Dance History and dancing through history: Manipuri in colonial India
Upon examining a series of films now made available by the British Film Institute on Prince of Wales’ tour to India (1921–1922), we come to a moment when the camera focuses on Edward VIII and his audience witnessing multiple dancers perform Manipuri in Calcutta – an art which was then in its nascence outside the kingdom of Manipur. In the 1920s dances of Manipur – a form that was deemed worthy of being part of state pageantry – had also steadily garnered social and cultural currency in Bengal. They were introduced in Viswa Bharati University through practitioners from Tripura by polymath Rabindranath Tagore when he came across performances in Sylhet. At the same time, it emerged from Arras that members of the Manipur Labour Corps were dancing to keep the retinue entertained during World War I. By 1947, Manipuri had the rare distinction of being the subject of India’s first trilingual film produced from Bombay and to be performed in British Officers’ Mess in Imphal at the time of World War II. Drawing on photographs available within personal collections of Gourlay, Haig and Knapik in conjunction with films of Woods-Taylor and ethnographic research in Manipur, this talk explores possibilities of constructing a history of Manipuri dance through material archives.
Debanjali Biswas is a Doctoral Candidate in Performance Studies and Cultural Anthropology at King’s College London. Her research, ‘Performance and Violence in Everyday Life in Manipur’ is an ethnography on Meitei performance practices and contemporary Manipur.
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Image: Manipuri dancers at the pageant in honour of the Prince of Wales on the Maidan, Calcutta, 27 Dec 1921 [Photo: Pindi Lall], British Library Photo 10/1(103).