By: Khilton Nongmaithem, Ibotombi Longjam and Lalit Pukhrambam


Manipur is one of the very few states in India where regular drama (theater) shows are provided for  public entertainment. The origin of Manipuri Theater is a continuation of the traditional ways of  public performances and dance rituals to the modern theater. There are several Drama groups in Manipur - but the most prominent among them with their own permanent Theater Hall  are - 1. Manipur Dramatic Union, Imphal (MDU), 2. Roop Mahal, Imphal and 3. Aryan Theater, Imphal.  Other prominent theater groups are: CHORUS REPERTORY THEATER, Imphal, under Ratan Thiyam;  FORUM FOR LABORATORY THEATRES OF MANIPUR, Imphal, under Lokendra Arambam; SOCIETY THEATER, Imphal, under (late) G.C. Tongbra. Besides, Manipur also has a unique performing Art known as SUMANG LILA or Open Air Theater. Some prominent Manipuri Theater Directors are H. Kanhailal, Biramangol, G. C. Tongbra, Ratan Thiyam, Lokendra Arambam, S. Ibotombi, etc.


Design and Direction by Ratan Thiyam

Tradition, music, dance and a contemporary imagination unite in this exciting outdoor spectacle from Manipur, India. Director Ratan Thiyam has devoted his dramatic genius to the establishment of Chorus Repertory Company and the dynamic blend of the traditional with the modern. It begins with the chanting of prayers by Samvadaks (narrators) and members of the chorus bearing symbols of the eight fold middle paths of the Buddha. War, destruction, torture and visions of Hell ensue, until eventually a great conqueror seeks liberation through godhead. Experiencing a 'classic' from another culture is one of the many pleasures of any Adelaide Festival, and in 1998 this feast of color, music, dance and drama from the Indian sub-continent will fill the amphitheater.

'The world is changing. We exist in a world where we often ask -  What is the World? How should humankind and society be shaped ?  The existence of both good and evil spirit in the conscience of modern man seems to be dominated by evil aspects. Pryadarshi in this play sets an example both as a confused man and a man who gains the path of human kindness and peace by eliminating the evil desire which was growing inside himself. - Ratan Thiyam.

Other production of Chorus Repertory Theater under the direction of Ratan Thiyam  are Abhimanyu, Orchids of Manipur, Imphal Imphal, etc.


Songs, drums and dance of Manipur. A programme of music and dance from Manipur a region inhabited by 29 different tribal groups drawn from religious rituals, folk songs and seasonal celebrations.


Few had seen Manipuri theater before Ratan Thiyam unfolded a rich tradition that dazzled the Indian theater audience and took the national stage by a storm in the seventies. One of the country's most  important theater directors, a 1971, NSF graduate, Thiyam was the director of the National School of  Drama from 1986 to 1988. A master in stagecraft, apart from all other aspects of theater, he has proved that language is no barrier in theater. In Delhi for the national theater festival, he tells Mohua   Chatterjee, how Indian theater suffers from financial constraints more than anything else today.

Q: Why aren't new plays being written in India?
A: Who says plays are not being written? They are not reaching the market. The market is down and the  production costs have really gone up. It is tough for groups to put up new plays. Moreover, it takes time for a theater production to take shape, and we have little time to spare nowadays. Money is limited, and  must be spent judiciously to ensure not a penny is wasted, and at the same time it is utilized to the hilt  so that minimum compromises are made with sets, design, lights etc. Planning manipulations take up most of the time -- months, even years. A playwright spends sometime to write a piece, after that he  has to wait for the play to be up on the stage. Then things depend on how well people receive it. That  decides whether the playwright is a hit. That's where the market factor comes in. A playwright today  does not go on writing without considering the outcome of his efforts. He needs incentives to write  again. After all survival is in question. However, plays are being written, but because they are not  reaching the box office, we don't know about them.

 Q:Could you give a few examples?
A:  Like a lot of regional language plays. Though theater speaks its own language,  spoken language is a major element in it. Language is a huge barrier for Indian  theater, which is why it has become region specific. For instance, lot of plays are  being written in Manipuri, Telugu, and other languages too. But people working with  major languages, like Hindi, Bengali, Marathi etc., get recognized easily than the  ones working with other regional languages.  But, it is the quality of these new language plays that need to be looked into. There is need for screening and identification of what is worth going into, but even if there  aren't more plays being written than there were twenty years ago, there is certainly  as much being written.

