TODAY -

Heisnam Kanhailal
(PADMASHREE AWARDEE IN 2003)

By Donny Luwang Meisnam *


Born in a poor family on 17th January 1941, Heisnam Kanhailal is a renowned theatre director, a staunch experimentalist who is always in a habit of re-defining theatre through many of his productions and theories he has been evolving from his intimate experience of theatre.

He had a disturbed childhood life, and he had to experience a bitter life of loneliness after three months of his birth when his mother finally left this world. But he was taken care by his uncle and aunt. Fortunately his uncle who was the elder brother of his father turned out be a man deeply interested in music and theatre.

Heisnam Kanhailal


Kanhailal became a devoted follower of his uncle and through time he came to be acquainted with the traditional theatre form called Moirang Parba and the western model of proscenium Manipuri theatre which was just fledgling.

During his school days he was instrumental in staging many plays in various occasions. He was matriculated in 1959 and admitted to Imphal College. G.C. Tongbra who was then an acknowledge person of theatre both as a director and dramatist was serving in the college as a lecturer. It was in this college that Kanhailal did come into close contact with G.C. Tongbra.

During this time Tongbra had already established his society theatre and was in the peak time of his career engaging in the activities of writing new plays and staging it with his actors. Kanhailal was associated with Society Theatre for about three years.

He then teamed up with many of his friends and established a small time theatre group called Students Artists Association. In 1961 he wrote and produced a play titled Layeng Ahanba (first treatment) in this group. Sabitri who is now his wife and a close collaborator of his activities in theatre acted in this play. They got married in 1962.

Soon after their marriage they started facing the well known joint family problems aand poverty knocked very loudly on Kanhailal's door. Now he had to abandon his activity in theatre and he had to try his hand in various trades for earning their livelihood, for some time he worked as a salesman in a Bata Shoe Store in Imphal.

Next, he joined as a casual clerk in the National Building Construction Company. The he switched over to a private school in a rural township called Mayang Imphal, and there he worked as a head master. It did not last for long. Next, he joined the Statistics Department as a Primary Investigator.

He settled in peace for a few years in this department. But in 1968 he left the service and went to the National School of Drama, New Delhi. He studied there only for six months. He could not continue his course in the NSD.

Goddess of fortune smiled on him for some time. Kanhailal got the services as producer in the departmental drama unit of the publicity department of the government of Manipur. He was somewhat satisfied with the job although the salary was meager.

In this way, he was in service for about ten years. Apart from this governmental work Kanhailal was also engaging deep in theatre activity with his won theatre group KALAKSHETRA Manipur which he established on 19 July 1969.

It was most creative period of Kanhailal during which he produced memorable pieces like
  • Tamnalai (hunting spirit),
  • Kabui-Keioiba (Half man Half Tiger),
  • Khomdon Meiroubi (The last girl),
  • Pebet and
  • Imphal 73.
Heisnam Kanhailal during an intense rehearsal period.


With his increasing activity on theatre Kanhailal had to move to many parts of the country with his Kalakshetra team staging plays. Then the government became a hurdle to his activities. He was denied leave of absence on many occasions by bureaucratic clap-traps. Finally he left the government service to devote himself professionally in theatre.

Kanhailal's brief encounter with Badal Sircar in 1972 was a great turning point in his career. Earlier most of his productions were text centered and, in fact Kanhailal was comparatively a good playwright. But soon after his experience with Badal Sircar Kanhailal came to be delving into the finer areas of performance and actors' bodily presence.

He took theatre nearer to life almost threatening the boundary line between life and theatre when he invited a hundred woman vendors from the historic Nupi Keithel and inspired them to performing a non-proscenium open-air theatrical production of Nupilan (Women's Agitation) in 1978.

Again, in 1979 he encouraged the villagers of Umathel a remote village in the South of Manipur to perform in another non-proscenium production titled Sanjennaha community in Churachandpur in 1980 and staged the play Thanghou Leh Liandou.

He has conducted various workshops in various parts of the country such-
  • Kolkata (1980,1991),
  • Delhi (1984, 1987,1997,1998),
  • Mumbai (1993),
  • Chennai (1996),
  • Mysore (1997),
  • North Lakhimpur (1990),
  • Guwahati (1999),
  • Agartala (1996),
  • Patna (1990) etc.
In all he has conducted as many as 20 theatre workshops. And he has also extensively toured the country with his group Kalakshetra.

Kanhailal has toured abroad and staged his plays with his Kalakshetra. In 1987 he toured to Japan and staged Pebet and Memoirs of Africa at Tokyo, Toga and Ningata. He has also visited Cairo with his theatre group in 1991 under the sponsorship of ICCR, New Delhi and staged his play Migi Sharang in the 3rd Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre. The play was adjudged as one of the six best plays.

For his contribution in the field of theatre Kanhailal have been received various awards both national and international some of them are Manipur State Kala Akademi Award for theatre in 1982, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi for direction for the year, 1985, the first ever awardees of SNA in the North East in the field of modern theatre.

For his highest achievement in the form and spirit of an institution he was honoured with the award of Natya Ratna in 1997 by Manipuri Sahitya Parishad and the Padmashree Award by the Government of India in the year 2003 and many more.

Heisnam Kanhailal receiving the Padmashree Award from the then President Abdul Kalam


Kanhailal is onto a path of alternative theatre. Experimentation with various moods, sensibility and seeking out reality through abstraction are some of the important veins which run through the plays and productions of the master. He is able to see transparently present day society.

Human being by nature tends to forget others sufferings. A sufferer knows the sufferings of his fellows. Kanhailal himself, as an artiste, belongs to the group of the suffering mass. He depicts in his plays as best as he could what he experiences and theatre for him is a ritual suffering.

In fact, Kanhailal leads a plain life. He is a born struggler and still does so. Yet, he likes to live like a recluse, renouncing worldly gain, serving his duties sincerely and devoting to his mission till the end. He had left his original home in the heart of Imphal city and chosen Langol Laimanai, an out of the way place, abounding with natural beauty and peacefulness.

And he is a person who keeps his words and always ready to give a helping hand to others, Kanhailal, at the same time, closely follows the changing scenario of the society. He has chosen a life of Karna, expecting to gain nothing thereof.

Kanhailal's theatre reflects this supreme ideology.

Browse Gallery on Heisnam Kanhailal here


* Donny Luwang Meisnam is a young Manipuri writer / reporter based at Imphal. He is a regular contributor to e-pao.net.
This article was webcasted at e-pao.net on 27 July 2009.


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