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Rang Sopan: Celebrating contribution of Ratan Thiyam and his Chorus Repertory Theatre
- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos: Vijay Rohatgi

January 21, 2013

Under the title Rang Sopan, Ustad Allaudin Khan Sangeet evam Kala Academy, Bhopal and Directorate of Culture Government of Madhya Pradesh undertook to mount a weeklong festival of plays by the renowned theatre director Ratan Thiyam and his Chorus Repertory Theatre from Imphal at Rabindra Bhavan's compound in a specially created auditorium in shape of a hangar as seen at the airport, and a stage as large and spacious as Ratan Thiyam has at his theatre at Imphal with latest state of art lighting and sound equipment from 5th till 11th January 2013. I do not know of any other retrospective of a major theatre director in recent time organized on such a large scale.

Behind the scene story
On arrival, some of us met Ganesh Bagdare, Director of Ustad Allaudin Khan Sangeet evam Kala Academy (uakska), Rahul Rastogi, Assistant Director and Vivek Tembe, graphic designer, photographer and former officer of Directorate of Public Relations, at their office. They gave me the background of this project. Rahul, himself an actor and deeply involved in theatre, informed us that in 1984, a retrospective of seven plays was organized in Bhopal of Habib Tanveer's plays and also later on, a seminar when leading lights of theatre persons were invited to speak on Habib Tanveer's contribution. Kapil Tiwari, former director of Adivasi Lok Kala Parishad, Bhopal, Rahul Rastogi, Ganesh Bagdare, Vivek Tembe planned a festival of Ratan Thiyam's plays two years ago. Ganesh Bagdare, former Director of Marathi Academy, Bhopal, deeply involved in Marathi musical Natya Sangeet traditions, and also having worked with the renowned film music director O.P. Nayyar, when he took over as Director of uakska, pursued the matter. Ratan Thiyam was approached for the project. He said, "We shall see," but did not commit. Poet Udayan Vajpeyi, Vivek Tembe, his photographer son Rohit Tembe visited Imphal and stayed there for a week, visiting Ratan Thiyam's theatre complex of Chorus Repertory Theatre, watching rehearsals and getting the hang of things. They agreed to undertake the project, recreating space, measurements of stage, and other requirements of mounting the six plays each night, except on fourth night, planned a seminar, followed by rest of the plays.

Uday Vajpeyi undertook to conduct 'in depth interview' to be published as a monogram 'Ratan Thiyam se Bhent' in Hindi. The next four months were spent in preparations for the erection of stage, a closed theatre in shape of a hangar, the exhibition halls, requirements of lights, sound, back stage, green rooms, and accommodation for 40 members of Chorus Repertory Theatre, including two cooks to prepare Manipuri dishes, and few assistants. Their kitchen was to be arranged next to the Rabindra Bhavan hall, transport, stage properties to be kept, its smooth transfer and so on. It was indeed quite mind-boggling. Jadumani, a young actor from Imphal who had joined B.V. Karanth at Bhopal, was almost a liaison officer, having worked earlier with Ratan Thiyam. This exemplary teamwork and prior preparations resulted in seeing the two year long project become a reality.

The festival, the venue, the exhibition
I had arrived from Bangalore in Bhopal, a day late on 6th January, and when I visited the venue, I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the festival and venue. The space was transformed into a veritable festive ambience of Imphal, Manipur. What with white umbrellas, the circular tier umbrellas with long staff, the hangings of scarves, the typical Manipuri handicrafts and decorations, the place was ablaze with lights, festoons, hangings, decorations, theatrical objects, spears, shields, larger than life size photographs of Ratan Thiyam alternating with photographs of sequences form different plays like Urubhangam, King of the Dark Chamber, Andha Yug, When we dead awaken, Nine Hills and One Valley, and Uttar Priyadarshi.

A special gallery and hall were created for two exhibitions. One of physical location of Imphal, situating Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre, photographs capturing from the sky the earth seen below, the landscape of Imphal, the theatre, the photographs of Ratan's childhood, with his parents, his family, Ratan performing puja with flowers, few sequences of rehearsals. In the centre, a huge map of the world showing as in an airline magazine, the connecting flights from Imphal, India to various countries of the world where Chorus Repertory had performed, few sketches drawn by Ratan for preparation of his plays, written notes for script, instructions, notes for lighting, several booklets of his plays staged within India and abroad, Manipuri dance costumes, and replicas of shields and swords. It gave one a glimpse into Ratan Thiyam's theatre far away in North East.

