Plays of Ratan Thiyam and H. Kanhailal: Some Critical Insights
From the North East of India, Manipuri plays by H. Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam need a special emphasis. Both these playwrights not only exhibit rich folk traditions but their plays also have a basis for creating a critical theory of society with a practical intent. They take the apparently discrete linguistic practices of small narratives to connect reflexively to the discourses of humanity. Thus, these plays disclose a mode of enquiry and a self-conscious critique of hegemony. They also talk about the sense of exploitation of indigenous people, and find means to subvert foundations or universal criteria of truth and knowledge generated through the medium of grand or meta-theory, and the supremacy of historical processes. Thus, these plays produce polyvalent sites. They operate from the margins: the narrative-discourse revolves round marginalized events and marginalized people whether in terms of the underrepresented or the non-represented. This is in consonance with what Louis Gates has propounded. For him, a playwright/ speaker is a “cultural impersonator”--- therefore, representational authenticity of any signifying practice is much more complicated than the singular and static categories assumed to give the writer a particular view.
If read against the historical perspective of Manipur, the plays of Ratan Thiyam and Kanhailal are purely based on the physical culture of Manipur itself; thus, the appropriation of Thabal Changba dance (a dance throughout the night during the Holi celebrations linking the hands to form a large circle, building a communal energy and rhythm with strong, vigorous jumps), the martial art tradition Thang-ta; the narratives of Phunga wari (fireside stories) etc finally produces a flexible dramatic idiom to adapt to the changing contemporary situations of the state.
In April 1976, under the able guidance of Ratan Thiyam, the Chorus Repertory Theatre was established in the small hill state, Manipur, encircled by nine folds of hills in the easternmost part of India. Technically, the concept of space---the ideologically loaded meanings produced by shape, décor, location, history, architecture and so on--- is intrinsically connected to the politics of signification. Augusto Boal’s protest theatre, Peter brook’s “empty space,” Bertold Brecht’s dismantling of masking, Robert Lepage’s site-specific performances, and David Wiles’ idea of the “container” or supposedly “abstract” dedicated theatre spaces--- enable us to highlight the importance of sightlines, acoustics, proximity, scale, furnishings, performance amenities etc. Similarly, Thiyam’s use of space eulogizes complicated networks of “models” or “maps”. Space here is a site of turbulence that encompasses scales of dimensions. It unleashes an array of contradictory messages. This space draws on the vitality of deviations that elude taxonomies. Each space alludes to a narrative, method, story or data in unconventional ways.
Specifically, Thiyam’s concept of space gives birth to a malleable responsibility to create, to invent, to produce some fluctuating tendencies. For example, in Nine Hills, One Valley, the woven reed mats that represent the nine hills surrounding Imphal (also the stage lighting) create a strong sense of geography; but at the same time, the mats signify the stubborn materiality of the Meitheis and a thrust of cultural narcissism. In this context, as audience, we are forced to be wily in finding a path that does not exist. Also there is a threat to the romantic aspiration of giving voice to the voiceless in the invasive stretch of surveillance. Semantically, a steady rain of rolled-up newspapers flung on stage (Nine Hills, One Valley) herald the rhetorical positions of fragmented world-views. It is a litany of disaster and shows how there can be numerous approaches harboured by media to deal with fractured Manipuri lives dictated by violence and insurgency. The presence of the Maichous, the Seven Wise Men on the stage-space converges on the fluidity of the thought-processes of the worried mothers; similarly, the elegant robes of the men and the brown poles signify the shattered dreams of the wailing sons of Manipur, a land stinking with degradation. Again, the while-clad dolls on the lap of the mothers conclude with the anxieties of death.
The Manipuri rendition Ashibagee Eshei is based on Henrik Ibsen’s last play When We Dead Awaken and it revolves round the non-reality of characters embedded in a symbolic and metaphysical dimension. The performance is designed to express the internal entanglement of four characters --- Maja, Arnold Rubek, Irene and UIfhejm. Story apart, the way these characters fit into the Manipuri adaptation poses a great challenge since culture, tradition and style of the Norwegians or the Europeans that form the background of the play are so different from that of the Manipuris. The semiotic model assumes the autonomy of different life worlds which are based on conversations amongst co-subjects and this pursuit of constituted meaning unfolds certain set-ups of formative and transformative human action and historically shifting values.
