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Reshma and Steven wed.

A Remote Corner of Asia Puts on a Play about 9/11

The Drama Review, June 2004

When I direct a Sumaang Leela play I address it to four specific persons in the audience - an innocent chiild... a guru... a deaf person...  and a blind person.... * Birjit Ngangomba, director, World Trade Center.

Five weeks after 9/11, the Sana Leibak Nachom Artists Group of Imphal premiered a two-hour long Sumaang Leela performance called World Trade Center.  The Sumaang Leela, as Manipur's courtyard theater is called, drew upon the extensive media coverage and local emotional reaction to the death of Jupiter Yambem, a Banquet Manager at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center's North Tower.  He was one of four people from Manipur who were living in New York at the time of the attack.  Still immensely popular in repertory, the play has been one of the big hits of Manipuri theater in recent years.

Manipur is on the Myanmar border, accessible only by treacherous roads plagued by landslides and extortionist hold-ups by insurgent secessionist forces.  Safer that you take an Indian Airlines flight.  You lift off, leaving behind you the clogging Calcutta heat and wing eastward over the vast cracked mirrored plains of Bangladesh.  An hour or so later, the jet crosses over, and you are once more back in Indian territory, in the Uplands of the country's forbidden and restless northeastern region.  Its blue-green mountains watershed South from Southeast Asia as they cascade down to the Bay of Bengal.

Most people, even many in India, aren't aware of this part of the world.  Cartographers at the New York Times unfailingly lop it off in the paper's coverage of the sub-continent, impatient perhaps that it is does not conform readily to the inverted triangle that comes to mind when one thinks of India. The Indian government does not help matters much.  Its northeast region has been pretty much closed off to foreign nationals ever since it became a part of the newly independent country in 1947. And none is more inaccessible than tiny, embattled Manipur, a mountain state, not much larger than Long Island, which was strong-armed into the Indian Union in 1949.  It is but one of 8 northeastern states rife with armed ethnic separatist and secessionist movements in India's secret 40-year war in the hills.

In the central valley of Imphal, home to the state's one million Manipuris, Indian soldiers driving around would have stuck out even without the bristling guns mounted on their armored trucks. The people under their surveillance look different and obviously of Tibetan, Burmese, Chin, Thai and Khmer ancestry.  The actors of the Sana Macha Nachom Artists Group, like everyone in the valley, are regularly patted down, interrogated, detained, at Indian Army checkpoints as they crisscross the valley with their play.

I saw their World Trade Center in April 2002 at a performance in Tentha village, about an hour south of Imphal.   We got there late, walking in on the evening's preamble of a bout of buttock-baring mukna, wrestling Manipuri style, lithe combatants locked, immobile, like stag beetles.  So we missed the usual scenes of the audience gathering when there is a Sumaang Leela performance in Manipur: Men and women, young and old, converging slowly in the evening, after dinner, some with lanterns, some carrying rush mats and cushions.  Manipuri girls, colorful as an exotic aviary in their sarongs of saffron, peacock, emerald and gold, walking in small flocks.  Young swains covertly flirting with them, while avoiding sharp-eyed older folk.  There is little room to misbehave in the leikai, or neighborhood, setting of a courtyard play; there are few strangers here in any leikai and haven't been for 2000 years.

We would have also seen the actors arrive on their bicycles, with only their costumes and make-up kits tied up in cloth bundles.  It would be one of three, or even four, performances a troupe presents on average in one day.  The crowds would converge upon the house of the local rich man.  They would wait around the family's earthen courtyard, careful to leave an unadorned and empty space about 20 feet square.  Strains of Indian film music or Manipuri pop, punctuated frequently by people slapping at mosquitoes, would be heard above the general hubbub.  Excited, runny-nosed children would be shooed away from peeking behind a curtain into the makeshift "green room". The master and mistress of the house would take their place on their front porch.  They have paid for the Sumaang Leela performance for everyone in the community Š to celebrate Spring, a birthday, or simply because some neighbors have asked them to bring the play everyone has been talking about in other leikais.

The actors, all men - about a dozen, led by a drummer - picking their way through the squatting crowds. The gathered men, women and children, maybe eighty, maybe even over a hundred, would quiet down.  The actors, in makeup, but some still in street clothes, would sing a song of invocation to the gods, as they circle the perimeter of the empty space, marking and staking out the bare open area upon which they will present their play.  Another Sumaang Leela performance would be underway.


