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Jyotirmoy Prodhani
Date of Publish: 2015-11-15


“I call my theatre as the Theatre of the Earth”- Heisnam Kanhailal


An interview with the noted theatre personality of modern Indian theatre from Manipur, a recipient of Padma Shri award, Heisnam Kanhailal by Jyotirmoy Prodhani. This interview was taken when Kanhailal visited  North Eastern Hill  University in Shillong as the key resource person for a theatre appreciation course organised by National School of Drama in 2014.  There he had staged his plays and demonstrated his theatre methodology. In an intimate conversation he reflects on his own genre of theatre tradition that he has evolved.


JP: You have evolved a new theatrical idiom and have also incorporated various native elements from Manipur to give a specific identity to your theatre. How would you like to define your theatre?

H. Kanhailal:  “Theatre of the Earth. This is how I would like to call my theatre. My theatre is the theatre of the earth, it is essentially rooted in the earth and do not necessarily descend from heaven, it is informed by the accumulated wisdom that gathered from the earth, from here and now, our surroundings, our milieu. It intimately emanates from its own ecology, its own native landscape. After all, not only art, even science has emerged from the earth. If one looks at life away from this reality, one is unceremoniously dislocated from one's native ground. Even the social experiences of the individual and the community are actually solidified through its intimate linkages with the earth”

JP: How different is your theatre from that of Ratan Thiyam who is also known as one of the exponents of what is called “Theatre of Roots”?

H. Kanhailal: “Ratan Thiyam’s plays are fantastic; they make majestic theatrical presence and are superbly spectacular. It is a mindboggling visual treat. But for me theatre is not only about copious extravaganza, it is essentially about the intimate nuances, the raw earthy immediacy of experiences. This is what “Theatre of Earth” is all about. I strongly believe that theatre is essentially grounded with ideology and a deep rooted social commitment.”

JP: What is the inherent ideology of your theatre, ‘Theatre of Earth’ that is?

H. Kanhailal: “Theatre is not a detached art, it is strongly linked with its ideological commitments for it must become a voice for the voiceless, a means that gives the power and strength to the disempowered to resist and take on the challenges. Theatre must speak for the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless. Or else what should theatre strive for? I always think of Jesus; he has been a constant inspiration for me. He has sacrificed himself for the weaker section of the people. Similarly, theatre too should act heroically like Spartacus who turned ordinary slaves into formidable soldiers to fight valiantly against the oppressive rule of the Roman oligarchy.”

JP: How do you think your theatre could achieve that goal?

H. Kanhailal: This has been my mission to bring theatre closer to the people not only as audience but as participants. One of my early experiments was Nupi Lan, (women’s war of 1939) which we produced in 1989. This was one of the first plays in Manipur where the women of Imphal’s famous all women market, Ima Keithel (mother’s market), were my actors who had  performed the play in the market shed itself. We had produced another play in 1979,   Sanjennaha (cowherd) which was performed in a remote village of Umathel where the local Paite tribal villagers were the performers. 

JP: What are the issues that you often try to address through your theatre?

H. Kanhailal: Theatre must be able to question the conventional representations and its politics. For example, even the great epic like the Mahabharata is not free from this vice. I was moved by the complexities of the character of Karna in the Mahabharata. I was inspired by Karna to carry out a theatrical experiment. I wrote a play on him, Karna, which we produced in 1997. For me this is one of my most significant productions where I tried to raise the question of social segregation and politics of caste and marginalisation. The last scene of the play is very significant when Karna dies. Though his actual mother Kunti had abandoned him as an infant in order to avoid embarrassment but as he died she comes to claim the body of her son for cremation as an Aryaputra. It is an irony that when he was alive she never came to claim her motherhood upon him but when he dies she wants to preserve his caste sanctity.  There also arrives Radha, Karna’s shudra step mother. Interestingly, since she was a shudra, she was barred from shedding tears at the death her son. However, she also laid claim on the body of Karna for cremation. Now who actually had the real claim over the body of Karna? There I tried to answer the question through the spirit of Karna. The spirit of Karna said, ‘I am none of your son, I am the son of the author of this great epic, Vyasa. It is he who made me, it is he who orphaned me. I am his prodigy, only he has the claim over me, only he can bring finality to my present status of ambivalence.’ You see this question still persists as to who determines the mode of our representations in society, who has the rightful claims over the rights we often fight for. Through my theatre I try to address these issues though I do not claim that I have got those answers yet.”

JP: Your Dopdi is also quite significant.

H. Kanhailal: “It is one of the most controversial also. I had picked up the story from Mahasweta Devi’s short story. The story had a huge impact on me for I found the story to have strong relevance to our own context. This is a powerful story of universal experience of human suffering and oppression. This is the story of an adivasi woman of Bengal, whose husband was killed in a fake encounter, and was raped by a Senanayak, a captain of the Indian Army. Sabitri (Sabitiri Heisnam, Kanhailal’s actor wife) played the lead role in the play. In the play she peels her cloth off one by one and dares the Senanayak to rape her. The defenseless naked body of a woman turned out to be the most powerful weapon to mutilate the masochism of state brutality. In the play Sabitri actually removed all her cloth, stood all naked in front of the army Captain with the back of her body facing the audience. It was completely a new theatrical experience for the audience. The play was hugely appreciated in the metropolises like Delhi and Calcutta. The scene made the most powerful theatrical statement with that audacious act. The critics came and met me to shower their praises. But the same play when performed in Manipur drew strong reactions. It became a big controversy. I was threatened and was asked to pull out the play. But interestingly many NGOs of young people supported my play and wanted me to continue with the play. But quite significantly, the play turned out to be a prophetic premonition. The play opened in 2000, but when in 2004 (11 July, 2004) the Kangla incident happened with the Manipuri women stripped completely to protest against the killing and rape of Thongjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles personnel, with that famous banner, “Indian Army, Rape Us”, they found a strange resonance of the play I had produced some four years before. I received phone calls where the callers used to address me as “Ching’ü”, the foreseer or a prophet.

JP: You have an elaborate module of theatre training in your Kalakshetra Manipur, the most famous abode of learning theatre. What are the principles that are cultivated?

H. Kanhailal: “Theatre is not only about enacting roles on stage for the shows alone. It is an art of complete commitment. Acting is not as simple as it seems when one sees it on stage. Acting is a discipline of extreme rigour. You must have complete control over your whole body, mind and spirit. Here everyone goes through a rigorous training regime which includes voice coaching, physical training, martial art, meditation, training on music and dance and so on. We have picked up elements from various sources, for there are so many things we have to learn from. Our actors learn meditation from the Buddhist schools of meditation, they learn about physical movements and voice control and modulation from the movements and voices of animals, birds and even from the trees. It is a comprehensive training module, after all to become an actor one needs to be alert and be one with his or her immediate surroundings. 

JP: What are the recent projects have you taken up?

H. Kanhailal: “There are so many things to do especially in the North East. We have, along with the NSD, started an ambitious project in Tripura. Assam has a lot of potential. Recently we have begun a theatre project in a remote Rabha village in Goalpara district in Assam. It has received great response from the villagers, for them it is a new experience altogether. We want to begin theatre projects in more villages from where a new era of theatre movement should begin to usher in a fresh epoch of cultural renaissance. Theatre must go deep into the interiors to turn it into a true movement of the people. I must say, many talented theatre activists are emerging from the region, among them I must take the name of Pabitra Rabha, an NSD alumnus from a small village of Assam, who is extremely talented and promising and is doing some very significant works.”

( Jyotirmoy Prodhani is a Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University ( NEHU),  Shillong )











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