Saturday, September 19, 2009

Kanhailal's theatre

Kanhailal as I Know Him
By: Nongthombam Premchand

A Journey from Politics of Theatre to Textuality of Theatre

In spite of the economic prosperity India enjoy
ing now, regional, social, political and economic disparities within the country continue unabated. Within free India there are pockets of colonial rule where people are subjected to a kind of colonial servitude and where people are struggling to set themselves free from the shackles of a kind of bondage different from the British experience. Theatre in Manipur or Kanhailal as a theatre director from Manipur needs to be seen within the framework of these points. Because, as of now, life in Manipur is certainly a kind of life very different from the life people are leading in other parts of the country. And, if at all theatre as a work of art that has something to do with the society where it is rooted we in no way can avoid seeing this art in the context of the brutalities taking place in the Manipuri society.
And, as for theatre in Manipur we are facing a very unusual situation which is at the same time paradoxical. There is a very gruesome onslaught done on theatre by the electronic media. There are cable television channels, home videos, a very close network of pirated films available in CDs and DVDs which the people can have access to as soon as it is released or even before, and there are mushroom numbers of video film makers, star actors, producers and directors ceaselessly working, producing nearly a hundred films a year. Even Shumang Leela which the people loved to see performed on charity or invitation at their localities is now shifted to hosting ticketed video film shows. The standing theatre halls have no longer put up regular drama performances as they used to do. What is paradoxical even to a layman is that in spite of its popularity nationally and beyond Manipuri theatre is seemed to be facing a very deep crisis at home. Hardly, there are playwrights or plays coming up. The gap left by the death of such big playwrights like GC Tongbra and Arambam Somorendra is still left agape. There are no serious actors one can take headcount of with pride. But there are directors everywhere at the most glaring spots.

One cannot expect the law-and-order situation to becoming better in foreseeable future except for a turn from bad to worst, and there is sense of disbelief and suspicion among the people. It is a brutalized society badly bruised on all parts of the body and traumatized by many shameful acts of human right violation meted out by both the outlaws and the guardians of law. Making meaning in such a society is certainly a difficult job. For, if one happens to step on an uncharted area one can get easily exposed and become an easy target for any camp whatsoever. This sense of fear is crippling the society and there is self-censorship, and the true voice of feeling is unheard of or if at all expressed one may find it hidden in a dense forest of metaphors. This sense of fear or insecurity has again created 'crops in the mind', to recall Augusto Boal, and has impeded all processes of development and creativity. For the art of theatre which is inherently forceful, immediate and at the same time vulnerable theatre practitioners face a very difficult situation which is felt but hard to express. A form of inertia, mutism, numbness and loss of direction has set on in the mind and behavioural character. What I have been trying to emphasize here is that Kanhailal's' long silence, his textualism in the practice of theatre and his intermittent sojourn to Delhi and other parts of the country can be located in these complex realities happening in the Manipuri society for many years. Textualism, as meant by Edward Said is a new kind of approach in literary criticism which is highly text-bound and which deals with the text in isolation of the history and circumstances where the text was created. In literary criticism it deals with a text, a finished product. But in theatre it is a matter of continuously evolving a text and not coming to any kind a finished text. Unfinishedness is itself considered to be the very essence of theatre. And, here, textuality is not simply how the journalistic critics or scholars view theatre but also how the theatre director as an artiste not simply engage in the production of plays but how far they engage in the textuality of theatre which means ahistorical approaches and pure textual ventures like actor training, scenography, etc.
When we look at how it came be born and came to flower we find the theatre of Kanhailal deeply embedded in history. Beginning part of the decade of 1970s was period when sections of people, the youths in particular started feeling disillusioned with the relationship between Manipur and India after twenty years of experience as Part 'C' state of the Indian union. Manipur came to be part of India in 1949 and the validity of its 'merger' is still questioned. When Hinduism came to Manipur in the eighteenth century and got entrenched in the Meitei society in due course of time it took the form of a kind of religious imperialism. To make Hinduism rooted among the people numbers of manuscripts treasured by the natives were burnt and native religiouspractices and ritualistic performances were banned. The native script use for writing was banned and replaced by Bengali script which is still in use. New myths and lores were constructed to firmly situate the indigenous people and their belief system within the framework of the Aryan civilization and their consciousness. Hills, rivers, dales, routes, stars and planets were given Sanskrit names. Mythopoets reconstructed the local myths of origin of the universe and the state of Manipur in consonance with the Hindu mythology. The mythical heroes and entire chthonic world were given Hindu names. The Gotra system was introduced and each and every individual had to define themselves with one of the Gotras. So the entire scheme of things generated by the Hinduism was considered as a step to obliterate the ethnic Meiteis of their past.