When I saw World Trade Center at Tentha Village, it was staged in an large open green surrounded by green paddy fields and susurration of bamboo groves instead of taking place in the Usual courtyard that gives the form its name: Sumaang, courtyard; Leela, play.  A raised stage, about 20 feet square, was lit with fluorescent lights.  Microphones hung down from the white canopy covering the stage.   The audience sat on all four sides of the stage, for the style is always performed in the round, but at about a 1000 strong, a much larger throng than one might see at usual courtyard performance.   For the traditional opening patriotic song, a child warbled an old 1940s Manipuri chestnut about hammers and sickles, an interesting reminder that the local branch of the Communist Party had paid for the show that evening.

Scene One opened with masked terrorists, clad in ominous black, preparing to receive a Mastermind of the attack.  Their movements were choreographed Hong Kong-movie style martial arts maneuvers.  The sudden futta-futta-futta of helicopters startled me into looking up into the night sky above, a reflex perhaps forgiven in war-torn Manipur, until I realized it was coming live from the four music and sound effects people seated to one side of the performance space.  With synthesizer, harmonium and drums, their fanfare and music took me back to early The Man from U.N.C.L.E. soundtracks, the terrorists' get-up to Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy series from my ill-spent youth.  The Mastermind ostentatiously studied a two-foot high model of the Twin Towers.

I found World Trade Center, a two-hour melodrama, surprisingly cinematic.  It cut back and forth, at times using split-screen techniques, from New York City to Afghanistan, from drama to political tract, from tragedy to broad comedy, from song-and-dance interludes to battle sequences.  There was Steven, an American manager at Windows on the World, supposedly JupiterÕs assistant, natch.  He is trapped in his 107th floor office in Tower One, his tearful Afghan wife, Reshma, on the cell-phone with him as the Towers fell.  Played by the young and ravishing Sanaton, one of Sumaang Leela's celebrated male actresses, Reshma fears for her and her child's safety after the attack from people based in her homeland. Steven's strapping younger brother, Albert, an officer in the U.S. Army, gave the Pentagon's point of view of the catastrophe and its impact on peace, stability and democracy.  Their father voiced the grief of the American people over the loss of innocent lives. 

In Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden himself appeared in his lair, orating upon his grievances and motivations - and in the process offering to the uneducated Manipuri viewer an informed precis of the Middle East conflict and the rise of the single Superpower. He vehemently rejected the label of terrorist, claiming his people's right to self-defense.  Osama and his cell-phone toting Taliban henchmen are deaf to a simple Afghan coupleÕs plea to take their war elsewhere so that they can go back to a peaceful life.  In the last scene, Reshma, shot by the Taliban and dying in Albert's arms, with gasps as only a healthy male larynx can produce, begged him to raise her infant into a world where religion raises no barriers and all live in peace.  World Trade Center had no heroes, only victims.


World Trade Center was written by Ranjit Ningthouja, a 30-year old playwright of Sumaang Leela, and directed by Birjit Ngangomba, a well-known Sumaang Leela director and practitioner of traditional martial arts from Imphal.  Characteristically, the play uses minimal props and is performed by an all-male troupe of about a dozen actors. The Sana Macha Nachom Artists Group is one of about 200 Sumaang Leela troupes in Manipur.  The group, like all Sumaang Leela troupes, is a self-sufficient traveling unit that provides its own live music and sound effects. World Trade Center would be known  locally as an Isei Leela, a more recent sub genre of Sumaang Leela that emerged to compete with Indian film musicals, and includes songs lip-synched to background singing.  Men sing the female parts as well: drag-song, if you will, since the singers are off-stage.

Its alternation between broad comedy and melodrama showed Sumaang Leela's origins in comedic improvisational Manipuri folk theater like Phagee Leela and Thok Leela.  Its resemblance, in form as well as in its commenting on contemporary events, to other Asian open-air traveling theater, such as the Jatra in India proper or Li-Ke in Thailand, was apparent.   In fact, about a year after the group's World Trade Center, at least two other plays on the catastrophe were mounted in India, one in neighboring Assam.  Possibly inspired by the Manipuri play which has toured different parts of India, or quite simply following the populist underpinnings of the style, one Calcutta Jatra plays to the Communist in the peanut gallery, complete with Osama as epic good-guy and murderous American GIs strangling Afghan babies.*

In contrast, World Trade Center stands out as a politically informed play, sophisticated in its craftsmanship and humanistic in its message.  World theater experts and aficionados recognized the Manipuri segment in Peter Brook's production of The Mahabharata.  Many have seen Ratan Thiyam's Chorus Repertory Theatre at the 1995 Festival d'Avignon and in the Brooklyn Academy of MusicÕs Next Wave Festival in 2000, or Arambam Lokendra's 1997 floating Macbeth staged on the Thames, know that these directors are part of an astonishing Manipuri theater scene that has about 40 modern theater companies and over 200 Sumaang Leela troupes.  Birjit Ngangomba, the director of World Trade Center, is himself locally celebrated for his arch turn every year as the Narada, the saint of dire prophecies, in Manipur Dramatic UnionÕs popular Hindu passion-play performed every Kisna-Jarama, the Manipuri festival marking the birth of Lord Krishna.