 Q:Who would you identify as an important playwright of the present generation?
A:  Often, one or two plays could be the only good works in a time span of maybe 10 or 20 years. So it is  not right to say that in a decade or a couple of decades no good plays have been written. Again there could be one play which survives over thousand years. To write a masterpiece, one needs take into account the contemporary situation, ideas that will agree with the present setting and the kind of   theater we are looking for in the present juncture. We may not be able to talk on the basis of a  generation but in terms of decades, yes. Mohan Rakesh and Girish Karnad's works have lasted over  decades. Some Bengali plays like we had Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Meghnad badh kabya in this  festival is generations old. It is still a captivating piece of work. A lot depends on the director, how he  interprets the play in the contemporary context. The birth or creation of a play does not follow any pattern. There's no rule. In fact, there shouldn't be. It must be born out of the need of the time. I am talking about old plays in new forms, like one of Tagore's  plays may seem very fresh to today's audience.

 Q:Why isn't Indian theater as vibrant as the 60s and the 70s at the end of the millennium?
 A:  We must look at the situation now. The theater movement is entirely dependent on the social structure
that we have in this hi-tech age. Today, people have no time to form an amateur group even. Those days are gone when people met every evening for theater. It was a time when you could mount a  production with Rs 500 to 1000. But now, production cost is high and so is the cost of living. With a  monthly salary of Rs 5000 or Rs 10,000 how much can you contribute to theater today? When we   started theater -- well, I started in 1965 -- I used to think that everything is available in theater because  we didn't have money constraints and human relationships were different. Everything depends on   human relationships in theater. How, then, can you have theater as vibrant as the seventies? It is  impossible. Still, we do have very meaningful theater going on India.

  Q:How would you rate Indian theater vis-a-vis international theater?
 A:  International theater is an expensive affair. The scales are different. When you have a production  costing more than Rs 20 crore, can you compare it with one whose production cost is Rs 1 lakh. But,  we still try and to a certain extent we have succeeded in participating in many of the major international festivals. The response of the people has been very good. But, doing theater has become a real job for  me. I do what I call alternative theater. I don't get what I want in theater so I go for an alternative. Say,  you need a certain kind of set to be designed, and it costs much above your budget, you have to  compromise and work out an alternative.

If you were given all the money you needed would your theater be of the highest  international level? Is money the only constraint?   Not only me but everybody who is working with theater. How much does one get from theater? Except for some commercial companies working under some big banner and that too most of that theater is in  English. But, it is very difficult for regional theater because it hardly gets any support. Don't just look at  big city culture, or big audiences alone, where at least, when a production is mounted one can expect
to get back the money that has been spent on it, even if there's no profit. Profits don't matter because they are not the sole motive behind serious theater. But in smaller cities and towns the audience is very limited. Productions cannot be repeated. You have to depend totally on an audience which is too small  for theater. But directors, playwrights and actors working in those situations are no less talented. They   are creative, talented people. They deserve something to be able to carry on their committed work.



Summer may traditionally be a dark time for many theaters except for those who migrate "north-of-the-border" for the  Festival - however, you can be glad that there's something for which it's worth staying in London.  Watermans Arts Center, located on the banks of the River Thames in West London brings one of this year's major  international theatrical events to the capital. Presented on a floating stage on the River Thames, "Macbeth - Stages of  Blood" promises to be an unforgettable spectacle. As the sun sets, a tale of terror and conflict will turn the waters of the Thames red with blood. In the last grasp of daylight as flaming torches are lit, a story centuries old of ruthless ambition will unfold amongst the elements which dominate the, air, fire and water.  It is not, however, this play's setting that makes it unique. Fusing Shakespeare's original text with the history of the  troubled state of Manipur has produced a completely new interpretation of this frequently performed play. The years of conflict which have left their mark on this largely ignored  state of North East India draw parallels with the conflict within "Macbeth", finding a new meaning of contemporary resonance.

In "Macbeth - Stages of Blood" a troupe of Manipur actors will use an ancient martial art known as "Thang-Ta". Inducing an almost trance like state the actors commune  with nature - as did Shakespeare's original Weird Sisters -  resulting in a remarkable production unlike anything seen before on the English stage. An all male cast, reminiscent of  Elizabethan productions which used boys or men to play the part of Lady Macbeth and the crone witches, draw on the real life Shamanistic traditions in Manipur, of the Maibi. There are not three but seven weird sisters, highly significant  for Manipuri, corresponding with the seven evil spirits of their  culture. One actor plays both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth,  who is directly presented by his alter ego. Part of Watermans events to mark 50 years of India's independence, "Macbeth - Stages of Blood" is a truly  international production. Lokendra Arambam is one of India's most respected theater directors and his company, The Forum for Laboratory Theaters of Manipur, are known around the world for their innovative productions. Their journey to the UK is the first time this production has been seen outside Manipur. Previously performed on the banks of Loktak lake in Manipur, the company now take on the  tidal waves of the Thames.