So, in seventies, when the meiteis started looking back to their past things came out to be a shocking revelation. They were at a loss, unable to find an authentic cultural positioning of their own. And, they started a journey of questioning their authenticity, searching for their identity as a nationality. Theatre was the first to respond to this kind of an absurd situation. Led by theatre persons like Kanhailal, Sribiren, W. Kamini and a host of young Turks started questioning on stage, in front of the audience composed of their own community members, the authenticity of their own political and cultural life, and meaning of their existence in absence of an identity which could be a befitting reply to others. And, since these theatre persons came out theatre in Manipur has never been the same both in form and spirit.
In the early stage of his career as a theatre practitioner Kanhailal was closely associated with the well-known theatre director and playwright GC Tongbra and his theatre group the Society Theatre. He was fond of writing social comedies but with a local touch of humour as different from his mentor GC Tongbra who was writing with a Shavian flavour. Some of his plays like Taret Leima were a farcical and hilarious kind of comedy which was very popular among the people. Kanhailal has always been a non-conformist and taken side with the exploited and downtrodden. His play Tamnalai appeared around the year 1972 and which dealt with the theme of the problem of goons in the society and how the innocents suffered in their hands, was a breakthrough in the art of writing drama in Manipur which was otherwise bound to a long habit of writing plays in linear narrative and on hackneyed themes. With Tamnalai Kanhailal has stopped writing plays and also the habit of staging well-made plays. Spoken language was not enough for him and other directors of those days. They were committed to finding a new kind of performance language which could convey the entire load of their feelings in a very intense and powerful way. Theirs was a kind of taking up the process of decolonizing the society in their own stride. They looked back to the sorry past with anger and wanted to undo it. They rehoused the forgotten or neglected past and reused it. Folk tales popular among the people came to be the favourite content and structure which could be subverted and rehistoricised to inflect a new contemporary significance. Word, of course, was not totally discarded but it came to be located in the overall scheme of performance with a bare minimum use with poetic qualities. Here Kanhailal was in his element as never before. The axis of his theatre was in foregrounding the live body of the actor in space and in creating a corporeal meaning through the physical immediacy of the performance. Yes, Kanhailal had earlier acquainted with Badal Sircar and his third theatre the grammar of which was acquired from the avant-garde theatre of the West. But when it came to Kanhailal it came out to be a different kind of body which is not neutral but has all the regional, ethnic, cultural and political meanings. This is the magic of Kanhailal which transforms and resituates things that come to him. His 'poor theatre' with a bare minimum use of, not simply the words, but also set, props, lighting and with no make-up theatre came out to be a fertile platform of multiple meanings. The audience was confronted with a very unusual situation which engaged them in a serious challenge of searching for meanings in his productions.

Nineteen Seventies was a decade of Kanhailal in Manipuri theatre. Pebet, Kabui Keioiba, Khomdon Meiroubi, Imphal 73 and Laigi Machasing-ga were all produced during this decade. The first three productions are reinterpretations of folk tales and the last two are representations of two poems of two Manipuri poets, N. Sribiren and L. Samarendra respectively. But all are Kanhailal's passionate responses to the plights of the Manipuri people, their question of cultural, political and ethnic identities; demographic threats caused by an influx of non-Manipuri outsiders, traders and daily wage earners and after all cultural imperialism, as it is taken to be, done in the name of Hindu religion. Pebet is Kanhailal's response to the politics of domination of the mind through culture. The Pebet mother represents the rock-bottom which gives a cultural and political authenticity to the people of Manipur. On the one hand the Pebet children represent those who have been swayed by the new imperialist culture. The play shows the sufferings of the Pebet mother at the hands of imperialist represented by the cat and her own children who have loyalty to the cat and converted themselves to the cat culture. Kabui Keioiba is the popular folk tale in which a half-man half -tiger character as a protagonist chance upon a young woman and forcibly taking her as his wife. Kanhailal subverted this tale with the idea of sacrificing the young woman to save the clan. Khomdon Meiroubi is all about a crow presumably an alien invader trying to dispossess a mother of her last sibling and of the mother along with her children fighting to save the child. This is a tale that accompanies performance of a folk game. What I want to emphasize here is that in all the three productions there is a mother figure, who is courageous, compassionate and very protective of her children and think of their future. His wife Sabitri Devi always played the role of this character. The role of a mother figure was a leitmotif which ran across many productions, not simply of Kanhailal but of others also, staged during the decade of Nineteen Seventies. The performances were filled with different body movements, compositions made of one single body or made of bodies organized to give an idea or a concrete thing like a prop. Bodily presentations were metonymic, but at times it could also go beyond and give a very enriching field of symbols and metaphors. Rape scenes, violence, agonizing contortions of body, shrieks, cries, shouts were the medium apart from the few words which tried to communicate to the audience. All in all, one could feel the experience of a people having the agony of the mind and body, and of longing for freedom.
There are seen and unseen forces creating a very uneasy congestion in the mind and we are in no position of creating new insights and ideas except for swallowing that is given to us, no mater who and why is that given to me or what agenda is there hidden. Because, we are facing with a very complex situation in life and we cannot be as free and courageous as we were in seventies. It is a limit-situations. Survival is the only concern for the moment. Kanhailal is becoming more and more difficult to comprehend in our mind. His theorizations and ceaseless effort for a new actor training process founded on the ethnic culture and philosophy has its root in the kind of theatre he was engaged in 1970s. The process is still continued and it keeps evolving. But we also need to consider the kind of politics which propelled the theatre of Kanhailal which made his textuality possible