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Manoj Barpujari
Date of Publish: 2015-10-06

Sattriya Dance, Old Manuscripts and Dance Anatomy in Oxford

Dr. Menaka PP Bora's upcoming solo performance

Manoj Barpujari


Assam's top classical danseuse Dr. Menaka PP Bora will be delivering an ambitious programme that brings together Indian classical dance, gestures, manuscripts and 'dance anatomy' for an initial period of two years at the famous Bodleian Library of Oxford University from this October. After three years of rigorous preparations and groundwork research in London and Guwahati, Menaka will be show-casing this unique residency while dealing with the contrast between the kinetic art of dance and the silent, static reading of books. Underlining the innovative nature of this artistic residency, she will perform in co-relation with the aims of manuscripts and rare books preserved in the four hundred-year old Bodleian library that houses 8,700 Sanskrit manuscripts which is the largest known collection of Sanskrit manuscripts outside the Indian sub-continent. These will be the basis for her research on cross-cultural aspects of dance, gestures and storytelling. Works choreographed by her during this residency and interactions within the new spaces of the Bodleian Library will be filmed. To add feather to the cap, she is also invited by Bodleian Library Publications to publish an illustrated book on Indian manuscript paintings as part of the 'Literature and Arts' series, describing the dances depicted in some of the key images from early Indian paintings in the library collections, based on the research conducted by her.

The contrast between the kinetic art of dance and the silent, static reading of books underlines the innovative nature of this artistic residency. Yet there are strong points of connection between the skills and values of Menaka and the Oxford university curators of rare books and manuscripts in the Bodleian libraries. As a practitioner of classical dance forms, she preserves and represents artistic traditions, in sympathy with the aims of manuscripts and rare books curators who preserve historical materials and seek to make these accessible through exhibitions and publications. Menaka's scholarly attitudes towards Sanskrit manuscripts during her study of manuscripts with particular relevance to Indian performance has a special impact on the whole programme.

Apart from manuscripts and rare visual materials, Dr. Bora will be performing a special Indian Dance Anatomy that brings the relationship between muscle development and Indian aesthetic movement to life providing a view of how body muscles contribute to improved technique, injury prevention, and artistic expression. For this programme, Menaka is specially assisted by the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University in a bid to understand how issues of 'dance anatomy' help generations of Indian dancers improve their techniques and methods of performing classical dance in India. Naturally her unique performance is eagerly awaited in the classical as well as modern dance recital circles across India and UK and academic circles as well.

Elaborating on the new initiative, Menaka says that it is a rare opportunity to dwell on the traditional print materials through hand gestures and body movements essentially ingrained in classical Indian dance forms, mainly Bharat Natyam and Sattriya. They invite challenging choreographs on her part. Menaka also takes pride in the fact that a premier institution in a western European ambiance takes so much interest in exploring what is basically Indian in concept, and Assamese in mood and expressions. Indian institutions and general public still have to take cues from their western counterparts in this regrd, she feels. The artist who divides her time between the two countries has been using her celebrated stage performances, master classes, radio and television talk shows to promote body fitness through dance, dance anatomy and healthy lifestyle. Back in Assam, Menaka is already spreading awareness about her cutting edge cross-cultural research at Oxford among mass audiences throughout the length and breadth of the state for the benefit of performers, actors, dancers, dance enthusiasts and general masses. 

It is interesting to note that the Bodleian Library has acquired outstanding collections of manuscripts, rare books and archives that support research in many fields of study and contain works in many world languages. The library's holdings of medieval European manuscripts are the second largest in the United Kingdom. Both manuscript and early book holdings contain many richly decorated examples of the book arts. Indian manuscripts and paintings were represented within the Bodleian collections from an early period. The first South Asian acquisitions came to this library in a series of gifts given by Archbishop William Laud in the first half-century after the library's founding,

between 1635 and 1640. These donations included a set of 18 R?gam?la paintings illustrating the mood and sentiment behind the traditional forms of Indian music.

It is noteworthy that Menaka is the First Indian 'Artist-in-Residence' of Oxford University, besides first ever Indian Assamese artist to perform solo Sattriya dance and conduct lectures and seminars at the world renowned Edinburgh Cultural Festival and Oxford Literary Festival. In 2008, she was appointed as the youngest Lecturer in Dance by Kingston University in London. She received her PhD in Ethnomusicology and Media from Oxford University. She has been invited as a Guest Lecturer in top rated media, dance and music departments at the universities across the UK. She is an elected Fellow of Royal Asiatic Society in London. Oxford University has given Menaka full support to divide her time between UK and India. She is also invited by the Oxford University's Bodleian Library Publications to publish an illustrated book on Indian manuscript paintings as part of the 'Literature and Arts' series, describing the dances depicted in some of the key images from early Indian paintings.

Of late, Menaka enthralled the audiences at the prestigious Asia House with an experimental dance performance. On 20th September last, she presented an experimental site specific performance piece especially choreographed for Asia House London throughout the day whereby she explored the architectural history of Asia House and its contemporary purpose through the concept of 'creation' and 'destruction' of bricks, memories, legacies and imagined futures. Meanwhile she is now invited by the highly prestigious Tate Britain, UK's most distinguished national art gallery to create new classical dance and music performances linking India and Britain in their brand new exhibition 'Artist and Empire'.

(Manoj Barpujari is a senior journalist, poet and critic based in Guwahati. He also won national award for best film critic in 2012 and Munin Borkataki award for literature in 2003.)


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