So in the heat of August, there's no need to retreat to the dark recesses of the auditorium for theater. Take your  place on the river bank and bask in the warmth of a summer evening as the action unfolds and if you do have to go to  Edinburgh - make sure you're back in time.

The Arambam Lokendra's recent production, AWANG-NONGPOK LAMGEE NAWAA: (Children of the North-East), depicting the political unrest prevailing in North East India and its effect on the youth, was recently staged in New Delhi. The drama was an instant hit for its directorial excellence and the artistic skill of the performers as well as for the high quality of the production.


By: Lokendro Arambam, R.K. Tombisana and Khilton Nongmaithem
Forum for Laboratory Theaters of Manipur
Sagolband Meino  Lane
Imphal - 795001, Manipur.
Phone: 91-385-223973/230061/225971
Fax: 91-385-222936

[Presented at a workshop at London 'The Way of the Warrior' along with Thang Ta martial art demonstrations by Khilton Nongmaithem on April 17, 1998]

Thang Ta is a popular term for the ancient Manipuri Martial Art known as HUYEN LALLONG. The art developed from the war environment of the tiny state of Manipur in North-East India, which was an independent kingdom since the early Christian era. It played an important role in the geopolitical environment of medieval times in between India and China with many independent states at war with each other. Constant life and death struggles between clans, tribes and states resulted in the devising of ways and means of safeguarding the lives of the citizen soldiery and at the same time developing an inward attitude to problems of life, death, and afterlife. The art of the battle simultaneously envisioned a deep value system or world view ensconced within the culture of the small ethnic communities struggling for survival from constant attack from hostile neighbors and also to sustain a social order based on rank, status and kin affiliations of a collective kind. The individual was always in deep relationship with the community with ritual as a means of constant regenerative action intone with the movement of the spiritual world of ancestors beyond human life. The world of man was an outward revelation of the inner life of the natural world and the universe. Deep harmony between outer action and inner forces resulted in the use of the body in various forms of expression. The art of the battle and objective elements in organic relationship with the cosmos. The body itself became a space where the tensions and dynamics of creation was worked out in a system of movements reflecting the essence of these creative forces. The whole world of the dynamic cosmos was recreated within the world of the body of man.

Thang Ta (The art of sword and the spear) thus became an expression art form which however retained its fighting character at the secret home schools of individual teachers or gurus, after its being prohibited during the period of the colonial raj (1891-1947). It survived during the period of Manipur's integration with the Indian Union since 1949 where the art was shown in festivals and performance platforms abroad since 1976. The internal system of meditative practices, its essential spiritual character however is at a precarious moment of being lost through lack of knowledge and committed practice by the present generation. Contemporary theater practitioners however are getting aware of its basic energy use and creative exercise of the body's resources which would enhance the performance energy of the artist. It however is at an exploratory stage that this new culture is being re-examined.

The movement behavior of the different parts of the Manipuri Martial Body are derived from the cultural and habitual uses of daily life. Certain extra daily postures, positions and movements are compiled into codes adding to the natural repertoire. Certain characteristics of the body in normal customary usage and ritual practices men are used to is the bow (Khurumba), where the forward/downward flexion of the spine is most relaxedly used. Rotation and tilts of the pelvic joint in different angles while supporting the torso in regular curvilinear uses are most common. The half turn of the chest are also common. The squat is also a familiar use of the lowering of the upper extremities nearer to the ground, where the two legs in deep bent position support the whole body, thereby proximally utilizing the use of the upper extremities at the ground level. Watch a daily ritual of cleaning the floor by women who use a different flexible squat system with the bent knees open out to enable the forward flexion of the torso and spine. The hand uses the wash clothes with more space at her command while rubbing the floor. Men use three positions of squat in a descending order to enable a firmer hold of the body in pro gravitational positions. They are known as THONG-KHONG (foot of the bridge), which are seen in many Sankirtana dances, in martial art positions and in wresting postures.  The entire system of body use are rich and varied, and the wrists could be most appropriately exploited in Khujeng Leiba (wrist circling) to emulate the figure of eight. While the Thing (Art of the sword) emphasizes often closing of one's body near to the ground 'THUP-CHINBA' (coil) to enable a spring action for expansion and attack, the Ta (spear) emphasizes an opening out of the body (PHANBA) with two forms - NONGPHAN to stimulate the expanse of the sky, the LEIPHAL emulating the expanse of the earth at the ground level in order to reach out to all directions of space. The spear uses about 75% of the lower extremities in motion, while the wielding of the sword normally takes 75% exercise of the upper extremities.

