27 Ratan Thiyyam: Chakravyuh/ Uttarpriyadashi; Kanhailal Heisnam Pebet

Saidul Haque

epgp books





This module introduces two very important dramas by Ratan Thiyam and Heisnam Kanhailal. Both Chakravyuha by Thiyam and Pebet by Kanhailal are critically introduced along with the analysis of their performance and reception.


Modern Indian drama in the 1970s entered an unprecedented radical phase with the advent of an alternative idiom. During this period (preceding immediate 70s and post 70s) experimentation in dramatic theme and dramatic technique took a new shape in the hands of stalwarts like Badal Sircar, Habib Tanvir, K.N. Panikkar, Saoli Mitra, Ratan Thiyam, Kanhailal Heisnam et.al. Dramatists like Badal Sircar challenged the idea of proscenium theatre and proposed an alternative ‘Third Theatre’ that would be portable, flexible, inexpensive and more nearer to the masses. Habib Tanvir and Saoli Mitra started thematic experimentation in their plays by incorporating regional flavors like Chattisgarhi folk elements and the kathakata of Bengal respectively. Relevance of Ratan Thiyam and Heisnam Kanhailal in this phase of alternative dramatic revolution is exceedingly significant not only because of their conscious choice of alternative and radical theatre but also because of their cultural location in Manipur, a state in northeastern India.


Manipur can boast of a rich performance tradition. Anjum Katyal puts it nicely: “Manipur is intensely theatre active.The performance arts traditions of this state are rich and varied. The Sankeertana and Lai Haraoba, for example, though religious ceremonials, contain dramatic and performative elements. Several spheres of theatre, each a complete system in itself, overlap and coexist: the older traditional performance forms, particularly the Sumang Leela or ‘courtyard’ theatre; the established proscenium theatre; and the ‘modern’ experimental, alternative theatre (5).” Theatre practitioners like Thiyam and Kanhailal had then a rich cultural heritage of their own apart from the traditional Indian plays which follow classical Sanskrit treatise, Natyashastra.


Manipur is also culturally and politically fraught area since pre-colonial time. There are different cultures in Manipur like the Mainland that is mostly Hindu predominant culture and Meitei culture. Within the state there is constant tension between the mainstream Meitei community and the tribes, between different tribes, rival insurgent factions, civilians, state military forces and the insurgents. Rustom Bharucha has also argued that Manipur is imagined as ‘exotic’, ‘distant’ and ‘threatening’ space within Indian nation state. Writing plays from this axiom of ‘otherness’ and violence was a challenge for them and therefore the burning social issues of the time got reflected in the works of Ratan Thiyam, Heisnam Kanhailal, Haorokcham ‘Sanakhya’ Ebotombi and Lokendra Arambam. They became, although diverse in style and signature, the pioneers of a new phase in the experimental, alternative theatre tradition.


Ratan Thiyam


Ratan Thiyam(1948-) is a prominent Indian playwright and theatre director who won the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and acted as the Chairperson of National School of Drama. He is also the founder-director of ‘Chorus Repertory Theatre’. He is considered as one of the leading figures of the “theatre of roots” movement in Indian theatre, which started in the 1970s. Among his notable plays include Imphal Imphal (1982), Lengshonnei(1986)[An adaptation of Anouilh’s Antigone], Uttar Priyadarshi, Chinglon Mapan Tampak Ama (Nine Hills One Valley), Ritusamharam (Ritusamharam by Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa) etc.


Ratan Thiyam also completed a Mahabharata triology with Bhasa’s Urubhangam in 1981, following it up in 1984 with his own Chakravyuha, and culminating with Bhasa’s Karnabharam in 1989. The plays are linked thematically through “the central presence of an individual facing an onslaught of violence, a kind of cosmic, global flow of violence, that compels him to question his identity (Bandyopadhyay, “Introduction” viii).” Ratan Thiyam engages with Mahabharata story from a different perspective. He chose for his heroes characters who are traditionally ignored and marginalized in Brahmanic exegesis. According to Samik Bandyopadhyay, “As he identified with Bhasa’s characters, non-heroes turned into heroes, Ratan was taking a position in relation to the mainstream institutalization of the mythical heroes (“Introduction” ix).” Duryodhana, Karna and Abhimanyu takes centre stage in Thiyam’s production of Mahabharata triology.




