Drama in the time of bigotry: theatre director and poet Ratan Thiyam
By Pradip Phanjoubam
Manipur’s celebrated theatre director and poet Ratan Thiyam has not given up on the power of his songs
In the dark times/ Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times — Bertolt Brecht
Ratan Thiyam is waiting for me, seated inside a charming little gazebo adjacent to a lily pond at a quiet corner not far from the imposing The Shrine auditorium. I arrive 10 minutes early at the sprawling green Chorus Repertory Theatre complex. The small garden table before him is empty except for a bottle of mineral water, a few aluminium foil covers of pills, and some books. He is in a winter jacket, as am I, though a lighter one. The clear chilly morning heralds the onset of winter. A pleasant morning sun floods the garden walks and lawns, neatly kept but bearing signs of disrepair.
Customary pleasantries start with talks of the changing season. Imphal winter mornings seldom fail to evoke nostalgia in its residents, and the director begins to lament a past, which he says has been thoughtlessly abandoned by the present. “Empathy is dead,” he says.
The touch of flamboyant theatrics his creations are known for is unmistakeable in the man. “Even during cruelties of wars in the past, humanity was never lost altogether. We’ve been able to pick ourselves up time and again and salvage our souls. But something has happened in the post-WWII era. Humanity is being drained away from the human race,” he says.
Man’s closest friend
“Technology has caused everybody to retreat into their individual shells; we’ve ceased to be social beings. The computer has become man’s closest companion, and virtual reality has come to substitute reality itself,” he says with a touch of anger.
“And it’s in this environment that art and creativity are expected to flourish,” he says disdainfully. “Creativity is not born in isolation. It is a cumulative residual legacy from generations of philosophers, artists, intellectuals, scientists and artists. Without this DNA, creativity cannot have a future. This is the challenge the present generation is faced with.”
Thiyam contends, in sadness and anger, that this priceless archetypal humankind is blessed with, is now coming to an end, as the modern age does not care any more. “The digital age has made sure the past does not matter. It has also obliterated the difference between original and replicas,” he says in a tone reminiscent of the fatalism of Fukuyama’s end of history and triumph of capitalism prodiction.
“This being what it is, where will the present generation get its inspiration from? It is impossible to imagine the new age capable of anything close to the timeless works of art of the past,” he says, growing noticeably more agitated.
“Humanitarian norms that all of us once understood intuitively are no longer the moderating influences on humans today. Instead cruelty, tribalism, xenophobia and savagery have again taken over. Even if we were to agree war is destiny, the barbarism of IS, the sufferings heaped on children in Syria, Yemen and Rohingya are horrors difficult to imagine are our reality today,” he says. “The present has chosen to be rootless.”
According to Thiyam, we have ceased to be communities, and have turned inwards and are now individual islands, selfish and unconcerned about the larger humanity. The bonds that once made the human story magical are missing, he says, with people preferring to bond with computers and smart phones.
I try to step in and bring the discussion to theatre, but he gestures he is not finished yet. “Ideas of sacrifice, altruism, empathy are all things of the past. People are no longer interested in face to face conversations. Life is no longer about living but existing. Political leadership has ceased to be visionary and is instead myopic, selfish and self-serving.”
There is a brief pause, and I take the opportunity to divert the course of his virtual monologue to Manipur and its political turmoil. I remind him of the return of religious revivalism among an increasingly vocal section of the society, and with it, a rejection of selective chapters of history.
Thiyam leans back and gathers his thoughts. His mood has now shifted. The agitation has calmed and his tone is now sad with a hint of cynicism. “Manipur is constrained by resource scarcity and its elite are selfish and clueless,” he says.
He is concerned that bigotry has returned. “Manipur is beautiful because of its syncretic culture. We have accommodated every culture, every religion, every ethnicity that came our way, and out of this fashioned a unique identity for ourselves. This is an outlook we inherited from our ancestors and this is precisely what has made our arts great and our society resilient. Why are we questioning this greatness inherent in us now?” he asks.
“Revivalism is destroying the richness of our cultural heritage. Take the case of the Hinduism of the Meiteis. Our past pre-Hindu religion is still very much a part of our Hindu worship. What can be more beautiful than this?”
I hear him and can’t help recall Walt Whitman’s epiphanic declaration in Leaves of Grass. “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
“Religion is not about any particular god or goddess. It is a belief in the ultimate peace and harmony of the universal order. This spirituality can do miracles to life. It is the source of the best of arts and aesthetics. Fanaticism can only destroy this understanding of the universe. Manipur has not been spared; fanaticism has destroyed our sublime spirituality,” he says pensively.
A short pause ushers back the silence of the winter morning. I ask him if this means he has surrendered. If he has come to the conclusion that art is no longer an answer to the problems of society.
One more follows
The renowned dramaturg, who has among others four honorary doctorates of literature conferred on him by universities across India; who has won innumerable awards, national and international, for his theatre productions; who has been director of the National School of Drama; who has travelled with his plays to every corner of the world; who has explored many intriguing human predicaments in numerous acclaimed plays, looked up in amazement at my question.
“No.” He said, his reply definitive.
“I am working on another production Lairenbigi Ishei (Song of the Sylvian Deities). My despair at the grave new world unfolding will be reflected in this. The despair, however, is not a surrender. It is a form of resistance against the causes of this despair. It will be a fight and a search for a new order, informed by the spirituality of the past. It will show the magic of empathy and compassion.” Thiyam’s voice is calm and strong now.
“Once upon a time, the Lairenbi (sylvian deities) represented the unity of spirit of creation. Forests, rivers, lakes, humans, animals, birds together formed one living ecosphere, where one respected the other as part of a larger whole. My new production will celebrate this vision.” Thiyam is now his old self.
Bertolt Brecht was right. Poetry cannot die and thus even the darkest hours will continue to inspire songs. Thiyam’s answer came as an immense relief to me. Manipur’s celebrated theatre director and poet has not given up on the power of his songs.
This interview was first published in The Hindu
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