And how Thespian Heisnam Kanhailal transformed it
Nupi-Lan used to be the war of Manipur’s women against the colonial masters in last century. One needs to understand Nupi-Lan to grasp Kanhailal Heisnam’s theatre. The series of theatrical representations based on historic Nupi-Lan comprises of much of the works of Kanhailal.
The legendary thespian of Manipur was destined to break down the schism between the politics and the people it claimed to represent. Like he worked in a village called Umatheli or a valley of Durga on a play called Sanjennaha (Cowherd) to project a community of rural actors, based on extensive work on men and women of Paitei tribe of Churachandrapur.
During Lei Haraoba, a religious festival in Imphal, smart urban pockets are transformed into sites of ritual performance. Performances related to the festival take place in open places in community centres or Mandapas. Traditional secular performances like the Sumang leela, known as jatra according to mainstream genres in India is extremely popular and takes place in every courtyards of Manipur, where the entire community gathers to watch. Besides these, Vaishnavite culture of Manipur is inclined to Ras and Sankeertana.
The mainstream proscenium theatre preferred to stay away from Manipuri people’s plight and fraught correlation to mainland India, the contemporary political perspective of the state and the complexity of identity politics. Till the late ’70s it developed and gathered a momentum against Indian domination among Manipuri people. Kanhailal’s theatrical language was unique among all the other contemporary directors. He emphasised on bodily, non-verbal, rhythmic and lyrical.
As we enter the recent scenario of Manipur— conjures up a valley surrounded by hills as graceful girls dance in circularly sequinned skirts. At a less mysterious level, Manipur represents a border state, the cradle of insurgency and age-old feuds with Naga. Drug-trafficking and AIDS have brought the state under media scanner in the last few years. All these images romantically coloured or partially true have created a myth that needs to be dispelled. Kanhailal developed a fusion of myth and reality, blended old traditional folk-lore with his new art-form to reach out to the broader masses.
Kanhailal’s Nupi Lan is ‘an open-air production involving approximately 70 working women from the Women’s Bazaar in Imphal’, according to scholar Rustom Bharuchha, the writer of “The Theatre of Kanhailal”.
Nupi Lan sowed the seeds of a radical political and economic transformation for a new Manipur. It was started in 1939 by women of the state against the oppressive economic and administrative measures taken by Maharaja of Manipur and British Government’s political agent in Manipur, Mr Gimson and later evolved to constitutional and administrative reform movement of Manipur. The history of Nupi Lan is associated with Nupi Keithal, the famous women’s market of Imphal where trade is controlled by women. These “market-women” waged a war against imperial policies in 1904 and 1939. Stepping away from proscenium theatre, Kanhailal rejected words as a mode of theatrical communication in the productions of his famous Kalakshetra group since its inception. Minimalism with a solid emphasis on actor’s tools such as expression, body and voice became two defining factors of Kalakshetra’s theatre. As he revealed in an interview “actors only use certain resonators, as we are socially and culturally conditioned. What we need is a creation of new body culture.”
Acting in any Kanhailal’s production is a rare experience for any budding actor.
“The experience of working in Macbeth Jungle with Kanhailal Ji and Sabitri Ji was very special. We were directed through body-expressions, so the language didn’t become a barrier. Villagers poured in from nearby villages to watch play in open air, sitting on truncated logs. It was hard to grasp the local theatre culture in entirety. I had to sing two Mizo folk-songs.” Reveals Ankita Majhi, a young actor from Kolkata, who played Cordelia in Raja Lear alongside veteran Soumitra Chattopadhyay in lead role and Nicoletta in Mephisto, both directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay.
Draupadi and Dakghor are two classic plays of the Manipuri group. In Tagore’s Dakghor, sixty year old Sabitri played a role of a young boy, Amol who’s a victim of social dogma and rigidity. Amols’s soul is in quest of a freedom on the road and the neighborhood “Dakghor”(Post office) becomes a metaphor of that desire of Liberation. Sabitri through her powerful expressions and movement portrayed this quest of Amol and the play attains a new high exploring the beneath layers of social relationships. Sabitri as Amol becomes a representative of Manipur that has been subjected to indoctrination.
Kanhailal himself defended the scene and wrote, “after two shows at Imphal on 14th and 20th April, 2000 we faced a controversy. A group of known feminists, writers, intellectuals, critics and even the ordinary women of Imphal were complaining against the nudity in the last scene. They treated Sabitri as notorious, as a shameless woman who hurt the sentiments and ideal image of Manipuri women in particular. Another group mainly of men jumped in on defence of nudity in justifying the need if such theatre in the interface of the present crisis of attack on the female sex by the Indian army in Manipur. The attack and counter-attack continued in the daily papers for about three months. Since then we stopped showing Draupadi in Manipur categorically denying the suggestion of dropping the nude scene.”
The strength of such a message was evident in the society in 2004, when 12 middle aged Meitei women walked nude in front of Western gate of Kangla in broad daylight where Assam rifle men were stationed in protest against the brutal rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, one of the numerous “suspected insurgents” of Manipur.
And thus walks alternative story-teller Kanhailal with his “minimalist approach” through the layers beneath.