Pure art form in garb of modern theatre

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  • Published 6.11.03

Heisnam Kanhailal

As he glanced at the bright sun outside his room at the Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra guesthouse, Heisnam Kanhailal smiled: “Guwahati is my second home. I feel quite comfortable here.”

Kanhailal, an eminent theatre personality from Manipur, is in the city to conduct a theatre workshop for young Assamese artistes at the Kalakshetra. “Under my guidance, they will stage a play on the life of the great Manipuri hero Tikendrajit,” he says.

Kanhailal finds a lot of similarity in the lifestyles of Manipur and Assam. “Food is the origin of culture. We belong to the same rice culture and, therefore, share the same temperament. I relish the traditional food of Assam,” he said, pointing at the food laid for him on the dining table.

Kanhailal founded his group, the Kalakshetra Manipur, in 1969. Since then, he has been experimenting with tradition for an alternate theatre. He has conducted workshops and has extensively toured all over India with his plays. He is the first person in the Northeast to have received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1985) in the field of modern theatre. He was honoured with the Natya Ratna award in 1997 by the Manipuri Sahitya Parishad for the highest achievement in the form and spirit of an institution.

He has also toured widely and staged his plays abroad. In 1987, he toured Japan and staged Pebet and Memoirs of Africa in Tokyo, Toga and Ningata. He visited Cairo with his theatre group in 1991 under the sponsorship of ICCR, New Delhi, and staged his play Migisharang at the third Cairo international festival of experimental theatre. The play was adjudged as one of the best six.

Kanhailal believes that Manipuri theatre can make its mark in the global circuit. However, he laments the crass commercialisation of culture.

“It is unfortunate that we try to create an exotica and something spectacular in order to make our culture appealing to the art-consumerist society of the western world. We try to negate all ideological concerns and lend an external colour to our traditions. We try to create a blind and romantic glorification of our past,” he says.

Citing the example of Japan’s folk theatre, Kanhailal adds, “They retain their ethnicity and pure aesthetics of art form. That is why they never became a colonial state.”

Kanhailal says it was unfortunate but true that if Assam wanted to showcase its folk culture to the western world, they would have to remould it in order to make it saleable. “But we should always try to retain the inherent qualities of the art form,” he asserted.

His brief encounter with playwright Badal Sircar in 1972 was a turning point in his career. He learnt how to delve into the finer areas of performance.

“I came back to my ethnic roots and forms of bodily expressions, music and political considerations for a totally different language which is my own,” he says.

Kanhailal finds his inspiration and sense of completeness in his wife Sabitri Devi, an internationally acclaimed actress. “I find an eternal feminity in my wife. She shares my creativity”.

A staunch experimentalist, he is known for his habit of redefining theatre through many of his productions. He once took theatre nearer to life, almost threatening the boundary between life and theatre, when he invited a hundred women vendors from the historic marketplace and inspired them to perform in a non-Proscenium production of Nupilan (women’s agitation) in 1978.

He has a word of advice for the upcoming theatre artistes of Assam. “They should try to come out of the ‘club theatre culture’ and imbibe some professionalism,” he stressed.

Teresa Rehman