Jul 292020
Masterji dressed as khamba ( Laiharaoba )
Photo: Sujit Mitra

Guru Arambam Amubi Singh was widely known in Santiniketan as Masterji. It has been 25 years today since Masterji left us but he and his creative work are very much alive within his students. I am grateful to his son, Shubhroto-da, for sharing various photos and elements of his life which I mention below.

I was fortunate enough to have learned Manipuri dance and music from Masterji at Sangit Bhavana, Visva-Bharati. Masterji was born in Kangabam Laikai, Imphal, Manipur on 1 January 1930. He was the elder son of the renowned Manipuri dancer and pung (Manipuri percussion) player Guru Arambam Yaimabi Singh. His mother, Sanahanbi Debi, was a grand-daughter of Churachand Maharajah (king) of Manipur.

Masterji started to learn Manipuri dance and pung in his early childhood, under his father’s guidance at home. However, Masterji only started dancing full-time twenty years later.

Masterji learned Manipuri dance, music, kortal cholom (cymbals), pung cholom and sitar from different gurus. He received training in Manipuri dance from Guru M. Amubi Singh and Guru A. Atomba Singh, who were both later honoured with the academic award “Padmashree” by the President of India.

Later Masterji also learned to play Manipuri mridanga/pung from Guru Panjabi Singh. He also took music lessons from Guru Toaimia Singh and kortal cholom lessons from Guru Hamon Singh.

After completing his training in dance and pung playing, he worked in the Nritya Ashram and in the Aryan Theatre, Imphal. As he had an excellent voice, Masterji used to sing for the Aryan Theatre. He was also a dance and music director there.

Together with his father Guru Arambam Yaimabi Singh and artists from Nritya Ashram, he danced in the first ever stage performance of Laisham Jagoi ( khamba-Thoibi) in the Aryan Theatre.

He joined the Manipuri Dance College during the period of the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad (1950-1962). During this period, Masterji performed on Republic Day in Delhi. Afterwards, he performed extensively in Delhi, Lucknow, Kanpur, Mumbai and many other places in India on different occasions.

Masterji won many awards for his dance performances, direction and choreography.

“Son of the well known Guru, late Yaimabi Singh, Amubi continues the tradition of propagating Manipuri Dance with an accent on the Laiharaoba style. Himself a good pung player, he has appeared in many performances in Manipur and outside.Associating himself with many dance competitions, mostly for stage performances, he has proved to be a capable director and choreographer of no mean merit.”

Marg (Manipuri) September 1961 – Contemporary Gurus and Artists by Nilkanta Singh.

At various times, Masterji also taught at Gauhati University, Dhana Manjari College (Imphal). In 1957, at the invitation of the Principal of Sangeet Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Masterji came to teach Manipuri dance in Santiniketan.

Before he arrived in Santiniketan, Manipuri dance had been taught only intermittently at Visva-Bharati after the death of Rabindranath Tagore in 1941. During the 1950s, the teachers did not stay long and, as a result, there were periods when Manipuri dance was not taught at all. In contrast, Kathakali dance teacher Sri Haridas Nair had established a strong Kathakali dance tradition at Visva-Bharati.

In 1958/59, for the Basanta Utsav (Spring Festival), there was a Kathakali dance performance and a Manipuri dance performance. Masterji brought costumes from Manipur at his own expense so that he could stage Basanta Raas with his students.

Basanta Raas

The wide acclaim for this performance allowed Masterji to re-establish the reputation of Manipuri dance at Visva-Bharati. Many students wanted to learn Manipuri dance from then on.

Laiharaoba performers, including Shubhra Tagore (3rd from the left) and Tapan Gupta (standing, 4th from the left)

While Masterji was in Santiniketan, he took the initiative to learn Bengali. Students from the Vidya Bhavan helped him to learn the language. Tapan Gupta (pictured in the photo above), who went on to found The Tagoreans in the UK, was one of the students who helped him the most.

Masterji and Sri Radhagobinda Das (Principal of Ramkrishna Music College, Bolpur) learned sitar together from Sri Shusil Bhanja. They practised together and, in 1965, Masterji passed the BMus examination in sitar from Bhatkhande Sangeet Vida-pith, Lucknow, in the first division. He used to play the esraj and flute from time to time.

From 1957 to 1990, Masterji taught Manipuri dance and Tagore dance at Sangit Bhavan, Visva-Bharati. He created several Tagore dance compositions based on the Manipuri style, as well as choreographing all the Tagore dance-dramas. He also directed performances of Manipuri Raas, Laiharaoba and Naga dance.

