On July 15, 2004, Manipuri theatre director Heisnam Kanhailal and his actor wife Heisnam Sabitri were in Delhi, taking a class at the National School of Drama (NSD), when they received a phone call. At Kangla Fort in Imphal, Manipur, where the 17 Assam Rifles was stationed, a group of middle-aged mothers had taken off their clothes and stood with a banner that read: “Indian Army Rape Us”. “A theatre worker phoned us and said, ‘This is the second time Draupadi has been disrobed. Kanhailal sir, you are a chingu (a wise man who can see the future)’,” says Sabitri, “That day, I cried for a long time.”
Four years earlier, Sabitri had become nude before audiences to play a victim of custodial gangrape, Draupadi. Mahasweta Devi had written the story of Dopdi Mejhen, a Naxalite rebel and “ most notorious female” of the 1970s, who is picked up by soldiers and repeatedly gangraped until her black body seeks no solace in clothes. Kanhailal adapted the story into a stage production to indict the army for years of violence and atrocities in Manipur. Sabitri played Draupadi, hurling away her shawl and confronting a soldier with the fury of her naked body. “That moment, everybody in the hall was speechless, including me,” says Bharatanatyam dancer Sonal Mansingh, who had worked on the same text by Mahashweta Devi in 1994.
The play, titled Draupadi, was still banned in Manipur and Sabitri blacklisted by some women intellectuals (“I was called a whore by many of them,” she says) when the demonstration took place at Kangla Fort. Within the year of the protest, the 17 Assam Rifles was moved out of Kangla Fort. Today, Imphal Municipal Area is the only part of the state free of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). “Theatre takes the language of protest from real life, but, in this case, it gave a vocabulary of protest to real life,” says Anuradha Kapur, theatre director and former director, NSD.
Women have emerged on the forefront of resistance in Manipur, their grit traceable to the Nupi Lan — the historic battles that the state’s women waged in 1904 and 1939. If Irom Sharmila is the symbol of resistence in the political sphere, Sabitri is the cultural representation of Manipur’s resilience. One of the most formidable actors of contemporary India, she is diminutive, enthusiastic and bubbling with humour — a septuagenarian and a child at once. She leans forward excitedly while rattling off long sentences in Manipuri, accompanied by a dictionary of hand gestures and facial expressions. She barely pauses for her student Usham Rojio to translate.
If Kanhailal was a maverick and an intellectual, Sabitri was unfailingly cheerful and simple. Everybody calls her Ima (mother), while Kanhailal was Oja, or mentor. If their canon is better known as “the theatre of Kanhailal”, it is because the stage, unlike films, places the director at the top of the credit list. Kanhailal, however, made it clear that his theatre could only be expressed through Sabitri’s body. “Among Manipur’s theatre fraternity, it is said that Kanhailal dreamed and Sabitri transformed his dreams to reality,” says Rojio, a research scholar on theatre and performance studies at JNU, Delhi.
Kanhailal-Sabitri’s plays reveal what newspapers do not — the wear and tear of the human spirit. Once, during a combing operation, Sabitri’s youngest son was picked up as a terror suspect. He was kept in a cell, tortured and his fingers were smashed. Sabitri approached the authorities to see him. They warned her, “Ima, you will cry”. She promised she wouldn’t. She met him for a few minutes and didn’t shed a tear. But her agony has come out many a times in the plays that she has done and the issues she has picked to portray. “Sabitri is capable of the silent scream, not only because she is a great actress but because her life has prepared her to understand the terrifying contradiction of that moment,” writes Rustom Bharucha in The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet and Memoirs of Africa.
The angst in the plays is a fictionalised — and palatable — depiction of real horrors. Even the nude scene in Draupadi has context. “We took up the play after a woman named Elangbam Ahanjaobi Devi was raped by the army in front of her father-in-law. When I tried to imagine the experience she must have gone through, my spine chilled. I wanted to show the world the real agony of the raped woman. I had to be naked,” says Sabitri, who won the Sahitya Natak Akademi award in 1991 and a Padma Shri in 2007.
