On 27th November,2022, I had the privilege of seeing one of the finest plays in Indian theatre performed by Kalakshetra Manipur in ICCR (Indian Council For Cultural Relations). It was organized by DAG as the concluding act for their The City As A Museum event. Kalakshetra Manipur is a renowned Indian theatre group based out of Manipur. The troupe’s main objective is to study, revive and bring forth the culture of Manipur through the art of theatre and to set the best standards of performance matching not only the Indian theatre scene but world theatre. It was established in 1969 by Heisnam Kanhailal, a distinguished Indian theatre personality born in Imphal, and the group performed Pebet, the best-known play originally directed and written by him.
Pebet is a phunga wari, a kind of traditional fireside story told to Manipuri children by their grandparents. It is a folk tale deeply that Manipuri people connect with deeply. Kanhailal used the story of Pebet to comment on the political and cultural indoctrination of his time. There is no better way of igniting public consciousness and building a theatre of resistance than by subverting the familiar.
The story is about a bird smaller than a sparrow, which has not been spotted in many years. It could also be an extinct specie. This little bird is the protagonist of the story. She is represented as a mother of several children who has nestled at the foot of a tree. A fearless guardian of her young ones, Mother Pebet circumvents the predatory attention of a cat by flattering him. She continues to coax the cat until her children are ready to protect themselves. Once they are grown up, she resists the cat who captures the youngest of her brood. Ultimately, through a clever plan, the mother manages to trick the cat into freeing her precious child. The Pebets are finally reunited as the cat disappears from their lives, dejected and unsuccessful in its mission.
Although a simple enough tale, it exhibits deep political potential and commentary. The cat can be seen as a metaphor for political parties/individuals that try to proselytize young minds into their own firebrand politics. There are a lot of political parties who believe in the 'catch them young' concept. Mother Pebet is seen as the guiding force resisting and preventing such conversion and preserving the innocence of children. Kanhailal breaks from the traditional story of Pebet in the middle of his production after the youngest child has been captured. Here, he develops a fantasy sequence in which all the Pebet children are captured, indoctrinated, tortured, and then pitted against one another. It is in this section that the politics of the play is most profoundly felt before the happy end of the production which echoes the original ending of the story.
Pebet is a force to reckon with in the context of the theatre of resistance. Kalakshetra Manipur’s production is beautifully staged with the theatre practitioners performing with deft emotions and articulate movement. Even the young theatre practitioners showed immense maturity onstage. Pebet, first produced in 1975, has been performed all over India till today. During the 80s the play was performed over 40 times in a month in the state of Karnataka alone. Starting from its first production to till date, the talented Ema Sabitri has been taking the role of Pebet Mother in the play.
If you ever hear about a production of Pebet being staged in your city, do not miss the opportunity to attend! Below are some snippets from a production of Pebet at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav event.