Heisnam Kanhailal: Theatre of Resistance
(Usham Rojio, research scholar at the Theatre & Performance Studies Department at JNU’s School of Arts and Aethetics, remembers Manipur’s towering theatre personality Heisnam Kanhailal, who passed away on 6 October 2016.)

MANIPURI theatre legend Heisnam Kanhailal, who passed away recently, is best remembered for fusing instinctive physical movements with a hard-hitting political aesthetic. When I spoke to Ima Heisnam Sabitri (Heisnam Kanhailal’s wife and his collaborator as an actor) after the funeral of Oja Heisnam Kanhailal on 6th October 2016, Ima cried over the phone, “Your Oja has left me. How can I live without him?” It was not a ‘silent scream’ which Sabitri as an actress is best at on stage. Yet, it was a hard, real question. I have no answer to it. Perhaps, what the local theatre fraternity says must be true to some extent, “Kanhailal dreams and Sabitri transforms his dreams into action.” This brings into question the subtle relationship between directors and actors. However, on a personal note, I must rephrase this, “Both of them dream together and transform their dreams into action together.” Perhaps, in case of Kanhailal-Sabitri theatre, it would not be incorrect to even say that all the actors dream together and come hand in hand to transform their dreams into action. While Kanhailal was undoubtedly the artistic leader of the Kalakshetra Manipur family, the communitarian attributes makes his theatre complete and powerful.

Prof. H.S. Shivaprakash, in the introduction of the book Theatre of the Earth, apparently gives clues to the communitarian attributes of Kanhailal’s theatre practice when he writes, “…the best exposition of his theatre philosophy is his own practice of theatre.” He continues, “Kanhailal creates his own system of values and techniques necessary for his cathartic theatre practice.” Kanhailal had always talked about the lack of professionalism in Indian theatre which entails a lack of regularity in the actor’s process of training and daily practice. He said most of the theatre activity on the part of groups is ordinarily directed towards productions/ performances/shows and rehearsals leading up to the same. His effort had always been to fill up this gap with regular theatre practice and the day-to-day training of the performer in order to achieve an ‘organic process of acting’. He focused on the rigorous practice of actors. To a large extent, his theatre extended beyond what one sees on stage.

In 1968 after three months of stay, Kanhailal was expelled from the National School of Drama for his ineptness in coping with the language of instruction (English and Hindi). His hopes were shattered; however, he embraced theatre even during his life's most painful struggle with poverty and hardship. Coming back to Manipur, he founded Kalakshetra Manipur (KKM) with some of his friends and his wife Sabitri in July 1969.

Since then, the group has been working to create a theatre idiom based on the physical, driven by instinct and intuition, and exploring the specific powers of theatre. They began to experiment. Delivering the Fourth Memorial Lecture on 30th June 2013 to commemorate the birth anniversary of the Late Dr. Thingnam Kishan in Imphal, Kanhailal told us, “There was no manifesto as such, as it was experimental. However, there was a strong sense of conviction deep within us, though we could not express them into words or written forms. That conviction helped us to envision vividly the kind of play we wanted to create. It led us to detour from the conventional theatre and take a new approach.” The effect is one of simplicity, lyrical, and moving humanity. At its most fundamental level, Kanhailal’s theatre upholds the poetry of the human spirit creating a synergy between an animated actor and a living spectator. In his last public speech on the occasion of staging his epoch-making play Tamnalai in Imphal on March 12 this year, Kanhailal said, “If not for my ouster from the National School of Drama because of my lack of communication skills in either Hindi or English, I would not have become what I am today.”

Needless to say, Kanhailal had not only excelled in creating a new form of theatre, but his theatre is also socially and politically as sharp and incisive as the point of a fang. His theatre brought an unparalleled theatrical language in articulating the social and political turmoil of his habitus. Under the supervision of Kanhailal, KKM has always been active in creating a theatre rooted to the socio-political context of its real existence. The theatrical journey of the group has convincingly engendered a voice of dissent ingeniously creating an “alternative dissident expression.” This form of creative expressions took root in the dissident state of suffering. From time to time the group manages to find their way out in responding to the political problems that the state Manipur is plagued with.

The group directed by Kanhailal had crystallized the most crucial realities of oppression and resistance through plays such as Pebet, Memoirs of Africa, Nupi and Draupadi. Each of these works marks a stage in the philosophical journey of Kanhailal’s thought.