Birjit - Manipuris use first names only in common reference -  is an innovator and thinker in Sumaang Leela.   He has developed his theories of his own traditional craft, such as dividing the Sumaang Leela performance space into sixteen segments, matching action to actors' placements in 'weak' and 'strong' segments.*  He has used pure mime. He is a director in demand among Sumaang Leela companies, even though, traditionally, the senior-most artist is also the play's director who taught the actors orally without the aid of a written script.   Today, it is not uncommon for a troupe to commission a well-known Manipuri writer like the late G.C Tongbra or a director such as Birjit, and then to take the finished production, owned outright by the troupe, on the road thereafter.


I did not stay long enough in Manipur to find answers to the many questions that I now ask, sitting here in Brooklyn.  It was obvious that the play rode the groundswell of the extensive media coverage the death of a native son, Jupiter Yambem.  Sumaang Leela is a business after all, with the actors splitting the performance fee, after incidental minimal expenses.  Its performers are, with no day-jobs, about the only professional actors in Manipur.  But how did the young playwright from Manipur's own rural provinces get the idea of his romantic leads meeting under the Washington Square Arch? Of cell-phones as a dramatic device in a state where cell-phones are banned by the Indian Army? Where did he learn about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey?

Upon my return to New York, I edited a half-hour videotape from my footage of the two-hour performance.   Although I had compiled the excerpts to possibly interest potential theater presenters in bringing the troupe to perform the play in the U.S., I screened the videotape at the 2002 Margaret Mead International Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History, and, in February, at New York University, at a forum organized by its Center for Culture, Media and History, and the Department of Performance Studies.  

New Yorkers who were at the screenings were taken aback to learn that World Trade Center comes from a place that has had virtually no contact with America: no Nike factories, no McDonalds, no tourists, no word for 'white man'.  Few places are as removed from international events, from global involvement, as the isolated and forbidden northeast of India: you can count on your fingers the number of Americans who have visited Manipur.  It is probably safe to venture that none of the actors portraying Americans have actually even met an American, as Manipur is closed off to foreign nationals.  9/11 and the America imagined here are almost entirely mediated - through print media, radio, movies, television, and lately, to a lesser extent, the Internet.  At the performance I attended, as Osama bin Laden made his entrance, I overheard a young fellow next to me as he nudged his friend: There! There's the guy from the newspapers!  With uneducated and illiterate Manipuri folk, the play even serves as a newspaper, as observed by the performance studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett,* giving them a brief on the Middle East problem, the rule of the Taliban, and the role of America in global politics.

The picture of America that emerges in World Trade Center is surprisingly more benign than one has come to expect from the Other's assessment of America.  The play's perspective is an informed one that goes beyond the usual commentary on local politics or the recontextualization of current events that one finds in folk theater and rituals the world over, whether in Thailand or in the rest of India.  (The aforementioned mentioned Jatra, Osama bin Laden from Calcutta, is a case in point.) Perhaps because of Manipur's isolation, and its protection from the expansions of global markets, apologists for the U.S. in the play presented it simply as a country that brings democracy and freedom to the world.

For sure, one may conclude that this is just one more demonstration of the American face put forward by corporate media in the U.S. in its quest for larger global markets, though I doubt they had Manipur particularly in mind.  There was also a touch of a collective thank-you note from Manipur to America.  As one character in 'white-face' puts it, touchingly, America welcomed and gave a good job to one of Manipur's own sons.  But ultimately it was no more than one side of an even-handed strategy and good stagecraft to better serve the ends of their melodrama: for the playwright also hands Osama bin Laden the stage to deliver some ringing lines in a scathing indictment of American foreign policy.


What I found more thought-provoking was not so much a pro- or anti- American position, but that the play saw fit to say: this is one side of the conflict as we see it, and here is the other, and this is what we think of it.  It made me wonder if Manipur's innate sense of being a distinct culture, not just another region of India, empowers its artists with an entitlement assured enough to comment upon the world at large.  One actor told me after the show that his greatest desire was to perform World Trade Center in New York, to an American audience.

Manipur's outlook has, of course, partly to do with the fact that an independent existence as a kingdom is still within living memory in Manipur.  Lacking an enlightened and coherent policy towards its northeast region, besides a destructive guns-or-money approach, New Delhi and the 8 states in the region have not arrived at a mutually acceptable relationship to supplant these expressions of cultural identity.  (At the last National Games in India, this jock state of a couple of a million people even ran a daily tally of medals: Manipur vs. India.) 

