The journey to centrestage

The journey to centrestage
There is a buzz about Ratan Thiyam the moment his play is announced. Long queues form at the venue and despite the fact Ratan Thiyam does not believe in providing surtitles, his plays play to full-house capacities. Written and performed in the Meitei language of Manipur, they are visually so strong that they leave an indelible impression.

Currently chairman of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, and director of his own company Chorus Repertory Theatre at Imphal, Manipur, Ratan Thiyam is all this as I have mentioned, and also a warm human being. Rather a shy person, introvert. Not easy to draw him out and make him speak about his early career. He has built his Chorus Repertory Theatre company singlehandedly and with many sacrifices, against all odds, with great tenacity, in far off North East region.

Son of a celebrated dancing couple, Tarun Kumar Thiyam and wife Bilasini Devi, he was literally brought up in boxes of costumes in green rooms, travelling with his parents who performed in early 40s under the banner of impresario Haren Ghosh, who also toured Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s troupe and Uday Shankar’s dance company. As a child, Ratan detested dance and vowed not to become a dancer.

Brush with direction
In Imphal as a young artist, a painter and a budding poet, essentially Ratan was a writer of short stories, novels and the joint editor of a few literary magazines. It so happened that he was asked as a writer to dramatise Damodar’s novel Nawab Nadini. He remembered the entire script and since the director was too busy to take the rehearsals, he asked Ratan to take them. This was his first brush with direction and theatre.

Another incident which led him to act in the same play was a fight between the hero and the villain. The hero left. As Ratan knew the entire script by heart, he did not need any prompting from the wings. The director cast him as a hero.

Handsome, young and dashing Ratan started receiving invitations and for one year he was too busy as an actor. Two years later, Ratan became part of the Cultural Forum that boasted crème de la crème of Manipuri intellectuals, painters, poets and writers.

He started editing the prestigious magazine Ritu. Another personality of Cultural Forum, Shyam Sharma, and Ratan decided to have a short-play competition. Many new young Manipuri directors participated.

Among them were H Kanhailal, Lokendra Arambam, (late) Pokhendra Sharma, Kamini and others. Manipuri young directors were influenced by Western theatre. Brecht’s play Waiting for Godot was an important influence, as were surrealism and existentialism. This also brought a sea change in the evolving Manipuri theatre. Rolling screens and cut-out sets gave way to abstract and suggestive designs; the plays reflected social reality. Ratan saw the changes and with whatever experience he had gained in theatre, he decided to join the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, to hone his theatric skills.

NSD years helped him a lot. He mastered diction in Hindi and Urdu. He specialised in acting and performed in a number of plays under Alkazi and others. He was in NSD Repertory for six months and even directed a play which failed miserably, after which he returned to Imphal.

In order to have a theatre company, Ratan started giving theatre workshops. He soon realised that most people wanted to become actors. He felt, as an actor, if he were to take major roles, then no one would attend his workshops. That led him to take the role of an organiser and director.

This also brought a complete change in Ratan’s approach to theatre he wanted to create in Imphal.

There was no training given at NSD in traditional theatre. Whereas in Manipuri culture, there were amazing and diverse traditional forms which he wished to master and employ in his kind of theatre. He requested his father to train him under the best of traditional gurus, the martial artistes of Thang Ta, the narrative storytelling known as Wari Leeba, Nata Sankritan, Choloms, both the drum playing Pung Cholom, and cymbal playing, and that brought in the typical flavour of Manipuri tradition.

This was also the time when, nationally, theatre directors were seeking the ‘roots’, and Ratan’s own desire to learn Manipuri traditions coincided with that movement.

He gathered around him actors from Imphal city and not folk artistes, as the latter did not stick together for long. The city-based young actors were willing to stay together, which was ‘up his street’, and the group he built created a ‘miracle’! The knowledge he had acquired from NSD and what he was acquiring from the Manipuri gurus helped him prepare a training programme for contemporary theatre.

When in 1977 he brought his first Manipuri play Shanarembi Chaishra to New Delhi, he had already trained a strong realistic actor who could do stylised acting.

By 1980, Ratan had made a name with Bhasa’s classical play Urubhangam, and his own play Chakryavyuha that he wrote in Meitei, based upon the Mahabharata. It was first presented by Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1984, and won the Fringe First Award at the Commonwealth Festival, Edinburgh, for direction, in 1987.

I had met Ratan when I saw Urubhangam in Imphal, in 1980, with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. I was familiar with Manipuri dance traditions. But the manner in which Ratan had used those very traditions was quite startling!

Having studied Bhasa’s plays including Urubhangam, not knowing Meitei language was no problem. The artistic transformation Ratan had made of rituals and conventions, thereby creating stunning visuals, impressed me the most. I had not seen anything like it till then in Indian plays. Because of my understanding of classical dance forms and Natya Shastra, I was greatly impressed by the way Ratan had dovetailed Manipuri dance forms into his plays.

Finding colours
I was very excited to write about Ratan’s play for The Illustrated Weekly of India, but Ratan did not have colour photos and the editor was keen on using colour photos as my copy spoke of colourful visuals.

I succeeded in getting colour photos much later during my visit to Guwahati when Chakravyuh was staged, and for the first time professional-quality colour photos of the play were taken in India.

The recognition came in a big way when Chakravyuh was invited to be staged in Nehru Shatabdi Natya Mahotsav Samaroh organised by Sangeet Natak Akademi in September 1989 at Kamani Auditorium, New Delhi, along with a galaxy of ‘who’s who’ of Indian Theatre including Utpal Dutt, Chandrashekhar Kambar, Kumar Roy, K N Panikkar, Shyamananda Jalan, B V Karanth, Satydev Dubey, Shreeram Lagoo, B M Shah, Jabbar Patel, Vijaya Mehta and Habib Tanvir. Ratan never looked back. The rest is history.

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