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Ratan Thiyam

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Having won recognition for his oeuvre and for his formidable grasp of the blending of classical traditions with contemporary ones, Ratan Thiyam is one of the most influential figures of theatre in the world today.

That statement doesn’t quite encapsulate the artistry and genius of the man.
Truth is, without Thiyam’s body of work, which includes the original masterpiecesChakravyuha (The Wheel of War), Uttar Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude) and Blind Age, an honest chronicle of the struggles faced by his Northeastern home state Manipur would be far from complete. In fact, after watching his Urubhangam, a prominent critic wrote that standards of Indian theatre would one day be measured along the lines of ‘Urubhangam’.

Ironically, this doyen of Indian theatre burst onto popular consciousness only when he returned his Padmashree to the government in 2001, in protest against the Centre’s announcement of an extension of Manipur’s ceasefire with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland.

Awards and recognitions are a modest way of appraising this colossus of theatre, but Thiyam has won all the honours that matter: the National Academy Award (Sangeet Natak Akademi), 1987; Padmashree, 1989; La Grande Medaille, 1997 (France); International Man of the year in the field of Theatre and Humanism, 1998-99; John D Rockefeller Award, 2008.

While critics hold him in the same league as legendary Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski and English stalwart Peter Brook, Thiyam is also a trained artist in Manipuri dance, a painter and an expert in Hindustani music.
Born to Manipuri dance artists, Thiyam studied painting before turning to writing. He published his first novel in 1961, at the age of 22. Writing led to theatre, and in 1976, he started the Chorus Repertory Theatre Company at Imphal. More than a quarter century later, his plays have travelled the world, fascinating audiences with their grace and a spectacular style drawn from local influences. He incorporates elements like Thang-Ta (a Manipuri martial art) and Nata Sankirtana (a folk dance form) into his works, which through subversion and reversion, get assimilated into his own distinct form.

But the motifs have a deeper significance than just being sets and props.

The insurgencies of Manipur deeply inform Thiyam’s work, and plays. The inter-ethnic strife between the two tribes, Nagas and Kukis, has caused chronic violence in the state, ever since it started escalating in 1992. Insurgents have formed revolutionary underground groups, battling the government for their own homeland. This violence has left thousands dead and more than 50,000 homeless. In this context, Thiyam’s penchant for using theatre as a means of reaching out and offering solutions, raising consciousness and spreading awareness has shaped much of the contemporary discourse in that fragile geo-political zone.

A great opponent of war, Thiyam captures the horrifying sentiments that are true of any war: “War affects children. War affects women; it makes prostitutes out of them. All this is not normal.” His war on war will go on, until, according to him, “the faculties of people open up, yes even those who are violent enough to wipe out human civilisation and this beautiful world.”

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