In driving rain and on the road leading to the campus of Ratan Thiyam’s Chorus Repertory Theatre in Imphal, dozens of Manipuri women can be seen huddled together under a tarpaulin. They are holding up placards deploring the recent death of a student protester in police firing and demanding the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime in Manipur—like Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh—to control the entry of outsiders into the state. The rain and daily evening curfew ensure that most stay indoors.

The drawing room of the Manipuri playwright and theatre director’s house in a genteel Imphal neighbourhood is a reflection of his world travels. The thickly carpeted, large wood-panelled room is filled with memorabilia. Even when a lady in a traditional Manipuri dress brings the breakfast, it turns out to be a dish that I’ve never had before in Manipur—the taste of curry leaves with every spoon of poha is a culinary spin across the plains.

Does Manipur need the ILP? I ask the 67-year-old, voicing concerns on the possibility of greater insularity for places already at a distance from the national mainstream. Seemingly caught off-guard, he delivers a slow, meditative monologue: “You can’t write about anything I said. I’m not a politician. I’m an artiste."

Ever since his first theatrical production, Bhasa’s Karnabharam in 1979, Thiyam has infused his plays with an itinerant’s understanding of life, creating a space that is grounded in Manipuri culture, yet draws from the global pool of art and aesthetics. To understand this, one has to go back to the time when work was on for the Chorus Repertory Theatre’s Uttar Priyadarshi (1996), based on Hindi playwright Agyeya’s chronicling of emperor Ashoka’s post-war transformation and redemption. The research for the play, three years in the making, entailed visits to Kolkata’s Asiatic Society to study epics and Chinese traveller Fa Hien’s memoirs; conceptualizing the idea of “hell" from pictorial depictions at Buddhist temples and monasteries; getting ideas from medieval dungeons in London, before spending a day in a Paris tower where the 18th century empress Marie Antoinette was imprisoned—a 8x6ft dank hole that approximated his idea of all that is hellish.

Thiyam-directed Chorus Repertory productions encompass his views on multiculturalism, and the way in which it reacts to the immediate surroundings. These are some of the observations that have shaped Thiyam’s ideas on stage design, sound, music and light: the loud playing style of the Panchavadyam, a five-piece orchestra, in Kerala comes from the need for the music to be on a higher key than the sound of the crashing waves; the shape of wind instruments played in hilltop monasteries in Bhutan, Sikkim and Ladakh is of a descending nature, to allow the sound to travel to the valleys below; the architecture of a minaret in a mosque is such that the muezzin’s call can reach both heaven and earth; and the brass vessels in a church are placed so that they can reflect sunlight on Mother Mary’s statue.

All these have also contributed to the lushness and grandeur that characterize his theatre. Pivoted on Manipuri motifs and folk art traditions ranging from Nat Sankeertana and Pung Cholom to Rasa, Thang-Ta and Moirang Parba, a Chorus Repertory production is also an exposition of styles ranging from the exuberance of Western proscenium theatre to the subtleties that often define Japanese Noh and Kabuki traditions: an interwoven exploration of global artistic traditions that has kept his theatre above the confines of Thiyam’s native Meitei language and is often seen as a spectacle of epic scale and proportion. Consider the fact that while his landmark 1984 play, Chakravyuha, has been performed over a hundred times around the world, Thiyam has consciously avoided the “distraction" that is the screen with the electronic surtitle of the script, a norm in most international productions.

“Theatre is a composite art for which one needs to be a composite human being. It is essential to know the works of Tagore, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Mozart, Beethoven, Mishima…," says Thiyam. If there are no Manipuri names on that list, it is primarily because Thiyam has inarguably pioneered and lent to Manipuri theatre the kind of professionalism and global ambition that has eluded others.

The moulding of his artistic mind, incidentally, began with his parents, Thiyam Tarun Kumar and Bilasini Devi, both classical Manipuri dancers. His father set up the Tarun Kumar Dance Academy in Lahore before independence. Thiyam calls them “pioneers", for Manipuris rarely ventured out in those days. Born in 1948 in the pilgrimage town of Nabadwip in Bengal, Thiyam recalls being “brought up in costume boxes" as his parents travelled for performances.

