My association with the legendary actress of Manipur Heisnam Savitri : An intimate account
- Part 1 -

Dr Anuradha Nongmaithem *

 Heisnam Sabitri - Padmashree Recipient in the field of Theatre (2007)
Heisnam Sabitri - Padmashree Recipient in the field of Theatre (2007) :: Pix Courtesy - Heisnam Sabitri

The present article is purely my personal encounter about the living legendary actress of Manipur Heisnam Savitri (1946- ), recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1991 and the Padma Shri in 2007. Recently I paid a visit to Manipur at the occasion of Ningol Chakouba. And my short visit became one of the most fruitful and memorable visits.

I got an invitation from my father Prof. N. Tombi Singh on 29th Nov, 2021 that Ima Savitri is giving a lecture on "My Life in the Art of Theatre" organized by The Critics Forum Manipur on its 16th Foundation Day Celebration, which was held at Kanglei Mime Repertory Theater, Langthabal Kunja, on 1st November, 2021.

The lecture was moderated by Dr. Nongthombam Premchand. Dr. Premchand beautifully compared the relation of Ima Savatri and Oja Kanhailal with one of the most powerful couple Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame. Dario Fo ( 1926- 2016) and Franca Rame (1929-2013) were one of the most treasured couple of the 21st theatrical figures, Dario Fo was a playwright, comedian, designer and actor whose impact on modern theater is renowned and widespread.

His works, the best known of which include Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Can't Pay? Won't Pay!, which challenges the government and empower the working people. Fo himself acknowledged during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that his work was born of a lifelong collaboration with his wife, Franca Rame. Rame was, in fact, the co-runner of his theaters, the co-writer of his plays.

And I must say it is rightly said by Premchand, indeed the partnership between Oja and Ima is something that we cherished. Ima and Oja partnership is widely described as "Kanhailal Dreams and Sabitri transform his dreams into creative action." To me each complemented each other; both of them dream together and transform their dreams into creative reality, both are at par with each other.

They are embodied together as one soul two bodies like the Lakshmi-Narayana a composite androgynous form of the Hindu god Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, each complimented equally. It is saddening to see Ima alone now, but she is still strong in spirit and in her work, now she is the Ima Guru of Kalashetra. Upon her shoulder she carries on the legacy without compromising the spirit and philosophy of Oja's vision.

I was thrilled and excited for I have a deepest love and regards for Ima Savitri and was eagerly waiting for the 1st November, 2021. And the inspiring lecture was worth waiting for; it was one of the most precious, a rare opportunity to hear directly from the legend herself. It's been long since I always thought that I would write an article about Ima, though late I am very happy that it is ultImately happen now.

 Heisnam Sabitri - Padmashree Recipient in the field of Theatre (2007)
Heisnam Sabitri - Padmashree Recipient in the field of Theatre (2007) :: Pix Courtesy - Heisnam Sabitri

Let me take you all few years backward from today to the year 2000 (unfortunately not able to give the exact date), where I was first introduced to late Oja Kanhailal and Ima Savitri. I have attended two workshops of Oja Dr. Lamabam Gojendra, and my love for theatre was already ignited by then.

Little did I know that my name forever though negligible will be attached for this lifetime with Oja Kanhailal controversial play Draupadi. It was during one of the theater workshop production shows of Oja Dr. Lamabam Gojendra's Tonu Laijinglembi that both Oja Kanhailal and Ima Savitri came to MDU to witness the play.

Simultaneous at that point of time Kalakshetra was also planning for the play of Draupadi to be performed at New Delhi. They told my father (Prof. Nongmaithem Tombi) that they are looking for a substitute artiste who could play the role of a city born young educated press woman. My father suggested my name and through my father I had a golden opportunity to meet the living legend.

I must say I was at the right place at the right time, after the performance at MDU they came to meet me and asked me to come to Langol, where the Kalashetra was located the next morning for rehearsal. More than excitement I was so scared with the idea that I will be acting along with the legend, herself. I haven't met Ima Savitri in person before but I already knew so much about her through my father and print media.

