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The Legend Speaks

Iconic theatre director Ratan Thiyam explains how to cook foreign ideas in a Manipuri kitchen

Ershad Kamol

Many rank him with legendary directors of world theatre such as Tadashi Suzuki, Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. For more than three decades, Ratan Thiyam, the legendary Indian theatre director has been experimenting on various forms of theatre and has successfully developed a unique style: polished performance, spectacular aural and visual aesthetic and potent thematic explorations. His works profess a deep concern for society and spiritual yearnings in midst of the political chaos in the contemporary world, which infuse rationalised and multifaceted analysis of multi-layered perspectives. Using ingenious theatre design, his plays are tinged with literary beauty and meaning. He has travelled across the globe with some outstanding productions that are thematically Manipuri but universal in their appeal. Many well-reputed newspapers such as the New York Times have labelled him as a "genius".

Ratan Thiyam

In recognition of his talent as a playwright and theatre director Ratan has grabbed many awards at home and abroad such as Indo-Greek Friendship Award 1987, Fringe Firsts Award from Edinburgh International Theatre Festival and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Some of the most remarkable productions written and directed by Thiyam are: Chakravyuha, Uttarpriyadarshi (The Final Beatitude), Chinglon Mapan Tampak Ama (Nine Hills One Valley), Ritusamharam, Andha Yug (The Blind Age), Wahoudok (Prologue) and Ashibagee Eshei (based on When We Dead Awaken, by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen).

On three occasions, the theatre guru has been in Dhaka. Recently he came along with his troupe the Chorus Repertory Theatre to stage Ashibagee Eshei in the Ibsen international theatre festival. Mesmerised was the feeling for the Dhaka audience watching the Manipuri version of Ibsen's drama.

Son of a Manipuri dance master, Thiyam studied painting before turning to writing. His first novel was published at the age of 22 in 1961. In those days he used to write poetry and reviews. Writing led him to theatre. Ratan Thiyam graduated from National School of Drama, New Delhi in 1974. Subsequently, he set up a professional theatre troupe named Chorus Repertory Theatre in Imphal, Manipur in 1976.

"The troupe has significant contribution in bringing the performing art forms of Manipur and of India to the attention of international community, informs Thiyam. “And for the last three decades the professional troupe has been staging theatre productions in Manipuri language across the globe and has been recognised as one of the top troupes in India".

Ratan Thiyam's love for Manipur and its culture are interlinked. His writings also equally voice his concern for his native land. Initially, he started searching for his roots in Manipur and soon became one of the finest exponents of the theatre of roots. His approach to theatre has been shaped by years of study under the tutelage of several major exponents of the traditional Manipuri performing art forms. "Manipur has its distinctive culture, which is very rich," says Ratan, "And for the interest of India, the leadership of the country should understand that all the ethnic groups are equally important. And all should get equal importance. I've addressed such socio-political issues in many plays and poems."

In protest of the socio-political turmoil of Manipur, the theatre icon even returned his Padma Shri in 2001. Many Indian newspapers quoted his letter to the President of India: "Life is not normal in the valley of Manipur for the past month. No tangible effort or urgency is visible on the part of the Centre. It is decaying by the day and there is no helping hand coming forward. It is not disrespect for the civilian honour of Padma Shri conferred on me, it is the compulsion of my bleeding heart. Although it is a very painful decision, I am, as a protest, relinquishing this honour."

A spectacular scene from the play Ashibagee Eshei, directed by Ratan Thiyam.

Thiyam firmly believes that plays should be based on logic and reason--it should mirror the society; it should be able to analyse the social changes and give comment on it. His plays have become ever more experimental with each new play. " For the last many years I've been practicing and processing a kind of expression, which is more to do with the thematic content of a play that is more powerful than a plot", evaluating his exploration in search of developing a distinctive style Thiyam says, " There are many phases in my artistic career as a theatre director. In the early 1980s I spent six or seven years experimenting on the traditional art forms and rituals. Subsequently, I used to use elements from tradition in my directorial composition. Then I tried to develop my skill and used to work with the essence of the indigenous culture to make it more contemporary in a modern theatre production. In the late 1990s I used to do experiment on creating my own expression in theatre. And these days I'm experimenting on the language of expression. Not normal language that we speak, but on stage how actors evolve with the expression. I call it 'paint and erase' method that I do it repeatedly on the stage. The entire idea is creating layers of ideas through language of expression incorporation with music, set and light. It requires a huge effort for a theatre director to work the method perfectly on the stage. And I do a lot of laboratory work before the final production of a performance. In fact, I give every possible effort for the production. It is the demand of the thematic content that leads me to select the style of expression."

"In case of doing theatre one must have to have a distinctive identity. Even in case of adapting a foreign play, I strongly feel about an identity and also the beauty of a culture. I belong to a community and my community is going to watch the play. So, I always try to cook the ideas of a foreign playwright in a Manipuri kitchen, which can be served locally as well universally, otherwise it will be considered as a local kind of thing. And to me plot is not important at all."


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