If winter's here, can theatre be far behind?

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 8.01.14

About Draupadi

Draupadi is a story about marginalised people who are continually oppressed by the powers that be. The protagonist, Draupadi (played by Heisnam Sabitri), an indigenous woman, fights against the atrocities being committed against her tribe. Ultimately, her husband Dulna is arrested and killed by the police. Draupadi, too, falls in their clutches. So what inspired Heisnam Kanhailal to stage Draupadi? “Torture and gang rape by security forces are regularly reported in Manipur. And this has been going on for a long time. We were trying to figure out how to register a powerful protest against this through the medium of theatre. Then, I was given this story of Mahasweta Devi by a friend in November 1999. Immediately, I began working on it and finished adapting it into a play in January 2000.” The play was censored and hasn’t been staged in Imphal since that year, although it has won accolades all over the country. This March, after 14 years, Draupadi will return to the stage in Manipur’s capital.

Heisnam Kanhailal is the grand old man of Northeast theatre. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2004 and is the founder-director of Kalakshetra Manipur. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in direction in 1985 and in December, 2011, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Ratna Award (the highest-ranked and most valued Akademi award).

Draupadi has got a tremendous response here. The first show was sold out in no time and you have been requested to stage a second show. Did you expect to generate such huge interest?

I think it’s because of the love for this kind of theatre in Calcutta.

The story ends with a magnificent final scene in which Draupadi faces her abusers, naked and bloody, but fiercely strong. Your wife, Heisnam Sabitri, plays the role of Draupadi in the play. Did you have any apprehensions when recreating the scene on stage?

In the first show in Imphal, we did not go all the way. It was more of a suggestion. But we realized that wouldn’t work. The scene had to really disturb the audience, hound the audience.

We were invited to New Delhi for a festival organised by the National School of Drama in 2000. I consulted a few of my women friends and they asked me to go ahead with it.

So, we played out the nude scene at our next show at the Shri Ram Centre auditorium. We got an incredible response. Highly respected and educated artistes like Sonal Mansingh rushed to the green room. They touched Sabitri’s feet.

Next, we came back to Imphal and did two shows. Trouble started from the third show. A group of educated, articulate women, decried the play; they started treating Savitri as a notorious woman. Another group, surprisingly comprising mostly men, said it should be done. These two groups began to fight each other in the daily newspapers.

But in 2004, life imitated art when a group of Manipuri women walked through Imphal to the Assam Rifles headquarters and disrobed to protest the killing and alleged rape of Thangjam Manorama (who was picked up from her home by the 17th Assam Rifles. The next morning, her bullet-riddled corpse was found in a field. An autopsy revealed semen marks on her skirt suggesting possible rape.)

On the morning after this incident, local newspapers began to write: “Draupadi was played out in life”. They began calling me chingu (which in Manipuri means a wise man who can predict the future).

Ordinary people tend to stay away from theatre these days. There’s a feeling that theatre is a pastime for intellectuals. Very few theatre groups keep the audiences in mind or take risks.

That’s very true. Conventional theatre in India has borrowed heavily from Europe. It’s intellectual, academic. Why should we do erudite theatre? We have to stop preaching to the audience; the audience is more intelligent than you think. My goal is to convey my sensibilities to the audience, to alert the audience, to move the audience.

That is why I founded Kalakshetra and began to experiment. We believe in the notion of a workshop that is a laboratory or research theatre rather than a production company.

We try to transform our ancestral traditions and give them contemporary cultural expressions. Of course, this has its risks and challenges. There are imperfections at times but it is worth doing.

You have such a large body of work. Among your own plays, which is your favourite?

There are four actually. Pebet, which was first produced in 1975 and is still continuing. Then Memoirs of Africa that was first produced in 1985. Draupadi and finally Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakghar, which we produced in 2006.

What do you seek in an actor?

Stage presence and clarity of thought.

Finally, what is one lesson of life that theatre has taught you?

Theatre makes you more social, takes away inhibitions and teaches humility.


About Charandas ChorOriginally a Rajasthani folk tale, Charandas Chor was adapted for a play in Chattisgarhi by Habib Tanvir. The play is about a thief who promises his guru that he will never tell a lie. The guru asks him to give up his bad habits if he wants to become his disciple. He attempts to show his sincerity by offering never to do four things — eat off golden plates, ride an elephant at the head of a procession, marry a queen, and accept the throne of a country. The guru then tells him that he should also give up speaking lies. The thief consents and things take a queer turn…

About Charandas Chor

Anup Hazarika is at the forefront of theatre in Assam. The National School of Drama graduate has done mobile theatre for over five years, acted in 20 films and dabbled in television and short films before turning to serious theatre.

You and your wife, Pakija Begum (who plays a central role in Charandas Chor), are in the same profession. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage for your spouse to be in the same trade?

I would say it is an advantage because we never run out of topics to talk about. We enjoy discussing theatre all day.

No ego clashes?

Of course, there are arguments. If there are no disagreements, we can’t improve. We are each other’s biggest critics. But we complement each other really well because my wife is basically an actor and I am primarily a director. So, we get to hear different perspectives. I enjoy where she takes a role after I conceive it.

What do you think of Menaka, which your wife has directed?

Menaka was Pakija’s first directorial venture. The character of Menaka is fantastic and Pakija suits it very well. I think the play will have great longevity.

Mobile theatre is huge in Assam. What prompted you to leave mobile theatre and start
serious theatre?

Mobile theatre is a different kind of experience. There you perform in front of thousands of people. Also, I think there are around 14 mobile theatre troupes in Assam and each troupe supports around 100 families. I wanted to concentrate on the quality of my work and do good work. I am thankful to mobile theatre because I earned some money there and invested it in amateur theatre.

Anup Hazarika (in picture by Bibhash Lodh above) sipped tea from an earthen cup, patiently acknowledging compliments from random strangers who walked up to him to say how much they had liked Charandas Chor. His play had received a standing ovation moments earlier. After the curtain call, an animated Rudraprasad Sengupta told the audience: “Throughout the past week, I have been urging you to see Charandas Chor. Judging from your reaction, I can see I was right in recommending it to you.”

If a youngster wants to take up theatre professionally, is it a viable career option?

Like any other profession, they need to dedicate themselves to theatre. They need to hone their craft, they need to grow and doors will open automatically. But the road isn’t easy. People’s mentalities also need to change. Like in Guwahati, there is this attitude that people only come to the theatre if somebody invites them. Buying a ticket and going out to watch a play seems a little alien to them.

Some much respected film actors, like for example Denzel Washington, when they shifted to theatre, critics panned them. Why do you think that happens?

In theatre, the audience essentially views a long shot or wide shot, so you need larger movements, larger gestures. The stage has its own requirements and techniques, which you need to master.

What do you need to be a good actor?

You need to understand yourself first, then you must have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and finally you need to let go of your inhibitions.