Rustam Bharucha on PEBET
Pebet is a part of the repertoire of fireside stories, which are told to Manipuri children by their grandmothers. It is a folk tale deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people. Kanhailal’s decision to use this story to comment on the political and cultural indoctrination of his time must be regarded as a shrewd dramaturgical strategy. There is no stronger way of igniting consciousness in theatre than by subverting the familiar.
What is Pebet? A bird smaller than a sparrow, which has not been seen in many years. It could be an extinct species. This miniscule representation of life is the protagonist of the story. More specifically, she is represented as a mother of several children who nest at the foot of a tree. Guarding her brood, Mother Pebet circumvents the predatory attention of a cat by flattering him. She continues to boost his ego till her children are ready to protect themselves. Once they are grown up, she resists the Cat who captures the youngest of her brood. Ultimately, through a clever strategy the mother manages to trick the Cat into freeing her child. The Pebets are finally united as the ncat disappears from their lives, somewhat dejected.
In Kanhailal’s play, the first and the last parts of the story are left more or less intact. Indeed, the few exchanges of dialogue between the Pebet and the Cat are borrowed verbatim from the oral tradition of the story. On documenting the play, I learned how people in semi rural societies like Manipur do not merely remember stories, they remember the exact word and images of the stories as narrated to them in their childhood. Where Kanhailal breaks with the tradition of Pebet is in the middle of his production after the youngest child has been captured. Here , he develops a fantasy sequence in which all the Pebet children are captured, indoctrinated, tortured, and then set against one another. It is in this section that the politics of the play is most keenly felt before the happy end of the production which merely echoes the original end of the story with no irony whatsoever.
Through ‘flexibility’ may not be a militant value from a political perspective, it is, perhaps, the strongest defence that any theatre worker has against the pressures and manipulations of time. So many ‘revolutionairy’ productions become reactionary in no time. In this context, the very flexibility of Kanhailal’s theatre has enabled him to stage Pebet many times after it was first produced.And the wonder of it is that the play, for all its naïvety, even simplicity, continues to be astoundingly fresh.
It seems to me that when we talk of resistance in theatre today, our rhetoric has congealed through stereotypes of flags and slogans, statements and battle cries. One learns that it is possible to resist the most painful oppression of daily life through spirit and sheer creativity. The act of politics in theatre does not ultimately lie in the assertion of an ideology, but in the very being of the actor which incarnates resistance. If Pebet is still a force to reckon with, it is because of the strength of its performance.
Featured image courtsey Kalakshetra, Manipur