From 1986 to 1990, I had the privilege of studying Manipuri dance from Masterji at Sangit Bhavan for my BMus. Even after he retired, I continued to learn Manipur taal and Tagore dance theory from him. He never gave private tuition at home and often kindly referred students to me for this.

He used to make us rehearse over and over again. If we started to become impatient, he would explain that he had a picture in his mind about how the performance should look and that we would need to keep rehearsing until we had achieved that vision.

He was the one who taught me to be ready to learn from others, whatever their age. He was a very humble person who preferred to stay out of the limelight.

Through our regular conversations, I became very close to his family and he treated me like a daughter. He even taught me how to make dried lemon pickle (achaar)!

His grand-daughter recently won a child National Scholarship in Manipuri dance and is continuing the family tradition.

Masterji’s grand-daughter, Mithai

Although it is now 25 years since he passed away, a few days after his son Shubhobroto-da took the photo below, I continue to be guided by everything he taught me. In the tradition of students passing on what they have learned from their teachers (guru parampara), I keep practising the dance compositions he taught me, as well as those which I learned from his former students K Jiten Singh (Jitenda) and Shubhra Tagore (Shubhradi).

From L to R: Hemanta Kumar Yaikhom (Hemantada), Masterji, his wife, Bela Boudi and me (Photo: Shubhobroto Singh, 16 July 1995)
Apr 042018
Jitenda as Uttiyo

Jitenda as Uttiyo

Jitenda as Uttiyo awaiting his execution, in our film version of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shyama (2009)

I was saddened to hear on Monday that Jitenda had passed away. I had last seen him in early March, while he was in Pearson Memorial Hospital in Santiniketan. He had been suffering from cancer but he was such an active person that I imagined that he would recover soon. He was 72.

I first started to learn Manipuri dance from Jitenda when I was a child. He had started to learn Manipuri dance from his father, K Kamini Singh, in Lokhipur, Assam. He came to Santiniketan in 1965 with a National Scholarship to study Manipuri dance from A Amubi Singh at Visva-Bharati University. Towards the end of Jitenda’s National Scholarship, Shanti Dev Ghosh invited him to teach dance at Patha Bhavan.

While I was at Patha Bhavan, my parents arranged for me to have private Manipuri dance classes from Jitenda. From the first day, I realised two things:

  1. how to teach children patiently; and
  2. the importance of being on time.

The lessons would start at 8am on Wednesday mornings, when school was closed. Not at 8.01am or even at 7.59am. He maintained that insistence on timeliness to the end: he had predicted some days earlier that he would pass away on Monday.

Jitenda was an all-round artiste. He had a uniquely subtle dance style. Often, we say that people have magic in their hands. Jitenda had magic in his feet. When he danced, it would look as if he was dancing on air and that he was weightless.

Jitenda became famous for performing as Kamdev (Modon) in Chitrangada and as Uttiyo in Shyama. He had mastered a way of syncopating the rhythm to complement the percussion with his feet. This was one of his special techniques.

Not only could he dance but he could also sing, make Manipuri dresses and stage decoration, as well as cook Manipuri and other dishes. He was always very particular about presentation.

I was very fortunate to have been able to learn these talents from him, including his showmanship. In parallel with learning Manipuri dance from Jitenda, through performing Tagore works on stage at various events under his guidance, he also taught me Tagore dance. He also taught me various folk dances and the songs with which they were performed.

Later, after I received my MMus in Manipuri dance, I was awarded the National Scholarship for Manipuri dance in 1994-1996 and Jitenda was my guide. When I started to work on my doctoral thesis on Tagore dance, Jitenda was again one of my supervisors. By this time, he had become a Professor of Dance at Visva-Bharati.

I accompanied Jitenda to various workshops, both in India and outside India. We performed Tagore’s Shyama, Chitrangada and Chandalika several times, as well as Bhanushingher Padabali, Basanta and Shaapmochon. We also performed Manipuri Ras and various Indian folk dances.

When we decided to make a film version of Shyama, we were fortunate that Jitenda agreed to be the dance director, as well as performing the role of Uttiyo. We filmed Shyama at the Gitanjali Hall near Santiniketan in January 2007. It was a memorable experience for all of us, although it proved to be the last time we would work together professionally. In the extended clip from Shyama below, we see the duet between Uttiyo and Shyama during which Uttiyo offers to be executed in the place of Bojroshen, with whom Shyama has fallen in love.

