The Lost Wor(l)ds of Heisnam Kanhailal

A version of this essay appeared first in Humanities Underground.

“The child, I looked at the new born child crying. I noticed that the whole body of the child cries. But actors only use a certain resonator. Actors do this because we are socially and culturally conditioned. […] what we need is the creation of a new body culture…”
Heisnam Kanhailal, interview with Naveen Kishore and Biren Das Sharma for the Seagull Theatre Quarterly in January, 1996.[1]

In 2013, during student production staged with much fanfare in a reputed auditorium in New Delhi, the audience (consisting mostly of young, English-speaking, upper middle class college students) broke into peals of laughter every time the multilingual actors spoke in Tamil or Meitei, but watched courteously enough when English or Hindi was spoken on stage. Watching the audience as much as I was watching the actors on stage, I begun thinking of what, if anything, had changed from the time when, many decades ago, in 1968, Kanhailal Heisnam had been expelled from the National School of Drama on for having taken leave without official permission. The real problem, according to scholars like Rustom Bharucha (who studies Kanhailal’s theatre in exhaustive detail in his book The Theatre of Kanhailal), [2] was Kanhailal’s inability to cope with the pressure of being expected to speak, write and work in English and especially in Hindi. These were languages that were unfamiliar and alien to him, just as he was alien in the space where he had arrived, albeit with much hope and optimism, as a student of theatre. Having been expelled, after a period of aimlessness, Kanhailal returned to Imphal finally in 1969 to begin his own work and established his theatre group Kalakshetra Manipur. However, unlike the far-more spectacular Ratan Thiyam, who even went on briefly to become the director of NSD in 1987-1988, Kanhailal remained for a long time on the margins of what was accepted and celebrated as ‘Manipuri ‘theatre practice at the nation’s centre.


As a student of Kanhailal’s work, one is tempted to trace his special relationship to language and his long-lasting rejection of ‘words’ as an effective medium for theatrical communication, to this early experience of linguistic exclusion in the nation’s capital. Kanhailal’s experience is significant precisely because it is not merely personal; it is significant in that it can stand as emblematic of the systematic and enduring political, cultural and linguistic exclusion of the ‘Northeastern’ states from the mainstream cultural history of India. The terms of cultural ‘participation’ are handed down from above; the inability and (god forbid) the choice not to participate might end in ridicule, failure and ostracisation.

Kalakshetra Manipur, by the very nature of its austere premises situated at the outer-most limits of Imphal (at the foot of the hills that encircle the Manipur valley) seems to have quietly celebrated, over the many years since its inception, this position of silence and liminality as a source of strength, creativity and resilience. Kanhailal wrote of his training process: “Believing in the autonomy of theatre, we swallowed the text and absorbed it into our body instead of speaking out the lines through lip movement, facial and finger gestures. We shattered the whole network of illusion on the stage. We were no longer burdened with the heavy light, costume and make-up. We cleaned the stage as an empty space where we began to unfold the autonomy of theatre…”[3]

From Draupadi

However, rather than being the inward-turning process that it seems to imply, this methodical minimalism resulted in several interesting experiments by the director in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He stepped out of mainstream proscenium theatre practice to work with untrained villagers in distant areas of Manipur and market women from the famous Nupi Keithel (women’s market) of Imphal. Kanhailal was deeply influenced, according to his own admission and that of scholars like Lokendra Arambam, by the event of Badal’s Sircar’s visit to Imphal in 1973. Sircar staged his production Ebong Indrajit, and this was followed by a workshop production of Spartacus that Sircar staged with various young directors and theatre workers of Imphal. It provided the practitioners a window into a theatre aesthetics completely different from the traditional grammars of Manipuri performance practice. The young Kanhailal was so struck by Sircar’s method that he followed him to Calcutta and spent a considerable amount of time learning from him, watching him closely. He wrote of the period: “Badal-da helped me very much. I give him the respect of a guru. When I worked with him I could not fully grasp his concepts. But as human beings, we learn from our experiences, don’t we? I learnt through all these experiences, the meaning came later.”[4]kanhai-2-of-5 kanhai-3-of-5

