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Tayenjam Bijoykumar Singh
Date of Publish: 2015-12-06

A  Theatrical Collage of North East  


Over the years, the North East has been in the news but for all the wrong reasons. It comes to prominence only when trouble flares up. The mainland media report the trouble with earnest zeal but seldom follow the root cause and try to feel the pulse of the people. For many people of the country living outside the region, the North East is still shrouded in mystery.  Majority of the people outside the North East are not aware that the region is also a treasure trove of culture and traditions. The North East has a long tradition of theatre , one of the components of the treasure trove.

There are many forms of theatre - theatre of narration, theatre of entertainment, folk theatre, modern theatre, etc. If the traditional and ritualistic dance forms are brought under the umbrella of theatre then each village in the region has its own distinctive form of theatre. The numerous ritualistic dance forms like harvest dance, seed-sowing dance, war dance, etc. performed in the villages from time to time according to the season and situation are nothing but a form of folk theatre. Ritualistic dance forms and theatrical performances of the North East such as Yak Chaam and Enchey Chaam or mask dance of Sikkim; Lion dance, Ponung dance, Tam-ladu  dance and Si-donyi dance  of Arunachal Pradesh; Oja-pali and Ankhiya Nat created by saint Sankaradeva, the social reformer of Assam; Behdienkhlam dance, Wangala dance and Nongkrem dance of Meghalaya; War-Dance and Seed-Sowing-Dance of Nagaland; Lai-haraoba dance of Manipur, performed to appease Sylvan deities; Garia, a ritualistic dance that continues for seven days and Mamita or harvest dance of Tripura; Khuallam and Cheraw or Bamboo Dance of Mizoram to speak only a few show the rich tradition of theatrical art.

In the beginning plays were very closely associated with religion. It may be because plays started at places where people gathered in large numbers and the places inadvertently were temples or places of worship. All forms of dramatic literature have some points in common in the sense all try to reach out to people to convey messages, thoughts and ideas. Differences between plays arise from differences in conditions of performance, in local conventions, in the purpose of theatre within the community, and in cultural history. Of these, the cultural background is the most important, if not the most elusive.  

Saint Sankaradeva (circa 1449-1568) in order to spread the message of Vaisnavism created Ankiya Nat, a form of religious theatre. Ankiya means (one) act and Nat means drama. The spotless white costumes of the orchestra and the spectacular effigies of demons and animals characterize these one-act plays. Bhawona, a theatrical performance of Ankiya Nat, created with the combination of art, music, dance, singing and teachings from religious scriptures still continues to enthral the spectators. It is performed in village Namghars and Satra premises. The main objective is to attract the attention of the common people and impart to them the intrinsic knowledge of religious scriptures in an easily digestible form. The present day performances still use the scripts originally written by saint Sankaradeva in medieval Assamese with a sprinkling of Brajavali. Giant effigies of demons and animals are used to highlight the dramatic effect and capture the imagination of the common man. Some of these brightly painted papier mache effigies with bamboo skeletons are often as tall as 15 feet requiring several actors to manipulate them. Animal masks are also worn by the actors. The tradition is kept unbroken till today.

Oja-Pali is another traditional performing art form of Assam. It is usually performed by a group of 4 or 5 men, the leader of whom is called ‘Oja’ and the remaining performers accompanying the leader are called ‘Pali’. The performers wear long sleeved white gowns and silver jewellery. Oja-Pali is distinguished by its style of narrative singing combined with dancing and dramatic interludes. The only instrument played is Khutitaal (palm sized Cymbal). Oja-Pali focuses on the stories from the epics and Puranas. 

The concept of modern theatre brought by the British made its presence felt in the region more than a century ago. Tezpur can proudly claim to be the birth place of modern Assamese theatre. The Ban Theatre, the first modern Assamese theatre hall was established in the year 1906 at Tezpur. Naturally many historic modern Assamese dramas of Rupkunwar Jyotiprasad Agarwala (1903-51) and Natyasurya Phani Sarma (1909-70) were first staged here. Lakhidhar Sarma, another theatre personality of Tezpur is known for his famous work ‘SIRAJ’, the drama with the unity of the Hindus and Muslims as central theme scripted by Natyasurya Phani Sarma.

Building on the legacy of the earlier stalwarts who nurtured a distinctly Assamese Theatre, the credit for pioneering contemporary theatre in Assam would largely be due to the Sangeet Natak Academy awardee Dulal Roy. The journey of exploration in theatre and direction continued with other veterans like Ali Hyder, Rofiqul Hussain, Arun Sharma, Sitanath Lahkar. Theatre groups like ‘Seagull’ of (Baharul Islam and Bhagirathi) and D'RAMA The Passion Players (S. D’com Bhuyan) are also producing interesting plays, for last several years. The contributions of theatre activists like Nayan Prasad, Anup Hazarika, Abinash Sarma, Gunakar Devgoswami and  Robijita Gogoi continue to make the theatre scene in Assam a vibrant one and the quality of theatre produced in the state are, comparable to the best in the country.

The most popular Assamese theatre is the mobile theatre which runs on commercial consideration. Achyut Lahkar opened the Nataraj Cine Theatre in 1963. He is largely credited as the pioneer in establishing the roving drama company concept in Assam. He depended heavily on amateur actors and technicians. The initial dramas of the company were based on folklore and mythology. Since its inception the theme, acting standards and production quality of the mobile theatre have undergone a tremendous change. Ratan Lahkar, a veteran producer produced adaptations of classics ‘Iliad’, ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’. He added another feather in his cap by producing Titanic, a mega production which required building of two stages side by side to depict the illusion of an entire ship broken into two after the collision with iceberg. Dr. Bhabendranath Saikia, a renowned litterateur, has written several screenplays and directed several plays for the travelling play companies of Assam. There are now nearly 30 full-fledged mobile theatre companies. Braving cold winters, hot summers and wet rainy days, for eight months in a year, between September and April, at least 20 mobile drama companies, tour across the vast state, entertaining the rural mass.

