Usham Rojio

Arts Research

Grant Period: Over one year and six months

This grant will enable Usham to explore the aesthetic theory in the Anoirol (the art of movements), an ancient Meitei (Manipuri) text that has been abandoned in the mainstream discourse of performing arts for reasons well-known in the politics of representation and cultural appropriation fuelled by the Nehruvian Nationalist project. The entire scholarship on Manipuri performing arts views the practice through the prism of the Natyashastra institutionalised with caste structure with categories such as ‘Vaisya’, ‘Ksatriya’, ‘Brahman’ etc. without taking into account the ethno-linguistic literature to understand the specific ethnic culture. Through this project Usham will critique this idea and emphasise the need to read Manipuri dance through the principles of discourses in its own indigenous context rather than homogenising it through the prism of foreign texts like the Natyashastra.

Usham will explore the myths, philosophy, values, lifestyles, convictions, faith and views on past and future life, its associated beliefs about ecological preservation and its deep-rooted animism as mentioned in the Anoirol.  Interestingly, the Anoirol which encompasses the theory and practice of re-enacting creation, procreation etc. is not only a text but also a tradition of an ‘orature’, because it is sung, lived and performed. It is sung by the Penakhongba (traditional Manipuri balladeers who play the one stringed fiddle called Pena) and danced by Amaibi (traditional priestess), particularly during the Lai Haraoba (Rejoicing with the Gods) festival. The text has theatrical performance elements as well, seeking to convey, communicate, guide and instruct the audience on their myths and philosophy. It may thus be viewed as an embodiment of symbolism highlighting a holistic view of their ethnic background and identity. The analysis of the text will serve as a source of inspiration to understand the esoteric mystic-magical origin of the Meitei community and associated values of their life and its moorings.

Given that the text is written in an ancient script, the researcher will consult an expert to help him read it. Keeping in view the limitations of representation in translations Usham will focus on the meaning of indigenous categories as accurately as possible to make them readable in the English language. Bearing in mind the problems of ethnographic approaches, he will develop a first-hand, contextualised, close-reading, hypotheses-generating, systematic orientation to study the text. Historiography shall be one of the tools for the researcher. In this regard, the researcher will work against the essentialist, homogenised and overly mystical readings of Manipuri cultural practices. He will attempt to generate an alternative history of performing arts of Manipur by engaging closely with the voices of practitioners and experts through interviews in Meitei. Usham will also interview traditional scholars and observe dance classes and workshops at the Manipur Dance College and the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy conducted by seasoned representatives of the Amaiba (priest), Amaibi (priestess) and Penakhongba (Pena player/balladeer) communities.

The decision to support this project is embedded in IFA’s mandate to support scholars who are interested in undertaking research to investigate marginalised or relatively unexplored areas; and create spaces for dialogue between theory and practice by offering new readings/frameworks of artistic practices. While the outcome of this project will be a monograph, Usham will submit the images and his own readings and interpretations as deliverables to IFA.