Thursday, February 20, 2020


Oja Kanhailal’s Language of Theatre
IFP Bureau | First Published: January 20, 2020 00:42:20 am
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Manipuri theatre doyen Oja Heisnam Kahailal, in an interview, when asked about his comment on a critical remark made by a theatre critic, who kicked up a storm by calling Rabindranath Tagore a “second-rate playwright”, made a typical reply true to his self. Oja explained that the said critic belongs to the class of fashionable gods of heaven, like Indra or Varun, who cater to other’s tastes, whereas Tagore appears to be of earthy Shiva whose ways wait for no other. In the same interview, Oja, acknowledging his deep respect for the playwright thus explained. He said Tagore, unlike modern Indian playwright who remained Eurocentric in form and style, is deeply, exceptionally, rooted in his soil. “He creates his plays in a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment while responding to the tension of the times. He never follows any canon,” Oja observed.

The interview is one of the chapters of the book ‘Theatre of the Earth’, published by Seagull Books. Rootedness of Oja in the native soil is well evident in his plays. This rootedness flowered a unique approach to creative expressions. As Oja puts it, “Ours is entirely different kind of awareness, reflecting on the past and the present … we breathed new values into the empty shell of theatre.” This rootedness in the native firmament which desires universal communication is what makes any form of creative expression unique. In most of his public deliberations, Oja has been critical about ‘packaging’ the art forms, particularly the Manipuri traditional art for the purpose of ‘catering’ it to a wider global audience.

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He denounced suggestions made by ‘well-read’ individuals that “our artists should at least learn English language communication skill along with basic knowledge of computer” to be able to cope with the changing world. Oja argues that our ancestors who have developed Sankirtan in their own unique form and style have created it without knowing the Bengali language well. Our artists should not waste time honing English language skill or computer, rather more time should be devoted in ascending the artistic height, Oja puts it.

Moreover, Oja’s anxiety was the lack of rigorous scholarly research on the varied traditional performances of the soil. In most of his public lectures Oja cited the example of the State of Kerala where vibrant research works are encouraged by the government as well as their private cultural forums. “None of the gurus in Kerala either speak English or know computer skill, but their art shines”, Oja would often remark. Besides having decorated with titles and awards for his contribution in theatre, Oja is one rare gem whose work will be found alongside the names like Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot, Bertolt Brecht and Herbert Blau. His is the lone Asian name to be included in the 100 critical essays written by 20th century’s most influential playwrights, directors, scholars, and philosophers – in an anthology, ‘Theatre in Theory’, published by Blackwell publishing house.

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The theatre group Kalakshetra Manipur, founded by oja is celebrating its Golden Jubilee this February. It is befitting that the celebration will be marked by a theatre festival wherein groups from Assam and Tripura will be showcasing their productions. These theatre groups have had the opportunity to mingle with Oja when he was on his mission to explore new terrains of theatre in the Northeast states. He did not teach them theatre. He only taught them to vocalise theatre in the language of their own.      

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