Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Theatre of Kanhailal

The Theatre of Kanhailal

Edited by: Satyabrata Rout

(Kanhailal (1941-2016) is one of the most important director and actor-trainer of contemporary Indian theatre. He has enriched Indian theatre through his regional sprits and simplicity. His production “Draupdi” is a revolution against human torture, agony and pain and remains a master piece in the history of world theatre. Presented below an excerpt from a long interview with the legend in 2015 (a year before his sad demise) as a part of my book on Visual Theatre)

SR: You believe on the inner aesthetics. As a result, you rejected the external glamour in your theatre practices. How you keep yourself away from all these external elements and how much political your theatre is?
Kanhailal: I have been inspired by two theatre personalities; Grotowski and Badal Sircar. Before pioneering his own training system, Grotowski undertook a serious study on Stanislavsky method in Russia. Then he came to India to understand and study Indian theatre. Finally, he went back to establish his theatre laboratory at Poland. He conceptualized a theatre based on ‘sacrifice’, which might have derived from his Christian ideology. But he did not make it obvious. This way he created the concept of ‘Holy Actor’. Badal Sircar is also an important actor trainer, but in a different way. He is a great Indian playwright. His presentation of the middle class life of modern India gave rise to a new theatre language. Sircar wanted to connect with the common man of this country to establish a dialogue with them. So, he rejected the formal presentation and went into the market place, street corners and roads, by stripping out all the theatricalities from his presentations to make it viable for the common man. He made theatre flexible and simple and served it as a need for the society.
            My theatre practices grew up in poverty. In the early seventies, when I started doing theatre in a small village of Manipur, financial crisis was a big problem for us. We do not have any space to rehearse and perform. Therefore, I started my theatre by collecting money from the village people with a promise to present a show in their village locality. We were practicing ‘Poor Theatre’, not conceptually as Grotowski has envisioned but  in a literary sense. Since we did not have money to spend on sets, lights and costumes, we had to depend only on the actors who can only express through a body, mind and voice. I forcefully confined myself to these three essential elements, but my limitation became my strength and I took this as a challenge. I started rejecting the superfluous elements, which seems to me unimportant including the richness of the text. I started looking back to my own traditions and tried to plunder into the richness of my culture, people’s behaviour, various sounds and many diversified and invisible images hidden within them. Our rituals became the source of my theatre, in which I felt comfortable, which is a part of our social life and awareness also.

           In a ritual the performer and the spectators share a common place, like in a temple, the priest and the devotees. A step ahead to this, even the god, priest and the devotees become one at a particular moment of time and develop an inner dialogue. Spiritually they become one. Here through rituals our senses meet with each other in the spiritual level and we become one. Like in my theatre, a character and the actor are not two; they both are one. Following this concept, I developed my character of the plays, which is an extension of my actor’s body, mind and soul. It develops an organic inner dialogue in the sensory level of the spectators. This is the theory behind my ‘Ritualistic Theatre’. The meeting of the actor and spectator in the level of sensory and the establishment of the organic inner dialogue in between them, which leads both to achieve the spiritual experiences, is termed as ‘Informed body of the spectator’, developed by Jerzy Grotowski. In this way the individual soul can be evoked. But our evocation of the spectator’s soul takes a different path from Grotowski’s method, though the source is the same. He sacrificed all the elements of theatre to bring out the ‘holy actor’ from within the performer, but we sacrifice for the sake of the human being and for the cause of the society. Our society is deteriorating day by day. In order to save the humanity, we need to provoke the society by establishing an inner dialogue with the spectators. My kind of theatre is purely for socio-political context. My actor becomes the voice of the oppressed those who suffer silently in the society. “My ‘Daupadi’ is the eternal voice of revolution of the millions and millions suppressed women of the world, who have been tortured, raped, harassed by the cruel domination of power”. In this context my theatre is a Political Theatre. My purpose of doing theatre is to rouse the audience to the spirit of human resilience. We have taken the privilege to release the silence of agony of the sufferers of the country, to liberate them from their state of mind.
Photograph of the play "Draupadi. Savitridevi in the lead character, Kalakshetra production-2009
    It is very important to go to the heart of nature to revitalize your senses. In the absence of our senses we can’t get cognition. For that it is essential to release our senses through music, dance, paintings, etc. That was the reason why Tagore created an environment for learning at Shantiniketan. Art can’t be flourished in a closed chamber. For that openness is essential. Here one can start a
dialogue with the spirit of the space.

