There are ways of bridging gaps between people and communities through cultures. The professed theme of the recently concluded North East Theatre Festival (19th to 28th February, 2011) in no uncertain terms says it all. As a part of the festival, plays from Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam were staged. The festival that opened with Budha Chingtham’s Mythical Surrender, directed by Ningthouja Deepak of NT Theatre, maintained the tempo and at the end gave a befitting climax with Habib Tanvir’s Charandas Chor in Assamese directed by Anup Hazarika. For theatre enthusiasts, the festival's immense task of “Bridging the gap through culture” reflects aspirations of communicating through the medium of theatre. One could however refrain from the oft repeated rhetoric of the mainland-marginal or the topographical pattern of the region as a reason to reach out to one another and look at this medium first and foremost as connected to oneself and one’s milieu. The festival did exactly that, connect us to ourselves and make us look at oneself through the eyes of a Greek tragedy like Antigone, stories from the Mahabharata, Ee teiraba numit, an Ao-Naga folklore, Lichaba’s Daughter or the understanding of freedom so subtly underlined in The Fire and the Rain (Mei Amasung Nong).
Among many other plays I had the opportunity to be enthralled with, Hanglai (marionettes), a play by Y. Rajendra. The director welcomed the audience as hanglai(s) to view a play Hanglai directed by a hanglai himself. Indeed the absurdness of the whole situation, within and without the play, and the brutal depiction of 'selves' were put up on stage for all to see. In a play which had stories within stories, the sense of the absurd, not as in absurdism, had the arsenal to fire 'realities' beyond realism. Hanglai, (I regret missing it in Delhi, 2007) had characters, Tathei and Takhut of the Marionette Repertory Theatre where they led the performance of marionettes – Mahadev and Parvati. They received a letter from Sanakhya. Sanakhya wanted them to discard the old marionettes and enact a contemporary play written by Sanakhya himself. Tathei's effeminate gestures can be taken by many an attempt at caricaturisation of the third sex. However, the effect of this on the play is brutally truthful when Sanakhya in his anger with the news of the marionettes refusing to play their part in his play, asked Takhut and Tathei to enact the part of the uniform man raping a woman after planting a camouflaged cap and a gun on Takhut and an embellished inaphi on Tathei. The symbolism employed here is potent and possible through the process in which the audience whose lifeworld have been enveloped with layers and layers of cruel social and political fact. While the antics of Tathei drew laughter, one can look beyond to understand that it is but a saturated mockery of ourselves. This play refuses to be an interweaving of text and performance alone but carries a message beyond absurdism and realism.
Certain moments which drew laughter of the audience like when Tathei rebuke the lamenting Hangma (mother of the hanglais) stating that the role of the meira paibi is yet to come or when the people of the land of the Hanglais – Hangleipak revolts against the powers that pull the string with placard that reads – “Marionettes have the right to revolt” or the scene when a hangcha when shot at looks at a place to die and asked Tathei-Takhut whether it was alright to die at a particular spot, it is as uncomfortable as looking at a murky pukhri to see the ugliness in oneself and yet in a bitter irony, some laughs at the reflection taking it to be someone else’s.
It is those who pull the string who decides everything. They decide when a mother should lament, when one should weep and where one should die. The Hanglai who cut themselves off the strings are sure to die. Therefore, even in dire situations, they resist the desire to severe themselves off the strings. The mother of all irony here is: All Hanglai derive their existence from and through the strings and it is Tathei and Takhut that gives them life and yet the strings do not stop there; Sanakhya pulls the strings of Tathei and Takhut and the closing scene depicts yet another pair of crimson hands pulling the strings of Sanakhya. Hangleipak – the land of marionette is a grave where the dead walks. And the dead here walks when commanded: S/he weeps, love and lust when the 'strings’ are pulled, the final brutality being that one doesn’t know where the string stops. We gave a standing ovation at the end of the play in a sweet insult to ourselves and life’s endless strings that we have ceased to see.
This article was published in The Imphal Free Press on the 6th of March 2011