Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ratan Thiyam: The Metamorphosis

Ratan Thiyam: The Metamorphosis
By A Spectator

In his earlier incarnation he was known as Thiyam Nemai. He was lanky, mild mannered and would be seen in what used to be called "classical song sessions". Then nothing much was heard about him till he graduated from the National School of Drama, the Mecca of Indian theater and tried his hand with a theater group in Delhi, but a critic had found his Hindi wanting. This was in the early 1970s.

That must have been the time when he started searching for his roots in Manipur and soon became one of the finest exponents of the theatre of roots. The path from his makeshift "Shangoi" cum studio in his ancestral house to the magnificent "Shrine" at the Chorus Complex at Shamushang has been a long and arduous coping along with personal tragedy and an indifferent bureaucracy.

Actually the "people in power in Manipur" heard about him first when he was offered the Directorship of the National School of Drama. The then chief secretary was said to have quipped "how is that the Prime Minister knows him and we don't."

His plays have traveled, from Aryan Theater, GM Hall, Jawaharlal Nehru Dance Academy (JNMDA) to the Shriram Center for Arts, New Delhi with the group's first overseas break coming in with their trip to Greece. Yes, we all know that Yanni had performed at the Acropolis or the Herrod Atticus. But actually Ratan had been there much before, staging an Indian play in Manipuri attire before a record audience of 10,000 Greeks.

After watching his "Urubhangam"- a drama critic in Calcutta wrote that standards of Indian theater would one day be measured along the lines of "Urubhangam". His "Chakravyu" was to follow soon engulfing audiences worldwide into that ancient Indian battle formation from which there is no escape.

This man's other talents came to light in the opening ceremony of the India Festival at Moscow. TV watchers in India and the then USSR watched with amazement when the Manipuri Moibung's (Conch) "Dhani" reverberated across the Red Square prompting Raisa Gorbachev to ask for an encore. Yes, that was Ratan Thiyam's imagination at work and what might have been just another blowing session for the "Moibung Khongba" or the Conch-player, it was a giant leap for Manipuri culture.

Having traversed the globe from Moscow to New York, he recently returned home with the New York Times describing him as a "Genius". The
honor from the city of Paris and New Delhi in the form of the Padmashri was all there before, but this is different.

The question that now comes into the minds of ordinary spectators like this writer for instance is the question of whethere this Master of the Theater of Roots has lost touch with the roots from which he draws his materials that makes him a Genius. Does his leikais (neighborhoods) get to see his plays or for that matter the students?

Habin Tanvir came to stage his Chandradas Choir at the Manipur University. During his stint as Director of the National School of Drama he had come in for sharp criticism from a person none other than its founder Director Ebrahim Alkaji, for not spending enough time with the students. Incidentally the NSD students had gone on a strike then, launching an oust-Ratan campaign. Yes, he is a Guru today and the manner how he chooses his disciples is his discretion.

However one incident may serve as his Achilles heel. It was on the 12th of April. Gathered at the Shrine were the Governor of Manipur and the Who's Who of the Indian Theater and Cultural world. That was when Ojah Ratan Thiyam's Majordomo in the form of Shri Samarendra Chongtham, retired director of Arts and Culture, Govt of Manipur stepped in as the Master of Ceremony. He began by laying emphasis portfolio-wise while introducing the right Hon'ble Minister who was present. And in that order, veterinary and animal husbandry took precedence over his cultural responsibilities!

Then came the coup de grace. The Master of Ceremony soon announced that time was being given for local artistes. The first "local artiste" whom he called out was Aribam Shyam Sharma. Shyam Sharma as some us half literates know is he other Genius of Manipur whose films have captured worldwide attention from Nantes to New York. A man compared by some to the great Kurusowa himself, Shyam Sharma's film debut "Imagi Ningthem" has been placed alongside with Satyajit Ray's Panther Panchali as one of the 15 Indian films of the millennium by TG Vaidyananthan (Outlook 15 November). Luckily "Eigya Shyam"as he is affectionately known was not present in the audience and that was his saving grace.

The other local artiste was not so lucky. He is none other than Manipur
"Theater man of the Masses"- the rebel from the National School of Drama and whose epic production "Pebet" is still a landmark production and whose work has been described to be at the forefront of contemporary Indian Theater, by Rustom Bharucha in his book "The theater of Kanhailal".

Yes we are talking about H Kanhailal, whose group Kalakshetra has been contributing their humble mite. He was not so lucky as he was present in the audience. Yes, if not for the parochial connotation, there is nothing wrong with the term "local", but the fact is the patronizing tone and implications of the term cannot be swept aside. The retired director perhaps overlooked this, but in the world of art he ought to have realized that it is sensitive. The perfectionist that he is, Ratan had flown in Sadhana Shrivastava from Delhi to compere the 1st Bhagyachandra National Festival of Classical Dances- his MC was the then Director. The question is will the genius of the roots return to his roots and make amends in the best of Manipuri traditions.

(Courtesy: The Imphal Free Press)

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