and decided to stick to the basic format of a simple love story.

The story in brief goes like this: Thoibi, daughter of crown prince Chingkhuba, is in love with an orphan, Khamba. Her father, who wishes her to marry the rich and powerful Angom Nongban, sends Thoibi into exile at Kabo, now in Burma.

There, Thoibi hatches a plan to escape and meet Khamba. She pretends to die and sends news of her death to her father. A heart-broken Chingkhuba gives in to a suggestion from Thoibi’s consort that her body be taken to Khamba’s house for “revival”.

Thoibi grabs this opportunity and lands in Khamba’s house to tell him about her feelings. A simple story, simply told, but by the middle of the play one understands that “radical” presentations were probably not the only reason why Moirang Parva went into oblivion.

Of course, the British-backed Churachand Singh thought the operas were too “non-Hindu” in temperament in 1891 and found it reason enough to choose episodes from the Ramayan, Mahabharat, Kangsha bodha, and Gouralila over Moirang Parva.

But from the presenter’s perspective, Moirang Parva is far more difficult to stage.

Making the melodrama of opera look good takes a seasoned cast that is equally deft at singing, dancing and mukna, the traditional Manipuri art of wrestling.

And that’s where Moirang Parva failed — in its cast. The women artistes were extraordinary but the men were a let down. On the whole, it remained a visually unappealing show.

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