Chakravyuha (1984) is a seminal play, which has been performed widely and won critical acclaim, including the Fringe First Award at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1986. The episode of Chakravyuha is taken from the Drona Parva (Chapters 34-40) of the Mahabharata. The play banks on the story of Abhimanyu’s assassination in the hands of the Saptarathis (seven charioteers) from the Kaurava side in the battle of Kurukshetra. Ratan Thiyam employs this classical story to address contemporary issues, from a Manipuri perspective.According to Samik Bandyopadhyay, “The Abhimanyu story offers him[Ratan Thiyam] an opportunity to attack the cult of heroism which is only too often held up to the Manipuri youth by political forces playing for sectarian stakes, to drive them to senseless acts of virtual suicide. For him [Thiyam], ‘Abhimanyu trusting so foolhardily his technique is one of the younger generations in Manipur.’ (“New Karnas in Manipur” 74).” Thiyam himself has asserted that the classical sources are re- appropriated in the Manipuri context. Through the play, Chakravyuha, he then interrogates the system, the state machinery, the power structure embedded in the society and finally the position of an individual in the society. Thiyam explains, “…I am asking myself again and again: where do I stand as an individual? I feel a whole burden of anxiety. Talk of peace, talk of war, or talk of struggle, I feel that an individual is trapped. With all these things, as an individual, I have to take a position against the violence going on, against the corruption, against this system. Talking about the system, as a theatre worker, I have always felt it my duty to attack this system (qtd. in Bandyopadhyay, “Introduction” x).” Thiyam’s play is then a play of resistance too. Thiyam questions Abhimanyu’s sacrifice as a heroic act. Abhimanyu himself affirms within the play: “I set out on this last journey with an unanswered question in my heart-am I a scapegoat or am I a martyr? (Thiyam 51)” Kurukshetra war is also portrayed in the play not as a sacrosanct divine war aided by gods and goddess or fought by larger than life figures. Rather Thiyam depicts the war as a war of ‘power-grabbers’. The flags become the symbols of divisive passions leading to violent confrontation/war between the nation states. The Kauravas through the rhetoric of pressure, patriotism and provocation strategically manipulate Drona to create the Chakravyuha-‘the cosmic formation of military warfare’. On the other hand the Pandavas like Bheema and Yudhishthira beguile Abhimanyu to enter the Chakravyuha even after knowing that Abhimanyu knows how to enter this dangerous trap, but doesn’t know how to get out of it. The provocation of Yudhishthira: “O my son Abhi (embraces him), you are so daring, so brave. I am pleased. In fact I am overjoyed…(Thiyam 28)” is followed by the description given by the dramatist: “The moves, gestures, expressions of Bheema and Yudhishthira indicate a preplanned intention (Thiyam 28).” Ratan Thiyam’s scheme to situate each of the classical character in contemporary time is clear when he talks about Duryodhana. In the play Duryodhana manipulates Gita’s sloka to interpellate Drona. He also blurs the distinction between dharma and adharma in order to force Drona to create chakravyuha against the Pandavas. Ratan Thiyam justifies: “I was looking at the Gita from the standpoint of Duryodhana and also from the point of view of contemporary reality. We live in a materialistic world and so how can any Duryodhana, a man who has fulfilled his duties as a king, find this absolute truth? He has been systematic, calculating and aware of the course of events. For him truth stems from this concrete reality. He is logical….Duryodhana believes he is fighting a war because he has to… (qtd. in Nagpal xliii-xliv).” So Thiyam exposes the inherent politics of interpellation working on both the warring side and this is very relevant to the society from where Thiyam is writing. Ratan Thiyam himself asks: “Why were so many tricks employed by both sides to entrap a boy? What was the truth of the situation? This was my concern. Dharmaputra Yudhishthira stands for truth, but did he tell Abhimanyu the whole truth about Chakravyuha? Did Bheema the strong Pandava uncle warn his nephew, or did they just want to solve the problem, save the situation by exciting valour in the young man? They urge him to become a hero. Yudhishthira pretends to dissuade Abhimanyu, but his words and gestures are designed to spur him on (qtd. in Nagpal xxx).” This is also pertinent to note that like the blurring of dharma and adharma in the play, the distinction between good and evil; fair and foul becomes indistinct. While traditionally ‘good’ characters are engaged in vile manoeuvres; ‘evil’ characters like Shakuni sway in agony, as he blames Krishna: “I fear for Abhimanyu’s life…No…No. O Krishna…You cannot do this even though you are God…No, I say, no, you cannot do this.”


