The changing idioms of Manipuri theatre
Theatre on the eastern horizon

Budha Chingtham *

 'Dakghar' a play directed by Kanhailal Heisnam at Delhi :: May 7 2011
"Dakghar" a play directed by Kanhailal Heisnam at Delhi in May 2011 :: Pix - Ingochouba Lukram

There is no doubt that different forms of art and performances have its unique style and quality. However theatre has the quality that arouses a feeling of uneasiness among its audience. It differs from the power of expression exhibited in the performances of songs and dance. The power of expression in theatre is stronger.

Theatre has this characteristic of reacting and protesting against any negative deviation in the socio economic, political and religious factors. That is why the plays written thousand years ago by famous playwrights like Kalidasa, Bhasa from India and the Greek playwright Sophocles are still relevant and widely read and performed.

So theatre is the kind of art form that can even go against God, the ultimate authority if the God is at fault or is flawed. Theatre has been protesting so far against many abuses of authority of the system. In this way theatre has been constantly monitoring the socio political situation throughout the centuries.

Playwrights, directors, actors and writers are the ones who uncover the irmer meaning of the contemporary social situation through their theatrical and literary works. They are the soul of their theatrical or literary ventures. The paper attempts to paint a vivid picture of the Manipuri theatre for the last 10-15 years.

The critical readings done on Manipuri theatre are so far based on the literary texts that are so far available in published form. But the number of published text of plays is very few. So the critical reading that is made based on such a few texts cannot give an overview of the whole theatre movement of Manipur.

It would be wrong to draw a whole picture of Manipuri theatre without including those theatrical non text performance adaptations that are dramatized form of poems and short stories. In addition there is a scarcity of playwright who can write good dramas. This leads to a situation in which some of the directors become playwright. In Manipur, the number of professional theatre groups is only a few.

However there are a number of amateur groups. In this State the number of theatre groups that are actively and regularly performing is nearly twenty. We witness around twenty theatre groups participating and performing in State, National and even International Drama festivals. The above mentioned theatre groups follow the new contemporary theatre trends of theatre.

The major trends of theatre pursued by these theatre groups are reinterpretation of older texts, translation and adaptation, dramatization of poems, short stories and novels and the trends of non-text based which illustrate highly physical style. There are also performances that bring up the contemporary issues using folk narratives as their base.

Experimentation has become a hallmark of the new Manipuri drama. Many plays are ceaselessly produced by experimentalists dealing with contemporary issues. If theatre is to be contemporary, the style of writing, presentation and treatment should all be contemporaneous. The style of writing as well as its forms should be associated with challenge.

During the last decade or so, we have experienced many surprising and tremendous changes in Manipuri theatre. Spectators have especially come across many changes in playwriting styles, mode of production, play designing, energy in actor's acting, performance spaces etc. In the first place, mention may made of the various themes presented before our eyes of the scenes which may be made out of post modernism and post structural framework of dramatic theory.

The issue has strongly been debated by the critics. It was because of the bold venture undertaken by these performances in breaking down the traditional concept of "Theatre" and "Its performances". A change in aesthetic function seems to creep in such a tremendous change of style and treatment. In short we have witnessed an entirely new aesthetic. In such a context of the change of theatre language in Manipuri theatre, we may look into the production of two stalwart directors of Manipur.

 'Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre - 'The Shrine' located at Uripok Samushang, Imphal
Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre - "The Shrine" located at Uripok Samushang, Imphal

One is Ratan Thiyam of Chorus Repertory Theatre, Imphal and the other is Late Heisnam Kanhailal of Kalakhetra, Manipur. Both these theatre groups are internationally recognized professional theatre groups. We may look into the productions of these two group during the last two decades. At the onset we may enquire as to why the plays of Ratan Thiyam and his Chorus Repertory are so much admired in the National and International theatre festivals.

The answer is that one is sure to taste a new flavour in each production of this group. One of the newest patterns in the creation of Ratan Thiyam is the visual reality of his theatre language in his creation with the superimposition of a new plot with another plot, the to and fro movement of dramatic action between the past and the present. There lies the uniqueness of Ratan Thiyam.

In some of his new productions it is found that he creates an archaic Manipuri world outlook by using archaic symbols and signs. He exquisitely transforms a new contemporary theatre language on the foundation of these archaic layers. A special metaphor dominates in every performance. The proportionate mixture of archaic and contemporary expression has a special appeal. And sometimes his performances move from social to metaphysical periphery.

One of the instances that may be made is his production "Macbeth" with regard to theatre language. In this production we can see a new methodology of scripting, elaborate visual design and new language of actor's acting. In this production the dramatic text is given more emphasis on visual aspects than on other aspects. The director broke down the text "Macbeth" into pieces and he rearranged those pieces and linked them to make in line with his own interpretation of the text.

He imbibes many expressive visual contents in the small scenes to engage the audience psychologically. The actor's overdose use of energy and its outburst from their body gives a new theatrical language to contemporary Manipuri theatre that is never witnessed before. What we see in Thiyam's actors' performance is the new understanding found by them in the psychological feature of their roles. The forceful overflow of such energy is no doubt a new concept of experimental theatre. Thus Raritan Thiyam transforms the dramatic text with the final result of transforming the actor into an energy based body.

Next another stalwart director who is constantly searching a new language of theatre is the aged theorist and director Late Heisnam Kanhailal of Kalalchetra, Manipur. In different pilgrimage of his theatre, he has continued by giving sobriquets like Ritual Theatre, Theatre of Transcendence, Theatre of Transition, Nature lore projects etc. Like Ratan Thiyam, Heisnam Kanhailal too has a long journey in the search of a new language of theatre.