On a personal level, having known each other for over 40 years, Jitenda and I were almost like father and daughter. Of course, that meant that we also quarrelled occasionally! Sometimes, days would pass when we would not talk to each other. Then we would be back in touch again for the next rehearsal or performance.

I keep remembering how he taught me my first Manipuri dance steps as a child.

Sep 202011

Poupée (Tagore’s adopted grand-daughter, aged 2.5) tries to speak to me with the whole of her body. Meeting me on the boat, she expressed her delight in the form of a dance of her own design. As she danced, her speech was through her whole body. “Life is sweet”, she wanted to say. “The world is beautiful.” But having as yet no language of words, her small mind, stirred to its depths, broke out into a complex movement of dance. Her whole body moved as if to music.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1924

Dance is born from the expression of our emotions through movements and turns of our bodies. The more spontaneous and heightened the emotions are, the more inspired the dance is. This was what Tagore realised from observing Poupée’s excitement at meeting him.

For centuries, indigenous peoples have been displaying their state of mind by waving their hands and legs, and moving their bodies. Since ancient times, dance has evolved along two paths.

One path has been through folk dances at community festivals and social events. The other has been through the inclusion of dance as a part of religious festivals, such as dances to pray that the harvest would be fruitful. Even today, tribal people continue both these dance traditions, from wedding celebrations to religious festivals.

In more recent times, as populations grew and people migrated from villages to towns and cities, ‘urban culture’ developed and community life became more orderly. In this new environment, dance started to develop in a different way. During this period, the main occasions for dancing became events associated with religious celebrations. This was the case, for example, in Misr (Egypt) and Greece.

In India, Bharatanatyam is the oldest dance style to have developed as a result of this ‘urban culture’. During its early development, it was used for worship in Hindu temples. The dancers were referred to as devadasis (literally, ‘servants of the deity’). They danced to entertain the deity.

Other Indian classical dances also had similar religious origins. However, in modern times, these classical dances have become less and less closely associated with religion. The closeness of the association often depends on the dance style. For example, Kathakali is not part of religious festivals and is mainly performed to entertain people, while Manipuri remains completely associated with religion and based on Vaishnavism.

Tagore did not perceive dance in a narrow way. To him, it was a way of enhancing acting: “The best actors will always be those who have been trained to use the whole body as a tool for the expression of thought, of emotion or of sentiment. Words, to convey the full perfection of their message, must be accompanied by the appropriate bodily movement.”

Tagore’s thinking about dance is very prominent in my mind at the moment as I am in the middle of proof-reading my book Tagore Dance . To receive a free, text-only PDF file of its Introduction by e-mail, click on the ‘Download now’ button below, enter your e-mail address and click on ‘Submit’.

 Posted by at 10:46 pm
Sep 112011


Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger.
I am uneasy at heart when I have to leave my accustomed shelter;
I forgot that there abides the old in the new, and that there also thou abidest.
Through birth and death, in this world or in others,
wherever thou leadest me it is thou, the same, the one companion of my endless life
who ever linkest my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.
When one knows thee, then alone there is none, then no door is shut.
Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose
the bliss of the touch of the One in the play of the many.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1911

That is exactly how I feel as I sit down to write my first ever blog post. It is only possible for a great poet like Rabindranath (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1913) to explain it in this way. It is amazing how Rabindranath managed to express the different feelings of human life.

Rabindranath has had a major influence on my life. Very often I look to his words to express my feelings.

I grew up in his home town of Santiniketan – “the abode of peace.” My grandfather Shibdas Roy joined the school set up by Rabindranath in Santiniketan. He was a very good singer and a musician. Thanks to his singing, he was one of Rabindranath’s favourite students. He became an honorary teacher at the China Bhavan, teaching English to Tibetan monks.

Later on, my father also joined Rabindranath’s school.

Years later still, it was my grandfather who took me along and enrolled me in Rabindranath’s school. I was lucky enough to grow up in such a wonderful, artistic and open air environment.

From time to time, I feel like sharing different things with those around me with similar interests. That’s why I decided to start this blog.

People often ask me about Tagore dance, Manipuri dance, our Tagore dance film trilogy, Indian cooking and my Indian dance workout. However, I don’t usually have the opportunity to give a complete answer. I hope my blog will provide at least more of the answer.