Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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A World Acclaimed Director’s Continuing Search For Sites of Pilgrimage in the Theatre World

Two decade ago, Ratan Thiyam enthralled his audience with his productions ‘Hey Nungshibi Prithibi (My Earth, My Love)’ and ‘Nine Hills One Valley’. Here are the impression these productions had on Pradip Phanjoubam

The pilgrim soul of Ratan Thiyam, whose theatre has created ripples even in theatre world’s sacred spaces of Delphi and Broadway, has embarked on yet another journey. This time, his quest is for the peace of the tormented soul of a violence ravaged modern times, of which his native land Manipur must stand out as a prime candidate. The result is a series of transcendental experiences, communicated powerfully through Oja Ratan’s unique theatre vocabulary of spectacles, sounds, mimes, choreography, great acting and great direction.

“These two are part of a triology” said Oja Ratan, referring to the two plays, Hey Nungshibi Prithibi (My Earth, My Love) and Nine Hills One Valley staged for the public at his magnificent “The Shrine” playhouse on December 13 and 14 evenings. Both tell of the horror and meaninglessness of war, and not the least, the unspeakable misery it heaps on the common humanity.

Where might be the third of the triology, enraptured and expectant audience after the double treat were left wondering. “It is in the gestation period. Not yet born, but getting ready to take birth,” was all that Oja Ratan was ready to divulge. No dispute about this, theatre goers have another great theatre event to look forward to in the coming days.

Hey Nungshibi and Nine Hills, staged in this sequence, almost dove tail each other, both in terms of thematic development as well as in Oja Ratan’s conscious effort to free his theatre from the straitjacket of chronological time. He begins the process in Hey Nungshibi but it is in Nine Hills, that he achieves a total liberation, almost with a sublime sense infectious even to his audience.

His effort at this liberation in Hey Nungshibi seems a little strained, employing the Meitei legend of the seven nymph sisters. The sisters, except the eldest who remain home weaving on her loom, driven by the inner urge to share the plight of the suffering humanity, fly through space and time to be at different trouble spots of the world. One reincarnates as human at Hiroshima when it took the impact of the A-bomb, the first one ever dropped on a human habitation. Another lives through the Chahi Taret Khuntakpa, others visit Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Middle East, Hitler’s Germany, sites of genocide in modern East Europe etc. They all return crestfallen to narrate their tales of the inhumanity of humanity to their elder sister.

Complimenting their stories is also the one told by Puwari the allegoric figure representing “History”. By the call of his duty, he tells his tales detached and without emotion. But by the lack of involvement or passion in his narration, Puwari is able to convey some of the most convincing messages of the emptiness of the intense passions that drive men to kill men. As for instance, in a scene reminiscent of the Sexton in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he lays flowers at the graves of soldiers fallen in a war and in a voice remarkable for its monotone, tinged with a hint of boredom at having read so many of them through the ages, and bewilderment at the clever but contrived poetry attributed to dead soldiers, he reads out the epitaphs. The treatment makes the poetry of these epitaphs echo hollow. In his private moments however, as when he visits the home of the seven nymphs, Puwari shows up to be a human at heart. The tales of misery that he has told through the ages, makes him break down and weep.

In another intensely poignant sequence, the nymph sisters incarnate as women captives in another theatre of war. They are subjected to rape by soldiers and become pregnant by them. Not only have the humiliation of the rapes leave deep indelible scars, but they also have the enemies’ child growing in their womb. Enemies’ blood, but it is also their own flesh and blood. The agonizing trauma that tears them between their motherly instinct and their loathing for the enemies who humiliated them thus is palpable and indeed suffocating. Infanticide and abandonment at birth are the result, and the ghostly but benign bending figure of Mother Teresa and her mission is seen trudging across the barren, war ravaged landscape, cleaning up the mess of war. The play ends with Puwari facing the flags of nations represented in the United Nations, appealing for an end to the endless madness.

It is in Nine Hills however that Ratan Thiyam achieves what he set out to do in Hey Nungshibi. In the director’s own words, it is a play without any conventional plot. It is a collage of his own thoughts and feelings on issues that are confronting the modern times. It is difficult not to picturise Manipur and the turmoil within as the central theme of the play.

The remarkable thing about the play is its dreamlike quality. As in a dream, chronological time loses all significance and the dreamer’s unconscious mind is able to choose and pick events at will, even squeeze aeons together in no particular order into one single frame. Spatial relations too are in a totally different dimension. The power and flexibility of the “stream of consciousness” movement in modern literature is what we see demonstrated on stage. Again, as in a dream, communication works in terms of symbols. Reality as we know it is also be warped. Hence dancers’ whose hands are chopped off by the didacticism and skewed logic of modern times, continue to dance without hands, but so does the severed hands on the ground. Powerful images of impressionism created by the art form’s monarch, Salvador Dali, are evoked.

The traditional understanding of space and time thus successfully deconstructed, the director is able to build up an entirely new theatre vocabulary to tell his tale. Nothing short of this vocabulary would have been enough to tell the story of Nine Hills One Valley too. For it is a story of a heart to heart conversation of a besieged society with its own archetypal.

In a profound way, Nine Hills is about Manipur’s traumatized present. It is a traumatized society’s quest for peace, not just in the physical external sense, but also the inner stability that can put it at peace with itself. It is in this sense a journey into one’s own psychological recesses to look for answers to its restlessness of soul. A spiritual journey to the past to consult its ancestral spirits and exorcise the demons that haunt the present.

This journey takes Ratan Thiyam to the nether world of Hades where the seven wise men, the Maichous, had been resting for centuries. They wake up from their eternal slumbers perturbed by their dreams of their progenies. Through them the director does a convincing critique of modern Manipur, the revisionism in art, revivalism, militancy, sterile intellectualism, conflicting notions of home and homeland, disputes over history, blind worship of modernism, equally blind rejection of it etc. The Maichous travel the world and discover that the inner peace that their descendants look for is not to found anywhere. They then decide to take on the onerous mission of writing new Puyas, the books of wisdom. Again in a scene strongly reminiscent of the Hollywood depiction of God telling Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the Maichous, spell out the modern parameters of justice, equality, governance, patriotism, home, homeland, aesthetics, the good and the bad. They also point out these are not stagnant phenomenon but qualities that need constant negotiations in time and space. They call for a liberation of the mind from the tyranny and oppression of such stagnation, and this can only be achieved by the willingness to be part of this constant negotiation process. But most of all they advise all to look deep within one’s own soul to find the key to end the restlessness that have enveloped the society.

The concluding scene played out in flickering candle lights from atop nine hills and in the crest of the valley they surround, is touchingly, and in a sanguine way, religious. Feminine figures of nursing mothers tell the epilogue against this backdrop as to how inseparably bonded spiritually and physically a valley and its surrounding hills are. Their fragile vulnerability also conveys the picture of how delicately sensitive this bondage is. As delicate and fragile, and yet as beautiful as anything natural can be. A sense of peace and calm descends.

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