The other presentation of the festival was RASHOMAN of H. Kanhailal a combination of thangta, sankirtana, several tantric forms and spiritual symbols, done in an absolutely new idiom and. language. Obviously Kanhailal has reached a revolutionary point of his creative journey. RASHOMAN was simply amazing for the audience. About his work he says: I have not been able to give a name to this style, I may take some more time. According to Dr. Philip Zarili, the American theatre scholar “the day Kanhailal succeeds in completion of his discovery of the new language, the present form of theatre would crash.”

Sisir Gupta

(Translated from Hindi as quoted from the DHARMA YUG of

31st January, 1988 issue- page 45)


Of the six plays presented at, the Shri Ram Centre in connection with a theatre week on Experiments with Tradition, jointly sponsored by the Shri Ram Centre for Art and Culture and the Ford Foundation, the most gripping dramatic piece belonged to Kanhailal. The theme was MEMOIRS OF AFRICA based on a modem Manipuri poem about suffering of black Americans. But the style, the mood, the movement and the cathartic acting by his wife, Sabitri, as the symbol of victimisation, were superbly fashioned, the breath gasping to rhythm, the shuddering horror which finds expression in Sabitri’s amazing fluidity of movement, the soft wail rising to a crescendo like an inner scream and no dialogues at all made this evening riveting a 45 minutes of sheer theatre.

Uma Vasudev, Times of India, New Delhi.



The women, the victim of the oriental society dominated by the man, tries to express her resistance to the deeply rooted social humiliation through “Innocent Silence” as H. Kanhailal, the director of the Indian play “THE HUMAN CAGE” calls it.


To affirm the emotional character, the director created a dreamy atmosphere, freeing his actors from daily life imitation. The play is not simple story of love and revenge, it focussed on the inner experience and feelings of a woman’s suffering, struggle and revenge by her deep silence. The director uses silence, body movement, human sound and music as the main language of the play. Words were merged into an “integrated” language through body-soul interactions as a single vital force developed from “tribalism” for the theatre of transcendence.

Manal Abdul Aziz

(An extract from “Experimental Theatre” Friday 6 September 1991

Ministry of Culture, The 3rd Cairo International Festival)



Kanhailal-Sabitri combination is a new phenomenon in Manipuri theatre. This eminent theatre personality of India, Kanhailal, since his early association with Badal Sircar of Calcutta, goes on evolving with his new theatrical language from “physical theatre” to “intimate theatre” and now to “theatre of transcendence”. Indian critics call it “alternate theatre”. This is a new theatre language with an accent on silence and gesture and integrated expression of dance, music and body expression.


Sabitri’s performances-amazingly energetic, brilliantly precised and moving. She hardly speaks, but looks, shouts, groans and moans and keeps the audience spell bound. Her acting is a complete language as expressed in her body and voice, her gestures, tones, looks of the eye, tilts of the head, music and emotion of vocal levels. This is great acting by any standard.

Elangbam Nilakanta Singh, Manipur Mail, Imphal



Here was a theatre of imagery, both fluid and powerful. Words were redundant, used much as the wind and percussion instruments (ranged with the audience in front). The rise and fall of voices and music, along with the perfectly orchestrated circling movements on stage bound performers and viewers into an engrossed ritual. Suggestive visuals maximised the magic. As when Kama’s corpse was “carried” away by the simple means of four persons picking up the cloth which covered him, and making it into a canopied pall, bearing the hero off the stage. .


Even in death he is claimed by the Aryan masters, leaving his foster parents destitute, along with their lower class clan. Suddenly their meek acceptance flares into a wail of protest as the tribe closed ranks and turned inward into an eerie colloquy with the spirit of the tragic warrior. He answers from beyond death as a mother (played brilliantly by H. Sabitri Devi) is lost in a trance, and the maibee Priestess appears in a drawn-sword frenzy. Those were moments beyond drama and even representation, where the soul and the senses vibrated to a chord deeper than reason.

The Hindu, Mumbai.



The vision of this theatre has been nurtured by the most gifted and creative director, H. Kanhailal, who has evolved one of the most subtle training systems for the contemporary Indian actors. In this regard, his chief collaborator has been his wife, Smt. Sabitri, an actress of extraordinary power, whose capacity to enter and transcend the most turbulent state of emotions is a rarity in the contemporary theatre world. Rooted as she is in deeply indigenous modes of traditional and folk performances, she has ability to surrender to the most profound dimensions of a melodramatic experience where the emotions are larger than life, yet real. Together, Kanhailal and Sabitri form a “unified language in theatre”, a communion that is extended to the other actors who celebrate the joy and terror of life with a deeply affecting honesty and sense of play.

Rustom Bharucha, Kolkata.



Karna is more experimental in the sense that it shuns the direct narration, and makes the hero a vehicle of a massage with post-modernist undertones. It focuses on Brahmanic control and imposition of a mythological discourse on the Sudras, a discourse that was to serve the interests of the Brahmin elite. In the play, Kama’s death takes place quite early.

It is only after that, with the hero’s body in the foreground, that most of action takes place. This often demands the participation of the spirit of Karna.


…Tomba makes a powerful Kara in his dance-like movements as in the baring of his suffering soul. The best performance, however, comes from Sabittri, who as Radha cries her heart out for a son who is now claimed by a royal mother and whose body is snatched for a royal funeral. Sabitri’s grief is accentuated by a highly theatrical Kunti (Sanjukta) who, is contrast with Radha, grabs every opportunity to advertise her bereavement.

