A personal tribute to the theatre great from Manipur, who passed away on October 6.
Imphal: It was summertime, in 2000. Even though I grew up with the Langol hills as the backdrop of my childhood, which was situated less than a kilometre away from my house, cycling solo through its foothills gave me the chills. I recalled my father’s tales of wild animals and ghosts that supposedly wandered around the then sparsely populated area. It was only the purpose of my ride that drove me forward. I had to meet Oja Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016) and his actor wife Ima Sabitri.
Kanhailal had came into my world just a few months before. By default. Off the racks of the Sahitya Akademi Library in New Delhi, and the conversations of students of the National School of Drama. Then a mostly-penniless literature student wandering through the libraries of that city, I drifted through the books, flipping through some, tagging some and actually reading some of them. Having done my undergraduate degree in Manipur where reading materials meant a few Ramji Lall and tuition hand-me-down notes, Delhi, with its many libraries and the Sunday book bazaar on the Daryaganj pavements, was like a dream world.
It was a whole new world, one from where my own world stood shining, like the moon appears without its craters when seen from Earth. Perhaps the differences between the manner of living in this temporary homeland and my native place, or perhaps homesickness, erased the imperfections of Manipur and made it continuously beckon the traveler homewards.
Nostalgia won. Believing I was adequately armed with the jargons of academic critical thinking, I returned home, aiming to begin research in Manipuri theatre. It was another matter that I had never seen any theatrical performance till then – neither the traditional Sumang Leela nor the state’s proscenium theatre ruled by the trio of Ratan Thiyam, Kanhailal and Lokendra Arambam. All I had done was read Rustom Bharucha’s The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa.
Mutual friends introduced me to Arambam, who in being his usual affable self gave me a narrative on the history and world of Manipuri theatre through an entire morning and the next. A few days later, armed with a general understanding of the location of Kanhailal’s house, I cycled through the Langol hills and the surroundings reputed to be the final resting place of many who had died “unnaturally” – denied a funeral due to the cause of their death, and cast into the wilderness.
It was the first of many visits over the next months. I would sit around, chatting over red tea, asking him yet again to give me some of the dramatic texts of his plays. “Only the director, Oja, would have a written script and that too only rarely. For us actors, we just memorise everything,” Sabitri, squatting nearby, would say with a smile.
I was winded. The importance I paid on the written text, as the basis of my research, flew up like the wispy clouds dancing around the Langol hilltops. Each time, Kanhailal would joke, “So you want to do research? You want to become an intellectual? But I am not an intellectual. I do the action first and later, the thinking.” This was precisely the process of Kanhailal’s theatre – evolved from his exploration of his traditional roots, the inner body-self and the dramatic form of Sabitri.
“Let me see if there’s any note or whatever about the plays,” Kanhailal would reply, and then proceed to tell me about a proposal or letter from outside the state. Sometimes, he would read out a piece that he had been writing – a letter, a brochure, or a proposal – and ask me for feedback. Some other time, I would watch a rehearsal. Still, no dramatic texts came to sight. After some time, I changed my research topic that was based only on the availability of the written texts.
That year, Kanhailal staged his play Draupadi, based on Mahasweta Devi’s work, in Imphal to widespread criticism after Sabitri bared her body on stage towards the final scenes, asking her rapist-soldiers to “counter” her. The criticism, and later the ban on the play by social circles in Manipur, did not deter Kanhailal from his work; rather it made him further intensify his research into his own theatre style – which he termed “ritual theatre” and “theatre of the earth.” I was immersed in the post coloniality of his approach – how he had taken Mahasweta Devi’s work and made it his own. Sabitri’s final scene where she approaches her rapists with her nude body and urges them to “counter me, encounter me,” remained one of the most vivid acts of theatrical defiance in my mind.
Over the years, the visits became random with my marriage and motherhood. Once in a while, he would call me and say, “Come, we have work to do” and there would be translations and editing of his writings. Once in a while, I would find myself again at Kalakshetra – sometimes for a story on Sabitri, sometimes to introduce a friend, sometimes just like that, to re-connect. Each time, he would welcome me with his standard smile, as though we had just met the day before.
Now when I look back at my own journey, I realised how much Kanhailal had influenced me with his simplicity, struggle, eagerness to continue learning every day and explore one’s cultural roots. Through the years, he had influenced and taught many – from struggling artists to art lovers to the common people. Though he was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his art, his humility would make him say, “Oja do not know much”, but there aren’t many actors in Manipur and outside who have not learnt from him.
Revered, ridiculed and often misunderstood, Kanhailal walked out of my life as quietly and as effortlessly as he walked into it. The loss is irrevocable but his teachings will continue to inspire the future generations of Manipur with the message – you find yourself in your roots.