Arjuna-Subhadra Episode of Chakravyuha


As opposed to this darker world of machination and power play, Ratan Thiyam in the Arjuna-Subhadra episode of Chakravyuha introduces a more sacred and serene private space of womb, a space made of memories and dreams. Through the flashback technique, the episode recounts the affectionate interaction between Arjuna and Subhadra, where Arjuna reveals the secret strategy to invade the Chakravyuha to Subhadra. This is the narrative visualized through the fetus of Avimanyu in mother’s womb. The innocent world of the womb visualized through an atmosphere swathed in ‘silvery moonbeams’ is antithetical to the anxieties and apprehension of the imminent war in the near future. This also advocates the time when the youth of Abhimanyu would be imperiled by the Chakravyuha. At the same time this also allegorizes the invasion of a space by some darker forces. Ratan Thiyam comments on the scene: “The womb scene was a problem. At one point we thought we could create it with levers. Levers for Avimanyu in the womb. Then I thought of a cave. Abhimanyu entangled in a spiderweb unable to breathe. The important point was that Abhimanyu was trapped in a space. He is listening to the cruelty in society (as expressed by Arjuna to Subhadra) and wants to get out and fight. In the Mahabharata he only hears the Chakravyuha ‘mantra’. But I wanted Abhimanyu to represent society. I wanted the audience to Subhadra and Arjun’s conversation (qtd. in Nagpal xxix-xxx).”




Performative aspect of the play is more interesting in the context of Chakravyuha because it is through the continuous rehearsal that the drama came into shape. Thiyam has clarified the lack of chronological order in the play: “…because I wanted to establish the active characters in the Kaurava and Pandava camps first….Long before the hero I had conceived his killers- the Saptarathi (qtd. in Nagpal xxix).” Kavita Nagpal has recounted her first hand experience of seeing the play prepared for performance in detail: “There was yet no script. Duryodhana enters Drona’s camp. Stop! A page was written by Ratan and distributed. Each actor had to memorize all the lines. The page was then translated into action by the actors….


According to Doren[ an actress of the play], the Subhadra and Arjuna scene became a headache for everyone: What would you feel if your child in the mother’s womb is threatened by war? Ratan would ask me. Then he would speak some lines as Arjuna and recite a probable reply by Subhadra…(Nagpal xxix).”


