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Song of the Nymphs directed by Ratan Thiyam
Photos: Shobha Deepak Singh

March 23, 2020

There is always a buzz about a new play by Ratan Thiyam, the celebrated writer, director, designer, musician, and actor. After he directed Shakespeare's Macbeth three years ago, the latest Lairembigee Eshei, Song of Nymphs in Manipuri, as a closing play at 21st Bharat Rang Mahotsav at Kamani Hall, Delhi, attracted a large crowd to witness the new play.

The Chorus Repertory Theatre was established in April 1976 in the valley of the small hill state of Manipur in the easternmost part of India. Since then, Ratan and his company have never looked back, winning awards in international theatre festivals. Renowned for its disciplined performance practice, spectacular aural and visual aesthetics with potent thematic explorations, Ratan's work has placed him in the company of such figures as Suzuki, Brook and Grotowski. To strike a personal note, I have seen from close quarters his direction and training methodology. It has been a rare privilege.

The play as per Ratan's well known approach is a response to his existence in every day life. It contains his tradition, inspiration from myth and legend. What helps him, as he says, "is eagerness of entering an unknown area, new and untried methods, and unfamiliar devices helping me in my experimentation. In each new piece of work, I feel that I am wrestling with techniques to find out the exact vehicle of expression for the thematic content." He further elucidates: "I am a dreamer and my dream takes me forward in my journey. I feel as if I am coming back from a pilgrimage after each and every production I have completed. A good theatre carries the ability to leave behind an imprint on the intellect and senses of the spectators. It is a vehicle of expression for sharing thoughts to a wide ambience across intellectual, cultural, and linguistic boundaries."

The play under review echoes his statement. Apparently a simple tale, it speaks of seven nymphs who have been flying round the world, witnessing the changes in the nature, environment and human condition. Ratan speaks of peace of sky, earth, water, trees, men and as a metaphor makes nymphs fly towards the 22nd century.

The inbuilt commentary of 21st century is articulated towards the end. And also during the gradual unfolding of the play as what the seven nymphs observe. Our culture and tradition derive from food gathering, varieties of magical fertility rites, connectivity with ancestors, earth, sun, moon, sky, forest, water and creatures. It is in these areas that Ratan is at his best. The seven nymphs dressed in pure white costumes, with white lighting, slowly carrying the large dishes, dance gently to little tinkling of the music. Those who are familiar with the Lai Haraoba dance tradition of Manipur would at once appreciate Ratan's drawing movements from tradition. It has a slow but mesmerizing quality. Immediacy of life experiences is recalled in movement, sound and rhythm. The nymphs move waving their scarves creating illusion of flying across the sky. When nymphs see a king who had destroyed nature and his wailing, they realize how protection of nature is important. The sequences of nymphs entering water, and in a surrealistic scene of covering their faces entering water, the scene like underwater is breathtaking! When a group of bird catchers with their net try to catch the nymphs, they fail and the nymphs laugh at them. The play tries to decipher many challenges faced by our rituals and traditions which carry the identity of our culture inherited from our ancestors.

In other sequences when the nymphs move around larger than life size stalks of lotus, lotus leaves and lotus buds, we see what imaginative and amazing designs, colours, Ratan is capable of weaving! They are spectacular. They also give a message about what we are doing with nature by destroying trees and vegetation. The metaphorical story of a crying woman and other women consoling her is very touching. With exquisite scenes, as a shock comes a sequence when from several black boxes women dressed in white covered with red shawls wearing black goggles, start speaking in English in anger and denouncing evil impact of Western culture criticizing an era of globalization, worldwide mobility, communication and information. Ratan succeeds in such devices making the play relevant in present times. It serves as confluence of modernity, past, present and future. As a director he negotiates important issues, complex aesthetics and philosophical challenges. As writer of the play, Ratan uses metaphors, elements of traditional dances, rituals, improvisations and creates what one would call sheer visual poetry. For him the local and indigenous myths and legends continue to be the most effective inspiration for both verbal and non-verbal vehicle of expression and interpretation. Even when the actors deliver dialogues in Meitei language, the angikabhinaya conveys the meaning of what they are saying. It helps the onlooker if he carefully reads the synopsis in advance, as Ratan does not believe in providing subtitles in English.

The finale with seven nymphs climbing seven steps with white umbrellas held over their heads proclaiming peace leaves an indelible impression. I was reminded of Abhimanyu climbing steps towards heaven in the play Chakravyuha. Whereas there were colourful umbrellas being raised with the sound of conch in Chakravyuha, in this play the sight of seven nymphs in white clothes and white umbrellas in ascending order looked equally powerful.

Ratan has trained an entire new group of young male and female actors who under his direction show professional expertise. Script, music, design and direction are by Ratan, assisted by his son Thawai who also looks after lighting. As is the international practice, the play is of one hour and ten minutes.

Dr. Sunil Kothari is a dance historian, scholar, author and critic, Padma Shri awardee and fellow, Sangeet Natak Akademi. Dance Critics' Association, New York, has honoured him with Lifetime Achievement award.

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