The Martial system is a much more vigorous use of the body in order to reach out to the space of the opponent, and the two arts are derived from the physiographic and cultural environment of the Manipur plains and hills. The Meitei in the plains, the pre-dominant ethnic group are capable of using both the sword and spear in its weapon systems. The sword is most favorably used in protecting the body from attack from all sides, whereby the figure eight are extensively used to cover the entire vulnerable parts of the body. The Meiteis often use more movement than stillness while preparing to fight the opponent, and the self as target is dynamic, moving and shifting position often. There is also the use of stillness while awaiting the attacking move of the opponent, depending on the nature of the enemy.

The Ta is often a one-sided weapon, used in piercing style of attack, with horizontal slashes  used in combat. A spear with or without the shield also could be used by either single or both hands during combat. The common practice is its use with the shield or Chung, made from big Rhino skin (probably drawn from Assam), and later from the skin of Bos-frontalis, the distinctive indigenous bull of the North-eastern hills. The movement of the spear is normally frontal in fight, a habit of the tribals of the hills, who settlements on the fridges and slopes of the mountains providing frontal attacks and defenses. When the Meiteis incorporated the TA as a system or combat and in ritual practice, more refinement was added to the vocabularies with all round use. The entire movement based on the use of the lower extremities, with the energy drawn from both mother earth and father sky, however emphasize a lot of shifting of balance while in the air. The spear exercises also enables the person to develop poise, to strengthen the lower extremities of the body, to secure balance and gesture formation of the legs are done in mid-air and an emphasis on anti gravitational use of the body is most exercised by this art of the spear. Spirals, curves, twists, and turns are most vitally used. The spear movement enables the exercise of openness of the body to the utmost limits and the balance of the earth and the sky are sensuously harmonized. Nine forms of Ta-Khousaba (Language of the spear) are known.

One unique feature in the performance of the Manipuris in the use of the body movement is the use in space and in time and rhythm of the 'Twilight Zone' (left over land) and Maha (interval) in the martial art and Sankirtana dances, respectively, though it has some approximation to the same. This is to take a vital space behind or in between normal steps of the feet, which give the artist a sensitive and strategic use of the body in time's space, thereby giving advantage over the opponent  in terms of reach of the weaponry, and in art, on the use of a mid rhythm or interval which gives a singular feature in the rhythm pattern. The martial artist's and drummer's use of the Tha-Khaiba, the use of the thoracic zone in the body's flow of movement within a rhythm pattern adds an aesthetic dimension of additional value to the overall performance. This is also an entirely novel form of the use of the body in space by the Manipuris.

Another important development is the artist's relationship in ritual with the serpent dragon father - PAKHANGBA. This is the use of energy in ritual and control over events, space and environment. Here the element of psychic exercise, mental and physical energy is being so deeply co-ordinated so as to enervate the air and the environment and the world of impersonal forces. The Thengkou (Summoning of Spirit) is the ritual form whereby the protagonist does a personal ritual with the sword or spear so as to effect control over events, manipulation of vital energies of objective realities of the world. This is an art of concentrated use of the mental and bodily energy which is based on mystical union with the spirit of the serpent dragon ancestor, on whose imaginary spread under the surface of the earth (Paaphal), the celebrant treads with utmost precision and lightness. It is an exercise where the feet opens out the entire bodily diagrams of the cosmos, unleashes the power of the sword to effect changes in the rhythm and objective physical realities of events, and ways of the behavior of the elements and after effecting the ritual movement the celebrant returns to the mother's womb, the womb of the universe for protection and return to former self.

Belief in life and spirit - anima, exists in every object - wood, stone, plant, tree, water and every object of creation. This anima of life is in the sword, that the fighter uses. The sword should be treated as having its own life with birth, maturity and death.  After its function is over, over war, revenge on person, personal enemy and fulfillment of its promise, it must undergo a burial, a natural relegation of its cycle into oblivion.  Ritual burial is practiced. The sword therefore is almost a surcharged life, which when its task is accomplished should return to rest, to be buried, with appropriate food, clothing and accompaniment. Veneration of the sword is therefore part of our self in existence, and extension of the self.