Thiyam uses different modes of performative tradition, both classical and folk in the production of this play. Ratan Thiyam invents his own style through various kinds of interactions and creates his ‘composite art’. Ratan Thiyam has himself stated: “Rituals and traditions! They are mine. Ratan’s rituals and traditions. Neither do they have any direct bearing to any particular Manipuri tradition nor to the Natyashastra. I am creating my own tradition (qtd. in Nagpal xxxvii)   .” Ratan Thiyam draws from the Wari Leeba which is a traditional form of narrative art articulating the Hindu Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Ratan Thiyam has consulted regional variations of the classic along with Vyasa’s Mahabharata. For the Arjuna-Subhadra episode, Ratan Thiyam has followed the singing style of Manipur called the pena. For descriptions of beautiful flowers he took recourse to Sanskrit literature like Meghadootam and Ritu-Samharam. He also consulted erotic literature like Amaru-Shataka to depict Shringara rasa in the scene. The play is imparted with indigenous Manipuri martial art form Thang-Ta and the dance form Nata Sankirtana. According to Thiyam, “What we are trying to gain from these exercises are the power that controls the distribution of energy to different parts of the body, and the powers of concentration and meditation. The establishment of a deep relationship between body and mind is essential (qtd. in Nagpal xxvi).” For Thiyam acting in a composite medium like theatre, the actor must be a ‘composite man’ with knowledge and practice of all forms. Ratan Thiyam’s application of the Natyashastra in the ‘prologue’ of the play is a contentious issue. He has been criticized by Manipuri people for valorizing a classical treatise rather than the indigenous sources. On the other hand Sanskrit critics criticized him for his aberration from the source text. But Thiyam is clear in his approach: “In my prologue I am using Natyashastra as a source of inspiration for creating an impression of tradition….This is not a classical play and the Sutradhara is not a classical Sutradhara. He is a guru. A contemporary guru, a teacher with knowledge of contemporary events. He knows what happened in World War II and brings this knowledge to bear upon his description of the flags and the thematic content and the establishment of characters (qtd. in Nagpal xxxvii-xxxviii).”

Bajeli, Diwan Singh. MAZE WITHIN A MAZE A scene from “Chakravyuh”. 2014. The Hindu. Web. http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday review/with-chakravyuh-atul-satya-koushik-expands-on-his-interpretation-of-the-story-of abhimanyu/article6267867.ece


Heisnam Kanhailal


Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016) is a stalwart in the world of Indian theatre. He is quite well known for his experimental technique in his dramatic productions. His intimate engagement with theatre which he loves to call as “theatre of the earth” made possible redefining traditional idea of dramaturgy. Kanhailal has also his own famous theatre group named Kalakshetra. He produced memorable pieces like Kabui- Keioiba (Half Man Half Tiger), Khomdon Meiroubi (The Last Girl), Pebet, Imphal ’73, Memoirs of Africa. He took theatre closer to life almost blurring the boundary between life and drama when he inspired a hundred women vendors from the historic Nupi Keithel to perform a non-proscenium open-air theatrical production of Nupilan (Women’s Agitation) in 1978.




