It has been four years since, Heisnam Kanheilal, a doyen of Manipuri theatre and founder of the experimental theatre group of world repute, Kalakshetra, passed away, leaving a vacuum in the Manipuri theatre world which will not be easy to fill for a long time. The renowned theatre director and playwright, has left behind many plays which will go into the world of legend, to be remembered by generations to come. It is no common tribute that well known theatre critic Rustum Baroucha had even dedicated an entire book on the theatre of the veteran, calling Kalakshetra the nursery of the subcontinent’s alternate theatre. In paying our own tribute the great artist, we are running this review of one of his plays, Tamna Lai (The Haunting Spirits), now nearly half a century since it was first stages by Kalakshetra. The play continues to astound when occasionally it is staged.
Heisnam Kanheilal’s “Tamna Lai” staged for the first time by his superb team at the Kalakshetra in 1972 will remain a classic. The play is still occasionally staged by Kalakshetra, as it did two years ago at the Nara Singh Theatre, Palace Compound, to commemorate the celebrated founder of the theatre group. Expectedly, most of the cast change at each of these staging, bringing back nostalgia among theatre followers for the original faces many of whom have, like their venerated teacher, have acquired their own spaces in the gallery of legends on the Kalakshetra wall. But each new cast also take theatre goers by surprise at the wealth of new talents Manipur’s theatre tradition is blessed with, continually throwing up generations after generations of superlatively talented actors to fill the spaces left by past maestros.
There are of course some from the past generation who have remained, and it is endearing to see that though aged now, still retain their vintage charms. The ravages of time notwithstanding, the play is still able to hold packed audience spell bound, as much as it did five decade ago, though a majority of today’s theatre goers would not have been old enough to appreciate and savour the nuanced essences of the charm of Kanheilal’s “Tamna Lai”. A greater many would still not have been born when the play was first staged. There however can be no dispute that there is a timeless quality about the theme the redoubtable veteran director chose to explore. The playwright has not said as much, but there is no mistaking that beneath the surface of the simple storyline is also a dark Freudian drama. The message is, strip the civilisational veneer from any society or individual, even if momentarily, and there is a beast lurking underneath.
No synopsis of the play distributed before any of its staging has indicated this is the message. In all likelihood this darker drama was not the conscious intent of the playwright, and this is the beauty of the situation. The sensitive poet feels the angst within and has a way of articulating this inner state of being, but it is the critic and scientist who end up looking beyond to interpret and diagnose the roots of the same angst. The synopsis merely inform that the story is a depiction of the ugly reality on the streets of what was then a small mofussil township of Imphal in the 1960s, haunted as they were by a growing and menacing population of lumpens, hanging around, often drunk, haranguing people and making nuisance of themselves. Many middle aged residents of Imphal today will remember this was indeed the reality of life in the town even in the 1970s and 1980s.
It will also be recalled, the Meira Paibi movement that the world is now familiar with, began in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a response to this menace. Womenfolk had then spontaneously formed themselves into groups in practically every locality to combat drunken rowdies on the streets and to fight the disease of rampant alcoholism afflicting the society. The movement became so popular and strong, that it was only logical then for Manipur to become a dry state officially in the early 1980s, a status many are now of the opinion has outlived its utility.
Lumenisation of great sections of the society in the face of rapid urbanisation is a universal phenomenon. It is true a city has always been a site for immense opportunities but it is also where many not equipped adequately to come to grip with the changes it ushers in, get marginalised and even dehumanised. Great novelists like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray showed us how this logic unfolded in their own backyards in Europe in the Victorian Age.
As farming communities came to embrace urbanisation by the compulsions of new economic paradigms that new epoch brought in, one of the inevitable outcomes was these lumpens, unable to adjust to the new economic environment, uneducated, unemployed and therefore left with nothing other to do than hang around in the streets, they end up indulging in petty, and sometimes not so petty, crimes.
Tamna Lai is set in such an environment that Imphal was familiar with in the 1960s. It the tragic story of a promising boy, Chandrakangnan, raised by a mother widowed young. He grows up having to fight off daily taunts and provocations from the lumpens in his locality, and also the larger forces of fate and economy at work to make him one of them. He is however loved by his teachers, and with their moral and financial support, he graduates with flying colours despite all odds.
Along the way, a girl from a nouveau-riche family, Ngangbiton, tries to trap him into a sexual relationship and have him marry her. Ngangbiton’s mother Keirakpi, sets up the stage for this by literally coercing Chandrakangnan’s mother who owes her money, to have Chandrakangnan give her daughter private tuitions. Chandrakangnan fights off Ngangbiton’s sexual overtures bruskly during these tuition classes and at one point scolds her and tells her leave his house and not to come back. She takes offence and seeks the help of the lumpens to frame him that he has been in an illicit relationship with her and that he was trying to ditch her after abusing her thus. Thereafter the girl’s mother routinely begins to visit Chandrakangnan’s mother and humiliates and bullies her for the money she has borrowed from her and remains unpaid.
On the day of his graduation, as he rushes back home to tell his mother the good news, as usual the lumpens accost and mock him. They also tell him they are witness to his sexual liaison with Ngangbiton and threaten they would take him to account for his misdeed. At home he finds his mother on their courtyard humiliated, devastated and torn in misery after a visitation by Keirakpi. Her emotional state being what it was, she was not even able to rejoice her son’s success to her heart’s content, and after receiving him, she walks indoors. As she disappears, all the dark emotions welling up inside Chandrakangnan gush forth in a blinding explosion. He picks up the family machete from the veranda and rushes to the streets where lumpens were, and hacks them to death. Upon hearing of the incident, her mother rushes out and screams in horror before collapsing on the floor.
