Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Scene from a play based on Tagore’s work © Shuvashish Sinha

Manipuri Theatre in Bangladesh—In a Quest for Identity

Manipuri Theatre, established in 1996 at a remote village of Ghoramara in Kamalganj Upazila of the Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh, has become an example of theatre excellence. The main objective of the organization revolves around safeguarding Manipuri culture and to showcase the ICH traditions of the Manipuri community to a wider audience. Over the last twenty years, the organization has made a mark in theatre, producing around thirty plays. The journey of Manipuri Theatre is quite inspiring. In the past two decades, it has been able to attract theatre goers, create a village-based theatre studio, and present some excellent productions. Their work has been acclaimed for being instrumental in social inclusion of the marginalized Bishnupriya Manipuris and in the fight against extremism in society. The organization has also successfully connected to the Bishupriya Manipuris living in Manipur and other northeastern states of India through regular cultural exchanges.

The members were very young when they formed the group. At the early age of 19 to 20 years, they felt the need for setting up a platform for revitalizing Manipuri heritage. The concept was unique in the village atmosphere. The story, the stage, the elements of acting, the costumes—everything of their productions had a unique touch and quite different from regular dramatic productions. People started to have faith in them and believed that Manipuri Theatre could usher in the much-needed connectivity to the mainstream as well as to the land of origin, Manipur and other northeastern states of India. Subhashish Sinha, the founder of the organization, poignantly describes the journey in his own words in the following paragraphs.

I started the Manipuri Theatre group when I was 20 years old. Our first production was held in Ghoramara, and the experience and feelings of it were inexplicable. The word ‘theatre’ was alien to us until then. We realized that the villagers were not accustomed to such an indigenous production. It was not like traditional folk theatre on religious tales—the subject delved into vagaries of everyday life and struggle. However, the idea was incepted in a casual way. At that age, our usual recreation was sports or picnic. Drama production had never been an option. The idea came from watching traditional Manipuri religious drama Ras Leela.

For the first production, we collectively wrote an eight-page script at a friend’s Laxmi Narayan temple. We sat together in candle light and started reading the script. Everyone liked the concept. The script touched different aspects of society. It included freedom fight, village politics, love, etc. Interestingly, we started the rehearsal prior to completing the script. Our excitement was at its pinnacle.

We have produced different kinds of drama, keeping in tune with the Manipuri culture. The first was in Ghoramara Village, and the name of the drama was Megh-Brishti-Rode (Cloud-Rain-Sunlight). It was a natural production, keeping the associated elements at a minimal level. Initially, it was a challenge for us to make people watch the production. But we made it, and credit for the same goes to the scores of people who turned up to watch the production. The reason behind such success can be traced to two factors. First, the stage rehearsal became popular among the surrounding villagers. Local people were aware of the freshness of the production, and hence, they wanted to experience it on stage. Second, the broader aspect, the mythical relation between human being and the theatre, further contributed toward success. As Shakespeare mentioned, the entire world as a stage and human beings are but actors. Theatre gives the opportunity to experience life’s different aspects: joy, sorrow, suspense, and fear of the unknown.

Our second production was Ajabpurer Barsho Baran (New Year at Ajabpur)—the story of a revolutionary emperor, and it was presented at the New Year festival. The next drama was Nai Rajar Darbar (Court in Absentia of King), and the theme of it was challenging the existence of God.

In 1998, I joined Jahangir Nagar University in the Drama and Dramatics Department. My nephew Asim Kumar Singha was my inspiration. My association with Selim Alauddin and the departmental education helped me to think about theatre; especially Selim’s Madhyajuger Bangla Natya has molded me. The style of juxtaposing tradition with modernity touched me. The story Taraleimar Pala (Story of Taraleimar) was a unique where the singers themselves took part in acting. The play was written by the most renowned poet of the Manipuri language, Brajendra Kumar Singha. The issue of the community and its existential crisis was showcased through the character of Taraleima.

Sri Krishna Kirtan was the first drama where we established faith in ourselves. The inspiration of the story was the writings of Baru Chandidas. In Sri Krishna Kirtan, the relationship of Radha and Krishna was more highlighted than the philosophical part of Baru Chandidas’ writings. Help came in from friends and family. A different rhythm and scale were used in this production: sixty-five songs were set based on Manipuri Natapala. Three krishnas, three radhas, and three barai were set in the production for the demands of acting variety of the play.

We took the name Manipuri Theatre so that it blends with the ethos of the Manipuri community. In 2001, three plays were staged in the Manipuri Theatre Festival—it was a complete Manipuri Theatre Festival. The group gradually started to get noticed throughout Bangladesh. Fourteen national dailies printed reports with photos. The themes were varied: Chandrakala was the story of poor Chandrakala’s struggle in life and Ami Ahilei was the story of children and youth.

In 2006, we received a fund of 25,000 Bangladeshi Taka (BDT) from Group Theatre Federation. This facilitated the staging of Bhanubil—a story of the indigenous Manipuri community’s struggle against British colonial oppression, a chapter nearly forgotten in modern historical narratives. The first official national-level recognition came in 2008. Until that time, it was our only bilingual production in Bengali and Bishnupriya languages. The story was set in a period of historic cultural crisis in Manipuri society.

After that, Debatar Gras was staged in a sesquicentennial celebration of Rabindranath Tagore. The next production was Leima—emotion and philosophy was the main attraction of this production. It was designed mainly on dialogues and languages translated from Eyema of Lorca. It was instrumental in gaining a position beside the renowned directors like Fayez Zahir and Abul Kalam. In 2012, we visited the Indian cities of Agartala and Silchar as representatives of Bangladesh.

We also worked on different traditional forms of Manipur gharana (Manipur tradition). We worked with various artists and were successful in establishing a relationship with them. They were always with us. We have brought out the annual Manipurer Theatre Patrika for last five years.

The Bengali production Kohe Birangana became a mouthpiece. Several theatre-loving groups from India invited us to present Kohe Birangana at different festivals in Assam and Tripura. Organizing finance for these was a struggle but we managed with assistance from different quarters. The presentations were a breakaway from the historical, religious, and social theatre.
In 2010, we got a permanent address—Noto Mandap. My father donated the land. He passed away before the structure was completed. In 2013, the final structure in a vernacular style was completed. Noto Mandap is made of bamboo, cane, and clay.

We have always tried to maintain a healthy thought process as we worked to revive, revitalize, and rejuvenate the language of a marginalized ethnic group caught in an identity crisis. For a community that has Chandidas, Bidyapati, and Govindadas as its rich past, we tried to add Baru Chandidas, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Rabindranath Tagore, and O’Henry in its contemporary cultural canvas along with the traditions and rituals of the Bishnupriya Manipuri community in Bangladesh. We know our journey is not easy. Once upon a time, we were a theatre group from a tiny village beside a tiny stream. Today, we are known across the nation. We have integrated an excluded community with the larger community through theatre. Our work has just started.