How Nerves helps raise a voice for gagged, traumatised Manipur

Surjit Nongmeikapam's dance piece is his means of bringing out the guilt, helplessness and frustrations of the people in the state.

 |  4-minute read |   19-09-2016
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India's contemporary dance scene has found its next top choreographer in Surjit Nongmeikapam whose piece Nerves is a superb example of how an artist can use the environment he grew up in to inspire him.

For Surjit, a Manipur-based dancer and choreographer, it's the people of his state who he describes as "voiceless" having lived under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act since 1980. Their stories of struggle and survival have triggered the visceral experience that is Nerves.

In the programme note, Surjit says, "While creating Nerves, the first thing that came to my mind was Manipur's youth, her dancers, movers, musicians and non-dancers as my performers. Rather than focusing on dance technique, the idea was to focus on shedding light on the disturbed sense of the inner self."

Nerves starts off with lights flashing in the dark. It's just one of the many haunting images that Surjit and his company, Nachom Arts, present through the course of an hour.

The stage initially is dimly lit, perhaps indicative of the mood of its citizens too. It isn't just the light design that highlights the anxiety in the air but the vibrant electronic score also contributes incorporating sounds from nature and street, and builds on the aggression with beating of bamboo sticks and drums.

"In Nerves, we have poured ourselves with the dissonance that has been perpetuating through various issues of conflict and human rights violations in our homeland."

surjit_091916100539.jpg Nerves choreographer Surjit Nongmeikapam. (Photo credit: Suhani Singh)

Surjit adds that Manipuris have internalised their angst and that the piece is his means of bringing out their guilt, helplessness, vulnerability and frustrations. It's a piece that leaves one wondering about how living under fraught circumstances, where freedoms are limited, pushes an artiste to think harder and create with more tenacity. Surjit does so with aplomb.

In one scene, a man takes centre stage and swings a rope with an Army boot at its end. The dancers circle around him and come perilously close to being struck as they try to bring him down. It reminded me of a guard on a tower with a gun. Violence is an inescapable aspect of the 70-minute production.

Surjit's dancers - there are five in all - endure a lot as they push themselves physically with Purnima Yengkokpam performing the most intense portion of the show. She freezes her body, balancing it on the back of her neck, shoulder and head, only heightening the pain of the harrowing sequence.

Featuring sexual assault in dance is hard enough; pulling it off without the histrionics is even harder. What Nerves does well is present the trauma - physical and emotional - inflicted.

This and more such sequences of ferocity are likely to leave viewers with goose bumps on their skin and questions in their head. What brews in the head of a society that's isolated and surrounded by conflict?

nerves-surjit_091916103557.jpg Surjit uses the body as an instrument, with stomping feet, backs slithering against the stage and chest bumps. (Photo credit: Suhani Singh) 

That a politically-charged work like Nerves is touring at a time when the situation Kashmir is at its worst makes it more potent. With scenes that linger and come back to haunt you, Nerves isn't for the fainthearted. It is unflinching in its demonstration of oppression and the ramifications of it on the individual and society.

At one point, dancers almost choke on newspapers on a stage scattered with newsprint. Gagging the press in a military-dominated society is now almost a norm.

Surjit's choreographic skills is the most impressive facet of Nerves. He deftly taps into the strength of his dancers. Sumeet Sagolsem's background in hip hop is evident in the opening solo, the most arresting piece of dancing in Nerves.

Sagoslem shuttles from his hands to his feet with such effortlessness that it reminded me of a young b-boy. Yengkokpam's thespian skills - she is a graduate of the National School of Drama - are put through their toughest test.

Surjit uses the body as an instrument, with stomping feet, backs slithering against the stage and chest bumps. Watching it at the Experimental Theatre at the National Centre of Performing Arts made the experience more impactful as the stage shook making the audience feel the vibrations on stage.

Needless to say I can't wait to see Nachom Arts' "Folktale", which won the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award, making Surjit the only choreographer so far to have won the award twice. And I'm thrilled that Prakriti Foundation has stated that like Nerves they will bring "Folktale" too.

Nerves plays at Shri Ram Centre Auditorium, New Delhi on September 21.

Also read - Behind Kalaripayattu lies a searing tale of blood and fire

Writer

Suhani Singh Suhani Singh @suhani84

The writer is Senior Associate Editor, India Today.

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