Kanhialal and the freedom from words

Thrown out of National School of Drama, Kanhialal who passed away on October 6th developed an idiom that did away with language in theatre. Journalist and filmmaker Sunzu Bachaspatimayum tells us about the man and the artist.


“Real theatre cannot be found in the cities or festivals of theatre. Real theatre which is essentially about human relationship and can only be found away from the city, close to the nature. My theatre is about the senses and that’s why I avoid verbal text as far as possible and always rely on universal sounds and intuitive physical movement for narrative exposition” Kanhailal

Heisnam Kanhailal, one of the leading theatre personalities of India, is no more. He died battling lung cancer on 6th October, at the age of 75 in the out skirts of Imphal where he had set up his theatre group, Kalakshetra Manipur.

Kanhailal is the recipient of Padma Bhushan (2016) and Padma Shri 2004)  for his contribution to Indian theatre.  In 1969 he founded Kalakshetra Manipur and worked as its director for 47 years, exploring a new vocabulary in the existing language of theatre. Pebet (1975), Laigee Machasinga (1978), Memoirs of Africa (1985), Karna (1997) and Draupadi (2000) are some of his  masterpieces.

Kanhailal who drew much from nature and the life around him, described his work as ‘the theatre of the Earth’. Because of his preference for minimum props, stage sets, lighting, customs and relying squarely on the actors performances, his theatre is also called the poor man’s theatre.

When asked what drove him to create such a physical, grassroots theatre as against the verbal and elaborate theatre, Kanhialal in an earlier interview had said his frustration at getting expelled from National School of Drama, NSD, in his formative year in 1968 for poor communication skills in Hindi and English language is what compelled him to search for a non- verbal idiom of theatre.

“If not for my rustication from NSD because of my lack of communication skill in either Hindi or English, I would not have become what I am today. I would have remained stagnant with institutionalised plays of the ‘urbanised theatre’ made for the global theatre audience. My expulsion challenged me to re-look into theatre practice to prove that communication of the senses is possible without dialogue.”

Kanhailal creates theories of theatre and life with his wife and leading actress Sabitri. Their creative partnership had performed Tamnalai (Haunting Spirits, 1975), Kabui Keioiba (Half Man Half Tiger, 1975), Imphal ’73 (1974), Pebet (1975), Huranbagi Esei (1977), Laigi achasinga (1978), Mrityu Shwor (1984), Memoirs of Africa (1975), Roshomon (1987), Migi Sarang (1991), Karna (1997), Draupadi (2000), Nupi (2002), and Dakghar (2006).

Draupadi stunned the audience by its bold political statement. Sabitri played the character of Draupati, stripping on stage. Many were offended then. Four years later, in a similar act of nude protest 12 elderly mothers of Manipur stripped their clothes and shouted ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ in front of the historic Kangla gate in Imphal in 2004.

It was only about 6 years ago that Kanhailal was diagnosed of advance stage lung cancer. While a social media campaign managed to crowd fund over Rs 7 lakhs, the Manipur state government hadn’t even responded to the noted theatre director’s request for financial assistance for treatment.

Kanhailal in most of his plays re-examined the concept of freedom, beauty and oppression from the context of Manipur’s lived experience. His passing away is one of biggest lost of Manipur as well as for the country. Noted Theatre Director Ratan Thiyam, while condoling his lost had said, ‘Kanhailal is among the greatest theatre directors India ever produced.

One Comment

  • Ghanashya Ngangbam (Khoimu) says:

    One of the most prominent theatre director ever experienced who inspired social & political issues through the medium of proscenium theatre. Great loss for us. RIP

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