Though Manipur's hunger to relate as an independent entity to the outside world is no doubt sharpened by its enforced political isolation, it would be a mistake to think of it simply as an anti-Indian stance.  For the Manipuri, India is often part of that outside world.  Take another recent Sumaang Leela, for instance, an interpretation of Devdas, one of Bollywood's biggest box-office successes - a canny choice given that local insurgents forbid the exhibition of Bollywood cinema but also indicative of a general infatuation with Indian culture as well.

The absence of a direct encounter with the detrimental aspects of the global reach of the U.S. enables World Trade Center to look at the West with a perspective that is atypical of the love-hate relationship that intellectuals in many countries have with America.  A touch na•ve one might say, perhaps, and an unintended result, ironically enough, of the state being sheltered by Indian security policies.  But perhaps it is also a classic case of another clear-eyed perspective from the fringe, of being too far-removed to feel the pressures of intellectual fashion and trends.  After all, there is such a thing as American democracy, freedom, and liberty and a Manipuri playwright feels confident to take on these Big Concepts without so much as a prefacing yes-but.

So what do Manipuri audiences make of the play, of 9/11?  The political situation in Manipur, which has, over 40 years, simmered just short of a full-blown war between insurgent groups and the Indian Army, provides Manipuri audiences with a subtext that escapes the Western viewer. The Hindu-Muslim struggles for the Indian soul do not take place here in Manipur.  How then does the denunciation of religious intolerance play here? When Reshma, Steven's Afghan widow, pleads with Albert, her GI brother-in-law, to put down his arms because his battlefield is her homeland, the parallel with the occupation of Manipur by the Indian Army is inescapable.  By the same measure, the play's critique of the Taliban has its resonance with some separatists' edicts like the one that recently tried to forbid Manipuri women from wearing Indian attire.


It has been just as fascinating to get the American take on the play, as evidenced by response from professional theater presenters who received the half-hour videotape of World Trade Center I put together upon my return.  It has become clear that the play poses some unusual and daunting problems for potential American theater presenters, in addition to the expected problems of funding and logistics of presenting international theater.  These hurdles are, of course, a given, and the meat-and-potatoes of the practice of cultural exhibition the world over.

I was convinced of World Trade Center's theatrical merit and excellence when I saw the play.  Richard Schechner thought what he saw of the play from the videotape, was unique, accomplished, entertaining, meaningful and moving.* So when the director of a prominent festival in New York wrote to me saying he found the play fascinating but was unable to see how he might provide a context for his audience, I began thinking about the presentation of International cultural productions in the U.S., with particular reference to World Trade Center.

Popular traditional contemporary theater like World Trade Center, with its "white-face" performers in Western clothes, some lip-synching in drag, interpreting a global political event, is out of the usual realm of Asian theater in the U.S.  To my mind, the complexities of its contextualiztion encompass limited knowledge of Manipur, absence of established and familiar frames of reference, the playÕs violation of notions of traditional culture, its transgression of definitions of modernity, habits of consumptions of cultural artifacts, and finally, its knocking at the doors of the ownership of the memory of 9/11.

At the bottom of it all, there is extremely limited knowledge of Manipur in the U.S. to begin with, even among arts professionals, so the American viewer brings limited information and frames of reference to the experience.  Some references are indeed culture-specific.  Additional bolstering is sometimes necessary to convince impresarios of a product's worth, and to enable them to effectively present it for their audience's delight. 

I remember, several years ago, attending a private screening of a film called In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones organized for the directors of the some of the world's most prestigious film festivals.  I was the only one who was delighted by the witty, acerbic, polished, little indie.  I recognized that this was, in large part, because I shared the filmmakersÕ Western-educated, English speaking college experience in India that was the frame of reference for the young, pot-smoking, Bob Dylan- listening Indian slackers of the 1970s in this period film.  My European colleagues were less impressed, however, bringing to bear, no doubt, their more extensive film knowledge and critical faculties.  But I wonder if the film would be received somewhat more favorably today with an new, additional frame of reference, now that the gifts and views of its screenwriter, Arundhati Roy, are more widely appreciated.

In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones and World Trade Center do not fall within the idea of traditional Asian culture that has evolved venerable modes of appreciation and an inbuilt market among cultural consumers in the U.S.  Most Asian cultural product Š and this may be true of other parts of the world as well  - that is presented in the U.S. would give the viewer, intended or not, a discrete, pre-modern, exotic Asian Other.  Often the product imported is a revered art-form performed by an accomplished exponent, say, Bharata Natyam performed by Mallika Sarukkai.  The choice is invariably supported by a stamp of approval by that culture's own elite, experts and taste-makers, who also serve as cultural informants for foreign presenters.  