The other gallery had a series of portraits in black and white taken by young Rohit Tembe, with exquisite lighting capturing different moods and expressions. The huge hoardings in front of the theatre with Ratan Thiyam's name in diamond shape, and at the back some images of the plays were quite impressive. With hundreds of tiny colour bulbs and mood lighting in the evening it all came to life with trees lit up and crowds wandering, looking at images, going to a corner where books brought out on this occasion and synopsis of the plays were made available.

The plays
'King of the Dark Chamber' by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was staged on 6th January. The hall accommodated more than a thousand strong audience. They took their seats and there was pin drop silence once the play began. Sunil Vaidya, the compere, read out the synopsis of the play in Hindi in a modulated voice. The plays were in Meitei language. But with arresting, breathtaking visuals and seamless flow of the enactment, the language did not pose any problem. I have read the play of Tagore, but I have not understood it. Somehow it has eluded my comprehension. Ratan explains to me the interpretation and what he has aimed through his direction. Ratan has strong visual sense. His vision is amazing. His imagination always astounds me. I have worked with him for more than twenty years. He has allowed me to watch his plays sitting quietly in a corner. His actors treat me with respect. I see their discipline, Ratan's direction, sense of perfection, be it two wooden platforms, but they have to be placed so well that the surface becomes one. If not, he takes actors to task. They do not mind his shouting at them. He makes them repeat movements again and again. He directs them, tells them when to move, when the music will be heard, lights will fade and when the next movement has to begin.

I have watched all these with a deep sense of respect and a feeling of marvel. I know what it takes to achieve what Ratan aims at. They all work hard, time and again, till perfection is achieved. There is no hurry. If you are a member of Chorus Repertory Theatre, you submit to that discipline. Suddenly Ratan, whom I know as my friend, seems to me distant. Someone else. I do not go near him, nor disturb him. I do not ask questions. If he feels like speaking to me, he does. Else we do not talk.

In 'King of the Dark Chamber,' there is a sequence where another king compels a captive to set fire to the Queen's garden. He holds a torch where in place of the flame there is a colourful stalk of flower. He moves it as if it were to set fire and lo and behold, the set is ablaze, yellow colour scarves move like fire with lighting and thunder, the music enhances the chaos when fire breaks out. And then there is absolute silence. Darkness. The Queen gets frightened and a dialogue takes place between the invisible king and the queen. In the final scene the dark cloth envelopes the queen, the King lifts her in his lap. The queen's face acquires golden glow. Then lights fade out slowly and the play ends.

Transforming the locale, the characters in Manipuri avatar, costumes, movements, songs, music, dance, mesmerize us all. It is Ratan's visual language. I often say it is 'Drishya Kavya' (visual poetry). And I relish it. Most of the audience also relishes it. I do not understand Meitei, except a few words and I do not try to understand. Sometimes the synopsis, if read in advance, helps. Some plays based on Mahabharata, like Bhasa's Urubhangam, Karnabharam, since I have studied them, I follow them but Ratan transforms them with sub-text and astounds his audiences with his imagination, unparalleled visuals and beauty. They leave an indelible impression.

Every evening I saw that miracle happening. The plays are different in their treatment, direction, enactment, sets, light design, music and rendering of dialogues and acting. Each scene is like a painting. The canvas changes from scene to scene, be it Andha Yug, Nine Hills and one Valley, Uttar Priyadarshi. These are well known plays which have earned Ratan national and international fame. He has worked more than thirty five years creating them, with some ten core actors, others trained over the years when some leave the company. On average there are thirty members including female actors. The teamwork is noteworthy. Self reliant, they know how to create sets, stitch costumes, handle music, lighting, wield swords and shields, have expertise in martial art known as Thang-Ta. They have fantastic breath control, lung power, presence of mind, and with thorough rehearsals, never have I seen any lapses in their presentation.

In Uttar Priyadarshi, King Ashoka returns astride an elephant with soldiers marching. The illusion of the king on elephant and the march, with exquisite lighting, win instant applause from the audience. When four monks ridicule Ashoka for his arrogance of having won the Kalinga war, he is shocked. The monks tell him about the war widows' cries on the battlefield and we see Ashoka caught in a whirlpool of blood. The six soldiers on either side dance with ceiling high red flags, which envelop Ashoka, and widows clad in white clothes send heart rending cries falling on the battlefield with red flags turning into rivers of blood. Ah, one can never forget those visuals. I have watched audiences in Perth, Australia, in New York, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Imphal and the impact has been the same. More than the dialogues the visuals speak volumes with the music and lighting.

I had missed Bhasa's play Urubhangam. Ratan has added Duryodhana's ascendance to heaven -swargarohana - in swan chariots. I had not seen that sequence in earlier versions. Ratan said that at that time there were not enough actors for that sequence. I had seen that play in Imphal in 1980 and the die was cast. I was in Imphal attending a dance festival. I knew Ratan's father Tarun Kumar, a legendary dancer, and his dancer mother Bilasini Devi. Tarun Kumar asked me to go to his residence where, he said, Ratan was waiting for me. I had met him many years ago and had completely forgotten him. I had known that he had returned from National School of Drama and had started working in Imphal with a band of artistes, his friends. But Till then I had not seen any of his plays. Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay was with us and I was taking her around. I was waiting for Ratan on the first floor of his residence, looking at scrap books and reading the reviews. He came and embraced me. He saw that on my face there was an expression of confusion and he knew that I had not recognized him. Many years had passed. Before me was a handsome young man with beard and dark long hair, with a pleasant smile. We caught up and he asked me to see the play at 3pm with Kamala Devi as there was curfew after 5pm. The duration of the play was one hour and fifteen minutes.

I knew the content of the play, and though it was in Meitei language, I could explain to Kamala Devi how the soldiers in prologue described the Kurukshetra war, the skulls resting on the arrows like lotus flowers with long stalks and so on. I was completely bowled over by the visuals. Since I knew Manipuri dance, Balaram's solo with a wooden plough, and gorgeous crown, silken costumes and movements, fascinated me. Ratan's use of traditional dances, queens of Duryodhana dressed in Manipuri dance costumes, with mirrored skirts and gossamer veils, petal soft footwork and arm movements, crying in unison as Duryodhana was wounded with a broken thigh, his son whom he tells he cannot carry him on his lap - the entire scene was so moving and heart breaking that I was overwhelmed. There was no finale with ascendance to heaven.

It was in 1980 that I had seen the play. Later on when Peter Brook was travelling in India in 1983, preparing for his play Mahabharata with an international team of actors, I was asked by Kamala Devi to accompany him to Imphal and show him Ratan Thiyam's play Urubhangam. Peter Brook was so impressed and was quite speechless for a while. He admired Ratan's work and had great admiration for him. He had visited other places to watch Mahabharata plays by different actors. He and Ratan exchanged interesting dialogues.

Ratan's Chakravyuha staged at Edinburgh won an award and was acclaimed as a brilliant play, with contemporary sensibilities. Abhimanyu represented the young generation which was misled and sacrificed during the war. Wars everywhere result in destruction. During the six day festival one day was devoted to screening of the documentary film 'When some roots grow upwards' made by Kavita Joshi. It has a sequence of Chakravyuha, when Subhadra listens to Arjuna on how to move out of Chakravyuha. As fetus, Abhimanyu listens to it, but Subhadra is overcome with fatigue and falls asleep. The entire sequence is choreographed by Ratan with great imagination. On upper level with backdrop of full moon we see Arjuna speaking into Subhadra's ears. On a lower level we see Abhimanyu in the centre, surrounded by seven saptarathis attired in red clothes, playing large cymbals, known as kartala cholom dance in Manipuri, and Abhimanyu screaming: "Oh mother, do not fall asleep, I cannot hear anything. I want to know how to come out of Chakravyuha…" and jumps out of the circle, lying on the lap of his uncle, crying helplessly saying that he did not know how to break Chakravyuha towards the end. A brilliant piece of choreography, the like of which I have not seen elsewhere. When Abhimanyu leaves earth after death saying how youth is misled and sacrificed during war, several colourful umbrellas are held by actors, as if it were a path to heaven. With the sound of conch, Abhimanyu goes upwards merging with the moon, as he was a part of the moon. Those visuals and direction established Ratan as a major theatre director of the young generation.

I can go on recounting such startling sequences. But let me end describing the sequence from Ibsen's play 'When we dead awaken' in which the sculptor Arnold Rubek, though married to Maza, is drawn to Irene, a model for his sculptures, whereas Maza his wife is drawn to a hunter. Husband and wife quarrel and the scene moves to another level. From the grave emerges Irene in white costume, appearing otherworldly. The grave turns into a boat, in which we see Arnold and Irene sailing admiring natural beauty, fully bloomed lotuses, fish swimming, birds flying. The way in which Ratan has devised the boat, the illusion of its moving, the lotuses on the bank moving in opposite direction, fish swimming up in the air, birds flying… we are amazed and enjoy this illusion. The lovers move on a hill, and below we see Maza and the hunter screaming. The storm had broken out. Silence. We see in snow white Manipuri costumes, the dance sculptures. Everything was in white. One wondered when did the play begin and end. That miracle of treating element of time, giving glimpse of melting clocks of painter Dali hanging on branches of a tree… ah, the 'rasanubhava,' relish of experiencing joy, I feel has to be experienced watching Ratan's plays.

Lest one feels that Ratan Thiyam's plays seduce you with indescribable beauty, let me refer to the documentary film which was screened. We see Ratan sitting on a chair speaking about the reports one reads in newspapers day in and day out about wars, war in Afghanistan, Croatia, Iran, murders, riots, chaos, disturbances, unease. Where do we get peace? Juxtaposed with Ratan's rehearsals, we see the reality of daily life of strife ridden Imphal, riots, insurgency, presence of soldiers, curfew; by evening shops close down, the city of Imphal wears the look of a ghost town. The sound of footfalls of heavy boots of soldiers juxtaposed with sounds of footfalls of group of demons of Ghor, dancing in play Uttar Priyadarshi, the umbrellas opening in Ratan's version of Kalidasa's Ritu (Ritusmahara) in monsoon sequence, and cut to hundreds of umbrellas held in rains by a long queue of old men and women waiting to collect their monthly pension, make us wonder how in such a state, Ratan works creating his plays. He says, "All this is bound to reflect in an artist's work, because an artist is a sensitive being and cannot remain unaffected by all this. I sometimes seek peace in nature. In final analysis, it is in peace that mankind will survive and not during wars." There are scenes of Manipur's natural beauty, lake, lotuses. One sees immediate connection with Ratan's direction in Ritu, seeking peace.

Poet Kamlesh spoke of how Ratan's plays transcend routine matters and uplift the audiences to higher plane, extolling the values mankind seeks to achieve. Udayan Vajpeyi in his in depth interview with Ratan Thiyam, published lavishly by Directorate of Culture, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh, has touched upon several issues of staging a play, conveying the message through metaphor and articulated Ratan's thoughts on what a theatre should be. (It is to be translated into English soon). During the seminar, scholar N. Tombi, Director of Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy from Imphal, expressed his agony that such a visionary director's biography is yet to be taken up. He was assured that soon that work will also be undertaken.

Such an event, undertaken with great imagination, understanding and carefully executed for a week, is indeed a laudable attempt on part of Madhya Pradesh Government and its various cultural bodies. One does not come across such all embracing planning. The entire exercise focusing on poetically addressed as 'Ishan Putra', son from Ishan direction, North East region, Ratan Thiyam, India's outstanding theatre director, who also happens to be a poet, playwright, painter, musician, light designer, choreographer, deserves unqualified appreciation. It is bound to impact upon the young generation of theatre directors, actors, set designers, lights designers, musicians, painters and artists in Bhopal.

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to, the roving critic for monthly magazine Sruti and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.

Wonderful, Sunil Bhai.Though one has known Ratan ji, your article brings out new aspects of his multi-dimentional personality. The pictures are lovely.
- Sadhna (Jan 24, 2013)

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