The rituals associated with Lai-Haraoba, festival of deities of pre-Hindu era of Manipur inevitably include many episodes like ‘Tangkhul-Nurabi Loutaba’, which actually are nothing but plays. Sanjenba, Goura Lila, Kali Daman, Ras Lila, etc. are some of the religious theatrical performances of Manipur, pertaining to Vaisnavism. Phagee Lila (farce) was popular during the reign of Maharaja Chandrakirti (1850-1886). It in turn gave birth to Shumang Lila or courtyard play – "Shumang" meaning courtyard and "Lila" meaning play or performance. Shumang Lila is performed by troupes of 10-15 artists either exclusively male or female. Male characters are played by female artists in the case of female Shumang Lila troupes. Nupishabis or male artistes enacting female roles in male Shumang Lila troupes are feminine par excellence in their looks, bodily gestures and facial expressions. Shumang Lila is performed in an open space with the spectators sitting all around. No stage prop except a table and a chair is used. However, of late electronically created special sound effects have been incorporated in the performance of Shumang Lila.

Shumang Lilas are generally meant for entertaining and making the people aware of the social values. The theme of Shumang Lila is very wide; it can be anything from folk tales to the happenings elsewhere in the world like the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers of World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Shumang Lila is no longer confined to Manipur. Some Shumang Lila troupes have toured the country. Some have even taken their shows abroad. Some Shumang Lila troupes have taken part in the annual festival of National School of Drama, New Delhi.  

Modern Manipuri theatre performed in the proscenium theatre similar to the Western theatrical model was moulded under the enthusiastic patronage of Sir Churchand Maharaj (1891-1941) and Pravas Milan was performed for the first time in 1902. The initial plays were adaptations from other languages. In 1925 'Narasingh' the first play originally written in Manipuri was staged. Theatre movement developed and expanded rapidly. Many theatrical companies and institutions like Manipur Dramatic Union (MDU) (1930), Arian Theatre (1935), Chitrangada Natya Mandir (1936), Society Theatre (1937), Rupmahal (1942), Cosmopolitan Dramatic Union (1968), the Chorus Repertory Theatre of Ratan Thiyam (1976) etc. were established.

Lokendra Arambum, H. Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam are prominent personalities of Manipuri theatre. Each of them has a distinctive style of presentation --  masters in their own rights. Ratan Thiyam with his inimitable style has managed to claim a niche for himself in the International Arena. Among the Indians, he as a dramaturge has won probably the maximum number of honours and awards at both national and international levels. He firmly believes that plays should be based on logic and reason – it should mirror the society; it should be able to analyze the social changes and give comment on it. In other words, plays should point out the wrongs in the society and correct it by putting questions on human intellect. As a director, Ratan Thiyam strives for perfection. He and his whole troupe will not rest until and unless, every minute details of the play are perfected. Ratan Thiyam’s plays have become ever more experimental with his trilogy, ‘The Manipur Trilogy’.

The 5th Theatre Olympics held in Seoul from  September 24 to  November 7, 2010 saw ‘Ashibagee Eshei’, Ratan Thiyam’s Manipuri adaptation of Henrik Ibsen' last work ‘When We Dead Awaken’ as one of the six International Committee Performances. He has lent a touch of imagination, fantasy and a sense of awe in his interpretation of Ibsen, who otherwise is known for his realistic plays. ‘Ashibagee Eshei’ may be described as a surrealistic play. When questioned, Ratan quips, “Ibsen wrote an unlimited play.” Again Ratan Thiyam’s ‘When We Dead Awaken’ was the only play from India to perform at the 6th Theatre Olympics held in Beijing from October 29 to December 27, 2014 that saw 110 performances of 46 outstanding dramas from 22 countries around the world. Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper, described ‘When We Dead Awaken’ as exciting example of creative inspiration.About his latest play ‘Macbeth’ (adaptation of Shakespeare’s play) Ratan Thiyam says that ‘Macbeth represents a disease of uncontrollable greed for wealth and power, a product of the corrupt mind which affects not only the individual and family members but the entire society.   Ratan Thiyam’s Wahoudok (Prologue) opened the International Theatre Festival, which proves beyond doubt that the North East theatre is a dynamic theatre that cannot be easily overlooked.

It may not be out of place to mention that people often say the North East theatre is not as popular and powerful as the Marathi or the Bengali theatre. Nothing can be more wrong than making such a comparison. Both the Marathi and Bengali theatres are there in big cities where it is easy to get sponsors. Even their flop shows attract more people than any of the successful plays of the North East. The theatre groups in big cities can recover the cost of production even with a very bad production. Whereas theatre groups in the North East have to work against all odds. They have to manage everything on their own and earn appreciable amount to sustain themselves without others’ help. Better still they manage to come out of the region, tour all over the world and earn the admiration of the global audience much to the envy of the so called powerful theatres of the country.

Tayenjam Bijoykumar Singh

(Tayenjam Bijoy kumar Singh is an eminent  short story writer and poet . As a bilingual writer  in English and Manipuri, he is  also  engaged in translation  for which he received the National  Katha Award , 2005. He is an electrical engineer by profession)

  • A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the special issue of ATMAN brought out in April, 2008 to commemorate the diamond jubilee of the Gauhati High Court.



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