Moinul Haque, accorded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award this year, has singlehandedly made pantomime popular in North East India.

When Moinul Haque, the lone luminary of pantomime in North East India, says, “I never knew anything about mime or any art form expressed with body movements” even after becoming a professional mono-actor, you almost disbelieve him. But then, it was in the early '70s, when exposure to creative ideas was still the privilege of a lucky few, particularly when the region was cut off to a large extent from a wider exchange of artistic ideas with the rest of the country. Much like Moinul was doing, the North East, as he puts it now, “was more or less performing in isolation.”

The catalyst

What lit the first spark in him, then a sprightly 22-year-old, was a Bengali book called “Pantomime: Tatva Aar Prayog Bidhi” by Shyam Mohan Chakravarty. It was suggested to him by a teacher from his college (B. Barooah College in Guwahati) after watching him use body language in his performance. Moinul, now 52, recalls, “I used to express some part of my acting using body movements without knowing much about the term ‘body expression'. The audience would appreciate it and it would prod me to do more.” Moinul was also popular for giving special effects in plays, like making sounds of birds chirping, fisticuffs, walking on leaves, etc.

“I was already known as the ‘dhishum dhishum man'. So what I read in the book instantly got me interested,” says Moinul with a chuckle, about a journey he excelled in, picking up on the way many accolades, including this year's Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.

Though he began to learn pantomime without a guru, Moinul says he was never conscious of it. “For me, my audience is my guru, they have always pointed out my good and bad points. Because of my audience, I am what I am today.” To get the audience interested, he would practise different body expressions throughout the day, “sometimes the whole night.” He says, “This helped me develop my own style.”

Mime being a new idea for many then, it was pretty difficult for him to explain to his audience what he was doing. “But I was confident about the art form and began to focus on my vision. I began by giving performances of short duration, say of 15 to 30 minutes. Now my shows are usually for one or two hours.”

Starting with shows with a high entertainment value, he slowly brought in serious issues. His productions such as “The Thief”, “The Puppet”, “Mask Maker” and “Paisa” addressed social issues. While “The Bridge” was based on religious harmony, in “The Intrusion”, he delved into the issue of illegal migrants in Assam.

Mime Academy

Often, Moinul says, he would think about ways of passing on his art to others. It led him to start his Mime Academy — the only institution in the region to teach pantomime — in Guwahati in 1991 “with very few students and a grant from the Union Ministry of Culture.” He charges a nominal fee and runs it primarily using money earned from his performances.

“To popularise mime, we also started organising mime events across Assam and also other parts of the country,” he says. Moinul feels mime is getting its due on the national stage, the SNA award being proof of it, but adds, “The art form is still rare in India.”

Moinul, once a familiar face in Assamese films and Guwahati Doordarshan serials, says, “I am very serious about teaching. The students have a big role to play. They are the next generation of mime artistes in this part of the country.”

Confident that mime can be a fulltime profession today, he however, points out, “You should have clarity of thought and know how to convince people about it. It is a live performing art You can't cheat your audience.”