For years, my friends and colleagues in India asked if I’d seen the work of Ratan Thiyam. For years, people shook their heads and clicked their tongues when I confessed I hadn’t. For years, I listened, a little awestruck, to the names of important international theatre figures—Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki, Eugenio Barba—who had made special trips to the inaccessible, politically conflicted northeast Indian state of Manipur to see Thiyam’s work. When I finally had the opportunity to see one of Thiyam’s productions, I understood what all the fuss was about. It was staggeringly beautiful.
More than that, it spoke directly to my gut, while simultaneously engaging my most sophisticated analytical skills. Thiyam’s actors don’t speak their lines, they growl, sing, shriek, whisper and whine; they don’t walk across the stage, they jump, writhe, glide and stomp. His productions are visually poetic and aurally muscular, making dazzling use of sound, music, rhythm and color. Thiyam’s work engages all the senses—it is “total theatre.”
On the heels of appearances at such theatre festivals as Avignon and Adelaide and highly acclaimed engagements in Paris and London, Thiyam and the 27 members of his Chorus Repertory Theatre will tour their most recent production, Uttar-Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude), to eight U.S. cities in September and October. It will be the first opportunity for American audiences to discover what Brook, Suzuki and Barba have acknowledged: that Thiyam is one of the world’s great directors, and his company is one of the most exciting that India has ever produced.
Thiyam is a pioneer of the “theatre of roots” movement, a post-colonial search for an indigenous aesthetic and the most influential theatre movement of India’s past 50 years. As they have rebelled against British-influenced drama, many playwrights and directors have turned to their roots in folk and classical performance to create a modern Indian theatre—some even paste sections of religious rituals straight into their productions, a practice that is politically and aesthetically problematic. Thiyam adapts the principles of ritual, drawing upon local traditions to fabricate his own: The first five minutes of Uttar-Priyadarshi, for example, is an invented Buddhist ritual for eight chanting monks and four narrators.
While Thiyam’s work is tied to a theatrical movement that spans the nation, it is—in a country with 15 officially recognized languages, 844 dialects and 26 states, each with its own political and social history and its own performing arts traditions—deeply and specifically anchored in Manipuri culture. And Manipur today is a state at war.
A verdant hill area, Manipur was an independent kingdom until it was overrun by the Burmese in 1819. Seven years later, Manipur liberated itself from the Burmese with the help of the British East India Company, which then gradually took on the role of colonizer. But when Manipur waged a war of independence against the British in 1891 and lost, Britain did not formally annex the territory—the local monarchy continued to function. Consequently, when the Republic of India was established in 1947, and when it claimed all former British territories as its own—including Manipur—many Manipuris felt they had been illegally and unconstitutionally subsumed under the new nation. Since the 1960s, demands for self-determination, labeled by the Indian government as “insurgency,” have grown in number and in violence.
Today the Indian Army is a constant presence in the Manipuri capital city of Imphal. Citizens have been shot in the street; young men are constantly being picked up for “interrogation.” Informal curfews are in effect, and violence has become part of everyday life. Visitors from the West need special permission to visit. Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that so many of Ratan Thiyam’s recent productions are about war and the power-hungry politicians who wage it.
Antigone is an extremely popular play in Manipur—there are perhaps more productions of Antigone done there every year than anywhere else in the world. When I asked Thiyam (during a recent interview in New York City, where he had come to prepare for the U.S. tour) about his 1986 adaptation, I expected to hear that he had equated Kreon with the central government and treated Antigone as a Manipuri heroine. But I was surprised to hear that his production emphasized “the human relationships between the characters.”
Once I’d absorbed his answer, I began to understand more about his view of politics: Thiyam analyzes the personal behavior of politicians. “Most of the time we talk about the political aspects of the play,” he says. “But I wanted to focus on the change in human relationships taking place around the world and the lack of understanding between people. A very important aspect of tragedy is that we fail to maintain good human relationships.”
So Thiyam turned Kreon into an archetypal father figure and Haemon into the archetypal son. When Kreon looks at Haemon, he fails to see an adult but perceives instead the child he used to sing lullabies to; when Haemon looks at his father, he sees a man who has grown old physically without growing any wiser. Thiyam unearths the human tragedy that creates the political one. “The presence of the army in our country and the presence of a revolutionary people is a result brought on by political leaders,” he reasons. “So my thinking goes directly to those political leaders and to how they are failing to handle the situation properly.”
