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Manipuri theatre on the crossroads of time

Benil Biswas | Updated on January 19, 2018

Darkest of them all Macbeth is the name of a disease spreading out with the greatest speed in the contemporray world, says Ratan Thiyam pic: k murali kumar

Veteran theatre director Heisnam Kanhailal pic k murali kumar

A male Manipuri artiste at a Shumang Leela performance in Guwahati pic: Ritu Raj Konwar

Renowned theatre director Ratan Thiyam

Manipur’s experimental theatre, nurtured by doyens like Ratan Thiyam, H Kanhailal and Lokendra Arambam, awaits a wave of fresh energy and ideas

Legendary actor-playwright Dario Fo once said, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.” On February 1, 2016, the essence of these words reverberated in a packed auditorium in New Delhi, when the curtain went up on the 18th edition of Bharat Rang Mahotsav: International Theatre Festival of India, organised by the National School of Drama (NSD). The opening performance was Macbeth, directed by the internationally acclaimed Ratan Thiyam, who hails from Manipur. This classic is considered the darkest of all Shakespearean tragedies — a rumination on greed, violence and evil engulfing individual and society. Thiyam says: “Macbeth is the name of a disease spreading out with the greatest speed in the contemporary world and across so-called advanced civilisation. It is a dangerous epidemic.”

For a state under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), noted theatre critics find in Thiyam’s Macbeth strong resonances of contemporary resistance. However, it must be remembered that Manipur’s Aryan Theatre translated and produced Shakespeare’s original in 1965. Then in 1997, Lokendra Arambam directed Macbeth — Stage of Blood as environmental theatre upon a lake in Manipur. Arambam recently observed that the Government of India had promptly appropriated the production for the golden jubilee of Independence and sent it to London. Thus, the metaphor and imagery of Macbeth was ripe and apropos for Thiyam to comment upon the contemporary socio-political dispensation.

Thiyam’s first notable production, Chakravyuha (1984), brings a similar analysis of power, greed and violence. It has been performed several times around the globe, fetching accolades and global recognition for him and his Chorus Repertory Theatre. He established the Repertory in 1976 after completing his training at National School of Drama and soon began incorporating elements like Nata Sankirtana (a Vaishnavite folk dance form) and Thang-ta (a Manipuri martial art) into his works. Through subversion and reversion, these indigenous forms get assimilated into his own distinct form. Among his notable productions are Uttar-Priyadarshi (1996), Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken (2008) and Tagore’s The King of Dark Chamber (2012). The performances are marked by the scenic brilliance and design aesthetics of Thiyam; thematically they also engender a concern for life and give voice to the marginalised everywhere.

Constant drama

Within free India, there are compartments of colonial decree where people are trapped in a type of neo-colonial servitude. Though some scholars locate the ancient past of Manipur in the time of the Mahabharata, at a less exotic level, Manipur became a part of the Indian Union in 1949. Over the last two decades, it has attracted media attention due to insurgency, drugs, protests against AFSPA and Naga leader Thuingaleng Muivah’s plans to visit his birthplace in Manipur. All these images, partially true, partially coloured, have created a myth of Manipur that needs to be dispelled. The colonial experience, breeding a sense of subjection in Indians, had been gradually effaced as a result of the Independence struggle.

Along with the restoration of national self-respect, efforts for ‘self-reliance’, ‘progress’ and ‘modernisation’ reached the nerves and veins of the country, but not in Manipur, or in fact the whole of the North-East. In the 1990s, theatre scholar Rustom Bharucha drew our attention to this situation.

As for theatre and other arts, it always extends beyond what one sees on stage or on canvas. Theatre in Manipur — which is synonymous with the works of Arambam, Heisnam Kanhailal and Thiyam — needs to be seen within the framework of above-mentioned points, because, as of now, life in Manipur is very different from the life people are leading in other parts of India.

