Manipuri theatre person Toijam Shila Devi talks about the politics of indigenous theatre. Bhawani Cheerath
How does creativity manifest itself in times of total insecurity, when there is no guarantee that you would live to see the sunrise next morn? When Toijam Shila Devi, theatreperson from Manipur responds to questions, you know that the proscenium for her becomes the space to re-run the poignant moments in the lives of a people itself.
“It was my dream to become an athlete till the day I appeared in the play ‘Mother' for the University festival. Recreating an incident that happened in the dead of the night in front of my home on the Manipur-Mizoram highway was all that I did. There was the point where the victim's mother lets out a wail when she sees her son's bullet-ridden body. The play ends with this wail. The silence which followed was a moment of realisation – theatre has power,” says Shila Devi.
Voice of a people
Training at the National School of Drama (NSD) after her post graduation in ancient Indian history gave her the tools and the confidence to strike out on her own, and create a space to make the voice of a people heard. Having been a student of history gave her a fresh perspective to the situation in her land. Very proud and sensitive about her identity, there is a very pertinent question she asks, “Where is Manipur's history in this, I never could find it. Therefore, I made it a point to always peg my answers to Manipur by stressing, ‘Manipur, in Ancient India,' whenever I wrote.” After NSD, creating a niche for her productions was definitely an uphill task because the region has a history of traditional theatre. There was always the question, “What is it that you can bring to theatre that we do not already have?”
Shila Devi set up the Prospective Repertory Theatre in 1997 which has produced five plays including translations of David Selbourne's ‘Alison Mary Fagan', Dharamvir Bharti's ‘Andha Yug,' Srirang Godbole's ‘Par hamein khelna hai'. “My production ‘Gouralila' based on the eighteenth century Vaishnava Gouranga Mahaprabhu was an attempt to prove that I could also work on traditional themes,” says Shila Devi.
Groomed in theatre by seasoned actors such as Rattan Thiyam and Kanhaiyalal, she says there are few women in theatre in her State but Thaninleima, her senior at NSD, is another name active in theatre, followed by Randhoni and Sabita.
Funding is always a restricting factor for productions, but this actor-director considers the support that they receive from the NSD provides sustenance to a great extent. “We work within the workshop production mode because that is the only source for steady funding,” says Shila Devi.
Most often the plays of Prospective Repertory are presentations of the reality in Manipur. ‘The Black Orchid' which was staged at the National Theatre Festival in Thiruvanthapuram is one such. As always, women and children suffer the most in times of insurgency. Both insurgents and the armed forces use these innocents as mine detectors. Asked to explain how this works, and you see the gory side of the lives of a people under siege. “Very often both sides, be they the State forces or the insurgents, forget the points where they have laid mines, so the way out is to direct unwary women and children to take those routes. When the innocents take the path, the mines explode, maiming or killing the victims.”
Since her plays often have a cast of women and children, she has the responsibility of seeing to it that the children are not only trained as actors, but also receive appropriate education, making her doubly responsible for the young ones in her team.
“The transition from a sportswoman to a theatre person is what has happened in my case. But this is a duty, to carry the reality of Manipur to distant corners. My next production ‘The Wild Water' based on the work by noted playwright critic Budha Ching Tham, dwells on the changing face of the Loktak lake (a Ramsar wetland site) in these troubled times,” concludes Shila Devi.