Thiyam’s most famous production, Chakravyuha (Army Formation), the play that “put him on the map,” uses an episode from the epic poem Mahabharata (“the great war of the Bharatas”) to make analogies between the bloody war depicted in the tale and current events in Manipur. In the play, army generals, with their elegant robes and soft voices, seem rational and noble—until they pump their young nephew Abhimanyu into a bloodthirsty frenzy of false heroism. They send him into war knowing he will be slaughtered. Just before the battle, Abhimanyu relives a crucial memory of being in his mother’s womb while his father told her the secret of the chakravyuha, the wheel-shaped military formation Abhimanyu will soon confront. But his mother falls asleep before the life-saving secret is revealed, and a gong of doom, of sadness, of wastefulness, sounds—as Abhimanyu goes off to war, it becomes the gong of death.
At the end of the play, as Abhimanyu lies dying on the battlefield, he says: “O great kings and emperors of this world, ensconced under canopies of power…You have polluted this fair and pure earth with your blind egos and criminal use of power.” In Chakravyuha, as in Antigone, Thiyam makes political issues personal and highlights the way people in power knowingly commit heinous acts to protect their own selfish interests.
Ratan Kumar Thiyam was born in Manipur to a family of artists—his father was a famous guru of the religious operatic drama known as raslila, and his mother an accomplished raslila dancer. When he was little, Thiyam remembers, he often accompanied his parents to performances: “My parents were dance partners. I had toured with them from childhood, and most of the time I found myself sleeping in the costume box during performances. So I had a very bitter experience of performers and the performing arts and never considered becoming a professional performer.” Young Thiyam decided to become a writer and painter instead—but he eventually succumbed to his love of theatre and entered the prestigious National School of Drama in Delhi. After graduating, Thiyam returned to Manipur, and in 1976 he started the Chorus Repertory Theatre.
The group had no money, and Thiyam realized he would have to invent a new company structure if they were going to survive. He set up a collective in which all members are responsible for growing the vegetables they eat, raising chickens and cooking meals for the group. A similar ethic applies to theatrical projects: Everyone has administrative duties and artistic responsibilities like building props, costumes and set pieces.
“Chorus is not like any other repertory company,” Thiyam recently told Calcutta-based theatre writer Anjum Katyal, “for apart from theatre it is involved in many other issues like environment and water conservation. Every actor has to learn carpentry, tailoring, light design and stage design. The attempt is to develop artists with a holistic attitude toward the theatre.”
Thiyam took a year and a half to develop Uttar-Priyadarshi, exploring the text through improvisation and spending several weeks on sound patterns alone, but farming continued throughout the rehearsal period. Although the company has now toured the world, receives grant money from a variety of governmental arts organizations and has just completed a 200-seat brick theatre complex, Thiyam does not want anyone to forget the three years they rehearsed in his home, the six times their interim rehearsal space washed away in the monsoons or the year their crops flooded and all their chickens drowned.
Thiyam’s actors are so thoroughly trained in thang-tha, a rigorous martial art, that they actually attack each other on stage rather than paying dutiful attention to fight choreography—so the battle scenes in Thiyam’s productions erupt with a speed, ferocity and complexity that is terrifying. His actors are also trained in wari leeba, a narrative form that (in Thiyam’s words) “paints pictures through words”; in nata sankirtana, a lyrical form of devotional singing; and in various forms of drumming. All these disciplines are part of the director’s commitment to developing a vital indigenous aesthetic, and they all come into play in the 80-minute performance of Uttar-Priyadarshi.
According to Thiyam, Uttar-Priyadarshi is the tale of a power-hungry man who “has gathered many experiences in life, yet like any modern man, has difficulty controlling himself.” So it is a play about a man’s attempt to control his own ego and his own violent urges. Thiyam says it is also “a play about peace, about non-violence, about the growing attitude of waging war and about the effect of war: What happens to this world, and who are the sufferers?”
Thiyam is quick to point out that he is not a “messiah of peace”—Uttar-Priyadarshi has arisen from an “inner dialogue” concerning the rising violence in his own region and in the world at large. It is a plea to “think together seriously” about how violence will affect the next generation.
