Heisnam Kanhailal: Theatre of Resistance

(Usham Rojio, research scholar at the Theatre & Performance Studies Department at JNU’s School of Arts and Aethetics, remembers Manipur’s towering theatre personality Heisnam Kanhailal, who passed away on 6 October 2016.)

Manipuri theatre legend Heisnam Kanhailal, who passed away recently, is best remembered for fusing instinctive physical movements with a hard-hitting political aesthetic. When I spoke to Ima Heisnam Sabitri (Heisnam Kanhailal’s wife and his collaborator as an actor) after the funeral of Oja Heisnam Kanhailal on 6th October 2016, Ima cried over the phone, “Your Oja has left me. How can I live without him?” It was not a ‘silent scream’ which Sabitri as an actress is best at on stage. Yet, it was a hard, real question. I have no answer to it. Perhaps, what the local theatre fraternity says must be true to some extent, “Kanhailal dreams and Sabitri transforms his dreams into action.” This brings into question the subtle relationship between directors and actors. However, on a personal note, I must rephrase this, “Both of them dream together and transform their dreams into action together.” Perhaps, in case of Kanhailal-Sabitri theatre, it would not be incorrect to even say that all the actors dream together and come hand in hand to transform their dreams into action. While Kanhailal was undoubtedly the artistic leader of the Kalakshetra Manipur family, the communitarian attributes makes his theatre complete and powerful.

Prof. H.S. Shivaprakash, in the introduction of the book Theatre of the Earth, apparently gives clues to the communitarian attributes of Kanhailal’s theatre practice when he writes, “…the best exposition of his theatre philosophy is his own practice of theatre.” He continues, “Kanhailal creates his own system of values and techniques necessary for his cathartic theatre practice.” Kanhailal had always talked about the lack of professionalism in Indian theatre which entails a lack of regularity in the actor’s process of training and daily practice. He said most of the theatre activity on the part of groups is ordinarily directed towards productions/ performances/shows and rehearsals leading up to the same. His effort had always been to fill up this gap with regular theatre practice and the day-to-day training of the performer in order to achieve an ‘organic process of acting’. He focused on the rigorous practice of actors. To a large extent, his theatre extended beyond what one sees on stage.

In 1968 after three months of stay, Kanhailal was expelled from the National School of Drama for his ineptness in coping with the language of instruction (English and Hindi). His hopes were shattered; however, he embraced theatre even during his life’s most painful struggle with poverty and hardship. Coming back to Manipur, he founded Kalakshetra Manipur (KKM) with some of his friends and his wife Sabitri in July 1969.

Since then, the group has been working to create a theatre idiom based on the physical, driven by instinct and intuition, and exploring the specific powers of theatre. They began to experiment. Delivering the Fourth Memorial Lecture on 30th June 2013 to commemorate the birth anniversary of the Late Dr. Thingnam Kishan in Imphal, Kanhailal told us, “There was no manifesto as such, as it was experimental. However, there was a strong sense of conviction deep within us, though we could not express them into words or written forms. That conviction helped us to envision vividly the kind of play we wanted to create. It led us to detour from the conventional theatre and take a new approach.” The effect is one of simplicity, lyrical, and moving humanity. At its most fundamental level, Kanhailal’s theatre upholds the poetry of the human spirit creating a synergy between an animated actor and a living spectator. In his last public speech on the occasion of staging his epoch-making play Tamnalai in Imphal on March 12 this year, Kanhailal said, “If not for my ouster from the National School of Drama because of my lack of communication skills in either Hindi or English, I would not have become what I am today.”