Thoughts on Kalakshetra Manipur

As I sit inside the theatre at Kalakshetra Manipur observing rehearsals of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” directed by Heisnam Tomba, I am witnessing a production that springs from life. I feel the breeze from outside on my back: there is no divide, a unity of rhythm between both worlds so that there is no clear distinction where one ends and the other begins. For the past few days I’ve looked out at the surrounding vistas to which Kalakshetra is enmeshed and felt the current of this land, its very essence ingrained in the creation of the company’s work. It is breathtaking to feel the sense of continuity.

It is as if the actors have inhaled the life of their surroundings—the patterns, the gestures of nature, the organic sounds and movements of the landscape—which permeates in the cells of their beings. Waves pulsate through their bodies as they move, creating fluidity as if their bodies have their own natural intuitions. I’m forever drawn to the actors’ feet, which caress the earth with such delicacy and lightness of being, and yet there is a sense that they are simultaneously rooted on the ground.

I witness fishermen and actors alike walking across a ten-foot-high wall with such ease that it looks as if they are floating on clouds, and I’m reminded of their sense of balance. I’ve been having dreams at night about the sea, and I wonder if somehow, through the process of osmosis, I am absorbing the actors’ rhythms. Indeed, even during waking hours at Kalakshetra, I sense a dreamlike pulse finding its way into their work. It is a production of Ibsen like none other that I’ve seen. Its theatrical reality seems to be determined by the lyrical movement of the actors’ bodies and voices through space. It is a play that is very much alive in the political narrative of Manipur, imbuing the text with the immediacy of the present.

At 5 A.M. the bell rings, vibrating from the center of our home, signaling the beginning of our day. As we gather on the porch, waiting for all to arrive, I contentedly listen to those around me speak with their soft accents and observe the gentleness of their nature and refreshing originality of thought; and as we start our morning walk together, allowing oxygen to flow into our beings, I see their temperaments captured in the poetic character of this region. I am greeted by the tender landscape of Manipur: lush trees, rolling hills, flat lands extending as far as the eye can see, and the most animated sky imaginable. But most importantly, we walk together as a family.

There is a shared unity in our morning ritual, giving a sense of internal balance, a gentle waking up of our creative souls in preparation for the day. The daily rituals flow seamlessly from one another with a spirit of lightheartedness and gaiety. There is an impulse of community alive at Kalakshetra, shaping an atmosphere of generosity, of equality, of a shared responsibility in communal chores, which is not to be underestimated. It is an impulse that finds itself into their work as a unity of movement, a shared common language. I begin to feel this unity, a rhythm to which everything around me is dancing: the actors, the trees, the ploughed fields, the mountains, the clouds, our home at Kalakshetra, the moon, the stuff that is in us all. I’m reminded that theatre cannot be made alone; it has never been a solitary art form.

At the very heart of this unity lies Sabitri and Mr. Kanhailal, or Ima and Pupu—Mother and Grandfather, as they are lovingly called. I had recently met them both in Delhi, observing them teaching students at the National School of Drama. It was a somewhat cold setting in which to impart their sensorial theatrical language. The room was surrounded by gray walls lacking warmth and inspiration, and yet they remained completely poised and grounded in their own vibrational identities. As I watched Mr. Kanhailal go through a series of exercises with the students, it became clear that his process was not to be understood with the mind but to be experienced—not to be defined but directed toward its light, entering into a territory of adventure and discovery.

The actors, one by one, attempted to do a short improvisation, and then Sabitri stepped forward with her penetrating presence and wealth of knowledge to demonstrate to her students. This gentle woman who stood in front of me—softly spoken, dressed in simple attire, hair pulled back—enveloped the entire space with her hypnotic energy. Her eyes appeared to hold an entire microcosm as if she held the mystery of the infinite behind them. She seemed to be giving birth to images that gestated from her inner soul. Her voice resonated something so essential that there was no hesitation in its direction and pierced the air with its purity. She stood in front of us all so transparent, so honest and direct that it moved me to the very core of my being. She had tapped into an energy beyond the surface of things and touched the boiling matter, giving us a fleeting glimpse into the invisible. I understood, after this short encounter, that I needed to visit them in their natural environment to fully comprehend the inner workings of their company.

