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Midweek Review

Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016): Remembering a Theatrical Legacy

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Sabitri demonstrates walking upstream during an actor training workshop at NSD, 2010. Photo credit Saumya Liyanage.

 

by Dr Saumya Liyanage

Victor Thoudam, one of my closest friends, was a student at the National School of Drama (NSD) New Delhi, India; he was about to launch his latest performance in Imphal, Manipur amidst Covid-19 pandemic. I contacted Victor to congratulate him on his work. During our conversation, I asked him about Kanhailal, a visionary director and writer I met in 2010 in New Delhi. He said, “Kanhailal is no more with us”. I was saddened and felt lost while remembering my short but worthy conversation I had had with Kanhailal in the early winter days of 2010 at the NSD. I have associated with Indian theatre directors from the northeastern region, and I had fruitful conversations with three of them during my visits to NSD. One was theatre and film actor Adil Hussain. Other two were theatre directors and writers Heisnam Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam. Since 2010, I have had spoken with my Indian colleagues and nobody informed me that Kanhailal has passed away. Then I asked Victor about Ratan Thiyam, and he said, “He is getting old but is still active in theatre”.

 

NSD Years

It was winter in New Delhi and the chilly wind was unbearable when travelling at night in a trishaw for a play or a movie. But Bharath Rang Mahothsav (BRM), the International Theatre Festival, organised by the NSD, provided warmth and the motivation for me to witness regional and global theatre trends. The International theatre festival was on at several theatres around the school, including Abhimunch; theatre productions from all over the world and every part of India were being staged in the evening. There were also dance experimentations and other happenings in various non-conventional performance spaces in the school premises.

After watching plays at night, students, teachers, actors, and directors would gather around a bonfire outside the school premises, sipping milk tea, eating samosas and discussing what they have seen. On such an occasion, my colleagues at NSD, Prof. Robindas, and Adil Hussain got me to watch a play from the Manipur region. The Director was Heisnam Kanhailal. During my breakfast at the crowded canteen of the NSD, students also insisted that I see Kanhailal’s production and Ratan Thiyam’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. NSD staff was generous enough to provide me free tickets to watch all the plays during the festival.

Ratan Thiyam

It was the first time I saw Ratan Thiyam’s theatre work. The hall was packed with students, theatergoers, critics, and laymen. Some spectators were even sitting on the floor. Ratan Thiyam was very famous in Delhi. I was mesmerized by Ratan Thiyam’s theatrical approach to Ibsen’s play. It was adapted and produced in a Manipoorian style with mind blowing sets and costumes. Ratan’s actors, their rigor in performing on stage, are unforgettable. But critics like Rustom Bharucha argue that Ratan’s theatre is more festival centric and elaborate colours and sets which overpowers the real essence of his theatre. As Bharucha further emphasizes, Ratan Thiyam creates a theatrical extravaganza or an ‘invented tradition’ through which an imagined ‘Manipooriness’ and indigeneity is created for the cultural centers such as New Delhi and elsewhere.

Kanhailal and Indigenous Theatre

The theatre has stunned me twice so far. The first one is the play titled Othello in Black and White directed by Royston Abel. It was staged at the BRM festival before 2010. cannot remember the exact date. My colleague Adil Hussain played the key role in it. His performance as Othello was fantastic. The second was the Manipur play, adapted from a folk tale, and directed by Heisnam Kanhailal. It was very simple and minimalistic. The key role was played by a matured actress. Later I found that she was the collaborator and lifelong partner of Kanhailal’s plays, Sabitri. Today, I vaguely remember the play as I saw this production way back in 2010.

When Artaud writes how an actor should impact upon the audience member and should vibrate her body similar to a serpent feeling the vibration of the floor, Sabitri’s lyrical body and stylized movements directly communicated with me. Rejecting the mundane theatre conventions, Kanhailal’s actors used human voice in its fullest capacity and tonal variations, and the lyrical body movements to convey the meanings of a human story. This masterpiece exceeded my generic understanding of proscenium theatre and was a vibratory theatrical experience with a minimum effort of extraordinary theatre effects.

After watching this play, I was eagerly waiting to have a discussion with Kanhailal. My friend Victor came, the following day, with a photocopied book. It was about Kanhailal’s theatre practice written by Prof. Rustom Bharucha. It was The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa (1992). Because it was out of print. It was a precious present for me as I started reading Kanhailal’s theatre career and his practice. With the support of NSD staff, I managed to get an appointment from Khaneilal to meet him for a discussion. I met him at the NSD with his wife Sabitri and had a long discussion on his theatre, his beliefs, his practice, and training regime of actors in Kalakshetra, theatre ensemble located in Imphal, Manipur.

