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We know of Heisnam Kanhailal as this theatre legend who made famous plays like Pebet and Draupadi, but not much about his theatre works that focus on community building through indigenous expression of suffering and mutual aid. According to him, “Theatre is only a link between heritage and community. Our audience is not a mere proscenium-theatre audience-it is a community, a living community.” He further stated in Theatre is only a Link Between Heritage and Community thatwe needed a new kind of theatre, an alternative theatre which could educate people.” His works deemed a way “to explore new theatrical structures in order to confront the demands of his vision” in blurring the actor and spectator binary. In addition, Heisnam worked towards breaking the human and nature binary by building a “symbiotic relation with the natural and rural environment.” To do so, one has “to enter a space which has been defiled and then abandoned by urban theatre that continues to pursue its desiccated rules and rituals within the enclosure of four walls.”

Heisnam’s works towards this vision reflected in the seventies when he and his team “moved around the periphery of Manipur, learning from the Chakpa, Mao, and Kabui Naga tribes” and “collaborated with the working-class, rural and tribal communities… who were isolated from theatre.” Along with Kanhailal, these communities created theatre of their own kind. The first was a theatrical event of Nupi Lal held on 12th December, 1978 in the compound of Johnstone Higher Secondary School. It involved seventy working women of the Ema Market and thirty male actors. The play focused on women in the Lai Haraoba, women in the bazaar, and militant women in political resistance of both Nupi Lal-s. It thus depicted significant historical and cultural aspects. The performance involved a process of improvisation even during the performance, making this “non-actor theatre” a celebration of the feelings. “As poet Samarendra remembers with great warmth: ‘The actors were one with the audience. We were together, Of course, the critics didn’t like it, but the people enjoyed themselves.’” It also served as the way how representation should work, in the way that the oppressed people tell their own story. As Rustom Bharucha puts it, “the very attempt to involve working-class communities in the plays depicting their daily life and oppression” is commendable for it provides an “extension of theatre to people who have been denied representation.”

Taking the experience of Nupi Lal, Kanhailal then went to Umathel, whose “villagers were outcasts from a relatively prosperous village called Kakching Khunou,” in December 1979. The life there was of “the exploitation of the villagers by a rural elite.” Kanhailal thus gathered a community of non-actors from the village in an attempt to make another play. “After listening to the villagers’ from nine o’clock in the evening to one o’clock in the morning, Kanhailal eventually selected one story called Sanjennaha for the production.” About the play, Rustom Bharucha writes in his essay “The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal” as:

“…an unemployed cowherd seeks support for a job during the ploughing season. He gets the job, but only after he has been blackmailed, cheated, and threatened by various villagers. At the end of the play, he accumulates an enormous amount of grain through payments for his work, but little by little all the grain disappears as people come forth to demand their share on one pretext or another. At the end of the play, the cowherd is as hungry and poor as he was before getting the job.”

After this performance, Kanhailal visited Churachandpur to be among the Paite tribes. He collaborated with yet another community of non-actors, who were predominantly from the Christian community. With the young men and women, he created a play based on an old story called Thanghou Leh Liandou. The play was performed in March 1980. It helped the villagers in revisiting their “cultural heritage which they were in the process of forgetting through imposed westernization.” Kanhailal did face objection from the missionaries, especially “to the long rehearsals on Sundays,” but the villagers co-operated. Collaboratively, they worked on the text, editing of action, time sequences. The play was a success in the community. Later, it was successfully performed in Imphal, too.

About these experiences, Kanhailal said in the book Theatre of the Earth, “I never created but initiated and worked with them late into the night. And in such a way they created their own theatre. I chose to discuss with them their suffering, pain and agony. Consequently, we created a story out of their discussions.”

Later, at the beginning of twenty-first century, Kanhailal and Sabitri “discovered Rampur, a sleepy village in the Goalpara district of Assam, home of the Rabha tribals.” Sukracharjya Rabha, who had been Kanhailal’s student, founded Badungduppa Kalakendra in 1998 in order to implement the rituals, folk literature, and culture of the Rabha community in theatre. Badungduppa Kalakendra and Kalakshetra Manipur had a collaborative project called Nature Lore. “The objective of the project was to bring theatre closer to nature and to explore ritualistic dimension of folk performance.” Subsequently, it took the form of the famous Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival.

According to Kanhailal, “theatre should work as an educative agency” that could create consciousness among people about their suffering: personal, social, political, and economical. He believed that theatre is an experience for the audience, which awakens their senses and creates a perception about what they have experienced. This further helps in making themselves aware of the social, political, and economic situation/events, and enables them to reflect on it. Although there had been revolts, Kanhailal felt a lack of creating necessary consciousness among the people while emphasising more focus only on violence. He said, “…before violence, we have to create consciousness and a will to sacrifice.” Speaking of violence, though he has used violence in his plays, Kanhailal felt that the impact did not last in the mind of the audience. The anguish and pain resulted from all the suffering should be expressed in “a way that it strengthens our will. ” He believed in creating a “smiling theatre” that was “pleasant, joyful, both for the actors and audience” while also recognizing the reality. With such a cultural practice, Kanhailal hoped “to hold the community together” and also “take theatre back to the community.”

  1. Theatre of the Earth: The Works of Heisnam Kanhailal : Essays and Interviews
  2. Theatre is only a link between heritage and community by Heisnam Kanhailal, Seagul Theatre Quarterly, June/Sept 1997
  3. The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal by Rustom Bharucha, New Theatre Quarterly, February 1992