Perhaps Kanhailal arrived at the meaning, several years later, while working with the seventy working-class women in the central women’s market of Imphal. In the winter of 1978, he fashioned a theatrical event called Nupi Lan (Women’s War), based partly on the history of women’s struggles and political resistance in Manipur since the late nineteenth century. The ‘market women’ of Imphal are referred to frequently in all important studies of Manipuri society, politics, history and culture. In Manipur, almost all trading activity is traditionally controlled by women and there are bazaars in Imphal that are run entirely by women. It was conventionally considered bad form for men to frequent these bazaars. Both buying and selling activities in these market spaces are conducted mostly by women. Imphal’s largest and most central market, called Khwairamban bazaar, is also operated completely by women. Women from villages and leikais all around Imphal travel to this market everyday to sell their agricultural produce. This Khwairamban market is also known as the Ima market (the market run by mothers) or the Nupi Keithel (women’s market). The history of the two ‘Women’s Wars’ or Nupi Lan in colonial times is associated almost entirely with the women’s market. These wars were waged, on both occasions, by the ‘market women’ against the policies and orders of the colonial administration, the first in 1904 and the second in 1939 (when Manipur was almost facing a famine) against the official policy on the unlimited export of rice from the valley by Marwari traders.[5]

Kanhailal’s Nupi Lan was, according to Rustom Bharucha, was ‘an open-air production involving approximately 70 working women from the Women’s Bazaar in Imphal.’[6] The production created, through improvisations with the ‘market women’, simultaneously juxtaposed images of women in the festival of Lai Haraoba (perhaps especially the maibis[7]) and the imas of the market, followed by a theatrical representation of the historical Nupi Lans. Distinctions between spectator and actor were strangely blurred during performance of this theatre event in the open public space of the city. I found the idea fascinating, especially given that any such work with the public spaces of Imphal became unthinkable in the years after 1980, and the imposition of the AFSPA. It would have been invaluable to trace the stark change in the spatial politics of the city that took place within the space of two or three years and how differently performance continued to resist in the eighties the total, ubiquitous control of the military on the public spaces of Imphal. Several times over the years, I had tried to ask Kanhailal for any available documents of the project, photographs or even a description of his own memories. He would shrug and say: “I am no archivist. What do I know? There is nothing. Find the ones who saw it and ask them”. It was frustrating, but then that was Kanhailal. After Nupi Lan, Kanhailal continued his career with similar projects that sought to break down the schism between political theatre and the people it claimed to represent. He worked in a village called Umatheili or the Valley of Durga to produce a play called Sanjennaha (Cowherd) from a community of rural non-actors, followed by a production that emerged from extensive work with the young men and women of the Paitei tribe of Churachandrapur.

The conventional interactions between public space and performance space are, in fact, fairly close in Meitei society. In Imphal, during yearly religious festivals like the Lai Haraoba, pockets of the urban space are transformed into sites of ritual performance. Performances related to the festival locate themselves in community spaces like open courtyards or mandapas that are identified as sacred sites.[8] Secular performance traditions like the shumang leela (known as ‘jatra’ till the 1970s perhaps from a drive to identify them with Indian mainstream genres of popular performance[9]) also take place in courtyards or mandapas of homesteads in the neighbourhood, where the whole community gathers to watch. Shumang leela, which literally translates into ‘courtyard play’ (shumang means open courtyard in the Meitei language), is extremely popular in present-day Imphal and performed quite frequently in almost every neighbourhood in Imphal city. Besides these practices, there are also, of course, regular performances of ras and sangkeertana which are associated entirely with the Vaishnavite religious culture of Manipur and locate themselves within community spaces.

Apart from this, there is the proscenium theatre or Stage leela of Manipur which developed in the early twentieth century[10] and flourished primarily during the 1930s, under the influence of Bengali directors who had migrated to Imphal. This is primarily an urban theatrical practice that developed largely around social melodramas and heroic legends, and is what could be called, even today, the ‘commercial’ theatre of Manipur. Alongside, there emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, a new kind of theatre that was led by directors like Ratan Thiyam, Heisnam Kanhailal, Lokendra Arambam and Haorokcham ‘Sanakhya’ Ebotombi. The new trends in theatrical practice that these young directors then collectively embodied have been called in their totality the modern ‘experimental’ theatre of Manipur by critics. This theatre tried to grapple directly with contemporary Manipuri politics, the complexities of Meitei identity and Manipur’s fraught relationship with mainland India (subjects which both ‘traditional’ and proscenium theatre had so far seemed to stay away from). Therefore it found itself engaged intimately with political resistance movements against Indian domination that had developed and gathered force in Manipur till the late 1970s.kanhai-1-of-5

