Theatre in the Time of Crisis

Was there a time with no crisis at all? Can one appreciate art without a crisis? Can an artiste keep silent in the time of crisis?

Manipur has been living with crisis for many years. AFSPA has been part of our life a long time now. But it has not deterred our creative faculty. Rather artistes have produced more creative arts in this land. Art in a land of crisis can never be the same as art in a more peaceful place. Moreover, Art in a period of global crisis can never be the same as in more stable times. It could be remembered that Khongjom Parva emerged just after the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. One Dhobi Leinou, a balladeer, mourned the tragic loss and praised the great heroes of the War who sacrificed their lives for Manipur. Later, it accentuated into a collective mourning of the people of Manipur. Another important event is that the first recorded Meeteilon/ Meiteilon song in gramophone “jati koubi sakhenbi, leiranglaktagi athoibi” was recorded during the turbulent Japan Lan (2nd World War) in 1944.

It could be remembered that Moirang Parva was born out of the political regime of the British Raj in Manipur in the late nineteenth century. Moirang Parva is regarded as a true embodiment of indigenous Manipuri theatre. Moirang, on the bank of Loktak Lake in Bishnupur district, was a powerful principality ruled by the Moirang clan, the last clan to integrate with the Meitei in the eighteenth century. The epic love story of Khamba-Thoibi was divided into episodes in which the Moirang Parva formed the last of the seven tragedies in the cycle of lovers believed to be manifested by the deity Thangjing. While the theatre event of Moirang Parva impressed the public as well as the palace, the British regent banned it with the warrant that it was tantamount to establishment of a parallel kingship in the state. Heisnam Kanhailal’s masterpiece Pebet (1975) was first staged when the state of Manipur was then undergoing tremendous cultural and political turmoil and economic instabilities. It was just three years after Manipur got statehood status and the demand for recognition of Manipuri language was already a public debate. Later in 1992, Manipuri language was included in the eighth schedule.

Another politically charged theatre production of Kanhailal was Draupadi in the year 2000. Adapted from Mahasweta Devi’s short story of the same name, we saw the legendary actor Heisnam Sabitri, who played the role of Draupadi, disrobed on stage in the final moments of the play. While the performance evoked public protest for deemed obscenity which made the group to stop staging the play in Manipur, it was only when a group of twelve women protested by parading naked in front of Kangla in 2004, after the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama that Kanhailal-Sabitri’s theatre is appreciated as having prophetic powers and energies.

Art is powerful. A tender voice singing a lullaby may compel us to connect with the emotive energies of violence meted out on innocent people. A 60 years old woman acting as an eight-year-old boy can relate with the political reality of chaos and absurd situation in Manipur. The sound of lamentation of three statues (in Heisnam Tomba’s Hungry Stone) can evoke the historical pain and traumas of women.

Needless to say, at this critical time, we do now understand the importance of our basic essential needs; our community; and of our environment. History has taught us that the power mongering nation-state has failed humanity. The nexus of state and capitalism has time and again proved a threat for humanity. It is time theatre began to question this threat to humanity. In an era of ecological chaos and economic crisis, it is important to create theatre shaped by ideas of environmentalism and peace movements, a theatre close to the community. Simply put, it should be a quest for a meaningful life.

Theatre of commodity for export quality which only thrives at the international market seems meaningless today. We have disconnected with our own community and our society in the race of sponsorship and global market. It is in this critical juncture that we need to redefine theatre. To me, meaningful theatres are those which had worked at the community level. Today it would be worth remembering that Heisnam Kanhailal had worked at the community level. He worked with various communities of his native place Manipur and other neighbouring states of Northeast India. He began to expand his work with the other communities of Northeast India in an attempt to explore the intra-cultural affinities. It was also an inter-cultural exploration that he later realized.

Kanhailal launched cultural expeditions in organizing theatre events with non-actors in many different socio-cultural contexts. In December 1978, Kanhailal staged a theatrical event called Nupi Lan (Women’s War of Manipur, 1939) in an open-air production involving around one hundred women from women’s market in Imphal. This was the first time that the majority of the women had acted in such a theatre event. In December 1979, Kanhailal once again attempted to organise a play with a community of non-actors at Umathel, a sleepy village in the remote corner of southern Manipur. Sanjennaha (Cowherd) was performed by the villagers of Umathel. Following Sanjennaha, Kanhailal introduced his theatre in the tribal area of Paite community of Churachandpur district with the production of Thanghou Leh Liandou performed by tribal youths in March, 1980 and many more. Kanhailal experimented to create theatre beyond the four walls of proscenium.

Later, Kanhailal extended such theatre expeditions with actors from other parts of Northeast India as well. In early 2000s, the group began its work in a trans-territorial experience with theatre expeditions in the rural and natural environment of Tripura, Assam and other parts of the country. It was the brainchild of Heisnam Kanhailal who conceptualized a unique theatre festival called Under the Sal Tree in 2008, which continues to this day, organized by his pupils from the Rabha tribes of Badungduppa, a theatre community Kanhailal created in a hamlet called Rampur of Goalpara district, Assam.

Today under the threat of Covid 19, when we are living with minimum basic needs, Kanhailal’s minimal theatre becomes very meaningful. Why Kanhailal is important to remember is his spirit of creating art and art space at any given situation. He is an inspiration. That his theatre is not only a theatre of economy but also of ecology became clear in the experiment he made in Rampur, Goalpara district in Assam. Ecology became as important a dimension as economy of his theatre. A new theatre space was set up in the midst of sal trees on the outskirts of Rampur. Sitting arrangement was made with bamboos. The acting area is a small clearing amidst trees without any artificial flooring, wall or roof. It is as open to the space around the earth below and sky above like sal trees themselves. Artificial lighting has no place in this theatre because plays are staged here during the day in the light of the sun filtered through the branches and leaves of sal trees. Here human action appears in its elemental simplicity unlike in other theatres. The local audiences consisting predominantly of tribal villages become part of the play as much part and setting of the play as sal trees, wind, light and the sky filtered through them. Nature becomes the setting, surrounding and part of the audience. Taking such an inspiration, can we envision creating more meaningful theatre with the minimal resources we have as well as create theatre for the community, of the community and by the community? What can we do at this crucial hour as a theatre practitioner?

I am not making a plea for a theatre not connected with the outside world. We need to carry on our own struggle, and through our work, make our demand for a greater share and for participation in meaningful theatre exchange at home and abroad. At the same time, there is a need to look for other innovative, inexpensive and practical ways of doing good theatre in small ways. Rather than looking for big funding for an expensive and spectacular theatre of the global market, it is high time we also bestow greater attention to our own languages and cultural communities. I strongly feel it is also equally important for other cultural activities and performances as well. During this Covid-19 situation, I have seen through social media many artists working with many issues, and I feel encouraged to distinguish an invisible community of socially engaged artists.

When one is dealing with Covid-19, one cannot separate this condition from other interrelated realities like poverty, xenophobia, racism, patriarchy and political regime. One cannot escape from natural calamities. I am interested in investigating the interrelationships of these different contexts, the intercontextuality of art in the time of crisis. In this regard, Covid-19 is a disturbing catalyst that compels one to probe the stigmas and taboos relating to touch. Can we do theatre in a situation of social distancing? We have to find a way. We must explore the possibilities of touch in a fearful Covid-19 public space. In terms of theatre, touch could mean not only the physical touch but touch through the visceral and corporeal energies and the power of art.