‘MANIPURI THEATRE IN A DISAPPOINTING STAGE’: PADMASHREE KANHAILAL (An interview)

This news story and interview was first published by the Imphal Free Press on 14 May 2015

Imphal: Padmashree Heisnam Kanhailal is the founder of the Kalakshetra Manipur, an institute that started the tradition for an alternative theatre and that distinguished the maestro from his peer. He is often described as the man who broke the new trend of theatrical expression in contemporary Indian theatre.

Since the inception of Kalakshetra in 1969, he has been continuing experiment with tradition for an alternate theatre. In the process his alternative theatre could be indentified with the live theatre that he ultimately conceived as the ‘theatre of the earth’.

Some of his remarkable experiments that redefine the conventional theatrical expression were the Nupilan (women's war against British) in 1978, Sanjennaha (cowherd) in 1979 with villagers at Umathel, a remote village in South Manipur. He also worked with the Paite community in Churachandpur district and produced Thanghou Leh Liandou in 1980.

In his first ever Nupilan production, Kanhailal gathered 100 market women of Imphal and inspired them to perform a non-proscenium act in an open air environment, re-enacting the confrontation of Manipuri women against the British soldier. The performance was performed at Johnstone School campus in the heart of Imphal and overwhelmed on lookers.

His journey through time to achieve what he is today was not an ordinary tale like many of those great artistes who have carved a niche for themselves.

He quit his government job in pursuit of his theatrical dream which was later realised through the Kalakshetra.

A rendezvous with the maestro

IFP: Congratulations on your recent achievement. What an incredible journey it has been from being a salesman at a Bata showroom in Imphal to winning the Padmashree and now the Mahindra Lifetime Achievement Award. When you look back, how do you think Manipuri theatre has changed over the years?
Heisnam Kanhailal: Indeed it has been a remarkable journey and very challenging too. I can see a lot of changes but not in not in a positive way but in a negative manner when we talk about the Manipuri theatre. It has been overwhelmed by commercialisation and it is at a very disappointing stage. What we are witnessing today is more of a salesmanship with less ‘artistic value’. The integrity of the word theatre is diminishing fast.

IFP: It is a well-known story that you were expelled from NSD for not taking leave of absence after due permission. How do you think packing your bags and moving back to Imphal impact your theater? And how did the setting up of Kalakshetra happen?
H Kanhailal: The NSD episode I should say was the biggest point of my career. Had it not been for that incident I could have been stuck with the conventional theatrical wisdom and there might not be Kalakshetra. The rejection and subsequent frustration had led to the discovery of my intuition. I gradually started to evolve from my experiences. The semi-urban environment of the life of Imphal back then, the nature and traditions that surrounded me gave a vision and nostalgia beyond the mundane world. In order to translate my vision I started applying on my theatre. However I needed a concrete base to device by plan which later came in the form of ‘Kalakshetra’. Many of my like-minded friends help me out in this venture especially my wife Sabitri who is one of the major collaborator as an actor.

IFP: You are seen as one of the group of alternative theatre directors who have embraced theatre as performed locally instead of being influenced by mainstream trends? How did this consciousness to move away from the mainstream happen? And how has this affected Manipuri theatre?
H Kanhailal: With regards to my alternative thinking I have already made myself clear. But, how much it affected the Manipuri theatre is the same as much as it has been in other part of the country.

IFP: What does the future spell for Manipuri theatre? Is it now possible to live by your trade?
H Kanhailal: Judging by the current trend as I have mentioned earlier about the ‘salemenship’ I feel that the future of Manipuri theatre is very bleak. The present generation has lost the track and it is too late to rescue it. But, it does not mean that all hope is lost if we sincerely put our effort the Manipuri theatre can be revive afresh in the next generation.

IFP: In your entire career have you ever come across a promising ‘Theatre Directors’ from the Northeast region?
H Kanhailal: Yes, indeed. In my entire career I have travelled many places with my Kalakshetra team. But, the dedication I see in some of the youths in Rabha tribal youths of Assam has amazed me. I have associated with the youths for 15 years now they have earned their name and ever expanding their own group. My followers like Sukracharjyo Rabha and Rayanti Rabha have been awarded Yuba Puraskar by Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, are some name from the Northeast who can help spread my legacy.

IFP: What according to you is the play one should not miss this year?
H Kanhailal: There are few plays that I directed that I would like to suggest any theatre lovers to see like Pebet, Kabui Kei Oiba, Dag Ghar (Ranbindranath Tagore). But, if it comes to the one play one should not miss this year it obviously will be Pebet (1975) as it is still in demand. Our Kalakshetra team has been invited to perform it in Hyderabad later this year.

IFP: Can you please name some of your favourite actors?
H Kanhailal: My wife Sabitri, of course because she always has been a major collaborator of institute and the other one is Nasheerudin Shah. He is the only actor who is sincere enough when it comes to finding the artistic quality in an actor.

Denouement

H Kanhailal has conducted 15 major workshops in the last twenty years for the actors from different cultural backgrounds in the country. The workshops so far conducted were particularly concentrated on his actor training system for live theatre. Workshops were organized nationally and regionally in different locations both city and rural as sponsored by National School of Drama and other cultural institutions/agencies. Thus he could produce a great following in the country. Since last ten years he and Sabitri have been conducting workshops for the second year students of NSD every year on his system of acting.

He conducted short-term programmes on exposition of his system particularly for the young practitioners and academics. He could draw the academic attention of the young research scholars of the country and their participation in the practice thereof. He is the only theatre practitioner in the country on whose work young research scholars have been working for their MPhils and PhDs particularly from JNU, Jamia Milia Islamia, Assam University, Hydrabad University and so on. Since 2012 he has been training young practitioners from France, Sweden, America, South Africa, etc.

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