TODAY -

My association with the legendary actress of Manipur Heisnam Savitri : An intimate account
- Part 2 -

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



Ima shared her struggles as a mother, as a wife, daughter in law and most importantly as an inborn artiste. It was indeed an eye opener for me the tremendous amount of pressure she went through and my regards for her all the more increases as a beautiful person with a beautiful soul deep within her.

Ima met Oja when she was 16 and he, around 20. He had scripted and was directing Layeng Ahanba and she was the heroine of the play. During the play, they fell in love and got married later. She was not considered a suitable daughter-in-law because she was from a village and an actor, being an artiste was not considered an ideal daughter-in-law at that time.

Things have changed a bit now but more or less the mindset of looking down upon the artiste has not gone totally from our society. Marriage put a complete stop on her acting career. "I have pound the rice manually," she says.

Oja went to a National School of Drama, New Delhi when she was carrying the third child. Oja's old father really had a hard time feeding the three of them. Ima narrated the plight and fate she was forced to go through, trying to help her mother in law, providing few earning, which she used to get from weaving local yarn.

She narrated that ordeal she went through during the absence of Oja. After Oja returned from NSD, her in-laws gave them a separate house and Ima narrated they had no money , since Oja was still struggling at that point of time, and Oja spoke to his mother, who persuaded my father-in-law, and Ima got back to acting again. She says 'I took my children to the leela performances destiny took her back to plays.

But her earning was not enough to look after the needs of the family as she earns15 Rs only per play'. I could relate it to my own plight of a working woman. I also used to take my son to college and take my classes, as I used to stay most of the time alone with my son at Agartala. I was balancing my professional career without compromising the role of a mother. The amount she was earning was not enough to feed the whole family, but Oja and Ima did not give into the pressure of poverty, but faced it courageously, and the rest is history.

Oja and Ima started a journey of a lifetime looking out for new forms of expression, which ultimately led to the establishment of Kalashetra in 1969. During the 70s and 80s in Manipur a new form of experimental theater emerged as a strong presence, emphasizing the exploration of traditional forms, reshaping techniques incorporating elements such as martial art form- Thang-ta and folk and classical dances.

Over a period of years as theater activists she and Oja have tried their best to deal with the pressing social realities that bewildered the people on the street which became a mirror of Manipur dark reality with socially relevant themes of the alternative, experimental theatre which stood directly against its established mainstream counterpart.

Over the years, the Kalashetra presented us with a number land-mark plays. Of all the plays according to one article from the internet it says that "But among all Kalakshetra plays, Draupadi perhaps remains the most talked about. It was conceived, like all his other plays, drawing from life around him, but Kanhailal found Mahasweta Devi's story the perfect fit for an idea he was struggling with".
(https://www.telegraphindia.com/7-days/whose-shame-is-it-anyway/cid/1315873).

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



Indeed it was one of the most talked about plays in terms of controversy, to be frankly speaking I personally like the play a lot, not because I was just part of it by chance. Years later, during my M.A and PhD at University of Madras, I have presented lot of papers in seminars and conferences on Feminism and Mahasweta's was also one of my favourite writers.

It was the pinnacle of Kalashetra production and one of the most justifying acts of Ima Savatri. I must not forget to add the amount of refinery Ima brought out of the main character Draupadi is beyond words could express. Instead of the fleshly naked she set the fire on stage with the burning issues prevailing in Manipur at that point of time.

During her lecture she also narrated the tribulation she went through after the first show in Manipur. For almost three to four months the criticism about the play continued in the newspaper. She was heavily criticized by the feminist, intellectual circle and was even considered fallen woman by many.

To this she said, "I felt like asking the highly educated society, literate women but never could I open my mouth and asked, but deep within I just wanted to ask them. I am from a village, illiterate, for me my art is the only meaning of protest that I know to show the atrocity and exploitation of women in Manipur. I was naked on stage not because I wanted to commercially attract people. I was already in my 60s at that time".

She continued those years later after the play in 2004, when I was in Delhi with Oja, for a theater workshop at NSD. One fine morning a phone call came to Oja. When I inquired regarding the phone call to Oja, he told me that Indian Army stationed in Manipur raped and killed the young woman Thangjam Manoroma, shooting her sixteen times on her genitals.

In protest, twelve Manipuri mothers appeared naked before the Kangla fort with only a red inked banner that read "Indian Army Rape Us". Hearing the news Ima told that she cried so much that day and she gave her gratefulness to 12 Ima from far, for the choice and sacrifice they made for the daughters and mothers of the state".

Oja was called as "chingu (a wise man who can see the future)'," says Ima. Hearing this I felt so sad thinking of the tremendous amount of pressure Ima must have borne due to the skeptical mindset of our society. Ours is a society where artistes are not given the freedom to act and express and have to go through the agnipariksha like Sita.

Throughout the generations in every society dramatic performances and literature have long been used as a means of expressing and communicating protests against injustices, exploitation by those in power as well as for creating new perceptions of social reality.

Ima also gave a glimpse of the theatrical technique that she usually practices as well as train her junior artiste, she said that controlling breath is the most important thing, discipline and practice and more practice. The training is carried out using a series of physical exercises (known as disciplines), a rigorous daily routine for the entire artistes in Kalashetra.

Its main objective is to develop the crucial aspects of the actors' body through total surrender and disciplining the breath control. They are energy production, breath control, and rhythm control. However, in spite of their importance, these functions do not generally receive a lot of attention by the artiste nowadays.

When applied to the stage and to actor training, disciplined, integrated development of these three parameters, the body gains strength and liveliness, the voice acquires range and capacity grows. Such work develops the expressive effectiveness needed to transmit the actor's point of view on stage or while acting a character role on stage.

The lecture lasted for one hour and forty minutes, and within that time frame she has transported us into her world and re-lived the experiences that she has undergone in her life. It was not a simple journey. I could learn lots about her. It was a life larger than life. She is very much down to earth, humble, childlike innocence and a pure soul that could connect with anyone near her.

I thank the almighty god for being part of her journey through Draupadi. For me, Ima Savitri is the Draupadi in the play Draupadi, defying the so-called hypocrite society of Manipur, breaking the taboo of the unspoken. She is a trend setter, a voice so strong that cannot be suppressed, a living legend born to be an artiste and rocked the whole world and craft a niche for herself in the world of theater, without discussing Ima's contribution the world theater will always be incomplete.

She is a woman who has the guts to say 'a spade as a spade' crystal clear through her art that she has mastered over the years of dedication and sacrifices. Ima will always be dear to me and I have the highest regards for her. Ima is a woman that I looked up to. You are one in a million and I am so blessed to know you as a person.

Let me end with the quote from Oja Kanhailal's own writing about Ima and himself in an article entitled "Sabitri and Acting" from the book The works of Heisnam Kanhailal Theatre Of The Earth : Essays and Interviews published in the year 2016.

Oja said that "Throughout my experiments in theater over the past 40 years, Sabitri Heisnam has been my main collaborator. Our way of working is to critically examine artistic concerns arising out of a shared philosophy. This leads to a degree of interdependence that I consider ideal for a creative collaboration between a director and an actor, with the vision of the director and the presence of the actor reflecting human nature as something infinitely malleable and open to transmutation. It is a collaboration that succeeds where academic and intellectual theatre or the theater of virtuosity may fail." (77-78).

Indeed the partnership between Oja and Ima is once in million. My prayers and wishes are always with you, Ima and may you have the courage and the same zeal to carry on the legacy of Oja.

Khurumjari Ima.

Concluded...


* 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 22 2021.



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