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Tryst with tradition

I am from a conservative Gujarati family in Calcutta. My grandfather, Umed Bhai Patel, however, was very progressive. He wanted his grandchildren to be well-versed in the fineries of life. When I was 10, he invited Guru Bipin Singh to train us at home in Manipuri dance. Guruji was a passionate teacher and I started to love my art.

A major turning point came when I was 18 and travelled with Guruji’s troupe to Manipur. It was an eye-opener as I realised the commitment needed to excel at the form. Also, performing the Vaishnavite Ras Leela form of the dance demanded even more finesse. Another significant decision was to take a year-long break from academics after school. I travelled extensively across Manipur. It was then that I met Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi, one of the biggest names in Manipuri dance. She took me under her wing and introduced me to great Manipuri exponents. It is because of these great artistes that I became what I am. They did not just teach us dance. They taught us a way of life.

Starting my dance school, Anjika, in 1995 was another milestone. My most fulfiling initiative has been using this gentle art to work with children afflicted by cerebral palsy. I’m glad to have contributed to my art too. I’ve trained in the pre-Vaishnavite form, which includes the martial-art-dance form, Thang-ta. However, I include Thang-ta in my performances, which wasn’t done earlier.

As far as performances go, one of the most magical that I’ve been part of was the Cultural Olympiad in Athens in 2003. Also, delivering a lecture at the House of Lords in London during the Indian Festival in 2004 on Indian dance traditions and the Manipuri form was a great experience. I’m now looking forward to founding a centre where dancers can be trained from a young age.

(As told to Amrita Mukherjee)

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