INDIA BY PHONE: Troy is a small, all-American city in upstate New York, and the phone is ringing in its all-American Best Western Motel. But once the connection is made, I hear a voice deeply accented with the musical tones of India.
Suddenly, I'm at the listening end of a sinuous conversation that wends its way around the sacred dances of medieval India, on through the courtship tale of the Hindu god Krishna, and comes to a close on the high "velvety green" mountain valley of Manipur, in the easternmost corner of India, east of Bangladesh, west of Burma.
The gifted speaker who's effortlessly painting these alluring mental pictures over the fiberoptics network is Rajkumar Singhajit Singh, a premiere Indian dancer, choreographer and teacher. Singh will be dancing in Tucson Saturday evening with his troupe, a company of six that includes two dancers, two singers, a drummer and a flutist. They will perform Manipuri, the classical dances of their native Manipur state, in a concert expected to last two hours. But though their dances have been tailored for the modern concert hall, Indian dance, as Singh so eloquently explains, has religion as its source.
"Most classical dance in India started in the temples as a ritual," he says in his lilting voice. "This style, Manipuri, is from the northeast corner of India. It still remains a part of worship in the state of Manipur. There is no religious occasion when we do not dance and sing. All important events are punctuated by dance."
When a child is six days old, for instance, or when a 2-year-old gets her ears pierced or when a 13-year-old boy is awarded the sacred thread of Hinduism, dancers and musicians come to the home and perform "with great reverence." At the frequent temple rituals, the devout are often so moved by the performances that they weep, and the pious elderly "prostrate themselves in front of the performers."
Singh was reared to be a sacred dancer.
"I have danced since childhood," he says, "and my wife also since childhood. (Singh's wife, Charu Sija Mathur, is in the company.) The training is rigorous. In Manipur we used to go the guru's house. It was very hard training, the whole morning and evening, but it was an affectionate family affair."
Nowadays, though the Manipur religious dances are still performed in the temples, Singh himself lives and teaches in New Delhi and gives concerts for secular audiences.
"In America, we have brought excerpts from what happens in the temple," he said. "There are no modern themes. There are samples of old temple performances, plus new works that we have done for modern audiences, based on the old mythology."
The classical dances of India vary by region, but one story universally interpreted by dancers is the love tale of the flute-playing god Krishna and Radha, his female aspect and lover.
"Their love stories are enacted with great reverence throughout India," Singh says. In the Manipuri version, the dancers wear dazzling costumes, with the women dressed in a "stiff skirt with mirror work and gold and silver, a transparent shawl, a blouse and gold jewelry."
Tucson audiences can also expect to see a dance about the Maibis, priestesses who "used to officiate in festivities. They were chosen by the deity. We still have Maibis, along with Hinduism, which dates from the 15th century. They're a vestige of an earlier religion. In India we have layer upon layer of civilization, and all are kept intact."
Manipuri dance, Singh says, "does not believe in angular, linear movement. It's rounded, with one movement moving into another with ease. We do not believe in an explosive kind of thing."
Manipuri dance music is quite different from the Northern Indian sitar music that is somewhat familiar to western ears. In the nata music of Manipur, "All the singers sing very high, and can cover three octaves with ease. The drummers use a pung drum, which like the classical Indian drum has two sides, one high-pitched, one low-pitched. The drummers also dance."
Singh is coming to the Old Pueblo courtesy of the UA chapter of SPICMACAY, an international Indian student organization dedicated to keeping classical Indian culture alive. Singh says the dances and music of old India are thriving, despite the inroads of western media and a new consumer culture. He's been around long enough to have some perspective.
When I ask how old he is, he chuckles. "I don't want you to tell audiences that a very old man is coming to dance. I'm very old by the calendar and by appearance very young."
Rajkumar Singhajit Singh & Company will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 24, at UMC DuVal Auditorium, 1501 N. Campbell Ave. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. For more information call 621-8261 or 327-9452.
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