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Echoes of Elegance


Octogenarian Natsankritan Maestro Reminisces a Dazzling Manipuri Cultural Symphony at Royal Albert Hall

Report by Waari Singbul Network

Amidst Manipur’s vibrant celebration of “Sankirtana Day,” Yumlembam Gambhini Devi, a revered octogenarian luminary in Nat Sankritana, warmly and nostalgically retraced the footsteps of her enthralling performance, a dazzling spectacle of this revered Manipuri ritual, at London’s illustrious Royal Albert Hall.

This remarkable tale of artistry and cultural exchange spans four glorious decades yet remains etched vividly in her memory.

The significance of this cherished moment amplifies against the backdrop of UNESCO’s prestigious acknowledgment of Manipuri Sankirtana’s profound cultural value by inscribing it as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.  India boasts of 14 such heritage inscribed by UNESCO, including Natsankritan.

The announcement during the eighth session of the “UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee” in Baku, Azerbaijan, in December 2013, solidified the timeless legacy of this heritage.

It’s a legacy deeply ingrained in Manipur’s very essence, Sankritana, conceptualized by the visionary King Bhagyachandra Singh in the 18th century, a beacon of tradition handed down through formal teachings and rich oral lore.

Sankirtana transcends the mere realms of music and dance; it embodies an ancient resonance, uniting communities, fostering social harmony, and nurturing spiritual unity among the Vaishnavites of the state.

It is this enduring legacy that Yumlembam Gambhini Devi’s recollections poignantly echo—a testament to the elegance and cultural significance of this treasured art form.

Its mesmerizing rhythms and spiritual essence continue to captivate generations, bridging the past, present, and future in a harmonious symphony of cultural continuity and artistic brilliance.

Gambhini, gracing the ‘Sankirtana Day’ at Shri Shri Ramji Prabhu Mandap in Imphal East district, fondly recounted the vibrant journey of a cultural troupe from Manipur, herself included, that captivated audiences across England, including the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in 1979.

“During those three exhilarating days, our 16-member ensemble brought to life various cultural gems—folk dances, Ras Leela, and more—at the grand Royal Albert Hall,” Gambhini reminisced.

“As the singer for the Basanta Ras, I vividly remember the culminating moments of our performance. The audience, spellbound by our artistry, fervently requested an encore,” shared the Padma Shree awardee.

“Standing amidst the stage, we were all awestruck by the thunderous applause and unified plea. Our revered Guru, the late Shri Priyogopal Sana, former director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Dance Academy in Manipur, urged me to sing for an additional 4 to 5 minutes to satiate the audience’s fervor,” recounted Gambhini, a popular resident of Yaiskul area in Imphal West.

“Before commencing my impromptu rendition, I glanced up to the balconies where numerous onlookers peered through binoculars, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the enormous hall. Then, in the divine style of Nat Sankirtana, I delivered a soul-stirring devotional song,” she continued.

“The resounding applause from the audience remains etched as a crowning memory, a testament to the deep resonance of that unforgettable Royal Albert Hall performance,” concluded Gambhini, her voice carrying the echoes of that cherished moment through the passage of time.

Joining in the reminiscent chorus, the traditional Manipuri Pung (drum) maestro, Rajkumar Ratankumar, a fellow member of the Manipur cultural troupe in England, fondly echoed the splendor of their collective performance at the revered Royal Albert Hall.

In her reflections on Nat Sankirtana during her active performing days, Gambhini delved into its historical roots.

Recalling its earlier nomenclature as ‘Maha Sankirtana,’ she emphasized how, in its prime, the essence, ethos, and aesthetic values of this art form were as boundless as the vast ocean itself.

“Before the eras of modern adaptation, Sanskrit and Bengali were the mediums for Sankirtana’s expression until our revered Gurus and experts translated it into Manipuri,” she further elaborated.

“Reflecting on the grandeur of those bygone days, Gambhini recounted how a multitude of Sankirtana artists—singers and drummers—participated, ranging from 16 to 50, depending on the grandeur of the temple mandap or stage,” shared the maestro.

“Expressing concern over the dwindling numbers of performers and the perceived reduction in its aesthetic essence, Gambhini earnestly appealed to the young Sankirtana aspirants, urging them to uphold and nurture this age-old art form,” her voice tinged with a sense of urgency and conviction.

“In a momentous gathering, acclaimed Manipuri filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma, who played an instrumental role  in the inclusion of Nat Sankirtana on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, graced the Sankirtana Day observance as the chief guest. Alongside art and culture commissioner M Joy Singh presiding over the cultural function at the shrine  of Shri Shri Ramji Prabhu in Imphal East.

Aribam Syam underscored the paramount importance for the government’s active role in preserving this invaluable art form,” concluded the commemorative event, leaving an indelible mark on Manipur’s cultural legacy.

In these heartfelt recollections and impassioned pleas lies a call to safeguard the essence of Nat Sankirtana. Let these shared memories inspire the preservation of Manipur’s cultural treasure, ensuring its timeless resonance for generations yet to come.

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