Kanhailal’s play Pebet was not only considered as ‘anti-Hindu’, but it was also dismissed as ‘anti-Indian’ in its early production. It is because of the misreading of the janmabhumi sequence in the play. While the play, at no point, attacked the idea of patriotism or love for one’s motherland, Kanhailal subtly questioned the cultural formations of imposing patriotism and loyalty. In the name of janmabhumi (and not Ima Leipak which is the Meetei word for motherland), the Cat exploited the Pebets to abuse their own mother (played by Sabitri). Lokendra Arambam precisely gives an incisive comment on the play:

The cat plays such a role of dominant and influence; and his attempt to exploit the original situation in the family; and his attempt to seduce them; and his general deprivation of their indigenous life creates a situation when the subject people are oppressed, it creates another structure of oppression. A state of deprivation, a state of subjugation and a state of oppression creates a new form of oppressive structure within the subjects themselves that they fight, they quarrel and they lose the purpose of their sense of awareness that they are collectively oppressed by an outside force.1

Some scholars in theatre academia try to link Kanhailal’s Draupadi (an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story of the same name in the year 2000) with the nude protest in front of the Kangla Fort against AFSPA in 2004. Sadanand Menon had also observed that “life imitates art” in Manipur in connections with these incidents. “The origin of Imphal’s naked protest lies in Manipuri theatre,” writes Sadanand Menon.2

  • 1Lokendra Arambam gave this intellectually remarkable comment in a documentary film Langgoi Challabi - Paradise under Siege, directed by A. Bimol Akoijam (2008).
  • 2Menon, Sadanand, “When Life is Inspired by Art ,” Edit/op-ed, Tehelka, a weekly journal, August 21, 2004, New Delhi. [] Next Para [] But most of the protesting women had not probably watched the play. Reducing the political movement to the question of whether the women protestors had watched the play or not; or seeing the protest as being triggered by Kanhailal’s Draupadi misses out the nuances, the culture of violence and impunity that has engulfed Manipur. If “life imitates art,” one can give many other examples from Manipur. One is compelled to ask why only the nude protests (both on stage and public domain) have drawn attention. For instance, the viral video of young male protestors rolling on the street, whipping one another instigated by the Manipur Police commandos during the 2004 massive protest after the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Indian army can also be linked with the performance of Pebet directed by the same gifted director Heisnam Kanhailal thirty years before the incident. In the play Pebet, the cat sets the Pebets against one another – Pebets tweak the youngest brother’s ear and slap him on the back, the brothers were made to fight like a pair of bulls, the eldest brother breaks the wings of his brothers and sisters and whips them moving in a tortuous circle. Such images in the play resonate with the humiliation and torturous activities of the Manipur Police commandoes in the aftermath of the 2004 Manorama incident in which our mainstream Indian scholars and critics have no interest. Manipur today is in such a situation that one cannot differentiate the oppressors and the oppressed. Perhaps, Kanhailal appeared to have foreseen it. [] Next Para [] However, I should emphasize that it is not merely about “art imitates life” or “life imitates art.” But, the complete sway of AFSPA which has brought the culture of violence and impunity, including its subjection of female bodies, has triggered these powerful historic protests and performances. There is no question of one imitating the other. The naked protest on stage by the renowned actress Heisnam Sabitri and women protesting in front of the Kangla Fort is a sign of embodying this impunity and bringing out into the “open” in the Agambenian sense. When women protestors display posters such as “Manipur under Seige,” it not only speaks of suspension of every democratic political right, but also means that the disused rights of the people of Manipur are now in the “open.” Agamben defined “open” in the sense of disconcealment of the acts of taking hostage, repression and subjection, which according to him is bio-power in display. When such disconcealment comes out into the open, all its constituents such as body go “outside of being.” Similarly, Sabitri’s act can also be observed as a disconcealment of the oppressive structure that the Indian state has gifted. [] Next Para [] Resistance had been his ritual; ritualized acts projected as weapons of resistance. Commenting on Pebet, in his book Theatre of Kanhailal, Rustom Bharucha writes, “The act of politics in theatre does not ultimately lie in the assertion of an ideology, but in the very being of the actor which incarnates resistance.” This is part of Kanhailal’s attempt to evolve a new ideological basis for artistic, social, economic and political life. His little seeds of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance and creative disobedience to the oppressive forces continue sprouting from time to time. Kanhailal will continue to live through his works of art and our memories. One can definitely hope to carry on his legacy with more responsibility and power to redefine ‘theatre’.

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