Third Theatre

For Bharucha, Kanhailal’s ‘poor theatre’ (meaning the avoidance of excessive theatre technology or other auxiliary material) is a powerful political idiom which captures the indigenous sentiment and oppression of people live in Imphal, Manipur. Writing about Kanhailal ’s famous theatre work, Pebet (1975), Bharucha contends that as a theatre director, Kanhailal questions the idea of janmabhumi, the patriotic ideology created by the dominants, used as an oppressive tool to suppress the marginalised communities (Bharucha 1992). In this play, mother Pebet (a small extinct bird) is disgracefully attacked by her own children after being manipulated by her opponents. When this play was first performed, it was considered not only as anti-Hindu production but also a theatre work promoting anti-Indian sentiment.

Kanhailal and Sabitri conducted several actor training sessions for graduate students during my stay at the NSD. These sessions consisted of learning from nature and working with various natural metaphors to create imaginative bodily movements. Most of the time, Kanhailal appeared as a guru, discussing and explaining things to students while Sabitri demonstrated all the exercises they discussed in class. One of the exciting acting exercises that I observed was walking upstream in a river. Sabitri’s body was a flexible tool although she was in her later fifties at the time. She started showing students how to imagine a shallow river and wade it. Students were then asked to imitate Sabitri and her body movements. Workshop went for two hours followed by a discussion.

Similar to other theatre practitioners in the new era of Indian theatre, Kanhailal has been inspired by European Avant Guards such as Grotowski’s corporeal theatre and also Badal Sirkar’s approaches to communal theatre coined as ‘third theatre’ in India (Nair, 2007, Hirsch and Brustein, 1970, Brahma Prakash, 2010). While his contemporary theatre director Ratan Thiyam’s theatre was criticized as ‘reinvention of tradition’ and meant to please for the cultural centres in India, Kanhailal’s theatre is minimalistic and dominates non-verbal theatricalities opposed to established proscenium, middle class theatres. However, Bharucha is critical of being non-verbal and the domination and overemphasis of pre-expressivity of Kanhailal’s theatre. As he argues ‘Kanhailal seems to have overstressed non-verbalism and the physicality of his actor’s training at the expense of confronting the spoken word […] The instincts and reflexes of Kanhailal’s actors are extremely sharp, but their minds have been somewhat numbed by their essentially dream-like response to performance.’ (Bharucha, 1992, p. 19). Kanhailal’s theatre is unique in that he borrows most of his materials from his inherent Meitei tradition and its folklore. Yet, these folk tales and fables are transformed into political idioms through lyrical and corporeal works of actors. As a theatre producer, Kanhailal rejects elaborate sets, costumes, music, stage props, make-up, or stage light. His theatre can be performed either on conventional proscenium theatre or any space where people can gather. This simplistic and minimalistic nature lays emphasis on actors’ contribution, their mannerisms, and vocal capacity to impress the audience more than anything else. Hence, Kanhailal creates a powerful and unique theatre mode through which our senses are filled with a novel theatrical experience.

Conclusion

Kanhailal’s theatre and Sabitri’s performances have been well received by many critics, theatre scholars in India and abroad. Kanhailal received the Padma Sri Civilian Award in 2004 and later in 2016 he received the highest Padma Bhushan Civilian Award from the Government of India. Kanhailal and his collaborative partner Sabitri have created over 20 productions during their theatre career. Most of these productions have been performed in major cities in India and at international theatre festivals. Sabitri as an actresss has received many awards and accolades including Best Actress awards at Cairo International Theatre Festival, Natya Rathna and other state wards such as Padma Sri and Sangeeth Natak Academy Award.

Working and dedicating one’s life and energy to sustaining a community-based theatre is a difficult exercise. Kanhilal and Sabitri have both succeeded in their endeavour. Many students who graduate from the NSD are attracted to more popular entertainment industries such as television and cinema. But theatre artists such as Ratan Thiyam or Kanhailal were not drawn towards those popular expressions. Instead, they dedicated their lives to creating a form of ephemeral arts, whose original quality cannot be preserved in another form.

(The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama for assistance in preparing this article.)

Reference

Bharucha, R. (1992). The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal. New Theatre Quarterly, 8(29), pp.10–22.