The play begins with Buddha begging alms from a small boy playing in the dirt. The boy, Priyadarshi, offers dirt to the Buddha, who blesses him and says he will become a great man. Four narrators form a wheel of time out of cloth and sweep the audience into the present where the now-grown emperor Priyadarshi, having won the Kalinga war, rides an elephant (a huge puppet with a gold headdress) in a regal, slow-motion procession at the head of his victorious army. Priyadarshi expects to be welcomed home by songs of praise, but he is greeted instead by rivers of blood (strips of red cloth) and by wailing war widows shrouded in white.
No one cares that Priyadarshi has won the war; they all mock him for not knowing how many deaths he is responsible for. Priyadarshi is swept up in a whirlpool of agony, represented by swirling red fabric that immobilizes him from head to toe. (Because of the violence in Manipur, Thiyam says, “my senses are awash with the color red—which is why it appears and reappears in my work.”)
Unable to bear his suffering, Priyadarshi decides to punish his critics by sending them to Hell and hires the grotesque Ghor and his entourage of faceless, witch-like women to torture them. (Hell exists, Thiyam believes, wherever people are tortured.) When a Buddhist priest enters Hell but cannot be tortured, Priyadarshi asks for his secret. The priest tells the emperor to confront the evil within himself—and as soon as Priyadarshi does, Ghor disappears. A series of luminescent Buddhas materialize as the lights fade. (“Unless and until you have a spiritual balance,” Thiyam says, “there will be no full stop to violence.”)
This narrative notwithstanding, Uttar-Priyadarshi is not plot-driven—most of the story is finished by the end of the first scene. Instead the play focuses on the relationship between Priyadarshi and Ghor, who are aspects of the same person, representing the inner conflict between good and evil in a political ruler. The script for this play is about nine pages long; the 80-minute production is not simply an interpretation of the text but an elaboration on it. When acts of torture turn Priyadarshi’s empire into Ghor’s Hell, for example, torture devices appear from various historical periods—a hangman’s noose, a guillotine, an electric chair, a maniacal chef wielding a meat cleaver—accompanied by the screams of Ghor’s banshee-like assistants and the threatening clack of his wooden cothurnai on the floor. For Thiyam, these “vertical” experiences (in which each moment is explored fully before the story moves on) emphasize that only certain parts of history remain with us—in this case, despite the efforts of peace-keeping organizations around the world, we continue to invent “more and more human-torturing machines, human-killing machines, more bullets, more AK-47s, more missiles. There is no balance, no control over these things.”
This structure of elaboration and association is typical of many forms of classical Indian performance, which regularly use stories from the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Because audiences already know the stories, the emphasis in performance is on how they are told, what new interpretation the performers bring to them, and how they make them relevant. In some forms, performers may spend up to three hours illuminating and commenting on three lines of text by making political and social analogies, exploring emotional associations or telling background stories. Some of this elaboration is verbal and some is physical, through gesture and mime.
So for Thiyam and his company, who have adapted this traditional Indian dramaturgical structure for their work, body language becomes vitally important. They are working to build a language from space, gesture, color, light, sound, melody and rhythm—a multi-dimensional language through which ideas are communicated at many levels and from many angles. This makes Thiyam’s theatre richly communicative across the barriers of spoken language that exist in his country—and more accessible to international audiences in the bargain. Audiences in the U.S. should not worry that Uttar-Priyadarshi is performed in Manipuri, because they will be able to follow the story as it is told visually and listen to the quality of the language rather than searching for the denotative meaning of the words.
Thiyam’s work, and that of other members of the roots movement, has often been chosen by the Indian government to represent Indian theatre—and by extension Indian culture and India herself—at international festivals. Because he uses folk and classical performance as his inspiration, he has been criticized for playing into orientalist attitudes by promoting an exotic image of ethnic India.
“What is exotica?” Thiyam asked in an interview with Anjum Katyal. “The ‘exotica’ they speak about is external, with ornaments. My ‘exotica’ is internal. It is an ‘exotic’ energy. Look at a Buddhist temple. A cherry tree bending over mossy rocks. That is exotic.” As he told me, “I put my signature on a production that is entirely mine—it is not from anywhere literal.” It is, Thiyam means, from his imagination. “I create my own tradition,” he declares.
Erin B. Mee has directed two productions with Kavalam Narayana Panikkar’s Sopanam company in South India, is editing a collection of contemporary plays for PAJ Books and is writing a dissertation on the “theatre of roots” movement.