TODAY -

Heisnam Sabitri
(Padmashree Awardee in 2007)

By Donny Luwang Meisnam *


Sabitri the in internationally acclaimed actress who is married to Kanhailal the renowned director of theater. She was born on 5th January 1946 at Mayang Imphal. Sabitri was born into a Meitei family devoted to the traditional forms of dance and music.

A profile shot of Heisnam Sabitri


At the tender age of seven she was picked up by her aunt, late Gouramani Devi, the then versatile actress of Manipur, and initiated in theatre. She was trained in Gurukul tradition by her aunt. She became a popular child star of the Manipuri Opera theatre in the fifties in her role of Nimai in the play Nimai Sanyas.

Late fifties and early sixties saw her on the proscenium theatre continuing as one of professionals. She toured widely in Manipur while performing the role of Nimai (Gouranga) and was widely acclaimed as a child artiste. Next she got the role of Queen Chintamani in the play Shri Vasta- Chintamani and now she became a representative actress of her age.

She was already famous when Kanhailal approached her to take the leading female role in his play Layeng Ahanba. Their acquaintance started then onwards and they got married in 1962. Someone may even remark that their union had been pre-ordained. Sabitri, now in her late fifties, is still going strong, a real helper of her husband, an illustrious actress with so many laurels on her head.

Her major performances in the field of alternate theatre of Kalakshetra Manipur include the characters of
  • Ekhoulangbi in Ekhoulangbi (1970),
  • Widow mother in Tamnalai (1972),
  • Old woman in Kabui Keioiba (1973),
  • Mother Pebet in Pebet (1975),
  • Tribal Woman in Laigi Machasinga (1978),
  • Mi in Memoirs of Africa (1985),
  • Thambam in 'Migi Sharang' (1990),
  • Radha in Karna (1997) and
  • Draupadi in Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi dramatistsation (2000).
Her acting in these roles had sneered a permanent niche in the hearts of the spectators.

Heisnam Sabitri in an intense scene from a play.


As a major collaborator in Kanhailal's theatrical laboratory and research works, she has always been a dependable source and associate. Likewise, she too gained in the knowledge of techniques related to Manipuri traditional performances such as thang-ta (sword and spear use), Maibi (Priestess), Sanskirtana, Folk operatic theatre, etc.

Sabitri is also an innovator in her own way. She had independently analysed whatever she had artistically accomplished to explore techniques of modern performance in Manipur cultural context. Sabitri formulated her own system under fellowship projects awarded by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and also Majlis of Mumbai. Her findings have enabled her to teach scientifically the young actors.

Sabitri is god gift's of Kanhailal because besides being a very talented and original actress, she complemented his works with her deep knowledge of the issues foreground in Kanhailal's productions. Sabitri has always occupied an important place in his plays. Their combined effort has made them into what they are known to be today. She is the exponent of the ideas churning inside her husband's mind.

Sabitri joined her husband in Kalakshetra Manipur founded by her husband in 1969. Acted in the role of role of Pebet mother in the short film (documentation of Pebet performance in film) in 1985 produced by Kanhailal and role of Mahadevi Akka in the short film of the same title directed by Madhusree Dutta for Majlish, Mumbai in 1999.

For her performances and contribution in the field of theatre as an actress she has received various honours and awards in and outside the country. She received Manipur State Kala Akademi for acting in 1988, National Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for acting in 1991.

Best actress award by the panel of critics in the 3rd Cairo International Festival of experimental theatre in 1991. And she has also been honoured with Nandikar Award in 2002 at Kolkata on the occasion of the year of women empowerment by Nandikar, Kolkata in collaboration with the Department of Child and Woman Dvelopment, Government of India as well as Padmashree by the government of India in the year 2007.

Heisnam Sabitri receiving the Padmashre Award from the President of India


The people who intimately observe her appreciate this state of inner strength. But to those, generally, she is an ordinary, uneducated, soft woman who never questions though talented in acting.

How Kanhailal learns to free from man's traditional status of superiority comes through endless confrontation with Sabitri in both life and art. She does not allow any state where she can be misused- a great feminine instinct to resist, neither that kind of politically articulated feminism nor traditional indentity of woman-woman as myth created by the partriarchal.

Now, both Kanhailal and Sabitri, in this process of living and working together, learn how to accept each other as equal partner with a deeply affecting honesty and sense of life and work. Further, they are anxious to see that the female leadership emerges in its on way, at least, at the instinctive level.

Browse Gallery on Heisnam Sabitri 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 11 August 2009.


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