For Thiyam, very integral to the act of theatre signification is the representation of the performer’s body on the stage. Thiyam used innovative theatre techniques to represent Shaktam as the fallen woman. She is the other woman of a married man’s fantasy. Certain points of resistance totally reshape her body in new dynamics because at every moment the experiential self is lived differently culturally and historically. The body hence becomes a locus of embodied, but transformable experiences depending on contexts and conditions. This is in contrast to the inanimate but life-like puppets made by Shakhenbi, Shaktam-Lapka’s wife. Shaktam is not successful in her urge to go back to the past or to step out of the culture entirely, nor is she able to find the resources to save her from the destructive tendencies of the society. Moreover, there is a gigantic tomb of Shaktam-Lapka’s dream-woman (Ashibagee Eshei). It can be said that in Ashibagee Eshei, the tomb is re-situated and re-made across cultures and contexts--- here, the Ibsenian play (When We Dead Awaken) is told from an indigenous perspective.
Heisnam Kanhailal established the theatre group Kalakshetra Manipur in 1969. Rather than being a mere production company, it is fervently engaged in research theatre. For thirty five years, the group has been working to create a theatre idiom based on physical rather than psychological language, driven by instinct and intuition, and exploring the specific powers of theatre in the context of native culture.
Jim Mienczakowski has shown that the verbatim and documentary style performances exhibit the potential of cultural reification. However, quite interestingly, this process evokes an ethnodrama, a conversely loaded phenomenon in which a text/ multiple texts are created by readers/informants/actors/critics--- this ethnographic semiotics renders the performance in a continual process of validation and cuts across culturally specific signs, symbols, aesthetics, behaviours, and languages. The same is true for Heisnam Kanhailal’s Pebet (1975) and Draupadi (2000), so much so that these plays transgressively blur boundaries of practices, methods, and techniques to advocate a “public voice” that has been emancipatory and educational.
Inspired by Denzin’s work on Triangle Theatre Company (Coventry, U.K), the idea of auto-ethnography can be converged with Kanhailal’s critical reflections in performance-pieces like Pebet and Draupadi.
Here he explores the personal responses (the loss of a child in Pebet, the marginalization of Manipuris in other nation-states etc.) through ethnographic narratives in production. At times, scripts are made available to audiences prior to or at performances so that a Bakhtinian polyphonic interaction takes place as the spectators can participate and get engaged; can seek clarification or can revisit the issues represented in the performance.
The “public voice” of ethnodrama is intricately related to Bernstein’s theories of giving the power of authorship back to those who are being taught and described; being put under surveillance; being regarded as “audience.” Significantly, Kanhailal’s performances and their inherent elements of ethnodrama return the ownership, and therefore, the act of representation to its informants/audience (the theatre academy or company backs out here) (Mienckakowski: 1996). The audience is given a chance to access a clearer public explanation and produce a cultural critique.
For Kanhailal, representation of the body on stage is an integral act and it involves the act of writing the body as a text. In his thought-provoking essay, “In Ritual Theatre (Theatre of Transition)” (2004), Kanhailal retorts that the body being a site of multiple signs enchants him as it can be regarded as a repository of “the biological evolution of organism-in-life.” It is a crystallization of subsequent oppression and resistance and a locus of transition--- “an intra-cultural exercise.” The body can also be a significant element in the “Ritual of Suffering” as it “is imprisoned by the forces of increasing urban sophistication and the “speed” of the time.” In the context of performance, the body is charged with the complexity of energy, biological, social, and creative. Barba’s ideologies influenced Kanhailal’s performances. Moreover, in “Ritual Theatre (Theatre of Transition)” (2004), he has himself acknowledged that he “swallowed up the text and absorbed it into our (performers) body instead of speaking out the lines through lip movement, facial and finger gestures” (2004: 550). The most controversial aspect of his play, Sabitri Debi’s nude scene in Draupadi which is cheaply labeled as a ploy to advocate sensationalism, is an act of exhibiting a necessarily “alert”, sensorial, and “informed” body that is extremely localized in a continuum of oppressive feelings. In Draupadi, the naked female body on the stage aims to represent the reduction of women to mere commodities, especially the plight of the Manipuri women who become rape-victims in the hands of the Army. Moreover, the body’s strange language on the stage captures the transformational possibilities meant for the audience by entering the therapeutic realm. It modifies the purposes of entertainment as aesthetic appeasement and provides a common interpretive framework to a group of audience (the Manipuris). It henceforth formulates some common parameters for a cohesively unified group in terms of relationships and interests. Like ethnographers, we can use his theatre language as a tool to elicit data. Also, the socio-linguistic behavior on the stage helps us to procure a slice of social relations, norms, roles, values, and mores. For Kanhailal, ethnography and performance share a common interest as both generate a space with a confluence of differences.
* Ashibagee Eshei was performed by Chorus Repertory Theatre in Kalakshetra Museum, Guwahati, at 5.30 pm on 25th February, 2009. The performance text is designed and directed by Ratan Thiyam and its duration is of 70 minutes. On the other hand, Nine Hills, One Valley was staged in the annual international theatre festival organized by the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi (Jan-2-14), 2006.
Dr Namrata Pathak
( Dr Namrata Pathak is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Dibrugarh University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )