In “The Priestess”, director Budha Chingtham evokes the terrors experienced by the people of Manipur ravaged by violence, but subtly hints that the darkness is not forever

Budha Chingtham is a serious Manipuri theatre artiste whose works reflect the bitterness and anxieties of the people of Manipur who are sandwiched between the forces of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Victims of mindless violence, the people are waging a long-drawn-out peaceful struggle to have the Armed Forces Special Powers Act lifted from the State. Viewed against this background, Budha’s dramatic works assume special contemporary relevance and are a strong protest against the prevailing political system. Titled the “Conflict Trilogy” — “Mythical Surrender”, “A Far Cry” and “The Priestess”, the trilogy reflects the violation of human rights in Manipur. Budha reveals this diabolically conflicting social milieu with remarkable subtlety and intricacy through Manipuri rituals, traditional motifs and women characters. Two parts of this trilogy have already been shown in Delhi and the last part, “The Priestess” was presented in Manipuri at the festival of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) at LTG auditorium recently under the direction of Ningthouja Deepak. An intensely riveting theatrical piece, it captures the dangerously dark shadows hovering over a simple, hardy people who love to be in harmony with the many-splendored natural beauty of their land. It is a metaphor for the impassioned cry for freedom from mindless violence.

In all the three parts of the trilogy women are the protagonists. In “Mythical Surrender” the woman protagonist is raped by a snake-like deformed creature. Out of this heinous rape is born another male snake. To protect society from this poisonous creature, the woman kills her son. In the second part of the trilogy he projects the vehement protest of a sister whose brother joins the insurgents. Responding to the passionate appeal of his sister, the brother retraces his steps to join the mainstream of society. In this process he gets killed.

Again, in the latest part, “The Priestess”, a married woman is the protagonist. The play opens to an ominous musical note produced by a player on the pena, a ritualistic instrument of Manipur. The light on the stage is dim but dark images on the stage are visible. We watch an old man with a hammer and chisel engraving figures on stone. A little boy enters and interacts with the old sculptor. Gradually a brutal tale of a marred woman who is a mother unfolds. The woman has joined the Maibi cult headed by a woman priestess. The woman priestess named Leihao is visited by her son and husband at the all-women priestess ashram. The head priestess advises her to go home and stay with her family. They are poor villagers whose main source of livelihood is fishing. The dim lighting with a variety of shades and frequent arrival of the pena player with his instrument producing frighteningly sad and melancholic notes evoke the right atmosphere remarkable for poetic intensity. This device not only sustains the ominous atmosphere but keeps enhancing its intensity. Through his musical notes the player warns the people “of an unknown disaster lurking in the deep water of the river of life”. In this haunting and grotesque ambience there are signals of danger emanating from wild fire which would be menacing enough to destroy the entire humanity.

On a dreadful morning the husband and the little son of the priestess leave home to fish in a faraway river. They disappear. On the advice of the old sculptor, the priestess goes out in search of her husband and son, using her occult power. She is shocked to see her husband being subjected to third degree torture in a dark chamber. The brute tormentors of her husband force her to drink liquor and these savages keep on raping her till she becomes unconscious.

The production is significant in terms of the treatment of various ritualistic art forms. Director Deepak has used them to create a modern theatre vocabulary to comment severely on the predicament of human society struggling to retain its human essence. The director has used choreography imaginatively aiming at expressing the agony of a suppressed people. The emotional pattern of these dances is to reinforce the inner turmoil of the characters living in constant terror. The music, choreography and the lighting all form an artistic whole.

In the denouement we see the old sculptor has turned into a statue himself. The little son of the priestess, who managed to free him from the bloody clutches of the captors, holds a chisel and hammer, recording the troubled history by engraving images on the rocks, symbolically showing that the dark forces cannot last for a long time.

Bala Tensuba as the priestess, the wife of the fisherman, imparts emotional depth and vitality to the portrayal of her character. Kongbrailatpam Premkumra Sarma as the husband of the priestess, who disappears, Ningthouja Chingkheilakpa as the son and Tensubam Meme Chanu as the head priestess give admirable performances.