Draupadi is a story about marginalised people who are continually oppressed by the powers that be. The protagonist, Draupadi (played by Heisnam Sabitri), an indigenous woman, fights against the atrocities being committed against her tribe. Ultimately, her husband Dulna is arrested and killed by the police. Draupadi, too, falls in their clutches. So what inspired Heisnam Kanhailal to stage Draupadi? “Torture and gang rape by security forces are regularly reported in Manipur. And this has been going on for a long time. We were trying to figure out how to register a powerful protest against this through the medium of theatre. Then, I was given this story of Mahasweta Devi by a friend in November 1999. Immediately, I began working on it and finished adapting it into a play in January 2000.” The play was censored and hasn’t been staged in Imphal since that year, although it has won accolades all over the country. This March, after 14 years, Draupadi will return to the stage in Manipur’s capital.
As he walked into the Academy of Fine Arts, Heisnam Kanhailal (seated left) could easily remind you of one of those Kung Fu masters you see in Chinese films. Wise, calm, poised — a man who commanded obvious respect. But that solemn expression soon changed as he spotted Nandikar’s patriarch Rudraprasad Sengupta (standing behind). “How old is that jacket you’re wearing? 50 years?” Kanhailal asked Sengupta, embracing him like an old friend. Asked to pose for a picture, the duo called out to Kanhailal’s wife Heisnam Sabitri (seated right). And, like true, old-school gentlemen, they pulled out a chair for her. Picture by Bibhash Lodh
Heisnam Kanhailal is the grand old man of Northeast theatre. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2004 and is the founder-director of Kalakshetra Manipur. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in direction in 1985 and in December, 2011, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Ratna Award (the highest-ranked and most valued Akademi award).
Draupadi has got a tremendous response here. The first show was sold out in no time and you have been requested to stage a second show. Did you expect to generate such huge interest?
I think it’s because of the love for this kind of theatre in Calcutta.
The story ends with a magnificent final scene in which Draupadi faces her abusers, naked and bloody, but fiercely strong. Your wife, Heisnam Sabitri, plays the role of Draupadi in the play. Did you have any apprehensions when recreating the scene on stage?
In the first show in Imphal, we did not go all the way. It was more of a suggestion. But we realized that wouldn’t work. The scene had to really disturb the audience, hound the audience.
We were invited to New Delhi for a festival organised by the National School of Drama in 2000. I consulted a few of my women friends and they asked me to go ahead with it.
So, we played out the nude scene at our next show at the Shri Ram Centre auditorium. We got an incredible response. Highly respected and educated artistes like Sonal Mansingh rushed to the green room. They touched Sabitri’s feet.
Next, we came back to Imphal and did two shows. Trouble started from the third show. A group of educated, articulate women, decried the play; they started treating Savitri as a notorious woman. Another group, surprisingly comprising mostly men, said it should be done. These two groups began to fight each other in the daily newspapers.
But in 2004, life imitated art when a group of Manipuri women walked through Imphal to the Assam Rifles headquarters and disrobed to protest the killing and alleged rape of Thangjam Manorama (who was picked up from her home by the 17th Assam Rifles. The next morning, her bullet-riddled corpse was found in a field. An autopsy revealed semen marks on her skirt suggesting possible rape.)
On the morning after this incident, local newspapers began to write: “Draupadi was played out in life”. They began calling me chingu (which in Manipuri means a wise man who can predict the future).
Ordinary people tend to stay away from theatre these days. There’s a feeling that theatre is a pastime for intellectuals. Very few theatre groups keep the audiences in mind or take risks.
That’s very true. Conventional theatre in India has borrowed heavily from Europe. It’s intellectual, academic. Why should we do erudite theatre? We have to stop preaching to the audience; the audience is more intelligent than you think. My goal is to convey my sensibilities to the audience, to alert the audience, to move the audience.
That is why I founded Kalakshetra and began to experiment. We believe in the notion of a workshop that is a laboratory or research theatre rather than a production company.
We try to transform our ancestral traditions and give them contemporary cultural expressions. Of course, this has its risks and challenges. There are imperfections at times but it is worth doing.
You have such a large body of work. Among your own plays, which is your favourite?
There are four actually. Pebet, which was first produced in 1975 and is still continuing. Then Memoirs of Africa that was first produced in 1985. Draupadi and finally Rabindranath Tagore’s Dakghar, which we produced in 2006.
What do you seek in an actor?
Stage presence and clarity of thought.
Finally, what is one lesson of life that theatre has taught you?
Theatre makes you more social, takes away inhibitions and teaches humility.