The origins of Manipuri performances can be traced to native, primitive fertility cults and ancestor worship festivals of the Meiteis, who converted to Vaishnavite Hinduism, as well as 30-odd tribes of Naga and Kuki denominations. The celebratory rite of Lai Haraoba, Wari Liba or the art of solo storytelling along with folk music and dance created a strong sense of national culture in Manipur. The rulers of Manipur were the chief patrons of art and culture, which flourished under the Ningthouja dynasty and Bhagyachandra’s patronage.

In secular realms, shumang leela (courtyard theatre) has not only survived in the Meitei culture but is also quite popular, with every village having multiple performing teams. Modern ‘proscenium’ theatre on the lines of the melodramatic shumang leela came about in Manipur as late as 1905, with Friend’s Dramatic Union, under the influence of colonial theatres in Kolkata.

Later, Manipur Drama Union (1931), Aryan Theatre (1935), Rupmahal Theatre (1943), Langmeidong Dramatic Union (1955) and cultural squads — which were later incorporated into the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) under the leadership of Hijam Irabat Singh (1896-1951) — helped spread social awareness and theatre activities around the state. Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy (1954) became the nerve centre for the teaching of Manipuri dance, music and allied subjects like Thang-ta.

The anger within

By the late ’60s there was discontent against Indian rule and commercial exploitation. In the awakening quest for authenticity, and search for an identity, experimental theatre grew in the ’70s under directors like Kanhailal, Thiyam and Arambam. They probed anew their cultural roots, generating new theatrical expressions from old vocabularies of performance, and enhancing production values through better use of stage technology. While Thiyam established himself on the international stage with spectacular productions through his close links with the arts establishment at the Centre, Arambam, balancing his academic commitment with theatre, invested himself in the exploration of form and spaces.

A relatively obscure figure then, Kanhailal at Kalakshetra Manipur (1969) struggled to channel and structure the use of performative energy. His wife Sabitri Devi became his companion on this quest.

Kanhailal, who is known for his exploration of acting techniques and performances with a strong political sensibility, came in close contact with well-known theatre director and playwright GC Tongbra (1913-96) and his Society Theatre. Kanhailal has always been a free spirit who identified with the exploited and downtrodden. His play Tamnalai (Haunting Spirits) appeared around 1972. N Premchand, faculty member at Manipur University, observes that Tamnalai — which dealt with the problem of ‘goons’ and how innocents suffered at their hands — was a breakthrough in the art of drama-writing in Manipur, which was otherwise filled with linear narratives and trite themes. For a brief period in 1972, Kanhailal was exposed to Badal Sircar and his Third Theatre, the syntax of which was acquired from the West.

Nevertheless, when it came to Kanhailal, it was a dissimilar kind of body, rich in regional, ethnic, cultural and political meanings.

Kanhailal’s articulation involved a masterful linkage of political as well as popular concerns, but the ingredients he combined — faith, oppression, victimhood, self-awareness — was available for reinterpretation and re-articulation, resulting in myriad responses from the audience.

Many people relate the 2004 nude protest by Manipuri women in Imphal to the performance of Draupadi (2000), where the body becomes the site of resistance.

It is a pity that one seldom finds significant sparks in today’s younger generation, which should ideally be carrying forward the legacy of Manipur’s experimental theatre from the ’70s. Critics feel that those who succeeded these masters have blindly copied their styles without absorbing the essence of their practice and quest.

This is not an exaggeration if one observes that the daily realities of Manipur are not reflected in the theatre of today, which are just ‘museumised’, in the words of Erin B Mee, as the ‘festival theatres of Manipur’. In order to create meaningful theatre, a search for a new language has to be initiated as a dialogue between past, present and future.

Nevertheless, promising new artistes like Lourembam Kishworjit, Nongthombam Premchand, H Tomba, S Jayanta and S Thanilleima will surely usher new creative energy into the age-old theatre of conscience.

Benil Biswas teaches at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University, Delhi

Published on February 05, 2016

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