A Manipuri adaptation of “An Enemy of the People” successfully locates Ibsen in a contemporary narrative

Kalakshetra Manipur’s “Meeyamgi Yeknaba” is surreal. Director Heisnam Tomba retains the plot of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People”, in his modern adaptation. But the narrative flows like a dream — the lighting is real yet heavenly, the characters simple and omnipresent.

The names of characters remain the same, and the lines in conversational Meitei — it includes expressions in English — are grasped by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Bengali, Assamese or Nagamese.

There are a number of devices used by the director which many a city dramaturge may incorporate in the months to come. While Thomas Stockmann (A. Upendro) falls asleep, fatigued with the churning in his mind over his editorial on the baths, the dream sequence seamlessly emerges behind him. The polluted water from the project is shown as first afflicting the Nagas — a major tribal group in the State.

Mother Nature (Mangka Mayanglambam) — initially a water-bearer dressed in a Naga shawl — soon appears on a raised platform as a Manipuri dancer. Lit in an eerie blue light, she binds the narrative with her divine and sensual dance mudras and songs. The director clearly establishes the unity of the Nagas and Meiteis — in contemporary times of conflict — at the outset. He also drives the point home of tribals being the most vulnerable to collateral damage of development.

The lines rhyme and the expressions are often comic — almost giving the characters a life of their own outside the script. All movement on stage is artistic, measured and striking. The acting was flawless.

Conflict or debate — between characters or even conscience — is all acted out. The director builds the suspense with the slow periodic notes on the Tongpung — a bamboo percussion pole, he devised. Ninja-like boat men play Thomas’ conscience and Thomas and Peter (Guru Koken) actually have a duel with a large fountain pen and a cane. The imagery of the townspeople voting on the water project was also a dance that aesthetically depicts the transformation of a majority into a mob.

Ibsen’s poetic lines like: “...the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone,” meets its match with Mother Nature’s song, “Thou calm serene but courageous Cicada, Set to journey a tiny stream…”

L. Ibochouba’s lighting is another aspect worth jotting down. The side lighting, used when a character open’s or closes doors, is terrific. Coupled with the expressions of the characters it is hard to believe that the whole thing is staged, and not actually a dream opening into a landscape of fields in the Imphal valley.

There’s no finality. The play closes with all the characters, except Thomas and Mother Nature howling like dogs of the night, the orphans of development as a subdued Thomas calls them.