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Renowned Playwright Ratan Thiyam Teaches at Fordham


Renowned Playwright at Fordham

Veteran playwright and director Ratan Thiyam sees theater as a sacred space where audiences and actors can think together about how to create a better society.

Ratan Thiyam (right), with Lawrence Sacharow, chair of the Fordham theatre department.
The Fordham University Theatre Company’s production of The Blind Age, Dharmavir Bharati’s play about the physically and morally devastating consequences of war, featured a 25-member cast under the direction of Ratan Thiyam. Thiyam also designed the set and composed the music for the production.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

For nearly three decades, Ratan Thiyam (pronounced RAH-tahn TEE-yum), the founding director of the Chorus Repertory Theatre of Manipur, India, has been writing and staging plays that incorporate ancient Indian theater traditions in a modern context—and that express a deep concern with the search for spiritual and social equilibrium amid violence and war.

Thiyam’s 1996 play Uttar-Priyadarshi (The Final Beatitude), for example, focuses on the spiritual journey of Ashoka, the second-century B.C. emperor-warrior who ultimately renounces violence, adopts the eight-fold path of the Buddha and becomes known as Priyadarshi, “one who looks with compassion.” But to describe the work as a play in the traditional sense of Western theater would be misleading. It is a dramatic spectacle, incorporating song and speech, dance and gesture, bold color and light in a highly stylized and ritualistic fashion. The Chorus Repertory Theatre’s performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2000 compelled New York Times critic Margo Jefferson to call Thiyam “a genius” and “the experience of seeing Uttar-Priyadarshi transcendent.”

This fall, Thiyam is working with the Fordham University Theatre Company, directing a production of The Blind Age by Dharmavir Bharati. Based on the classic Indian epic Mahabharata, The Blind Age is one of India’s most widely produced modern plays—and, like many of Thiyam’s own plays, it is explicitly concerned with the ethics and horrors of war.

“I am trying with the students at Fordham to introduce [aspects of Indian drama] gradually—a kind of professional exercise, asking if they are enjoying it or not—but I am teaching, not really directing a play,” said Thiyam, who noted that he and the members of his company often work on a production for as many as five years before it is staged. “It is invaluable to have many training experiences, to take an eclectic approach. Even though they won’t act in that style,” which requires, Thiyam said, rigorous training in voice and movement, “[the experience] will open their imagination to ways of approaching other plays.”

On Oct. 12 in Pope Auditorium on the Lincoln Center campus, a documentary film called Some Roots Grow Upward: The Theatre of Ratan Thiyam (2002) was screened. Following the screening, Thiyam spoke on stage with Lawrence Sacharow, chair of the Fordham theatre department.

“Theater is a human space,” Thiyam told the audience. “It is a medium to ask questions, like how should society be shaped. I want a theater that will at least help put those questions to the audience…so that the audience starts thinking what [the actors in the play] should do.”

For decades, Manipur, where Thiyam’s theater company is based, has been the scene of much violence. Tribal and ethnic insurgencies have led to the death of thousands, and activist groups have staged protests against the national government’s anti-terrorism laws, which are designed to control the northeast Indian state’s various separatist movements.

Throughout the documentary, scenes of unrest in Manipur are intercut with scenes of Thiyam and members of the Chorus Repertory Theatre rehearsing and performing several of his plays at their nearby campus, where they live and work together. By juxtaposing real and staged scenes of violence, the film explores the age-old aesthetic and contemporary sociopolitical sources of Thiyam’s work, and highlights his creative response to the social ills of his home state.

Thiyam acknowledged the influence of the Natya Sastra (a treatise on theatre written by Bharata during the second-century B.C.) and, to a lesser extent, elements of ancient Greek drama and the Noh theatre of Japan, but said that his approach to the theater is informed by his years of study with several gurus of the traditional Manipuri performing arts. “I always go back to the classical age of theater. It helps me understand more and more,” said Thiyam. “But we are not always arguing for a representation of the history. … This theater is not meant only for elite audiences; it is also meant for common people, people who have a common knowledge of everything.”

The screening of Some Roots Grow Upward and the conversation with Thiyam was sponsored by the Fordham theatre department, the River Arts Repertory, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, and the Theatre Communications Group’s International Theatre Institute. Thiyam’s residency at Fordham is made possible, in part, with support from the Asian Cultural Council.

— Ryan Stellabotte

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