SPREADEAGLED and pierced by arrows, a warrior’s lifeless body lies on the stage. His widow weeps by his side, alone. Born to a mortal woman, Karna, son of the sun god, is abandoned by everyone but his wife as he breathes his last in Ningthouja Deepak’s Lament of Widow (Manipuri; January 13). This is the first of five plays from the Northeast at the 16th edition of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM).
Imphal-based Ningthouja Ronika, production manager and wife of the play’s director Ningthouja Deepak, says, “Even at a local level, there’s never a scarcity of audience. Theatre has thrived for ages in Manipur alone, and it will continue to do so because we believe it’s the best way to talk about social issues that plague our society. For instance, while insurgency has long troubled the people of Northeast, counter-insurgency has also caused problems,” she says. While a parallel festival kicks off in Imphal and Guwahati, veterans have brought — in Ratan Thiyam’s words — “the exceptional quality of theatre from the Northeast” to the Capital. Thiyam is currently the Chairman of the National School of Drama.
While Deepak’s NT Theatre’s production is a spin-off on Karna’s character from the Mahabharata, another production called Shumang Leela on the same day is a Manipuri folktale. Directed by O Prafullochandra, the play shows how the whole world is one family (vasudeva kutumbakam). Urged on by a motley mix of rituals and rites that arise from religious, regional and tribal roots, the theatre that comes from the Seven Sisters long started the process of engraving its identity in the public memory. This identity is one forged with a respect for all natural and supernatural forces, and beliefs and customs that are passed on to every new generation.
“The culture of theatre is in our blood,” says Rupjyoti Mahanta, the Assamese playwright and director of A Bedroom scheduled for January 17 at BRM. “There is a minimum of 37 mobile theatre groups in Assam alone, and every night they do at least two shows. In other Indian cities, people go out for drinks and for long drives to unwind, but in the Northeast, we have theatre to keep us going,” he says. Interspered with folk songs from Manipur and Tripura, Mahanta brings to us a woman troubled by her husband. “A victim of marital rape, one day this woman reads about a brutal gang rape. Her husband talks about shares and stocks, politics and economics, everything in the newspaper except the rape, which he sees as an ‘every day occurrence’.”
While this story is free of geographical constraints, Guwahati-based playwright Ranhang Choudhury tells a story from Arunachal Pradesh through Nokiyampo (January 15). “The Nocte tribe in Arunachal had a unique tradition in which young girls had to prove their fertility by giving birth to a child by co habiting with a male member of their society. After the child was born, as per rituals, it was killed and the girl was given in marriage to someone chosen by continued…