As I write now, it’s 9 P.M. in Manipur – a time in which stillness prevails. I write by candlelight and listen to the dogs bark vehemently in conversation and wonder what they are saying to one another. Somebody is playing the flute in the room next door. To my sheer delight, music is a prominent part of creative life at Kalakshetra. I have been bathed in different soundscapes since I arrived: This morning I witnessed an actor cutting bamboo in order to create a musical instrument; others chant songs, and the stillness one finds when removed from city life opens the ear to hear the subtlest of sounds. I have started seeing music here at Kalakshetra as almost a living entity, bridging the connections we subconsciously seek with the rest of life.

I’ve been continuously humming a Manipurian lullaby all week that Ima sang to me my first day. Ima has a brilliant gift for telling stories, often through song, be it day or night. With her boundless energy, she always seems to look at the world with fresh eyes, almost as a child would, and see the world feelingly—but her perceptions are highly intelligent. When she communicates, she is completely involved in that moment; her focus never seems to waver, and she is fiercely attentive, making you feel that she is giving you the world. In a most memorable gathering my first evening, typical of the spontaneous happenings that simply unfold at Kalakshetra, a small group of us congregated in the courtyard to sing songs in our native languages. I knelt by Sabitri’s side, and we sat and laughed. It is rare to share these intakes of breath with perfect strangers, but through these old songs we all felt deeply connected in our hearts and managed to communicate more than a thousand words could ever have accomplished.

Sabitri sang her Manipurian lullaby, filled with tenderness and feeling. It transmitted a certain pulse, something deeply rooted within me that defied language. Through the outspread light of her singing, she revealed the soul within the lullaby and brought the moon and the stars and the clouds into my being. That evening Sabitri revealed something deeply rooted in herself; she revealed some wonderful thing that a human can be, and through the vibration of her voice soothed us all in the process. That evening, she had given me the gift of her spiritual heritage, encouraging us all to embark on our dream world.

O moon, singing in solitude in the sky.
Rows of stars glancing sleepy-eyed.
The silver clouds, floating drowsily.
The balmy wind inducing the plants to sleep.
In the cradle of the earth, humanity sleeps.

When I think about what matters to me in theatre—in life—and what was so moving about my experience at Kalakshetra, I think of connections. My connections to a day; to the people; to a cat and a dog I witnessed walking affectionately side by side down a path; to old songs shared in our native languages; to moments together sitting on the porch, silently observing clouds rolling in the sky; to ideas contemplated amongst us at night in the courtyard; to the laughter found at 5 A.M. on our morning walks; to acts of kindness I experienced day after day; to communal meals together; to Sabitri’s and Mr. Kanhailal’s history in Manipur; to Sabitri’s tender gestures; to their creative, loving home filled with human decency, laughter, and care. It is through these connections that all of life lights up within me.

It is this very essence of connectedness that is the core and fabric of their theatre. A new and vital theatrical map is being drawn at Kalakshetra; it has its own idiom. And because it is authentic and true, it touches something deep within me. I am relieved and moved by its sincerity. Kalakshetra speaks to me of the very potential theatre holds for higher perception in the world beyond commercial excess. It is a theatre placed in an environment surrounded by deep political conflict and yet it is a theatre that dares to be silent and allow the mystery that we keep at bay through noise penetrates. Something important is happening here. Life is being breathed into theatre’s lofty destiny. It has potential to remind us of our humanity, to transform society. And it is compelling to witness. My sincerest wish is that their work at Kalakshetra be known the world over. They have found a singular voice in the theatre, a voice that is true to itself and it needs to be heard.