Pebet (1975) is based on a popular folktale of Manipur. Pebet is a part of the collection of fireside stories (phanga wari), which are told to Manipuri children by their grandmothers.Pebet is a bird smaller than a sparrow, which the Manipuris believed that once existed. The tale is about a Pebet family where the Mother Pebet evades the predatory attention of a greedy cat by flattering him. She continues to boost his ego till her children are ready to protect themselves. Once they are grown up, she resists the Cat who captures the youngest of her brood. Finally, through her clevery the mother manages to trick the Cat into freeing her child. The Pebets are ultimately united as the cat disappears from their lives, somewhat dispirited. In Kanhailal’s play, the first and the last parts of the story are left more or less intact. Kanhailal departs from the traditional story in the middle of the play after the youngest offspring has been captured. While frantically searching her lost brood, the worried mother is visited by a nightmare where all her broods are trapped by the mischievous cat. They are subjugated and indoctrinated in such a way that they even happily lick the buttock of the cat, literally. But one of them protests and peels off parts of the buttock of the cat with his teeth. The aberrant brood is then subjected to brutal torture by his own siblings at the instruction of the cat. The cat becomes successful in setting them against one other, who even go to the extent of attacking their own mother ironically chanting the Sanskrit phrase, “janani janma bhumishya sargadapi garioyoshi” (mother and the motherland are greater than even paradise). However, the proselytized broods finally recover from the state of their forced subservience and successfully come out of the devilish clutch of the cat. Kanhailal politicizes this traditional folktale to comment on cultural colonization that the Meitei community in Manipur suffered. This family of Pebets represented in the play symbolically stands for the traditional Meitei cult of Manipur. The man playing the role of the cat in the play wears a dhoti and holds a mala of wooden beads in one hand. Thus in the play, the cat is represented as a pseudo-monk that symbolically stands for the Vaishnavite power. Vaishnavism as a movement or religious practice was propagated in Manipur during the ruling period of King Garib Nivas (1709-1748) and Bhagyachandra (1763-1798). “The period witnessed wide spread destruction of traditional lai (gods), the burning of ancient manuscripts [puya], the banning of the Meithei script and its replacement by the Bengali script, the introduction of the Hindu calendar and system of gotras, enforcement of Hindu dietary laws, and the sanctification of the first recorded instances in Manipuri history of sati (Bharucha, “Politics of Indigenous Theatre” 748).” The indigenous culture of Manipur was then demolished with the entry of Vaishnavism. A similar incident happens in the Pebet family with the entry of the predatory cat.This disintegration of the Pebet children that occurs in the play symbolically stands for the disintegration of the seven clans that formed the Meitei community with the arrival of Vaishnavite movement from India. But Kanhailal’s play is also imbued with poetics of resistance. One Pebet brood’s biting of the cat’s arse is symbolic resistance that resembles the emergence of various movements aiming at the revival of Meiteism in Manipur. This is a tale of countering the hegemony. Kanhailal here subverts the familiar story of folktale to deal with the larger cultural and social issues of Manipur.


Rustom Bharucha interprets the Pebet mother’s nightmare as the ‘fantasy of oppression’ and comments that “it is in this section that the politics of the play is most keenly felt before the happy end of the production which merely echoes the original end of the story with no irony whatsoever ( The Theatre of Kanhailal 34)” But other critics like Ananda Lal in the introduction of the book Twist in the folktale argues that Kanhailal possibly intends a heroic conclusion (the defeat of the cat and reunion of the youngest Pebet with the family) to serve as a mockery of real life, in which the cat still dominates the Pebets politically and culturally.


Reception of Pebet


When the play was produced first time in 1975 it was dismissed as ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-Indian’ play too. Rustom Bharucha would argue that “To an extent, this criticism is the consequence of misreading Kanhailal’s attitude to ‘janmabhoomi’. At no point does the play attack the idea of patriotism or love for one’s motherland. What Kanhailal is questioning are the cultural formations through which concepts of patriotism and loyalty are imposed. In the name of ‘janmabhoomi’(and not ‘ima leipak’ which is the Manipuri world for motherland); the Cat uses his language and strategy to make the Pebets abuse their own mother. The real fear of Mother Pebet is not that her children will be eaten by the cat, but rather that they will be converted to ‘cat culture’ (“Politics of Indigenous Theatre” 749).” Kanhailal here questions this politics of hegemonic assertion-both linguistic as well as cultural.


Rustom Bharucha points out that Kanhailal’s strategy has changed in the play’s later productions. He figures out “diffusion of identity” in Kanhailal’s play. Kanhailal felt the need to transcend the immediate context of the play. Bharucha argues that “If Kanhailal’s ethnicity seems diffused today, this is certainly a reflection of larger cultural-political situation in the State, where the resurgence of Meithei identity has lost its edge. The philosophy and political modes of resistance have changed with the emergence of the PLA. In addition, the critical intervention of the Indian army has cast a different perspective on resistance of any kind (“Politics of Indigenous Theatre” 749).” Bharucha explains that in his later plays like Memoirs of Africa, the problems of oppression and resistance take on an elemental significance; it transcends the historicity and becomes ‘universal’ vision.