Still from the play 'Pebet', Directed by Kanhailal

Edited by: Prof. Satyabrata Rout

Saturday, April 18, 2015

“I am a big man: My dreams are bigger than me”: Ratan Thiyam

The Theatre of Ratan Thiyam , Chorus Repertory and Actor’s Training

Essay written by: Dr. Satyabrata Rout
Ratan Thiyam is a man of multi-dimensional personality. At one hand he is an accomplished writer, poet, dancer, and painter and on other he keeps a strong political viewpoint and frequently raised his voice for human rights, against war and sufferings. He has developed a passion to serve people and work for society through theatre during his NSD days in early seventies. He knew the dreams could only be realised through a proper organization with a group of performers who could understand his ideology and execute them with faith and belief. In the quest of apprehending his vision, he returned back to his hometown at Imphal, Manipur after graduating from NSD, New Delhi in 1975. He knew it well that achieving the goal by doing regional theatre is not an easy job; it needs a life’s struggle.
North-Eastern part of India remains backward for many reasons. The major population of the frontier belongs to tribal communities, leaving no space for progressive thoughts. Moreover there was always turmoil of political fights. But somehow the valley of Manipur is different from other hilly regions. It has a strong ritualistic vaishnav tradition that forms its base. During the Gaudiya Vaishnava movements in 18th century initiated by Sri chaitanya Dev of Navadwip, the Vaishnava culture was flourished into a highly devotional ritualistic tradition and formulated the socio-cultural behaviour of Manipuri people. The vaishnav tradition gave rise to many ritualistic activities, which reflects in art and culture of the Manipuri society. Shringarika- Bhkti (devotion through love), being the major component of all the cultures of Manipur is expressed through various performance traditions. These performance traditions are directly related to temple culture and Radha-Krishna cult. Pung Cholom and Sankirtan, Rasa-lila, Laiharaoba, Thang-Ta, Sumanga lila, etc. are some of the traditional performing art forms, grew in the soil as a cross breed of bhakti and tribal culture. But with all the strong heritage of culture, rituals and other homogenous activities, Manipur has politically suffered every time. Unrest and communal rites break frequently in the land and people suffer attacks from Border countries. In the midst of these socio-political conditions, Thiyam started struggling for a progressive art movement in the mid seventies.
To start a career in theatre in a place where there is no scope for further development, Thiyam dreamt of connecting this isolated North-East valley with the mainstream theatre in global perspective. He began motivating youths from various tribes to theatre. The drama school training helped him to inspire few like-minded people; Bhogen, Ibomcha, Ibachoba and Ravindra, etc. who came forward initially to work in his mission. In the beginningThiyam with the help of these local youths conducted few workshops by adopting realistic method of acting training for his plays as learnt from the drama school. But soon he understood the limitation of urban training method in the soil of Manipur. A Manipuri youth is more exposed to vibrant ritualistic and tribal cultures as a part of cultural and social heritage. Moreover the urban theatre training could not be easily adopted by the physical and psychological structures of the native youths; they have different ecological, geographical and social conditions, who can be more expressive through the native cultures than an urban training system developed in West. Immediately Thiyam shifted his perception towards the local indigenous culture and gradually developed a new theatre training system during the course of time. Being a student of the legendary director, E. Alkazi, Ratan Thiyam was well exposed to Western, Greek and Oriental theatre that guided him in developing a global understanding. He developed a method with the amalgamation of the rooted tradition of Manipur and contemporary global theatre. While looking Thiyam in the perspective of another noted director of Manipur, H. Kanhailal, we found that, both had struggled vividly to achieve regional identity in their theatre practices. Kanhailal rejected urban training system and developed a discipline, borrowing elements from the local day-to-day activities, since he found them more comfortable for his rural actors[1]. Ratan Thiyam involved gurus and experts from various cultural milieus to impart physical and vocal training to his actors in order to bring discipline and order in the physical and vocal system of the actors. He knew that, to express in his kind of theatre, the actors should develop a discipline of voice and body.

Ratan Thiyam explains:

“In general the infrastructure of my productions is based on actor’s physical appearances. The body language is the main tool to carry the expression. For that my actors work on their body structure, focusing on spine and knee joints. When the spine and knees of the body system are in a bend position, it influences the voice significantly. To bring right emotion through voice in different situations, the actor has to work on his standing and sitting gestures. It also works in reverse way. Physical gestures and voice culture work reciprocally in my productions[2]”.

