It’s a riot of colour and light, with the costumes as vibrant and varied as the genres. There’s a forgotten Garo love song, an ancient Assamese circus tradition, and a Manipuri dance, pre-dating the dance form of Raas Lila. They speak the local languages and refer to local miseries—this, after all, being the fourth edition of National School of Drama’s (NSD’s) theatre festival on the North-East. The festival opened on 6 September and will run till 10 September, and then from 13-16 September at the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, New Delhi.
Somehow though, the regional cliché is used almost for ironical effect because through all the specific, sub-regional and subtitled stories, what they’re seeking are universal truths.
An Assamese miser becomes a metaphor for present-day society, stingy, not just with money, but with love, compassion and kindness (Anai Lok Kotu Dekha Nai); and the tale of an 18th century Hindu saint (used extensively during the Vaishnavite conversions in Manipur) is extricated from its religious context to ask existential questions about life and material reality (Gouralila). Elsewhere, a traditional harvest dance becomes a way to understand the relationship with one’s roots (Guti Phulor Gamusa). All of them as universal in spirit as they are local in façade.
In fact, such is the preoccupation with emphasizing the universality of the human condition that traditional theatrical troupes are stretched to logic-defying lengths.
The legendary Heisnam Kanhailal of Manipur has used a 70-year-old actress to play the role of the 12-year-old boy protagonist in his rendition of the century-old, yet contemporary Tagore classic, Dak Ghar (1913). The idea, says Kanhailal, is to do away with the boundaries of age and sex, and focus on the universal humanity. The tale is a comment on an oppressively structured society and an education system that stunts growth. “Society that tries to nurture youth isolated from other human beings, and nature. How can such alienation actually work?” says Kanhailal. The trilingual play (it uses Bengali, Assamese and Manipuri) is a slight departure from Tagore’s original text, which ends on the ambiguous note of the little boy on his deathbed. “We don’t know if he ends up living or dying, and because I have interpreted the little boy as a representative of humanity, I have shown him to emerge alive from there. Killing him off means killing off humanity,” he says.
Pabitra Rabha’s Du-Kon is the story of a Meghalayan boy who migrates to the city (a very common phenomenon in the region) in search of “the good life”, only to find nothing good, and most certainly not life-like about the cut-throat, and impersonal world he is now a part of. He returns to his village to find it completely transformed. The local Achik Dama Club (dama being a Garo drum) has now been replaced by the fancy Disco: Blast the Speaker. “Architecture, costumes and attitudes have changed,” says Rabha. The play ends with the protagonist singing the serigin, a traditional Garo love song, which shocks those around him initially because they are now more used to blast-the-speaker fare. “Eventually, they all join him. The idea is to show that it doesn’t matter how much you’ve changed, you can’t deny your roots,” he adds.
In terms of form, the plays, while making an attempt to resurrect past traditions, also try to incorporate other genres. Anai Lok Kotu Dekha Nai from Assam, directed by NSD alumnus Jyoti Narayan Nath, is an adaption of Molière’s The Miser (1668), using the traditional Assamese circus form of Dhulia Bhaona from Lower Assam. “Molière was influenced by the 14th century Italian form Commedia Dell’Arte, and the Dhulia Bhaona form lends itself perfectly to Molière’s tale,” he says. Within that amalgamation, there is further blending of forms, such as Brecht’s alienation technique. “The protagonist starts talking to the audience directly (stepping out of his role), and criticizes the director. Such devices make the audience aware that this is a play, it jolts them back to reality,” he says.
And although these stories are peppered with local references and problems
(Naushad Mohammed’s Mizo take on the The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944) refers to drug trafficking and urbanization in the area), “focusing on the universal aspect of pain and suffering brings a deeper understanding on the local problems themselves”, says Kanhailal. In that sense, the global too is the local.