The personal routine of the sword wielder's body is a regimen to preserve vital essence. Food and plants to eat, days of the month on which certain plants are taboo, moderation in diet are all emphasized. All his physical behavior is based on a system of understanding nature's way which is indicated in your breathing. The breath which is the essence of your life giving force, has a way of signaling appropriate moments of relationship with nature's path, when you must act, meet your enemies/foes or any other person or event. When the inner breath is in tune with the forces outside of yourself you are all right. If the inner breath is in harmony with the outer air, there shall be no harm or untoward event happening. Only when your inner breath, the vital NUNGSHIT, merges with the outer air, NONGSHIT, that it signals your death. Breathing therefore is a vital means of your body awareness. When on understands the behavior of the air outside, any disturbance in the equilibrium give signals for you to take protective action.

For a martial artist, learning to become a warrior has to undergo certain disciples in his entire routine of daily life, whereby his engagement of mind and body are attuned to a realm of preparation, relaxation and focus where a spirit of calmness, concentration and devotion become a feature of his life.  The old traditional values emphasized in YAAHIP, CHAKCHA, PHAMPHAM (literally Sleeping, Eating, Sitting) which are basic value based discipline systems of organizing the body and mind in order to reach perfection in totality of his life are most vigorously followed by the artist. The value emphasized in culture are thus to respect the elders in the family and in the community, to develop a spirit of sacrifice and love for the country, with the ability to give away ones life without rancor, not to hurt the enemy when he is running away or when he is naked, not to do whatever is against the moral order of the day.

The martial body of the Manipuri is therefore a ready body, deeply focused, energized, and capable of all forms of spring action. The concentration of energy in the martial body and consciousness it arouses in the senses is such that in the local lore, it is stated that the hand is the sword, the closed body is the shield, the eye is the arrow and the leg is the spear. The condition of the senses so keenly aroused provide the saying that you must be able to hear with your eye and see with your ear. The essential facility with which the senses are organized, that the gross elements in the body are so deeply and dialectically synthesized that the vital flow of essence emerging from below the navel to the top of the brain reaching the enlightenment or MANGAL PHANGBA, the ultimate in consciousness pervade the body and mind of the artist.
The traditional Martial artist share the essential harmony between the Sky and the Earth as Father and Mother, where Man plays the facilitating role of the MAIBA or physician priest. In the eternal copulation of Father Sky and Mother Earth, the union takes place at the horizon, in the sacred zone below the sacrum of the cosmos. There is dynamic movement in the horizon, which is Man's place in the universe, under the navel of the cosmos. Thus Man is facilitated the distribution of the life-force or vital essence throughout the entire cosmic universe. The human body is a microcosm in the universal system of the macrocosm, yet this macrocosm is present in the body, the microcosm itself. The exercise or body rhythm in Martial Arts is itself a stretching of the universe, in its mystico-physical space, where the two vital spaces and energies or the Paa and Pee - strong and soft principles are united in harmony and balance, which sustain the creative process. The soft and strong are elements of energy, which both inhabit an artist's body both male and female. These energies cannot be gender valued since sexual categorization often inhibit a true understanding of the energy in movement and stillness. The two polarities, similar to great principles in either India or China, also pervade in the philosophical and belief system of the Manipuris, like Purusha-Prakriti or Yang and Ying.

The entire art of the artist performance is then a harmonizing, spiritualizing act whereby the balance of the Sky and the Earth is constantly exercised for the world to continue, in the eternal cycle of movement and renewal which symbolized by the serpent dragon with its tail in the mouth. The figure of eight which represents the serpent dragon is the source of the movement pattern of Thing and Ta.

The form of Manipuri martial art and its impact on the human body of a learner is in the process of study in contemporary theater research. Learning a foreign form and its codes may be an exotic experience which may give contradictory signals to serious students of performance energy, but it has been learnt that physical study of an other culture and its performance motifs do have an effect on personality change on the artist that with its constant association in the physical and psychic realm of the student, there is a sense of awakening and awareness of one's body potential and ability to utilize the creative resources of the body again, apart from understanding and having experiential insight into aspects of concentration and release of energy in the learned form, which may be universally similar in all cultures. The study of Manipuri martial art therefore and its various exercise systems in a demystified manner would be of help to the decoding of this experience.