She and Kanhailal, among India’s most political theatre people, belonged to the era when Kavalam Narayana Panikkar in Kerala, Habib Tanvir in Chhattisgarh and Badal Sircar in Bengal, among others, were going back to the country’s roots through theatre. “Our theatre grew out of our native soil in the form of an outlet that channelised the silent feelings of the exploited. It totally denies the normal practice of political theatre that remains full of slogans and propaganda for specific political ends… We believe in ‘live and let live’,” writes Kanhailal in the essay, ‘Sabitri’s Search for Totality’ (The Act of Becoming, edited by Amal Allana). Kanhailal followed this ethos till he died in October last year. The discourse now rests on Sabitri. How will she steer their organisation, Kalakshetra Manipur? She would be aware that many groups, including Tanvir’s Naya Theatre, faded away after the passing of its leader.
Then again, Sabitri has played Pebet, a bird smaller than a sparrow and possibly extinct, that outwits a predatory cat and protects her children. When NSD paid a tribute to Kanhailal during Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM) in February this year, it was Pebet, a play with no dialogues, which Sabitri performed. After the show, the audience moved en masse to the green room to touch her feet.
“The nature of the arts is such that people come together and some stay on and marry, from Ebrahim and Roshan Alkazi, Habib and Moneeka Tanvir to Shyamanand and Chetana Jalan. In most cases, the husband is the creative genius while the wife plays the supporting role. Kanhailal-Sabitri is possibly the only case where the two partners were at par,” says Sudhanva Deshpande of Jan Natya Manch.
When she is sitting in the darkness of the wings, sipping tea from a thimble-like plastic cup, with hours to go before a play begins, Sabitri appears more luminous than her young co-actors. “What is interesting about her is that she has non-stop presence. You look at certain actors all the time because they are all there the whole time. It is a huge challenge for an actor. Sabitri has presence, even when she is not on stage,” says Kapur.
This is because Sabitri never switches off. She says she is always performing with her body in relation to her surroundings. She demonstrates a typical day around the house — which she brings alive without getting up from her chair — from waking up to the call of the rooster to cooking while “chatting” with a crow in the kitchen to laying the bed while the dogs fight outside at night. Ask her how long she rehearses and the answer is, “Always”. She often wakes up at night to see the character on her mosquito net. “She plays at acting and everything in her life is seen through the window of acting,” says National Award-winning director Oinam Doren, whose new film, Theatre of the Earth, revolves around Kanhailal and Sabitri.
“If you think of a singer, you’d realise that most of them clear their throats before performing. It is a rare singer who, at any time of day, can open her mouth and start singing. Sabitri is that rare artiste. Her body is totally tuned, like a musical instrument,” says Deshpande.
Sabitri was born into a rural family in the village of Mayang Imphal and never went to school. Her father was a clarinet player with a band, but it was her aunt, Gouramani Devi, a famous actor of the 1940s and ’50s, who took her under her wings. Sabitri’s first role was of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Nimai Sanyas, an “opera style” religious play that was performed during rath yatra. “Staunch Vaishnavites, who adorned their foreheads with sandalwood paste, would watch our opera and cry seeing my performance. It wasn’t that I was a very good performer. Faith and devotion stirred them to a divine level of illusion. After my performance, they used to come and touch my feet,” she says. Sabitri played the role a thousand times by the time she was 12.
She met Kanhailal when she was 16 and he, around 20. He had scripted and directed Layeng Ahanba and she was in the lead. “During the play, we fell in love and eloped. Eloping is common in Manipur and is considered a good custom,” she says. She was not considered a suitable daughter-in-law because she was from a village, not to forget, an actor, too. “Marriage put a complete stop on my acting career. I was supposed to play the perfect daughter-in-law — cook, clean, feed the family and make hookah for my father-in-law. In those days, there were no rice mills and we had to pound the rice manually,” she says. It was a lila group that came to her rescue. “Oja spoke to his mother, who persuaded my father-in-law, and I got back to acting again. I took my children to the lila performances. I earned Rs 15 from the first lila and gave the entire sum to my father-in-law. This was a big amount of money and he was so happy that he allowed me to get back to theatre,” she says.
