Subverting the Familiar

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Soibam Haripriya

How does a folktale become a trope to look at the contemporary? In a clever manoeuvre, Pebet, the folktale that one is familiar with, in a subtle subversion, an insertion of a dream sequence become a story of oppression. Pebet then becomes the contemporary, the subjugation of the weak by the strong. The ‘International Encounter: Theatre of the Earth 2014’ is just that –an encounter with the familiar. The word ‘encounter’ has been re-signified; not as the everyday banality of violence that one sees under the word encounter but as a device that expresses a ‘culture in defiance’.

Pebet, Memoirs of Africa and Draupadi are some of the expression of the political theatre of Kalakshetra Manipur under the direction of HeisnamKanhailal. The plays were performed as a part of the four days’ workshop organised by Kalakshetra Manipur in collaboration with Manipur University, Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy, Art and Culture (Govt. of Manipur), Central SangeetNatakAkademi and supported by various theatre groups of Manipur. Watching a performance is an experience one is familiar with, however to be given a glimpse of the process of the play coming into being, from the womb to the world affects you by the intimacy of it as exemplified by the actor’s demonstration of their technique. Indeed the site reverberated with energy long after the demonstration. The metaphor for the entire four days event could be sum up in the words of renowned theatre personality, Sabitri who expresses her performance and demonstration as an act of trying to find a space to perform, a space removed from the everyday of violence, the space of truth and innocence. HeisnamTomba also lamented on the shrinking space for theatre, mostly by the intrusion of new media. He described the work at Rampura, a sleepy village of Assam, as a part of trying to resist this shrinking space and develop an indigenous theatre with the community of Rambha tribe. Indeed his acting technique also exemplifies the attempt of trying to find a ‘riyaz’ for theatre, a new method that sources its inspiration from other animate beings.

The interactive session with the delegates –playwright, artist, directors, actors, critics and many donning various such identities at the same time was an enriching exchange some of which were centered around the question of performance in the times of censorship, military regimes, ‘banality of evil’ and countering the banality.

The workshop also brought to us Mahasweta Devi’s play –Draupadiperformed by Kalakshetra under the able direction of HeisnamKanhailal. The play which was performed in Imphal after more than a decade since the first performance in the year 2000 received a standing ovation. HeisnamKanhailal in the interaction session explained the travails of transforming the play from the text by Mahasweta Devi to a performative text. The director shared that climatic act hasSavitri playing Dopdi(Draupadi) disrobing herself and lashing out at Senanayak with the Phanek. This strongly assertive moment was received with shock and awe with comments like – Manipuri women should not be shameless enough to disrobe in public in the year when the play was first performed. It was only after the nude protest July 15, 2004 by twelve Emas in front of Kanglathat the play itself was looked at as an aesthetic representation of ‘reality’ or rather an oracle.

The dramatic inversion when Dopdi approaches Senanayak and disrobes herself of the phanek and flings the phanek to the General was not just an act of defiance, of her saying ‘Come, (en)counter me’. In the words of Sabitrithere is another layer of inversion wherein act of assaulting and raping her has emasculated the men as well and consequently shift the humiliation from the woman who is raped, to the man who has raped. This play also acquires another layer of meaning altogether considering that the phanek is viewed as attire that is tabooed for men. Dopdi disrobing herself in the play and covering Senanayak with the Phanek could be understood as being lashed by the phanek (Phaneknakanba) –an ultimate act of humiliation and emasculation of men as here in one fluid moment is embedded two acts: the woman taking off her phanek in a swift movement and another of being whipped by the same phanek. The woman disrobes herself which would allude to the man being not man enough  and hence the woman does not fear being nude in his presence and then in the act of whipping the man which reverses the usual act of being a recipient of violence to the woman becomes the perpetrator of it. The unmistakable agency of the woman in the act was expressed by Sabitri during the interactive session.

Using the body as a medium of articulation, the physical theatre of HeisnamKanhailal is awe inspiring by the language of intimacy through which it speaks to you. I am humbled by my inability to articulate the same in words.

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