Idiom of identity
Ratan Thiyam's evocative Nine Hills, One Valley dealt with the crisis in Manipur
HOLDING A MIRROR Ratan Thiyam's play was a document of a restless society and political turmoil where the sufferers are only the poor people
The North East was well represented at the Bharath Rang Mahotsav with two plays each from Manipur, Assam and Calcutta, one from Bangla Desh and another from Nepal. It was inevitable that one of the Manipuri plays was by Ratan Thiyam's Repertorie, Chorus, for no National Theatre Festival is complete without a Ratan Thiyam play in it.
The renowned director was here with his latest production Nine Hills One Valley, his response to the recent upheavals in his State. Thiyam describes the play as "a collage of many thoughts and a presentation of contemporary ideas... a document of a restless society and political turmoil where the sufferers are only the poor people." Often accused,by fellow theatre activists,of not taking a political stand on issues Thiyam communicates his thoughts in language characteristic of him - with a theatre language which is so characteristic of him - usingexotic spectacles, powerful images, haunting sounds and symbols and beautifully choreographed movements.
Though the play does not have a conventional plot, it has a thin, but evocative storyline. The seven mothers of the land, who guard the culture and traditions of this earthly paradise surrounded by nine hills, wail over the way evil has traumatized their land and hampered artistic and intellectual expression.
Thiyam conveys the plight of the artist through a stunning visual in which Manipuri dancers have their hands cut off and the severed hands continue to dance. The women appeal to the Seven Wise Men to wake up from their sleep and save their people. The wise men are shocked by the violence and bloodshed that rack their land,and the decay that has crept into the art forms. They drive away the evil spirits and rewrite the book of knowledge in a simpler language so that the common people are able to follow their words of wisdom, before sailing away in their dragon boat. The play ends with yet another beautiful spectacle, of lamps being lit on top of the nine hills symbolizing the ray of hope for the future. Through a series of surrealistic, dreamlike experiences, Thiyam probes the sickness that ails his land and looks for a solution in the soul, rather than in political terms.
In contrast to this subtletreatment of the crisis in Manipur, was the loud, melodramatic presentation of the problem of identity in Who Are We?, presented by the Manipur Theatre Academy directed by Sarungbam Beeren.
The play revolved round the problem of the actual, physical identity of people living in Manipuri villages that border Myanmar. It depicted the painful plight of the villagers, who are constantly robbed and tortured by the Burmese soldiers from across the border. While the son of a family, a soldier in the Indian army, dies in Kargil war, his civilian father succumbs to injuries inflicted by the Burmese soldiers. The villagers are torn between their love for India and the safety of becoming part of Myanmar.
Though well-rehearsed and sincere in its execution, the play was rather amateurish in conception and design. The prolonged melodrama, the slow-motion technique and the loudness of the message robbed the play of its appeal. Beside Ratan Thiyam's play, it was like the tantrum of a little boy against the words of wisdom by an experienced old man.
Language turned out to be a serious barrier with realistic, social plays, which depended more on words than visuals for communication. Even the brief synopses provided to the audience were not always helpful in bridging the gap. The plays, which did not have to face this problem, in spite of their focus on words and ideas, were the two English plays, Dark Horse and Ladki Seedhi Rahegi, both experimental in their own way.
Dark Horse, written and directed by Gowri Ramnarayan for the Chennai-based repertorie, Just Us, was an ambitious attempt to make theatre out of a literary exercise. The play revolved round the poetry of Arun Kolatkar, one of the most delightful Indian poets in English. It began rather awkwardly with a journalist talking about her interest in the poetry of Arun Kolatkar and her encounter with the poet. But it became livelier with the entry of the poet (convincingly played by Drutiman Chatterjee) and the visualization of poems like Sarpa Shastra. The mischievous tone of the poems, the narrative element, and the critical insights compensated for the absence of more obvious theatrical devices. The blending of Carnatic music with the English lines lent the play a peculiar charm. But one could not help wondering why the musician could not have been seated more comfortably on a wider platform.
Ladki Seedhi Rahegi, directed by Roysten Abel, was again an attempt a build a new play out of an existing literary work, something the director has been experimenting with again and again.
The play happens during the rehearsals of Moliere's School for Wives by a group of women, who are all alumni of Lady Shriram College in Delhi. As they begin to dissect the play and discuss the relevance of this 17th century French farce to the modern Indian woman, they take stock of their own lives and realize that things haven't really changed all that much.
The fact that the play, which was more in the nature of a discussion, in fact, was actually presented by the alumni of Lady Shriram College made it more authentic. The attempt to persuade the audience also to participate in the debate appeared to be more than just an amusing gimmick. The play demonstrated how theatre has always been both entertaining and didactic. It was good old Moliere in a new bottle!
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