All the cast brings out tellingly all the points the director was trying to make… The play has a Noh-like simplicity.


Kanhailal is one of the best theatre directors in the country and Tomba, his son, does not lag far behind. Sabitri (Mrs Kanhailal) is a powerful actress and they have groomed a young team. It is a pity that one does not get them more often.

Pabitra Sircar, Statesman, Kolkata



One of our foremost but shiest directors, Kanhailal has the tare and uncanny ability to transform existing materials into stunning political theatre. He dramatises Mahasweta Devi’s short story of the same tide, about a brutalised Santa! Naxalite named (ironically) after the Pandava’s wife, into unexpectedly immediate relevance not only for Manipur but many man in camouflage fatigues and black bandanas apparently enjoying their “job”, and the intensification of the terrible climax, raise basic human rights issues of which not enough Indians are aware.


Kanhailal talks just an hour to drive, with utmost sensitivity and stylized artistry, what others labour over for twice the time yet fail to convey. Every member of Ka1akshetra is excellent, as ‘is Tomba Heisnam’s eerie music. Amubi Akham and Sabitri, daughter and mother in real life, share the lead: The former’s youthful energy counter points the latter’s minimalism, which, expresses a whole life’s agony with a faint smile. Silence would have spoken louder than our applause.

Anand Lal, Telegraph, Kolkata




The origin of Imphal’s naked protest lies in Manipuri theatre, … With the sledgehammer slogan ‘Indian Army, Rape us’, were merely repeating what one of Manipur’s (and India’s) greatest actresses, Sabitri Heisnam had done on stage a couple years ago, in the play (Draupadi) directed by her gifted husband, Kanhailal. It was clear even as one watched the play in the comfort of the theatre space that Sabitri’s out-rage and passion in her ultimate act of resistance was not merely ‘drama’. … evident that there was a social energy and force behind it.  … if the Mumbai press didn’t get it, the Manipuri women were sure to take the cue. And the results have been electrifying. After all, it is not often that life imitates art.

Sadanand Menon,



Draupadi, adapted from Bengali writer about the oppression of marginalised ethnic minorities in India featuring the brilliant actress Sabitri, bore the unmistakable stamp of director Kanhailal Heisnam’s genius.


Mounted on an almost bare stage with only a gnarled tree in the background, the enchantment had the quality of a Dhmpad-Iangurous and saturated, minimal images thick with meaning, earth embracing movements, soul piercing notes. Silence spoke more than words. Bodies moved like being controlled by deeply felt inner emotions. The eternal game of hide and seek between hunted and the hunter appeared before the eye. Sabitri came on for just twenty minutes of the play. She electrified the evening as only a superlative performance presence can do: it was a benediction.

 Kavita Nagpal, Indian Express, New Delhi



In order to evolve a new ideological basis for social, economic and political living, Kanhailal does not feel shy of harsh reality. Draupadi, a reincarnated Dopdi, stands nude in full view of the audience, stunned by the horror of the situation when neither Krishna nor his miracle appear on the scene. This is how the pain of the oppressed is conveyed and spontaneous emergence of the female leadership, in countering dominant tensions of the time, is established. This daring is what makes Kanhailal different from Ratan Thiyam. The later is radical only in form. .

Shahid Anwar, Express Newsline; New Delhi




Amal in Heisnam Kanhailal’s interpretation of Dakghar represented this liberated spirit captured in all its primordial human self. The character is conceived through the evocation of dream and takes off from a point where discourse fails. Amal reacts through the basic five elements – sound, sight, touch, feel and smell. This has given shape through flowing dance movements capturing joy, fear or bewilderment. All his reactions are instinctive and intuitive.


The 63-year-old Sabitri as Amal is a marvel to look at on stage. Her flowing movements, her precision in encapsulating unbounded joy… and her stifling fear percolates to the senses.

Satarupa Basu, Hindustan Times, Kolkata


Dakghar, directed by H. Kanhailal was the best presentation of the festival. This was a smooth transition from physical theatre to the spiritual. He blended the entire North -East using dialect, songs, the various musical instruments into the fabric of the play.

The end is an exhilarating expression of freedom beautifully enacted by Sabitri, lighting, costumes; music met the highest theatrical standard. Sixty-three-year old Sabitri’s depiction of young Amal is authentic. One was reminded of the praise heaped on dancer Dame Margot Fontyn for her depiction of 14-year-old Juliet at the age of 55.

Maitreyi Chatterjee, The Statesman, Kolkata.



Amidst all these movements in search of an alternative theatre, the work of Heisnam Kanhailal of Manipur is entirely different and remarkable. Different in the sense that he has created an entirely new non-western, highly localised form of theatre solely based on local performing traditions using indigenous ritual forms and devices. Kanhailal’s invaluable contribution to Manipuri theatre is the creation of a different form of theatre by diving deep into our indigenous cultural roots and using experimental acting styles in his venture. He is not simply a director but also a profound thinker and theorist. Someday, his theories of theatre may lead us to a brighter future. Such a man of remarkable thought and theatrical talent is born seldom in a century in our world.


Budha Chingtham, The Sangai Express, Imphal