While his father was invited by the legendary dancer Uday Shankar to teach at the latter’s school in Kolkata, Thiyam, then an adolescent, immersed himself in the world of books. “For one year, I only read. Everything from archaeology, architecture, anthropology, cooking, gardening. I remember being influenced by (the revolutionary) Che Guevara and his way of life and thinking of going to Cuba," he laughs. “From my parents’ artistic life, in my subconscious mind I was compelled to take a bath in aesthetics. Later on, while doing theatre, those days returned like a dream in the fog: the dancers, the movements, the singing, the talas, the rhythm… everything," he pauses.

Having taken to painting and, then, writing, an antidote to the relentless travel with his parents, Thiyam had his first short-story collection published in Manipur at age 17. At 21, he spent part of a monetary grant received from the state government for writing a novel, to travel to Delhi and successfully seek admission to the nascent National School of Drama (NSD) in 1971.

He is currently into his second stint as chairman of the theatre training institute. While the company of fellow students like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri was exhilarating, it was the then chairman and theatre doyen, Ebrahim Alkazi, who opened up his mind to poetry, painting, music, Noh and Kabuki theatre. “We were fortunate to have a teacher like Alkazi, who knew everything on the arts and was a bridge between the Occidental and the Oriental," says Thiyam.

He returned to Manipur to set up the Chorus Repertory Theatre in 1976. Built by the repertory members, with some help from experts, the 2-acre campus houses, among other things, an auditorium with a huge 54x55ft stage (The Shrine, created by Thiyam and incorporating design elements from Manipur, Myanmar and Thailand): a leafy campus where Thiyam could “indulge in solitude and see the birds come in", and where they could conduct rehearsals and organize festivals. This is the place from where Thiyam launched plays like Chakravyuha, Uttar Priyadarshi, Nine Hills One Valley and Andha Yug—all of which have left their imprint on theatre history in India.

It has suffered repeatedly in floods and has been rebuilt at least six times. This time too, we had to wade through knee-deep water on the Chorus campus. Thiyam’s 35-year-old son, Thawai, an assistant director at the theatre company, shows us around, while Ibomcha Sorok, one of the senior-most actors,talks us through his career.

Sorok, 58, is representative of Chorus’ work ethic: He is part mason, part furniture-maker, a boatman during floods, and a full-time actor with lead roles in Chakravyuha and Andha Yug, among others. Repertory members usually make their own stage props, both to save on costs and to build a relationship with them, says Thiyam. Sorok underwent training in the martial arts and folk art forms, apart from acting. “What I really learnt from him was an appreciation of beauty. In everything we did, he would seek aesthetics," says Sorok.

Thiyam himself believes that every play embodies some form of protest—whether or not it’s political. “Even in my recent production, Macbeth, the protest is against human greed and desire for power," he says. War and a craving for peace have been a recurring theme in most of his plays, but the director has largely shied away from commenting on contentious Manipur issues like the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (Afspa), says Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press. “His audience initially was Manipur but now the larger audience is outside. I think the sense of rebellion of his early days has been replaced with reformation," says Phanjoubam. I ask him about Thiyam’s coinage of “Theatre of Roots" for the Chorus Repertory’s productions. “From a broader, universal kind of assessment, ‘Theatre of Roots’ would appear to be Thiyam’s. But in Imphal, he wouldn’t be considered for that. The perspective changes once one moves away from Manipur," says Phanjoubam.

“If you as an artiste get involved in party politics, then you are indulging the system. If you are inside the system, you can’t protest. And theatre is all about protest, with the highest involvement of aesthetics," says Thiyam, responding to a question on the current impasse at the Film and Television Institute of India.

We are at the end of the interview. Thiyam re-emphasizes that I should not write about his views on the ILP. He talks keenly about an international theatre festival he is planning to organize at The Shrine in Imphal. “I’m an artiste. And artistes don’t get into politics," he says, standing beside a tulsi (holy basil) plant in the courtyard of his house.

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