In 1968, they were expecting their third child when Kanhailal decided to come to NSD in Delhi to study theatre. Critics say the experience of being away from Manipur led him back to his roots. He was expelled in a few months, presumably because he couldn’t speak Hindi or English, and Kanhailal would dedicate his life to creating plays in which physical actions and vocals replaced dialogues. “After he was removed from NSD, Oja did not come back home — he felt shy. He stayed in Delhi and did small jobs. After a few months, he came back to Manipur and, with great determination, we started a group called Kalakshetra Manipur,” says Sabitri.
They studied the performance and ritual forms of Manipur, from the martial thang-ta to the sankirtan singing to the wari liba storytelling. This, more than their stint with Badal Sircar, forms the foundation of the body, breathing and voice patterns that makes up the acting style of Sabitri and the troupe of Kalakshetra.“A time came when we had to live separately from the parents-in-law. Those were the hardest days of our lives. There were days when there was no rice in the kitchen. The children would ask for food. Oja used to get drunk sometimes. Fed up with the regular curry of boiled cabbage leaves, one day, he uprooted all the cabbage plants in the house garden,” she says. Their first plays, Ekhoulangbi and Wahang Ama, did not fare well.
The house they lived in was made of bamboo and mud that leaked during the rains. This was when they were creating Tamnalai, a play set in 1960s, in which a widowed mother tries everything she can to keep her son away from the thugs that walked the streets of Manipur. At night, the couple listened to folk songs of the tribal communities carried by the wind from a nearby village. “Oja asked me whether I could create a different sound for our theatre by drawing from those folk songs. When we heard a dog howling in the night, he asked me whether I could fuse a woman crying with the howling of the dog to create an effect that would haunt our audience. In Tamnalai, the crying of the widow, when she hears of her son’s death, is a derivation of this organic process,” says Sabitri. Tamnalai was performed in early 1970s and broke new ground in live theatre in Manipur.
The effectiveness of a play featuring her rests on Sabitri’s performance. Tripurari Sharma, professor (acting) of NSD, says that when Sabitri performs, she becomes a symbol. The audience sees not one person but a hundred people. When she stands, she makes a community stand. Acting, Sabitri said, during the Living Legend lecture at NSD, is like throwing stones to the audience in a way that they get hit with the emotions one is projecting. In an era of mass entertainment, it is becoming difficult for Kalakshetra to sustain Sabitri-Kanhailal’s style of theatre. “Most young actors come looking for instant fame and the result is a boom in the music video industry that is flooding the cable TV-DVD market in Imphal. Kalakshetra believes in a rigorous daily routine of physical training. It is sad that not many turned up when Kalakshetra published an ad calling for theatre actors,” says Doren. Sabitri says, “For us, acting is sadhana. An artiste of Kalakshetra has to go through strenuous physical training every day for months to do our kind of plays.”
Sabitri does not, strictly, play a character. She plays the idea of a character. This is how she is convincing when she plays a dying child, Amal, in an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar or as Mi in Memoirs of Africa, a play about a dark continent that could be Manipur. “For me, emotion is an all-comprehensive word. First, I imagine. Then, I envisage the character in my mind’s eye. Then, comes the emotion… like an electric shock,” she says in the book, The Act of Becoming. Kapur, who has watched Pebet several times, says Sabitri can embody a character, but remain herself at the same time. “In Dak Ghar, she comes across as Amal, but she is also Sabitri, an old woman with wrinkles. In Pebet, she doesn’t do the usual bird things, except, perhaps, flap her arms a few times, but we see her as a bird and as a woman. Great acting allows you to remain yourself and become something else,” says Kapur.
After Kanhailal died, Sabitri had decided to give up theatre. “My relationship with Oja was not only of a husband and wife, but of an actor-director and that of creative partners. I was his shadow. Without him, I am not there. But, Oja’s message to Manipur was that a body may be dead, but the spirit is alive. That is why I played the role of a teenage boy in Dak Ghar, even though I was 70 years old. Do you know, in our adaptation, Amal wakes up from death in the last scene and is full of life?” she says.
At the BRM, an admirer tells her that she had planted a tree in memory of Kanhailal on the day he passed away. Sabitri reaches out to her, allows tears to show and, unable to speak in Hindi or Manipuri, utters only one word: “Kanhailal.”