To execute this idea of shaping the physical structure of the actors, he introduced Laihui, Lai-haraoba, Pena, Cholom, Pung, Thanh-Ta, Rasa-lila and many tribal and folk dance forms into his training. The movement and rhythm of these forms were learnt rigorously from the gurus, without which his actors cannot express. Since Thiyam believes on the holistic approach of theatre, where each actor has to express through dance, movement, improvisation, music, chanting, singing, speech delivery, narrative style, mime, and at the same time interact with space and visuals, it became essential to go through a painstaking process. Thiyam used to tell his actors; “These forms are like weapons for a warrior, which can be applied at the time of need[3].”  
Out of this concept of new genre theatre and innovative training system, the famous Chorus Repertory Theatre was born on the 1st April, 1976 at Imphal. A Manipuri play that instigated Thiyam’s methodology was “Sanarembi Chaisra”, presented by the repertory in 1977. This is considered as the first play of the repertory and was travelled outside of Manipur to be performed in Delhi at Sriram Centre. Slowly but steadily, Chorus Repertory Theatre gained popularity out side the state and was invited in many theatre festivals. It acquired a small piece of land at the outskirt of Imphal city and with the help of few actors; Thiyam was engaged in fulfilling his dream.  Though the existing campus of the repertory was developed gradually by acquiring the land bit by bit in the course of time, to start with, he constructed few huts and a workspace for his theatre and training purpose where the actors started dwelling; it became a residential repertory. During this time, in the early 80’s, Thiyam directed three plays, Urubhangam, Imphal Imphal and Karnabharam, in which he experimented with the Manipuri martial art Thang-ta along with the other traditional dance forms; Pung cholom, Rasa lila, etc. By that time Chorus had developed into an institution having a small but exotic campus. Ratan Thiyam received worldwide recognition as a genius of theatre and Chorus entered in to the international arena with the production of Chakravyuha in 1984. Making of Chakravyuha was the turning point of Thiyam’s career. It was prepared under the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s young directors’ scheme to promote young theatre practitioners of the country as a part of Theatre of Roots movement, initiated by Dr. Suresh Awasthi, the founder chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi. Chakravyuha, not only brought name and fame to Thiyam and his Chorus Repertory in the country, it bagged the most prestigious award “The Grand Fringe Award” at the Edinburg Theatre Festival in 1987. The play succeeded in setting a trend of twentieth century Indian theatre in global arena. Michael Coveney, the renowned UK based theatre critic and author writes in Financial Times, London about Chakravyuha’s histrionic presentation at Fringe Festival.
“I have not yet seen Peter Brook’s acclaimed epic staging of the Mahabharata, which begins its farewell world tour in Zurich this Saturday, but this remarkable Indian company from the Manipur valley in the North East of the continent has all the excitement, vigour and narrative simplicity of a Bruce Lee film or the more recent Golden Child...
...There are battles, processions, and banner waving soldiers, undulating military choreography, thrilling exhibition of martial arts. The music is exquisite, played from the wings on cymbals, drums, gongs, and a celeste. Now this really some thing worthy of a great international festival...[4]