Nevertheless, I couldn't sleep that night due to mixed feelings and off course excitement too. Next morning, I went to Kalakshetra, Langol with my father, a long journey through the forest far away from the maddening crowd of Imphal city, deep within the heart of the forest there stood the temple Kalashetra, it was not so furnished like now, but one could feel the sanctity as soon as you step in.

Ima was already ready for rehearsal by the time I reached with my father, around 7 :00 A: M. I touched her feet, and she hugged me, that gesture really touched my heart. I touched Oja Kanhailal feet also, he was reading a newspaper. A classic moment I should say, which is forever framed deep down in my heart little did I know that someday I am going to treasure it.

She offered tea and biscuit to me and my father. After a while Oja Kanhailal gave the script to me and asked Ima Savitri to help me with the sequence. By that time all the other artistes were already doing the morning routine before the rehearsal. Ima patiently narrated the play and where my character will fit in, and what I have to do. I must say I really felt like a fish out of water.

All the other artistes were professional actors and actresses who knew their craft well. She helped me with the dialogue delivery and mode of expression. Though, not an expert immediately I could understand the two different schools of performance. It was so different from Oja Lamabam Gojendra School of acting. She told me that I was good at what I was doing without have any theatrical background.

I felt ecstatic by her encouraging words. It really boosted my confidence and I was really comfortable playing the role with encouraging words from Ima. I should say that the magic, mesmerizing emotions I felt working with Ima Savitri is something that I cannot put it into words. I went to Langol twice and there was one show at Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance College before leaving for Delhi.

Ima was very happy with my performance and she told me, I need not need to come to Langol, but just keep on revising the script and everything was all set to go to Delhi. A journey that is forever going to be part of my life and experiences that I shall hold with love and tenderly.

For it was not just a journey with any ordinary people but the rarest of the rare gems of Manipur to stay with Ima and observed Oja at the closest range is something only the lucky person will get it, and I surely can say that I am also one of the lucky person. The performance in Delhi made me regards Ima more and my respect for her as an artiste grew beyond words could express.

Theater often takes the language of protest from real life; Oja Kanhaila's Draupadi created history on stage which is raw and vibrant, and very true the atrocities done towards the women folks in Manipur. It gives me goosebumps whenever I think of Ima dialogue delivery in the play, the tone of atrocities, helplessness, suppression and violation of one's dignity is beautifully portrayed by Ima.

And whenever I closed my eyes I still can see the standing ovation by the whole audience of the NSD hall with applause and appreciation. I could feel the womanly solidarity and sisterhood among the women audience who came to meet at the Green room touching her feet and hugging her. I too hugged her tightly, I don't know why but I could just feel the pain of Draupadi.

The information written about her life journey is purely based on the recorded lecture by Ima herself on 1st November, 2021 at Kanglei Mime Repertory theater, Langthabal Kunja. The lecture begins with Ima attention-grabbing sweet tone hooking the audience. She led us through her journey of her life. Unfolding each segment of her life one by one, guiding the audience scrupulously and smartly.

Heisnam Ongi Sabitri was intimated with theater as a child artiste by her own aunt Gourmani Devi. Her breakthrough performance as a role of Nimai in religious theater leela called Nimai Sanyas marked the journey of a lifetime. She started her life with humble beginning from a village, and she proudly says that her inspirations are all from the village that she grew up in. She literally is born to be an artiste I must say.

During the lecture she humbly says that "I don't know how to act, but I love being part of any play". Previously she used plays that centered on the god and goddesses. Her life takes a 360 degrees turn after meeting Oja and becoming his life partner and collaborator.

To be continued...

* Dr Anuradha Nongmaithem wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is currently serving as Assistant Professor of English at NIT Agartala
and can be reached at dranuradhanongmaithem(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on December 17 2021.

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