Performance of Pebet


Kanhailal’s performative strategy is also unique. Bharucha explains that his ‘idiom of performance’ is rooted in the ‘poverty’ of Third Theatre. “He works without sounds, lights, or sound recording of any kind. Costumes are minimal and the stage is flexible. Kanhailal’s plays can be performed on the proscenium stage, or in an empty hall or field (Bharucha, “Politics of Indigenous Theatre” 751).” Kanhailal also advocates non-verbalism and the physicality of his actors’ training countering the spoken word. “This has resulted in a surfeit of what is called ‘pre-expressivity’ in avant-garde theatre circles, where the focus is on those primary energies of the body preceding articulations and consciousness. 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, “Politics of Indigenous Theatre” 751).” In Pebet, for instance, the audiences realize that they are actually watching birds on stage though none of the actors would wear any improvised costume. Instead of the use of any high-tech props or any special effect, the rhythmic and lyrical verbal noise, the recurring sounds of “tet, tet, tet, tet….”

In fact, “tet, tet, tet…” and “pebet, te tu” forms the central ‘dialogue’ to communicate the story to the audience. Resistance takes a new form in Kanhailal’s play as Rustom Bharucha says: “It seems to me that when we talk of resistance today, our rhetoric has congealed through stereotypes of flags and slogans, statements and battle cries. From the presence of Sabitri, one learns that it is possible to resist the most painful oppression of daily life through the spirit and sheer creativity. The act of politics in theatre does not ultimately lie in the assertion of an ideology, but in the very being of the actor which incarnates resistance. If Pebet is still a force to reckon with, it is because of the strength of its performance (Bharucha, The Theatre of Kanhailal).”


Premchand, Nongthombam. Kanhailal’s Theatre. 2009. Theatre and Performance. Web. 30 Sept 2016. http://rangamancha.blogspot.in/2009/09/kanhailals-theatre.html


Pathak, Namrata.Plays of Ratan Thiyam and H. Kanhailal: Some Critical  Insights.2007.

NEZINE.Web.30Sept2016.http://www.nezine.com/info/Plays%20of%20Ratan%20Thiyam%20and%20H.%20Kanh ailal:%20Some%20Critical%20Insights




Both Ratan Thiyam and Heisnam Kanhailal banks on small narratives to critique the hegemony and to challenge the power structure which traps the individual or the indigenous clan. They subvert foundations or universal criteria of truth and knowledge generated through the medium of grand or meta-theory and the supremacy of linear historiography. Chakravyuha moves backward to the time of Kurukshetra war and Pebet talks about the bird of folk tale which is now extinct. It is through the backward movement of time that these dramatists grapple the present. These plays are then polyvalent sites to ask question about identity politics in contemporary society.Marginality becomes the key trope in their narratives, in their representation of underrepresented characters and through their application of experimental dramaturgy.


But the homogeneous position of both these dramatists from Manipur is somehow broken by the interpretation of Rustom Bharucha. In Thiyam’s drama, according to Bharucha, we get an ‘invented’ and ‘fabricated’ image of ‘Manipuriness’ shaped by the expectations established in political centres like New Delhi and the festival scene abroad. Thiyam’s plays are spectacular, decorative and colourful, an ethnicity derived largely from Vaishnavite sources and decontextualized from indigenous rituals and traditions. On the other hand, Kanhailal is more grounded in ethnicity, in the raw earthy immediacy of experiences. In Kanhailal’s own words: “I strongly believe that theatre is essentially grounded with ideology and a deep rooted social commitment.Theatre is not a detached art, it is strongly linked with its ideological commitments for it must become a voice for the voiceless, a means that gives the power and strength to the disempowered to resist and take on the challenges. Theatre must speak for the weak, the vulnerable, the voiceless. Theatre must be able to question the conventional representations and its politics (Kanhailal 2015).” From this perspective both Thiyam and Kanhailal brought a fresh upsurge of alternate ideas in Indian theatre which exposed the politics of dramatic aesthetics in a nuanced and critical way.

you can view video on Ratan Thiyyam: Chakravyuh/ Uttarpriyadashi; Kanhailal Heisnam Pebet


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