With his new theatrical language there is still a gap in the communication between the critics and audience when watching an experimental performance of Kanhailal. In short after watching his play, the flummoxed audience would dismiss unable to explain and confused exclaiming "The play is enjoyable, but there is something within". So if one has to witness Kanhailal's experimental performance, one must be prepared to witness it from certain view points and one must penetrate oneself deep into the creative process of the play itself.

Subsequently, in the matter of acceptance and rejection of the changing feature of Ratan Tbiyam and Kanhailal's play by the audience and the critics, Ratan Thiyam's play seems to more communicative with the audience and the critics.

Another fact of Manipuri theatre is the bold venture undertaken by some writers and directors in search of a new theatre language during the last 10-15 years. The general theme of these writers is mostly "extraordinary theme" and they are striving to create a new theatre language through different expression of acting and form.

 Arambam Somorendra's Shakkhangkhidraba Lanmee - A Play by Banian Repertory Theatre Production :: June 10 2012
Arambam Somorendra's Shakkhangkhidraba Lanmee - in June 2012 :: Pix - Banti Phurailatpam

One may come across different aspects like excessive sentimentalism in a world of emotional behaviour in dialogues, acting, realism , surrealism and sentimentalism which are all blended. In such a blended expression the characters burst out in a disorderly manner with grief, melancholy, desire to avenge with acute nostalgia.

One example of such an extraordinary theme is " Mythical Surrender" of NT Theatre Manipur (Best original Script, Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award, META winning play by Budha Chingtham), directed by Ningthouja Deepak , one of the finest young directors of Manipur.

In short , the episodes of the play may happen anywhere in a war zone. "Rape", the most abominable human activity has been a weapon among factions in war since many years. And the unwanted product of such an abominable war activity is branded as " the offspring of enemy", termed as "little killers" or "children of misfortune and bad memory" and many more.

In such a vicious atmosphere, the horrible and absurd episode of a mother killing her own bastard son by shooting is boldly presented on stage. Such types of plays has been presented by different theatre groups of Manipur on stage since the last few years. The forceful idioms of such a kind of new theatre has given a shocking impetus to the intellect .

I started writing plays with a short Radio Drama in the early 80s. It was concerned with the political issue at that time . I was experimenting in plays which dealt with a new political expressions. My play "Mythical Surrender" uses water as metaphor with different impressionistic sound effects and elegiac atmosphere covering from beginning to end. I also use different anti-realistic dramatic techniques in this play.

The play may be said to be an extremely serious modern tragedy. The mother had to kill her own son due to demands of the time and place. The act of killing one's own child which is quite unconventional which again would be treated as a tragedy in the conventional sense turns into a happy ending story if one looks at it from the angle of a patriot who would go to any extent for the love of his/her motherland.

Thus the trend of seeking a new mode of expression at the onset of serious drama seems to increase a lot during the last decade. To mention a few of the "new tool kits" aptly used by the new experimentalists is the comment on the current social and political issues by using our indigenous folk and traditional forms. The devise of "Reinterpretation" is very important in such mode of production.

It is such a way that the different theatre creators are trying different methods of re-interpretation in different subjects. The problems dealt in such a framework are human problems and a search of new political movement and vision.

Directors like Late Chingtham Banikanta, Ranbir Khoisnam, Kshetri Jugindro, Utttamkumar Naorem, Toijam Shila Devi prioritise live performances. Their mode of performance falls between traditional genre, combining dance, excessive body work, light and sound in a new way.

The changes brought about in Manipuri Theatre in this context are the new approaches in dramatic text. The new change which we may appreciate is the method of production by visual dramaturgy, the expression of the inner feelings of the text without marring the text. In such process of play- production what we see clearly is the method of expressing all the structural elements and inner feelings of the text by visual narration.

So, in such productions many literary texts are interpreted by using non-verbal devices like dummy, large doll, mime, dance, stylized acting characters with histrionic personality disorder, exaggerated degree of emotional expression, excessively sentimental behaviour etc.

In short such a production is pastiche of all available devices in modern literature in Manipur. Such hodgepodge and hybrid images recreating into new communicating lines seem to dominate contemporary Manipuri Theatre. Such a change is accompanied by thematic change in playwright's text and director's new approach.

Again, there are also a few directors who have been carrying on their works by assimilating historical facts with dramatic fictions. Such directors and playwrights in their attempt to give the contemporary feel even distort historical figures. The performance of this kind of plays is mostly done on the space that is non-theatrical most importantly on the historical site, site specific performance or the environmental site.

By transforming the non-theatrical space into a performance space and thereby creating a direct relation they form an intimate layer with the audience. Some plays that can be mentioned in this regard are B. Banamali Sharma's "Maya", Md. Zuma Khan's "Kaidongpal", N. Bhumeshor's "Loktak Langscape Theatre Project".

The question that arises here is who is going to study such changing patterns in contemporary Manipuri Theatre. Are the present audience in accordance with the changes ? This question is very important. But how far they have been progressive in studying and interpreting these highly experimental works and theories? In these sphere there are only a handful.

Arts, aesthetics, creativity in human life are boundless and the number of these handful must increase. It is rightly said that the artistic dream is quite impossible to be appreciated without an artistic heart. In short it is almost true that our so called critics are not working hand in hand. Or are our critics alienated from the new trend ?

In such an atmosphere of schism between critics and experimentalists, it is impossible for the common people to adjust to the works of the experimentalists. Yes, such things are everywhere in the world. It is impossible to turn the general public into sophisticated audience.

In the present international scenario of world theatre, though Manipur is highly acclaimed as one of the fore runners, the contribution of theatre critics and performance specialists remains inadequate. The new trend in the contemporary Manipuri theatre demands a closer contact between critics, audience and theatre creators.

* Budha Chingtham wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a prominent theatre personality, playwright and critic
This article was webcasted on November 18 2022 .

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