After the grand success of the play at Edinburg Theatre festival, invitations flung in to present the play at numerous theatre festivals over the world. The repertory became a touring company, performed in more than hundred theatre festivals across the globe. It travelled in entire Europe, USA, Latin American countries and the Eastern world, which include, Japan, China, Chorea, Thiland, Austrelia, etc. All the succeeding productions of Chakravyuha; Andhayug, Urubhangam, Uttar Priyadarshi, Ritusamgharam, Nine hills One Valley, Prologue, When We Dead Awaken, King of Dark Chamber, etc. grabbed immediate attention and received international invitations to participate in numerous festivals and occasions across the globe.
Chakravyuha placed Chorus Repertory Theatre in the forefront of the tradition. Under the guidance of Thiyam, Chorus developed a particularly rich form of theatre, combining modern dramatic techniques with the enormous variety of traditional styles of the valley. It drew on and fused these styles to arrive into a dramatic spectacle, combining dance, drama, mime, martial arts and ancient rituals. With all these creative inputs to the repertory company, Thiyam also started expecting the same high-level commitment from his actors. They are supposed to live in the campus and work professionally with dedication to develop a work-culture. To make their ends meet the actors adopted some other vocations, like; diary, fishery and poultry in the campus and engaged round the year in researching a particular training system, which becomes a part of their regular curriculum. To achieve the desired expression as per the demand of the production suit to Thiyam’s imagination, the actors have to work on their self; physical, oral and intellectual level, even more than a year prior to the productions. This total understanding of the traditional forms, central to their work, forms the base to develop a new approach on training method, a hybrid of old and new techniques. Stylization being the prime mode of Thiyam’s expression brought many skills and craft to the training system. Its reflection from text to performance is felt in every smallest components of his creation. The actors has to emphasize simple oral effect by physically thrusting the words, in which their entire body is involved to create the meaning. This physical portrayal is a distinctive feature of Ratan Thiyam's style. The actor's body moves in internal and external rhythm to the performance text. Thiyam works on varied breathing techniques to create a distinctive language of expression for each character. We can perceive all the techniques in his productions. Lets take Macbeth as an example to understand his techniques. Each character in this production stands and walks with bending knees as if clinching to the earth. The movements are derived after a keen observation of the tribal communities and their day today behaviours; their regular habits of climbing trees, swimming the river, walking on the landscapes, etc. The steady, slow and controlled movements and gestures of the characters in the play generate a definite sound and oral pattern for the actors and generates excitement and interest in viewing the show. At the same time it also projects the inner psychological condition of the characters, passing through in different situations of the play. This kind of performance allows the audience to comprehend the conflict and tension of the characters that penetrates in their mind slowly and gradually. The controlled movements of the actors with the help of their spine and knees position and projection of the voices from various resonators derived from their gestures and postures make Thiyam’s productions different from the general trend of contemporary Indian theatre practices. This innovative discipline of performance practice, spectacular aural and visual aesthetic, and potent thematic explorations, placed him in the company of Tadashi Suzuki, Peter Brook, and Jerzy Grotowski.
Apart from developing a systematic training system for his actors, Thiyam also gave equal importance on the technical aspects of theatre. As it was made clear from the beginning, Thiyam’s theatre is an amalgamation of acting and design where equal emphasis is given to both the components; stagecraft was introduced as an integral part of the training to the actors. His actors not only became trained in acting, they had to learn weaving, tailoring, knitting, carpentry, cane-craft, papier-mâché work, plaster of Paris and clay moulding, Fibre glass work, scene painting, etc. in order to create a holistic theatre atmosphere.  The actors prepare sets, masks, props and anything related to performances as a part of their responsibility and professional endeavour. As the noted columnist Kavita Nagpal points out;
The actors of the Chorus Repertory craft and create their own props thus establishing an intimate relationship and making them indivisible parts of the character they are portraying.[5] 
In the year 2002 Chorus Repertory added another wings to its repertory at the outset of its silver jubilee celebration. It was the Shrine Theatre, a 200 capacity auditorium with all modern technical facilities. The architectural beauty of this intimate theatre is drawn from the Buddhist architecture of Thailand, designed by him.            
Over the years Chorus Repertory grew into an international centre for theatre and performance studies and attracted people from across the globe. Scholars, practitioners and intellectuals started pouring in to the campus, which resulted in developing a global dialogue on contemporary theatre practices. Peter Brook, Eugeneo Barba, Richard Schechner, Tadashi Suzuki, Grotowski, and many international theatre personalities at Chorus brought with them an air of new theatre sensibility and Chorus Repertory Theatre could able to find an important space in the arena of world theatre. Ratan Thiyam became the ambassador of Indian contemporary theatre practices.  His own words depict his personality as once in a  casual mood he told me laughingly;
“I am a big man; my dreams are bigger than me”.

© Copyright reserved
(This essay is under copyright act. No part is permitted to be copied or produced in any form.
The essay is only for reading purpose)

(Note: The essay is an excerpt from my D.Lit thesis on “Dialectics of New Direction”)

Dr. Satyabrata Rout- Associate Professor, Dept. of Theatre Arts, University of Hyderabad, India

Reference materials

[1] Elaborate discussion on Kanhailal’s training system is in the net blog.
[2] Interview of Ratan Thiyam, Nov-2013, Imphal.
[3] Interview of Bhogen Singh in Nov. 2013 at Chorus Repertory Theatre, Imphal.
[4] Indians on the Fringe, Michael Coveney, Financial Times, 20th August 1987, London.
[5] The Theatre of Thiyam: Kavita nagpal, The Theatre India: Journal, NSD Publication, Issue-9, May 2004, New Delhi.