The following is a 15-year-old review of a play in which King Bhagyachandra, or Chingthungkhomba, under whose rein Manipur signed the first treaty for cooperation with the British East India Company in 1762, is portrayed as an artistic genius and statesman, devising means to sublimate the dangerous divide within his kingdom between followers of Vaishnav faith adopted as state religion by his grandfather, King Pamheiba, and followers of the pre-Hindu indigenous Sanamahi faith. King Bhagyacandra is the royal who first imagined and choreographed the Manipuri Ras Lila, an Indian Classical Dance, and the Nat Sankirtan, now declared a UNESCO world Intangible Heritage. We are reproducing the review here for the academic value it carries and for the glimpse this interpretation provides for the present generation to reimagine an important era of the history of Manipur and see if it can enrich their own notion of the self and identity.
Among many other things, MC Arun’s stage magnum opus Rajarshi Bhagyachandra, a Banian Repertory Theatre Production, is a refreshing and indeed revolutionary re-look at an important chapter in Manipur history and its chief protagonist, the erstwhile kingdom’s ruler, Rajarshi Bhagyachandra. In director MC Thoiba’s own note in the play’s brochure, “The play is an experiment in blending historical events and its interpretation, maxims and dialectics, and meaning and justification.”
The narrative is simple enough. It tells of the sequence of momentous events that happened during the kings reign in the 18th Century, in chronological order, but what distinguishes it from a simple enactment of history, is the direct onstage interpretation of it that it attempts through an ongoing debate between Bidhu and Amita, a stereotypical middle-aged conformist and a youthful, firebrand radical.
In the course of this debate, illustrated by enacted chapters from Bhagyachandra’s life and times, the king’s strength of character is cast in a totally new mould. Quite convincingly, he emerges as a quintessential statesman, steering his country with courage, conviction and extraordinary vision in its troubled times, breathing new spirit into it to make it command awe and respect of rivals and allies alike.
In many ways the play is also about justifying the many actions of the great king, even those which have been a subject of controversy in recent times. All of the king’s actions were a visionary’s extraordinary negotiation with the pressures and realities of the time is the repeated statement of the play.
He rises to the military challenges from neighbouring countries, Ava in particular. This constant threat also made him to warm up to the West. In his many battles, he was not always the victor, but he never surrenders and instead picks up vital lessons from each of them. His focus remains on winning the war not the battles alone. He intuitively understands, winning the larger war was not just about defeating external enemies, but also of those within. Centralisation of power thus becomes vital and to this end he destroys independent power centres developing anywhere in his country, including the Moirang principality which his maternal uncle, Telheiba, ruled.
But the wars that he needed to win were not all military. His great grandfather Pamheiba had mass proselytized the kingdom by making Hinduism the state religion. Expectedly, there were dissent from Sanamahi followers and in the 18th century a dangerous division between the two faiths had developed. Another ingenuous achievement of this great king was to make the two compatible, defusing in the process what would have surely exploded into a major crisis.
The play’s interpretation of achievement is, the king’s famous dream in which God (Govinda) revealed the Ras Lila to him and also directed him to make an image of Him from an indigenous tree at Kaina hill, was not a dream at all, but a deliberate stroke of genius to marry the two faiths and bring peace to his land.
The play is cerebral. In attempting to interpret the challenges of Bhagyachandra’s time, it also draws parallels with the ongoing debates in the present on equations between power and politics, tradition and change, war and peace etc. Some of the important questions thrown to the audience are, what should be the conditions that make power, politics, change etc, and not the least, the military, acceptable.
On many of these, the onstage debates between Bidhu and Amita, although thought provoking, do not always convey the sense of completeness. MC Arun states his own convictions, mostly through Amita, and end the debates much too abruptly, leaving the contentions inadequately challenged.
On the question of war, and by implication, the military, as a necessary instrument of statecraft, the debate for instance fails to explore the many new possibilities that have come up in modern times. The complex equations between nations that have made virtually military-less Japan an economic superpower, emergence of supra national bodies like the United Nations, regional economic alliances etc do not find the space to be considered as factors determining this debate.
Instead, Arun makes such statements as war being an indispensable tool for ushering in peace. Such statements sound more like rhetoric that demand applause from the audience instead of deep reflection. It also smacks of the nuclear-weapons-as-a-deterrent -of-war argument, which incidentally has been at the roots of many Cold Wars between nations. Can there be anything as a peaceful bomb has been a debate for a long time, and Arun picks it up but leaves it where he found it.
The militaristic approach to statecraft also leaves little democratic room for weak marginal communities.
On the contention that Bhagyachandra did not dream his dream but made it up with statecraft in mind, again Arun’s conclusion is too quick to be convincing, although it provided a startlingly refreshing new perspective. Psychologists, and definitely parapsychologists, would find the observation presumptuous.
George Bernard Shaw’s “Joan of Arc” comes to mind. Shaw saw Joan as a visionary who predicted the birth of nationalism in the days of feudalism. She actually saw visions or heard Saints giving her knowledge or else premonitions of the outcomes of events ahead of time. In the process she rubbed the authoritarian Church as well as the feudal order in the then Europe, the wrong way and was burnt as a witch. Four hundred years after her death she was canonized as a Saint.
The understanding today is, premonitions, visions etc, do not always have be associated with the supernatural. Beyond the conscious mind, there is also the unconscious mind which is also always ratiocinating data, rationalizing events, working ceaselessly to solve problems, and often it beats the conscious mind at coming out with solutions. These solutions often manifest in dreams or even hallucinations. Dreams in this sense are the unconscious mind’s interpretation of reality. In certain persons with a trait of genius, the unconscious mind is much more fertile.
Bhagyachandra’s mind, conscious as well as unconscious, must have always been occupied with its search for solutions to Manipur’s many problems, and a solution may then have actually manifested itself in an actual, magnificent dream that Arun so correctly pointed out served the purpose of making two faiths that were threatening to tear up Manipur compatible.
All in all, the play is thought enriching. The infant terrible of Manipur’s intellectual firmament may also yet prove to be the infant terrible of Manipur theatre’s new order.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author