The Scent of Danger When Art Comes Alive: Four Voices on 'Nerves'

Nerves, a contemporary dance piece from Imphal, viscerally tells the story of Manipur's suffering and binds the audience with its beauty.

With five dancers in tribal loincloths and army boots, Surjit Nongmeikapam’s Nerves turns the experience of life in Manipur into one of the most powerful contemporary choreographies to emerge from India. In 2014, a shorter version won the Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards (PECDA) competition; this hour-long performance has just premiered. The Wire fielded reactions from four viewers and critics – poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, dancer Poorna Swami, playwright Swar Thounaojam and our contributing editor Raghu Karnad.

Arundhati Subramaniam, poet

 “When I first saw Nerves, as a member of the jury for the 2014 PECDA, I remember the experience of a great watchful quiet that comes when you know you’re in the presence of something real – the scent of danger that you sense when art comes alive.

The perils of addressing a theme like social violence full frontal, are obvious. Didacticism is the biggest one. Those who try too hard to make a point are seldom artistically successful. This is where Surjit Nongmeikapam’s choreography is distinct. He is among the few contemporary choreographers who produces a truly inspired distillation of the political and the creative.

There is the capacity to take risks – not merely on the level of idea, but of choreography and physicality as well. This is a lacerating, nerve-shattering work, consciously so, but it doesn’t end there. What is remarkable is the way these dancers draw on the Manipuri martial art of Thang-Ta, traditional and contemporary movement styles to fashion a seamless idiom where the sutures simply don’t show.

Above all, I’m drawn to Surjit’s ability to work with metaphor and to take his choreographic cue from the image. The result is work that’s conceptually exploratory and visceral at the same time. The images of the swirling military boots and the tangled web of red fibres are pivotal to this production. In a more recent work, which won the 2016 award at the PECDA competition, a lemon becomes the central image – and this unfolds into a textured work that works on multiple levels, philosophic and poetic, abstract and explosively sensual all at once.”

Poorna Swami, dancer and writer. Credit: C. Ganesan

Credit: C. Ganesan

Poorna Swami, dancer and writer

 “As a mainlander – a Bangalorean – my notions of Manipuri performance ended with Ratan Thiyam’s mythic spectacles, Heisnam Kanhailal’s restraint, and women iconised in the cylindrical skirts of classical Manipuri dance. Nerves, which is rooted in place, in lived experiences of youth and masculinity, was a slap in the face for my assumptions about Manipur’s artists and their creative concerns.

The Manipur we imagine comes to us through the safety of newspapers, and Surjit Nongmeikapam reminds us of this privilege. The work is unapologetically brutal, forcing us to take stock of the violence in which we participate, from however far away.

The performers gag on wads of newsprint stuffed into their mouths – this is the false news we write, selectively consume and the alternates, we muffle.

The search for a singular Indian contemporary dance has long been plagued by a self-consciously hybrid movement, a compromise between so-called “Indian” and “Western” aesthetics. Surjit handles the problem by not being concerned with it all. He uses a cast of first-time performers and disregards the baggage of training and the need to create genre. His task is dance: movement and images assured in their purpose. A tortured man reassembles himself by lantern light. Soldiers wrestle with contact improvisation, stripped of its neatness. Rape is a woman writhing with the uneven rhythm of men prodding her with bamboo sticks.

If dance is a form that relies on being ephemeral, Nerves is a dance that persists long after it ends. In the final scene, the performers’ bodies vibrate, caught in lengths of red yarn that run across the stage. It all comes together now: the blood, borders, and lives. That image stays with me – so much that I wish seeing Nerves could be our collective obligation.”

Swar Thounaojam, playwright. Credit: C. Ganesan

Credit: C. Ganesan

Swar Thounaojam, playwright

“I watched a 20-minute work-in-progress showcase of Nerves at the Attakaalari Biennial 2015. What I found interesting in his work was his abstraction of Thang-Ta movements that segue very deftly into other abstractions of Meitei classical, as well as folk dance movements. It reminded me of what Mayanglambam Mangangsana did musically in his 2010 production of Phou-oibi. Both of them did lots of slicing, transforming and looping of different genres and forms of movements (in the case of Surjit Nongmeikapam) and music (in the case of Mayanglambam Mangangsana). In hindsight, you can almost trace a pattern.”


Credit: C. Ganesan

Raghu Karnad, contributing editor at The Wire

“Can dance require a trigger-warning? Or just a warning? People might not be prepared for Nerves, which proves how viscerally art can convey extreme experience – in this case of domination – without actually drawing blood.

Five dancers in loincloths and combat boots, plus one bureaucrat, tell a story that is very much about Manipur but also very global – about the indigenous encounter with the modern state. They depict both the impersonal instruments of an occupation bureaucracy, and the intimate damage you can receive from it if you’re unlucky.

But words like domination and violence are cliches. Nerves reaches for the inside story of domination – and of its echoes in the body and the psyche – which newspapers do not, or maybe cannot, express. As a journalist who has written about murder in Manipur, it was both shocking and indicting. As a metropolitan Indian, and a person who has never felt real force and humiliation, it was a revelation about what the words mean.

This is also what tragedy is supposed to do: bond the audience through the unfolding of suffering, somehow expressed as beauty. At all times the stage is beautiful – ultimately a tribute to the colour of blood. It left me with a shout trapped in my throat and a vibration in my body, which I’m not sure has left me yet.”

Nerves will be performed in Kolkata on Sept 13 at the ICCR Auditorium, in Mumbai on Sept 16 at the NCPA Experimental Theatre, and in New Delhi on Sept 21 at the Shri Ram Centre. It is presented by The Park’s New Festival 2016.

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