Brahma Prakash (2010). Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 27(1), pp.175–179.

Hirsch, F. and Brustein, R. (1970). The Third Theatre. Educational Theatre Journal, 22(1), p.113.

Kothari, S. and Panchal, G. (1984). The Rising Importance of Indigenous Theatre in India. Asian Theatre Journal, 1(1), p.112.

Nair, Sreenath. (2007). Poetics, Plays, and Performance: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 25(1), pp.165–168.

Rustom Bharucha (1992). The theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa. Calcutta: Seagull Books.


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Midweek Review

‘Professor of English Language Teaching’

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It is a pleasure to be here today, when the University resumes postgraduate work in English and Education which we first embarked on over 20 years ago. The presence of a Professor on English Language Teaching from Kelaniya makes clear that the concept has now been mainstreamed, which is a cause for great satisfaction.

Twenty years ago, this was not the case. Our initiative was looked at askance, as indeed was the initiative which Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare engaged in as UGC Chairman to make degrees in English more widely available. Those were the days in which the three established Departments of English in the University system, at Peradeniya and Kelaniya and Colombo, were unbelievably conservative. Their contempt for his efforts made him turn to Sri Jayewardenepura, which did not even have a Department of English then and only offered it as one amongst three subjects for a General Degree.

Ironically, the most dogmatic defence of this exclusivity came from Colombo, where the pioneer in English teaching had been Prof. Chitra Wickramasuriya, whose expertise was, in fact, in English teaching. But her successor, when I tried to suggest reforms, told me proudly that their graduates could go on to do postgraduate degrees at Cambridge. I suppose that, for generations brought up on idolization of E. F. C. Ludowyke, that was the acme of intellectual achievement.

I should note that the sort of idealization of Ludowyke, the then academic establishment engaged in was unfair to a very broadminded man. It was the Kelaniya establishment that claimed that he ‘maintained high standards, but was rarefied and Eurocentric and had an inhibiting effect on creative writing’. This was quite preposterous coming from someone who removed all Sri Lankan and other post-colonial writing from an Advanced Level English syllabus. That syllabus, I should mention, began with Jacobean poetry about the cherry-cheeked charms of Englishwomen. And such a characterization of Ludowyke totally ignored his roots in Sri Lanka, his work in drama which helped Sarachchandra so much, and his writing including ‘Those Long Afternoons’, which I am delighted that a former Sabaragamuwa student, C K Jayanetti, hopes to resurrect.

I have gone at some length into the situation in the nineties because I notice that your syllabus includes in the very first semester study of ‘Paradigms in Sri Lankan English Education’. This is an excellent idea, something which we did not have in our long-ago syllabus. But that was perhaps understandable since there was little to study then except a history of increasing exclusivity, and a betrayal of the excuse for getting the additional funding those English Departments received. They claimed to be developing teachers of English for the nation; complete nonsense, since those who were knowledgeable about cherries ripening in a face were not likely to move to rural areas in Sri Lanka to teach English. It was left to the products of Aluwihare’s initiative to undertake that task.

Another absurdity of that period, which seems so far away now, was resistance to training for teaching within the university system. When I restarted English medium education in the state system in Sri Lanka, in 2001, and realized what an uphill struggle it was to find competent teachers, I wrote to all the universities asking that they introduce modules in teacher training. I met condign refusal from all except, I should note with continuing gratitude, from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, where Paru Nagasunderam introduced it for the external degree. When I started that degree, I had taken a leaf out of Kelaniya’s book and, in addition to English Literature and English Language, taught as two separate subjects given the language development needs of students, made the third subject Classics. But in time I realized that was not at all useful. Thankfully, that left a hole which ELT filled admirably at the turn of the century.

The title of your keynote speaker today, Professor of English Language Teaching, is clear evidence of how far we have come from those distant days, and how thankful we should be that a new generation of practical academics such as her and Dinali Fernando at Kelaniya, Chitra Jayatilleke and Madhubhashini Ratnayake at USJP and the lively lot at the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University are now making the running. I hope Sabaragamuwa under its current team will once again take its former place at the forefront of innovation.

To get back to your curriculum, I have been asked to teach for the paper on Advanced Reading and Writing in English. I worried about this at first since it is a very long time since I have taught, and I feel the old energy and enthusiasm are rapidly fading. But having seen the care with which the syllabus has been designed, I thought I should try to revive my flagging capabilities.