However, Kanhailal’s theatrical language stood apart from his contemporaries by his sharp emphasis on the bodily, the rhythmic, the non-verbal, the lyrical – as well as his framing of his politico-aesthetic project in a kind of dogged minimalism that resists the spectacular as a matter of ideological commitment. He is often critiqued for what is often-seen a certain ‘universalist’ humanitarian impulse, a movement towards the vaguely spiritual and a dilution of resistance politics in his work since the late 1980s. I would argue, of course, that this kind of critique remains ingrained in a deep misunderstanding of the nature of his political work. Kanhailal’s formal aesthetics grew organically out of his deep commitment towards turning communitarian suffering into a political force – one that resisted both the politico-linguistic aggressions of the Indian state as well as the narrower, more parochial impulses of certain strands of Meitei nationalism. Sabitri remained his co-thinker in this project. They moved together as artistes in the belief that bodies, when stripped bare of urban affectations (inhibitions that restricted the expression of vulnerability, for example) and sharpened by processes of psychophysical training, could release narratives of collective pain in a way that was unmitigatedly political. In our conversations, Sabitri often spoke of her need, as an actor, to withdraw from the soul-killing noises of the city and listening to the sounds of animals, learning to imitate their movements. It was important to her, it seemed to me, that she knew how to become animal, in order that she may not shrink from encountering the horror of the human body in a state of absolute violation. The body for Sabitri, in her work with Kanhailal, became a resonator attuned sharply towards catching reverberations of pain that were not her own. It is not hard to see, then, for careful observers, how this methodical cultivation of bodily empathy may become a potent political tool in performance in situations of absolute statist repression and routinely ‘unwitnessed’ deaths. I would contend that the language of the body that the Heisnams struggled to create all their lives was one that had the potential to undo something critical at the heart of the state’s military-legal killing machine and the logic of impersonal legalese that continues to bolster its functioning – in Manipur, in the other ‘Northeastern’ states, in Kashmir. ‘How to embody, and not simply express, another’s pain?’, is a question that Kanhailal and Sabitri were continually asking together as artistes.

Of all Kanhailal’s productions the one which (in my view) the most potent reflection of this politics was staged only in 2000, twice in Imphal after its creation and many, many other times, since then, in the rest of India. Mahasweta Devi’s short story “Draupadi” appeared for the first time in a collection called Agnigarbha in 1978 post-Emergency Calcutta. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s translation of the same appeared in the winter issue of Critical Inquiry in 1981. Draupadi, directed by Heisnam Kanhailal and acted by Sabitri Heisnam, was based on Mahashweta Devi’s 1978 short story of the same name. In the year 2001, while still in college, I watched Manipuri director H. Kanhailal’s play Draupadi performed in Kolkata at the Academy of Fine Arts at a festival organised by Nandikar. I did not understand the language at all, nor had I any familiarity with the original Bengali story at this point. In the climactic scene of the play, the veteran actress Sabitri Heisnam appears in the nude on stage, discarding all her clothes one by one, in protest against her rapists. On its staging in Imphal, the play was nearly banned by an enraged community, including several women’s groups, that went as far as declaring Sabitri a ‘whore’ for her shamelessness. Kanhailal Heisnam has written of this experience in his own essay on Draupadi: “…after two shows at Imphal on 14th and 20th April, 2000 we faced a controversy. A group of known feminists, writers, intellectuals, critics and even the ordinary women of Imphal were complaining against the nudity in the last scene. They treated Sabitri as notorious, as a shameless woman who hurt the sentiments and ideal image of Manipuri women in particular. Another group mainly of men jumped in on defence of nudity in justifying the need if such theatre in the interface of the present crisis of attack on the female sex by the Indian army in Manipur. The attack and counter-attack continued in the daily papers for about three months. Since then we stopped showing Draupadi in Manipur categorically denying the suggestion of dropping the nude scene.”[11] Four year later, in 2004, twelve middle-aged Meitei women stripped naked in broad daylight in front of the Western gates of Kangla where the men of the Assam Rifles of the Indian army were stationed. They were protesting the brutal rape and death of Thangjam Manorama, one of numerous other ‘suspected insurgents’ in Manipur who are routinely declared dead as a result of an ‘encounter’. After the first reverberations of communitarian and national shock diminished, Kanhailal was hailed as a ‘seer’, ‘a prophet’, by a local Meihei newspaper. Kanhailal and Draupadi were in the capital then conducting a workshop at the same National School of Drama from which Kanhailal had been expelled many, many years ago. I interviewed Sabitri in 2011: “I was in Delhi at the time, I cried and laughed at the same time when I heard that.” And as anyone who has seen her on stage knows, when Sabitri Heisnam cries, she cries with her whole body. The resonance, theatrical and political, like that of a child’s scream, is deafening. It is because of this, perhaps, that even though it is Kanhailal who spoke and wrote of his work in languages that the Indian mainstream can understand, it becomes impossible to write the history of his work in the Kalakshetra, without ending with Sabitri – who does neither.[12]