The story is told adroitly using the flash back technique. After hearing of Chandrakangnan’s crime, the boy’s teachers visit Chandrakangnan’s mother to console her and to hear her explain the event which left them totally confounded. It is through the mother’s tale to the teachers that we see the events leading to Chandrakangnan’s tragedy unfold. The teachers listen to her as the Greek Chorus would, watching the tragedy unravel with disbelief and empathy, but helpless to intervene except occasionally to pitch in what they know of the train of events but were not enacted on stage.
In Freud’s personality dynamics there is a constant and ongoing drama of tussles between the Id, Ego and Superego. The Id represents the infantile, instinctual, appetites all of us are born with. It is primitive for it has been part of the human animal always. It manifests as hormonal urges such as hunger, sex etc., but also disturbingly as, need for dominance, aggression and more. If the Id were allowed to have an unrestrained way, we would be no different from animals. The Superego, or societal norms, however prevents this from happening. The entire mission of the Superego is to restrain and curb the Id from having its way. The rational Ego steps in here, and its function is to moderate this conflict and find the best possible compromises least harmful to the person.
A newly born infant’s behaviour therefore is dominated by the demands of the Id but under the Superego’s restrictions, transmitted through parents and society, the child grows up to be an acceptable member of the society. In the child’s adult life, he/she will begin exercising the power of her Ego to negotiate between the demands of the Id and Superego. Indeed from the vantage of Freud’s psychotherapy, it is the inability of the Ego to resolve the conflicts between the Id and Superego which results in neurosis. Pink Floyd’s iconic number “Another Brick in the Wall” is the tale of child fighting the neurosis that results from the Superego becoming overbearing, building walls, brick by brick to restrict the freedom of the Id. But if this is the vision of what happens when the Superego becomes too authoritarian, there are also equally compelling tales in literature of the opposite scenario – What becomes of a man when the veneer of civilisation represented by the Superego (or civilisational norms) disappear even if momentarily? The answer is a descent into atavistic madness. Kanheilal’s “Tamna Lai” is one such tale.
But before going back to “Tamna Lai”, it would be interesting to briefly scan two interesting novels which also tell this story in the most fascinating ways. One is Literature Nobel Laureate William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, and the other, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Golding’s story is about a British school football team stuck in an uninhabited island when the plane they were travelling in crashes into it, and became lost there for months. Once all the walls of civilisation that Pink Floyd protested against, began disappearing brick by brick, as it inevitably would, the boys begin to transform slowly but inevitably into a pack of atavistic animals, governed only by their instinctual desires and needs – a terrifying tale that stirred the conscience of the world.
Polish-British writer Conrad’s story is the older one. Critics have defined this novel as a poetic interpretation of Freud. A film adaptation of this novel, “Apocalypse Now” starring Marlon Brando, was a super hit in the 1970s and 1980s. Here too, as in Golding’s story, a decent representative of an ivory trading company in Africa, Mr. Kurtz, becomes lost in the jungle, and transforms into a mad savage. Alone in the jungle, he had no need for civilisation or its norms, and as a paraphrase of a memorable line in the novel runs “Alone in the jungle, he had a peep into the darkness in his soul, and beware he went mad”.
Conrad beautifully illustrates the journey Kurtz must have taken into the “heart of darkness” by making another company executive, Charles Marlow go looking for Kurtz. As Marlow travels deeper and deeper into the jungle in a boat along the river Congo (in “Apocalypse Now” it is the River Mekong), step by step he begins to feel the redundancy of civilisational norms. The symbolic discarding of civilisation begins when he realised how ridiculous it was for him to wear his company suit in the jungle and removes it. One by one he too begins to shed the norms of civilisation, until by the time he reaches Kurtz, he too becomes nearly like the man he was looking for. But in his case the Superego prevails in the struggle within, and was saved of Kurtz’s madness.
Beneath the obvious tale, Tamna Lai too is a story of a similar struggle. Chandrakangnan’s mother, referred to only as a widow, perhaps intentionally, becomes a widow while very young as the mother of an infant son. In her story to the teachers, interestingly she also tells of her own struggle to fight off the demands of her own libido, and resist remarriage or consummation of the sexual urges, still very strong in her, for the sake of her child. The Superego suppresses the urges of the instinctual Id but her Ego moderates to convince her, this is with a legitimate purpose, thus a neurotic situation is avoided.
But it is in the case of Chandrakangnan, that the moderation by the Ego has been near perfect, and his instinctual needs were well sublimated into safe and acceptable channels by the Superego. He is hence often seen doing physical exercises channelizing the aggression in him into an acceptable practice, works hard to excel in his academic pursuit, his sexual desires are well controlled as was seen in his relation with Ngangbiton, he is able to stay away from the temptations offered by the lumpens (Tamna Lais) and so on. Still, the civilisational veneer that covers the dark forces of the Id even in a man of civilisation like him is fragile. It can break, even if momentarily. This moment comes to Chandrakangnan on that fateful day his exam result was declared, when an explosion of blind anger pierces through the armour of civilisation and he murders the lumpens who have been tormenting him. Unfortunately for him, unlike the boys in Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” or Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, he was not in the jungle. For breaking the norms of civilisation, he has to face the penalties of civilisation.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author