However, I have suggested that the university prescribe a textbook for this course since I think it is essential, if the rounded reading prescribed is to be done, that students should have ready access to a range of material. One of the reasons I began while at the British Council an intensive programme of publications was that students did not read round their texts. If a novel was prescribed, they read that novel and nothing more. If particular poems were prescribed, they read those poems and nothing more. This was especially damaging in the latter case since the more one read of any poet the more one understood what he was expressing.

Though given the short notice I could not prepare anything, I remembered a series of school textbooks I had been asked to prepare about 15 years ago by International Book House for what were termed international schools offering the local syllabus in the English medium. Obviously, the appalling textbooks produced by the Ministry of Education in those days for the rather primitive English syllabus were unsuitable for students with more advanced English. So, I put together more sophisticated readers which proved popular. I was heartened too by a very positive review of these by Dinali Fernando, now at Kelaniya, whose approach to students has always been both sympathetic and practical.

I hope then that, in addition to the texts from the book that I will discuss, students will read other texts in the book. In addition to poetry and fiction the book has texts on politics and history and law and international relations, about which one would hope postgraduate students would want some basic understanding.

Similarly, I do hope whoever teaches about Paradigms in English Education will prescribe a textbook so that students will understand more about what has been going on. Unfortunately, there has been little published about this but at least some students will I think benefit from my book on English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence? which Godage & Bros brought out in 2016. And then there was Lakmahal Justified: Taking English to the People, which came out in 2018, though that covers other topics too and only particular chapters will be relevant.

The former book is bulky but I believe it is entertaining as well. So, to conclude I will quote from it, to show what should not be done in Education and English. For instance, it is heartening that you are concerned with ‘social integration, co-existence and intercultural harmony’ and that you want to encourage ‘sensitivity towards different cultural and linguistic identities’. But for heaven’s sake do not do it as the NIE did several years ago in exaggerating differences. In those dark days, they produced textbooks which declared that ‘Muslims are better known as heavy eaters and have introduced many tasty dishes to the country. Watalappam and Buriani are some of these dishes. A distinguished feature of the Muslims is that they sit on the floor and eat food from a single plate to show their brotherhood. They eat string hoppers and hoppers for breakfast. They have rice and curry for lunch and dinner.’ The Sinhalese have ‘three hearty meals a day’ and ‘The ladies wear the saree with a difference and it is called the Kandyan saree’. Conversely, the Tamils ‘who live mainly in the northern and eastern provinces … speak the Tamil language with a heavy accent’ and ‘are a close-knit group with a heavy cultural background’’.

And for heaven’s sake do not train teachers by telling them that ‘Still the traditional ‘Transmission’ and the ‘Transaction’ roles are prevalent in the classroom. Due to the adverse standard of the school leavers, it has become necessary to develop the learning-teaching process. In the ‘Transmission’ role, the student is considered as someone who does not know anything and the teacher transmits knowledge to him or her. This inhibits the development of the student.

In the ‘Transaction’ role, the dialogue that the teacher starts with the students is the initial stage of this (whatever this might be). Thereafter, from the teacher to the class and from the class to the teacher, ideas flow and interaction between student-student too starts afterwards and turns into a dialogue. From known to unknown, simple to complex are initiated and for this to happen, the teacher starts questioning.

And while avoiding such tedious jargon, please make sure their command of the language is better than to produce sentences such as these, or what was seen in an English text, again thankfully several years ago:

Read the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway, have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted: “He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail its marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

I do hope your students will not hang from their tails as these monkeys do.

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Midweek Review

Little known composers of classical super-hits

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By Satyajith Andradi

 

Quite understandably, the world of classical music is dominated by the brand images of great composers. It is their compositions that we very often hear. Further, it is their life histories that we get to know. In fact, loads of information associated with great names starting with Beethoven, Bach and Mozart has become second nature to classical music aficionados. The classical music industry, comprising impresarios, music publishers, record companies, broadcasters, critics, and scholars, not to mention composers and performers, is largely responsible for this. However, it so happens that classical music lovers are from time to time pleasantly struck by the irresistible charm and beauty of classical pieces, the origins of which are little known, if not through and through obscure. Intriguingly, most of these musical gems happen to be classical super – hits. This article attempts to present some of these famous pieces and their little-known composers.