[1] Seagull Theatre Quarterly: Theatre in Manipur Today, (Calcutta: The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, June-Sept, 1997), p. 46.

[2] Rustom Bharucha, The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet and Memoirs of Africa, (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1992).

[3] Heisnam Kanhailal, “Ritual Theatre: Theatre of Transition (2004)”, in Theatre in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology, ed. David Krasner, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), p. 550.

[4] Seagull Theatre Quarterly: Theatre in Manipur Today, (Calcutta: The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, June-Sept, 1997), p. 45.

[5] For further details, see Soyam Lokendrajit, ‘An Artist’s Response to Contemporary Reality: A Case of Two Directors’ in Seagull Theatre Quarterly: Theatre in Manipur Today, (Calcutta: The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, June-Sept, 1997), p. 26 and Manjusri Chaki-Sircar, Feminism in a Traditional Society: Women of the Manipur Valley, (New Delhi: Shakti Books, 1984), pp. 34-37.

[6] Rustom Bharucha, The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet and Memoirs of Africa, (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1992), p. 66.

[7] Priestesses of the Lai Haraoba, a traditional non-Hindu fertility festival.

[8] See Rekha Konsam, ‘Site and Space – Lai Haraoba in Manipur’. (Unpublished seminar presentation, 14th Annual Cultural Studies Workshop on Urban Cultures, NEHU, Shillong, 2009).

[9] Imokanta Singh, ‘Jester and Gender in Manipuri Theatre Tradition during the Colonial Era (1891-1947) Manipur’ in Lata Singh (ed), Playhouse of Power: Theatre in Colonial India,. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 229.

[10] The first proscenium play was performed in 1902 in Imphal. It was called Pravas Lila and was performed in Bengali by Manipuri actors. The first truly Manipuri production was a historical play called Nara Singh and it was performed in 1925. See Imokanta Singh, ‘Jester and Gender in Manipuri Theatre Tradition during the Colonial Era (1891-1947) Manipur’ in Lata Singh (ed), Playhouse of Power: Theatre in Colonial India,. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 220-221.

[11] Kanhailal Heisnam, “Draupadi: A Performance of Twists and Turns” [unpublished essay].

[12] A longer discussion will be found in my essay on the play titled “Kanhailal’s ‘Draupadi’ (2000): Resilience at the Edge of Reason”, where I engage in a more detailed analysis of the performance of ‘Draupadi’ and its theatrical implications. [Kanhailal’s ‘Draupadi’ (2000): Resilience at the Edge of Reason’ in Theatre of the Earth: Clarifying the Trajectory by Kanhailal Heisnam. (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2016).]


Featured image from The Theatre of Kanjailal by Rustom Bharucha and others courtsey Kalakshetra, Manipr




Subscribe to RAIOT via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 15.6K other subscribers

Trina Nileena Banerjee is currently Assistant Professor in Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her research concerns political theatre, gender and the legacies of the Marxist cultural movement in Bengal. She has also been researching the interfaces between women’s protest movements and political theatre in contemporary Manipur for several years. She has also been a theatre and film actress, as well as a journalist and fiction writer/poet.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply