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'Art has always been surrounded by strife'

Art has to represent the times that we live in, says Ratan Thiyam, renowned theatre exponent from Manipur, a state torn by strife. But art is not about pamphlets and judgments, he says, it is about going deeper and questioning why conflict is happening. For over 30 years, this is the way the Chorus Repertory Theatre has used theatre for the exchange of ideas

Located in the remote region of Imphal, the capital of Manipur in northeast India, Ratan Thiyam and the Chorus Repertory Theatre have used theatre as a tool for the exchange of ideas and discourse for over 30 years. Known for his exceptional stage design, use of music, movement and the telling of grand epic narratives, Thiyam’s imposing canvases continue to enthral audiences across the world with their magic.  

Probably the only Indian theatre director who can count among his admirers legends like Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski, Thiyam’s work draws from the rich folklore and performing arts traditions of his native Manipur. Working within the boundaries of ‘Proscenium Theatre’ as we know it, Thiyam manages to contemporise his characters and situations. One of the best-known exponents of ‘theatre of roots’, Thiyam’s work has increasingly reflected the troubled times that we live in: the difficulties of creating art in a state torn with strife, of marginalisation within one’s own country, and of how an artist’s work will reflect his/her concerns. He has come to believe that the only means of protest available to him today is his art. 

The following first-person narrative is based on Thiyam’s conversation with Nirmala Ravindran and Sujay Saple.   

Chakravyuha, a play I did over 25 years ago, is as relevant today as it was all those years ago. Take war for instance; when I wake up in the morning and drink my tea, I open the newspaper and all I can see is violence, war, terrorism… and somehow, my tea tastes bitter. If anything comes out of war, then it is more physically challenged people, more prostitution, more orphans, more destitute people, more widows, and more malnutrition. The next generation is ruined. The poorest section of society is always the worst affected.  

These impacts may not be physically visible all the time. When World War II happened, we all thought this was the end and that nothing could be worse… but even today we see more and more of the same misery. What do we, as a race, aim to give the next generation besides a dark and gloomy future?

Our memory from then until now is where time juxtaposes itself. And so, Abhimanyu’s question, as the protagonist of Chakravyuha, as he ascends to heaven: “Am I a martyr, or am I a scapegoat?”, becomes a question that probably every soldier in the US or Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere asks himself, and that of every young separatist who is fighting for a cause that is not his. 

Art has to represent the times that we live in; this does not mean that we have to become activists. In fact, art has always been surrounded by strife -- one cannot escape from that. Human beings cannot break away from conflict. So, this conflict will automatically manifest itself on stage. The feeling that somewhere something has gone wrong is one that I constantly experience as an artist, and I try to express that through my work. This feeling may come from religion or politics, or from my own aspirations maybe, or from my subconscious… but there is always a volcanic eruption taking place inside of me -- and that can translate into art on stage.  

This does not necessarily make me a political person. I am sometimes asked if my work is political, and I always say that it is important to realise that art is not a court of law that delivers judgments. Conflict will always persist… sometimes it becomes unbearable -- there is just too much of it. I can put it all in a pamphlet and get people to read it, but that is not art and that is not my journey. At the end of the day, everything has to be artistic, and aesthetics must be involved. Art has to go deeper and question why something is happening. And I have to find a way out for my own journey. 

It was at a time like this that I decided to do Ritusamharam, based on Kalidasa’s work. I wanted to stop thinking of the blood, the violence and the devastation. I could only take comfort in nature. I wanted to go back to the blooming flowers and the open sky and moon that I had overlooked for so long.   

The pursuit of art has always been a struggle, but we took a decision 30 years ago that we wanted to work as a professional theatre company, and I’m proud to say that we have achieved it. We might not be rich, and like I keep saying there might be no jam and butter but we have managed to provide the bread. Today Chorus is a well-known theatre company, students and practitioners from across the world come to work with us, and there are several others who have joined the company now. I always stress that growth has to be organic. It is difficult for a newcomer to understand what Chorus has gone through in the last 25 years, how we have had to rebuild our entire working space thrice, because of floods. We lost all our livestock and crops. All these difficulties have shaped our life and work. The way to keep the company together is to ensure that human relationships are not polluted, otherwise people come and go and companies are treated like stop-gap arrangements. Most of my actors have been with me from the beginning; we have grown together. At Chorus they are not just actors, everyone does everything. They make the props themselves, they play music, and they do carpentry work, farming, gardening -- in short everything. There is a sense of being rooted in your work, and a sense of belonging, besides a bond that is created between an actor and the properties he uses on stage.   

Times are changing and we must change with the times; art is not what it used to be earlier. An artist as a human being has certain limitations. Today, if an artist is known everywhere, people expect more out of him -- everyone wants to see something new. They’re not just looking for art and aesthetics. So, all these larger problems must now come into my expression as an artist. The more problems there are, the more you think, and the more you react. What happens to us in Manipur is something I experience every day, all the time. It has become a part of my life. To be treated like a second-class citizen in your own home is something that has become commonplace for us in Manipur today. My actors have been stopped and arrested, my own car has been stopped, I’ve had a gun pointed at me, and these are all things that someone living in Mumbai or Bangalore cannot understand because it is not their reality. And yet, we are all living in the same country.

Modern man has to constantly balance himself between tradition and modernity. And tradition is not a museum piece to be preserved, it is lived. And it is even more relevant today because of its wisdom, roots and moral qualities. Everyone has to find their own path. And to want a better society is everyone’s wish -– mine too. So how does that make my plays political? I’m not a politician. I’m not a minister. I’m an artist. I’m just a small fry.

Infochange News & Features, August 2009