 

Pachelbel’s Canon in D

The highly popular piece known as Pachelbel’s Canon in D constitutes the first part of Johann Pachelbel’s ‘Canon and Gigue in D major for three violins and basso continuo’. The second part of the work, namely the gigue, is rarely performed. Pachelbel was a German organist and composer. He was born in Nuremburg in 1653, and was held in high esteem during his life time. He held many important musical posts including that of organist of the famed St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He was the teacher of Bach’s elder brother Johann Christoph. Bach held Pachelbel in high regard, and used his compositions as models during his formative years as a composer. Pachelbel died in Nuremburg in 1706.

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is an intricate piece of contrapuntal music. The melodic phrases played by one voice are strictly imitated by the other voices. Whilst the basso continuo constitutes a basso ostinato, the other three voices subject the original tune to tasteful variation. Although the canon was written for three violins and continuo, its immense popularity has resulted in the adoption of the piece to numerous other combinations of instruments. The music is intensely soothing and uplifting. Understandingly, it is widely played at joyous functions such as weddings.

 

Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary

The hugely popular piece known as ‘Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary’ appeared originally as ‘ The Prince of Denmark’s March’ in Jeremiah Clarke’s book ‘ Choice lessons for the Harpsichord and Spinet’, which was published in 1700 ( Michael Kennedy; Oxford Dictionary of Music ). Sometimes, it has also been erroneously attributed to England’s greatest composer Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695 ) and called ‘Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary (Percy A. Scholes ; Oxford Companion to Music). This brilliant composition is often played at joyous occasions such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. Needless to say, it is a piece of processional music, par excellence. As its name suggests, it is probably best suited for solo trumpet and organ. However, it is often played for different combinations of instruments, with or without solo trumpet. It was composed by the English composer and organist Jeremiah Clarke.

Jeremiah Clarke was born in London in 1670. He was, like his elder contemporary Pachelbel, a musician of great repute during his time, and held important musical posts. He was the organist of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and the composer of the Theatre Royal. He died in London in 1707 due to self – inflicted gun – shot injuries, supposedly resulting from a failed love affair.

 

Albinoni’s Adagio

The full title of the hugely famous piece known as ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’ is ‘Adagio for organ and strings in G minor’. However, due to its enormous popularity, the piece has been arranged for numerous combinations of instruments. It is also rendered as an organ solo. The composition, which epitomizes pathos, is structured as a chaconne with a brooding bass, which reminds of the inevitability and ever presence of death. Nonetheless, there is no trace of despondency in this ethereal music. On the contrary, its intense euphony transcends the feeling of death and calms the soul. The composition has been attributed to the Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1750), who was a contemporary of Bach and Handel. However, the authorship of the work is shrouded in mystery. Michael Kennedy notes: “The popular Adagio for organ and strings in G minor owes very little to Albinoni, having been constructed from a MS fragment by the twentieth century Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, whose copyright it is” (Michael Kennedy; Oxford Dictionary of Music).

 

Boccherini’s Minuet

The classical super-hit known as ‘Boccherini’s Minuet’ is quite different from ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’. It is a short piece of absolutely delightful music. It was composed by the Italian cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini. It belongs to his string quintet in E major, Op. 13, No. 5. However, due to its immense popularity, the minuet is performed on different combinations of instruments.

Boccherini was born in Lucca in 1743. He was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, and an elder contemporary of Beethoven. He was a prolific composer. His music shows considerable affinity to that of Haydn. He lived in Madrid for a considerable part of his life, and was attached to the royal court of Spain as a chamber composer. Boccherini died in poverty in Madrid in 1805.

Like numerous other souls, I have found immense joy by listening to popular classical pieces like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Albinoni’s Adagio and Boccherini’s Minuet. They have often helped me to unwind and get over the stresses of daily life. Intriguingly, such music has also made me wonder how our world would have been if the likes of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert had never lived. Surely, the world would have been immeasurably poorer without them. However, in all probability, we would have still had Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Albinoni’s Adagio, and Boccherini’s Minuet, to cheer us up and uplift our spirits.

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Midweek Review

The Tax Payer and the Tough

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By Lynn Ockersz

The tax owed by him to Caesar,

Leaves our retiree aghast…

How is he to foot this bill,

With the few rupees,

He has scraped together over the months,

In a shrinking savings account,

While the fires in his crumbling hearth,

Come to a sputtering halt?

But in the suave villa next door,

Stands a hulk in shiny black and white,

Over a Member of the August House,

Keeping an eagle eye,

Lest the Rep of great renown,

Be besieged by petitioners,

Crying out for respite,

From worries in a hand-to-mouth life,

But this thought our retiree horrifies:

Aren’t his hard-earned rupees,

Merely fattening Caesar and his cohorts?

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