(Last Updated on : 20/06/2012)
The state of Manipur in extreme eastern India became a constituent part of the Indian Union in 1949 after British colonial rule from 1891 to 1947. A long stint of independence under the Ningthouja dynasty since the early Christian era helped develop its political and cultural features. The central trough-like valley supports two-thirds of the population, whose ethnic majority of Meiteis converted to Hinduism in the eighteenth century. The hills, with thirty-odd tribes of Naga and Kuki denominations, were progressively Christianized since the late nineteenth century. However, indigenous faiths and beliefs survived under the surface, having contributed to Manipuri artistic expression. The Meitei, who formed the nation in the fifteenth century, had encouraged the growth of theatre, while the hill tribes provided rich textures of music and dance.
The origins of Manipuri performance are traced to native primitive fertility-cults and ancestor-worship festivals, the ritual forms perhaps established in the twelfth century. The celebratory rite of Lai Haraoba
received its formal shape with the monarch's participation, thereby assuming a politico-cultural significance later in the process of nation making. Wari Liba, or the art of solo storytelling before the king or community, became institutionalized in the seventeenth century.
Folk dances and music, collective enhancement of relations with ancestral spirits, and ritual control over clan principalities through cyclic festivals, with associated secular lessons for education and initiation of the young, developed into a national culture in the eighteenth century symbolizing the cosmos under the monarch as visible active principle. Native followers of traditional religion resisted the massive Hindu conversion of the eighteenth century, leading to a division of beliefs. However, Manipur's devastation by the Burmese in the later half of the eighteenth century and subsequent liberation by the Vaishnava ruler Bhagyachandra gave him an opportunity to experiment with change. He effected a compromise between the dissenting faiths, manifested theatrically in the harmonious assimilation of both cultures in Manipuri Ras Lila. The slow, soft, lyrical dance patterns healed the annihilating struggle within the self, and in turn became the precursor to a feverish explosion of performatory genres conveying the new-found love, compassion, and synthesis. The many innovative minor forms, operas, and ritual performances in the Krishna cycle include the unique childrens theatre
of Sansenba and the twentieth-century Gaura Lila, which produced such major practitioners as T. Kunjakishore.
Aristocratic ladies participated freely with commoners to celebrate Krishna's egalitarian and liberating actions.
The converted took to representing his deeds with a sensuous delight in the fact that divinities could be conceived as mischievous children. Environmental performances simulating the Vrindavan forests, Govardhana hills, and mighty Jamuna River surcharged the polity with a spiritual abandon. As early as 1851, in the play Kaliya daman i.e. 'Vanquishing Kaliya', Krishna's tryst with the serpent was enacted on a river, with Maharaja Chandrakirti's young son Kam Singh performing as Krishna. The hierarchic hegemony of the noblemen also bred subtle subversions within the value systems of the feudal society, as slaves in the retinue gave vent to criticism with fun and humour. After release from periodic service to the monarch, these jesters roamed the countryside and the Phagi or clown play arose in the mid-nineteenth century, developing into the itinerant Shumang Lila of the early twentieth century. One specific variation, the folkloric Moirang Parva, held sway for nearly the whole century.
After Manipur's defeat in the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891, colonial influence undermined the old theatre. A new social order was introduced, based on British perceptions, with support from the existing aristocracy. English entered, along with modern literature and journals, and the semi-agrarian society was transformed with the incorporation of laissez-faire capital. Proscenium-arch theatre became the new performance aesthetic, imitating the latest happenings in cosmopolitan Calcutta. While Calcuttans looked toward Victorian London for artistic leadership, Imphal looked to the nearest imperial metropolis. The new leisured class took to models of historical and mythological drama imported through the Bengali language, and the Friends Dramatic Union established in 1905 found Bengalis and Meiteis equally sharing responsibility for popularization of the new theatre.
The open mandap-style, religious theatre of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, based on the Hindu epics, gradually changed into a closeted, fourth-wall representation of events. This was with wooden boxes in the front rows to welcome the colonial middle class. The royal presence in a collective theatre as life-giver, protector, and protagonist of rituals now shifted into the role of non-participating patron or individual witness. Proscenium stages on makeshift outhouses in residential localities increased in number, and the new materialism came into effect with ticketed shows introduced at the Manipur Dramatic Union
in 1931. Sorokhaibam Lalit, who was the father figure of Manipuri proscenium theatre, ran the Manipur Dramatic Unio as a strict disciplinarian. Aryan Theatre and Rupmahal Theatre soon followed suit.
Manipur's political integration with India in 1949 brought in the Nehruvian ethos, and melodramas on legendary folk love stories and poor-boy-rich-girl encounters attracted the national gaze after 1954. This happened when Lalit's direction of Haorang Leisbang Sapbabi took Manipuri theatre into Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian mainstream of 'unity in diversity'. Maibam Ramcharan was a prolific and popular dramatist of seventy-six plays and over twenty Shumang Lila scripts, capitalized on sentiment, romance, suffering, and family crisis. But the rapid urbanization, new economic structures, and decline in moral and community values ushered in modernist, critical social drama from G. C. Tongbra and Arambam Somorendra. By the late 1960s, discontent against Indian rule and commercial exploitation by traders and outside agents led to the rise of youth power, search for identity, and resurgence of the indigenous spirit in the work of artists like M. Biramangol. In the wake of a separatist ideology, experimental theatre grew in the 1970s under directors like H. Kanhailal.
Social and political fluctuations influenced the status of contemporary theatre. Some creative individuals like Ratan Thiyam initially transcended local and regional frontiers to seek greener pastures, while conventional commercial theatre posing as reformist continued to pander to non-cerebral tastes. At Aryan Theatre, Lokendra Arambam in 1939 developed 'theatre for resistance' to counter both modes, but the establishment appropriated him by featuring his Macbeth i.e. 'Stage of Blood' in 1997. This was an environmental production on a lake, in the celebration of fifty years of Indian independence in London. The protest dramatist Khundrakpam Brajachand passed stinging comments on the decaying values of Manipuri society in plays combining humour with symbolism and existential anguish. Despite economic deprivation and socio-political marginalization, struggle and turmoil vitalize Manipuri theatre. Its exceptionally talented actors like H. Sabitri and R. Bhogen, strong in traditional training, have won international acclaim in recent decades. As a whole the achievement of Manipuri Theatre is very mentionable in the history of theatre.