Dibyajyoti Sarma attends the Chorus Festival and is charmed by the magic of Ratan Thiyam’s theatre
Ask any magician and he’ll tell you. The basic trick is to make your audience believe. Spectators know that it’s a trick, yet the way the magician performs it compels the audience to suspend their disbelief and willingly follow the magician into his conjured up world.
This is what Ratan Thiyam does, and with such flamboyance! No, he is not a magician; through we could very well call him one. What was it then if not magic that made us spell-bound for four wonderful days last week as the city saw not one or two but six magnificent performances by the Chorus Repertory Theatre of Ratan Thiyam at the Chorus Festival!
Presented by a renowned actor-director himself Amol Palekar (we sincerely thank him for that), the Chorus Festival brought together two trilogies of Ratan Thiyam, representing some of the best works by the genius from Manipur, both old and new. Though the Mahabharata Trilogy is an old production, the Manipur Trilogy is brand new, especially the play titled Prologue, which was actually premiered on Sunday in Balgandharva. Thus, the festival was a retrospect of the best of Ratan Thiyam, and after watching these six plays, it’s not very hard to decipher why Thiyam is considered one of the greatest exponent of modern Indian theatre.
It’s very difficult to make a distinction between drama and theatre. But you can confidently conclude that Thiyam’s productions are not drama, but theatre in its full glory, grand without being ostentatious, larger-than-life without being lavish, and effective without being eloquent. As he himself argues, his theatre is non-plot oriented; you may call it abstract theatre if such a thing exists.
What Thiyam does is he takes up a theme and then conjures up a number of images to highlight it. In its totality, his theatre turns into a sort of pastiche, a collage of moving images. This is especially true of his latest productions, the plays in the Manipur Trilogy. For example, in My Earth, My Love the basic theme is the never-ending cycle of war and bloodshed. To highlight this theme, his collages range from traditional war dance, to Hitler, from Hiroshima to Cambodia, from Europe to closer home Manipur, different expressions of the same emotion.
The production brochure reads: “Thiyam’s work has an epic sweep, at the same time its pathos becomes personal as a sonnet.” Epic, yes. In his hands, the measured stage turns into limitless space where dust rises from the battlefields of Kurukhestra, or a fighter plane flies across the sky! And yes, though the issues are about the death of Abhimanyu or Jewish genocide or military barbarity in Manipur, it echoes with a personal anguish.
And here lies the magic of Ratan Thiyam. He conjures up a world before you and even though you know that it’s only an act, you go ahead and believe it, or rather relive the experience before you and be an ally to it.
But how does he achieve this?
Since his themes are abstract, his medium of expression is abstract too. But this abstractness has its root in the folk tradition of Manipur, rich in its cultural heritage. Thiyam utilises these traditional art forms with a modern approach and with the help of costume, choreography, lighting and other stage devices creates such an ensemble that it surpasses its locality and becomes universal. In the Mahabharat Trilogy, for example, his characters are traditionally attired, they dance according to the steps of Thang-ta (martial art), but the emotions, Abhimanyu’s question on honour and sacrifice in Chakravyuha, or Balaram’s anger in Urubhangam are entirely universal.
It is the ensemble where Thiyam’s magic is most powerful, especially the sheer physicality of the scenes he creates. With few brilliantly choreographed steps and innovative lighting, he can recreate the battle of Kurukshetra, he can make doves fly on the stage, makes a fighter plane, makes his protagonist ascend to heaven. In Thiyam’s ensemble a dance move tells a thousand stories, a fluttering piece of cloth define a character, and shade of light change the entire perspective.
This simply is the magic of Ratan Thiyam’s theatre.
Gems of wisdom
I am not a playwright. I do not concentrate on the writing, but try to create a performance text. My aim is to experiment with the techniques of theatre. There is no writing for writing sake. What I am interested in is the issues. Encounter with situation is important to me. The cycle of the history is very compelling. I am looking for a futuristic approach to theatre. I am searching for my perception of theatre. I really don’t know what theatre is. Whatever I do, it’s my technique of expression.
Theatre as such is a means of communication. The situation in Manipur (everywhere for that matter) is very fragile. That is handled by the politicians. But the emotional aspect is missing. I try to bring that in my theatre.
My theatre needs concentration. But it’s different from other theatres. There is no advice, no statement in my theatre, only a few questions. Therefore, language should not be a hindrance (answering to a question whether subtitles should be used in his theatre in order to explain the content since his productions are in Manipuri language). Subtitles are distractions. My theatre is non-plot oriented theatre. There is only the basic content and how the content is presented. It’s abstract. (Therefore language as such plays a very minimal role.)
What is important for me in the theatre is how the energy flows on the stage. The camera is not sufficient enough to cover the entire stage. Therefore, the energy goes missing if the performance is filmed.
Theatre includes everything, literature, music, dance, lights, painting and other art forms. Yet, by combining all these, it creates a different art form.
Music in my theatre depends on the kind of work I am doing. The theme dictates other elements. In theatre music is not real, but time-bound. Music can create so many images.
Tradition is not only the history but also the wisdom that this history imparts. All civilisations come to an end one day. The remains turn into museum pieces. The question is how to communicate with these pieces of history.
I cannot please everyone (on the question of ornate expressions and violent themes in his productions). I do my own presentation. And I am not following anyone.
The colour black is very important to me. I want to paint in a black canvas. You paint and then erase it; you paint again and erase it again. Soon a layer appears after all these erasures. This is the approach I follow.
I am expecting joy in my heart. If I get it, I’ll present a happy play (on asked why his plays are tragic).
Manipur is not about one single issue, there are several. It needs to be looked at in its entirety. My plays are based on issues but it is aesthetically done.
(Ratan Thiyam shared his views in a question-answer session at the Balgandharva Rangamandir on Jan 14)
The Mahabharat Trilogy
The story of the tragic death of Abhimanyu in the battle of Kurukhestra.
The final duel between Duryodhana and Bhima where the later commits a foul play at Krishna’s insistence. This angers Krishna’s brother Balaram.
Blind Age (Andha Yug)
The aftermath of Kurukhestra war, the futility of pride and power, where Gandhari curses Krishna for not stopping the battle of Kurukhestra.
The Manipur Trilogy
The story of the man from the creation to the collapse of the civilisation. The present is marred by violence. History is the only solace.
My Earth, My Love
The continuous cycle of war and bloodshed through the world. Yet, there’s still hope.
Nine Hills One Valley
At the wake of the collapse of civilisation, the strife of violence of bloodshed, the seven elders who created the world returns back to offer us rays of hope.
The Chorus Festival
Apart from the two trilogies, the Chorus Festival also saw a host of other events. On January 13, theatre personality and screen actor Makarand Deshpande was awarded the Amrish Puri Award for his contribution to theatre.
On January 14, a symposium was organised, attended by former NSD (National School of Drama) students, namely Om Puri, Rohini Hatangadi and others. The topic of discussion was the contribution of NSD to Indian theatre.
(The best part of the festival was the informal set up, especially in Jan 14 at Balgandharva Rangamandir where it looked like a marriage ceremony with Amol Palekar playing the host to the hilt. The city owes him for this spectacular event. This was the third time that Palekar hosted a theatre festival based a single artist’s work, the earlier two instances being Badal Sirkar and Vijay Tendulkar. Hoping Palekar continues this for years to come.)