“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
― Bertolt Brecht
Ratan Thiyam was waiting for me seated inside a charming little gazebo adjacent to a lily pond at a quiet corner not far from the magnificently imposing The Shrine auditorium was when I arrived 10 minutes ahead of the appointed hour at the sprawling green Chorus Repertory Theatre complex. The small garden table behind which he was seated is empty except for a bottle of mineral water, few shreds of aluminium foil covers of medication pills and some books. He was in winter jacket, so was I, though a lighter one. The clear chilly morning heralded the onset of the cold season. A pleasant morning sun flooded the garden walks and lawns, all of which were neatly kempt but signs of less than modest funds evident in the state of disrepair of parts of the paved paths.
Customary exchanges of pleasantries start with talks of the changing season. Imphal winter mornings seldom fail to evoke nostalgia amongst residents, and this probably predicated the director’s frame of mind, for his invocative prelude to our appointed chat began with a lament of a past he says has been thoughtlessly abandoned by the present.
A note of despair is unmistakable as Thiyam pronounces “empathy is dead”. Equally unmistakable is a touch of the flamboyant theatrics his creations are known for. “Even in the midst of the cruelties of wars in the past, including the World War 1 and 2, humanity was never lost altogether, therefore we have been able to pick ourselves up time and again and salvage our souls. Something has happened in the
post WWII era. Humanity is being drained away from the human race,” he explains in exasperation.
“Technology has caused everybody to retreat back into their individual shells and we have ceased to be social beings. The computer has become man’s closest companion, and the virtual reality of the computer has come to substitute reality itself.” His verdict comes with a dose of anger.
“This is the environment art and creativity are expected to flourish in,” he says disdainfully. “Creativity is not born in isolation. It is a cumulative residual legacy from generations of philosophers, artists, intellectuals, scientists and artists. Without this DNA, creativity cannot have a future,” he laments. “The challenge the present generation is faced is this,” he says visualising portents of a dark horizon ahead.
Thiyam contends in sadness and anger that this priceless archetypal humankind is blessed with, is now coming to an end, because the modern age does not care anymore. “The digital age has made sure the past does not matter. It has also obliterated the difference between original and replicas,” he further says in a tone reminiscent of the fatalism of Fukuyama’s end of history and triumph of capitalism prediction.
“This being what it is, where would the present generation get their inspiration from. It is impossible to imagine the new age is capable of anything close to all the timeless works of art of the past,” he says, the agitation in his voice growing.
“Humanitarian norms that all of us once understood intuitively are no longer the moderating influences on humans today. Instead cruelty, tribalism, xenophobia and savagery have once again taken over. Even if we were to agree war is destiny, the barbarism of ISIS, the sufferings heaped on children in Syria, Yemen and Rohingya are horrors difficult to even imagine are our reality today”, he continues.
“The present has chosen to be rootless,” he pronounces.
“We have ceased to be communities, and have turned inwards and are now individual islands, selfish and unconcerned about the larger humanity,” his stream of thoughts is a torrent now. “The bonds that once made the human story magical are missing. Humans now bond better with a computer or a smart phone than a fellow human. Humanity is dead, tyranny is back. Egalitarian outlook has been banished and inequality no longer pricks the society’s conscience.”
I try to step in and bring the discussion to theatre but he gestures he is not finished yet. “Ideas of sacrifice, altruism, benevolence, compassion, empathy are all things of the past. People are no longer interested in face to face conversations. Banished with this are the heart and soul of society. Happiness has ended. Life is no longer about living but of existing. Political leadership has ceased to be visionary and instead are myopic, selfish and self-serving”.
There is a brief pause, and I take the opportunity to divert the course of his virtual monologue to Manipur and its political turmoil. I remind him of the return of religious revivalism amongst an increasingly vocal section of the society, and with it, their rejection of selective chapters of history.
Thiyam, leans back and gathers his thoughts. His mood has now shifted. The agitation in his demeanour has calmed and the tone now is of sadness with a hint of cynicism.
“Manipur is constrained by resource scarcity and its elite are selfish and clueless,” he murmurs.
He is also sad that bigotry has returned amongst a great section of the masses. “Manipur is beautiful because of its syncretic culture. We have accommodated every culture, every religion, every ethnicity that came our way, and out of all this fashioned a unique identity for ourselves. This is an outlook we inherited from our ancestors and this is precisely what has made our arts great and our society resilient. Why are we questioning this greatness inherent in us now?” he exclaimed in bewilderment.
“Revivalism is destroying this depthless richness or our cultural heritage. Take the case of Hinduism of the Meiteis. Our past pre-Hindu religion is still very much part of our worship as Hindus. What can be more beautiful than this?” he asks rhetorically.
I watch him as he speaks of our common homeland and can’t help recall Walt Whitman’s epiphanic declaration in Leaves of Grass. “I am large, I contain multitude”.
“Religion is not about any particular god or goddess. It is a belief in the ultimate peace and harmony of the universal order. It is in the end, an unfathomable faith in humanity and the goodness of life. This spirituality can do miracles to life. It is the source of the best of arts and aesthetics. Fanaticism can only destroy this understanding of the universe. Manipur in the present time has not been spared. Fanaticism has destroyed the sublime spirituality which once shaped our culture,” he continues pensively.
A short pause ushered back the silence of the winter morning again. I gather myself and ask if this means he has surrendered. If he has come to the conclusion that art is no longer an answer to the problems of our society?
This renowned dramaturg who has among others four honorary doctorates of literature conferred to him by universities across India; who has won innumerable awards, national and international, for his theatre productions; who has been director of the National School of Drama; who has travelled with his plays to every corner of the world; who has explored many intriguing human predicaments in numerous acclaimed plays, looked up in amazement at my question.
“No.” His answer is quite definitive.
“I am working on another production ‘Lairenbigi Ishei’ (Song of the Sylvian Deities). My despair at witnessing the grave new world unfold will be reflected in this. This despair however is not a surrender. It is a form of resistance against the causes of this despair. It will be a fight and a search for a new order, informed by the spirituality of a past era. It will show the magic of empathy and compassion.” A calm strength is evident in his voice now.
“Once upon a time, the Lairenbi (sylvian deities) represented this unity of spirit of the entire creation. Forests, rivers, lakes, humans, animals, birds together formed one living ecosphere, where one respected the other as part of a larger whole they all belonged to. My new production will celebrate this vision.” Thiyam is now his old self.
Bertolt Brecht was right. Poetry cannot die and therefore even the darkest hours will continue to inspire songs. Thiyam’s answer came as an immense relief to me at that moment. Manipur’s celebrated theatre director and poet has not given up on the power of his songs.
This article was first published in The Hindu in the December of 2018
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author