Products such as In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones or World Trade Center, unlike, say, Noh, cross established lines of Western definitions of Asian culture, traditional or otherwise.  They also fall outside their own culture's traditions of quality.  The film only got a luke-warm reception in India, and, Sumaang Leela as a form, even in Manipur, is generally looked down upon as somewhat declasse.  From this perspective, without the support of local cultural authority,  one can sympathize with the difficulties of finding a context for World Trade Center for seasoned New York audiences.

Far more traditional Asian performing arts are shown in the U.S. than contemporary, modern ones. A traditional work can be appreciated and consumed for its exotic appeal and timeless relevance to the human condition.  The enjoyment and use of a discrete Other is obvious: it takes the viewer deeper into his own culture and existence through the experience of another.  It offers alternate routes to deliver the universal, whether it is the meaning of life, beauty, happiness, the sacred, or transformative catharsis.  World Trade Center is traditional in the complete sense of the word, but a living, morphing Sumaang Leela is not a form that has not been classified, defined, canonized and put on a pedestal of cultural achievement with academies devoted to its appreciation and survival.

Because Western historical experience defines the modern mind, contemporary artistic expressions from Asian countries are seen, more often with good reason than one would like, as derivative and ersatz.  Only when a country like Japan becomes a modern nation using its own non-European traditions, does a form like Butoh, with the shared history of Hiroshima, convey a convincing modern sensibility accessible to wide American audiences.  An alternative tack was illustrated for me by discussions I was involved in about the urge to reduce and package Ratan Thiyam's Uttarpriyardarshi, his Manipuri play about Emperor Asoka's conversion to Buddhism, for American audiences with an interest in Buddhism.*  In doing so, it proposed downplaying the political conflict in Manipur that underlies the play.  To be sure, this is part of useful contextualization, for the work soars beyond a mere political tract.

But this also points to another approach: to present the artist as genius, or the work as masterpiece, a position that the New York Times theater critic took with Ratan's Uttarpriyardarshi.*  It is not a position that I cavil with, but to paraphrase writer Fran Lebowitz's remark about the rich, let us not, for the moment, worry about the geniuses.   I am not sure that World Trade Center is a masterpiece or the work of an artist-genius, quite outside of time and place.  It does not have the psychological nuances and character-driven plots of a modern work, nor is it traditionally Asian in the discrete sense we have come to assume in the U.S.

World Trade Center can also be viewed as an artifact, worth looking at in an academic, folkloric, anthropological sort of way.  It is a fall-back or early position, as critical response was to the New York Film Festival screening of Zhang YimouÕs first film,  Red Sorghum, in 1988.  Unveiled at a time of sparse knowledge of what came to be later widely lauded as China's Fifth Generation of filmmaking, the critic then at the New York Times deemed it of more sociological interest than cinematic.*  So it is perhaps no accident that it was the arts curators at the American Museum of Natural History's Margaret Mead Film Festival or the interdisciplinary Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, or the scholars at the latter's Department of Performance Studies that first showed active interest in World Trade Center.

But it is no mere artifact, as these curators and viewers recognized. World Trade Center was not a thing never to be displayed, not an object of ethnography created by ethnographers, by defining, segmenting, detaching and carrying it away, to paraphrase Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett.* (Amusingly, my videotape was more the artifact, wrested from its purpose of interesting theater presenters for a public screening.)  World Trade Center has its own frame; it does not need another. It is a political play written by a playwright with something to say, to be viewed, appreciated, and evaluated on its own terms as a creative work.   But it goes even further by inserting itself into a global discussion.  If given the opportunity, the actors would happily perform World Trade Center in the U.S., directly addressing Americans, as they do Manipuris, about a contemporary American tragedy. 

In effect, this Sumaang Leela reverses the direction of the entitled gaze that has usually had the powerful West looking, portraying and interpreting the Other. That so little is known about Manipur is perhaps irrelevant.  What has interested theater professionals and audiences in the U.S., who have seen the videotape, is that World Trade Center provides a much-needed political perspective to balance AmericansÕ emotional response to the catastrophe.  Coming from a place that is not invested in the Middle Eastern conflict and the global impact of the U.S., World Trade CenterÕs appeal to theater directors like Richard Schechner, has been as an informed, well-crafted and humanitarian plea for religious tolerance and peace among all cultures.  It is, simply put, a view of 9/11 from over there.


Yet, by taking on 9/11 as its subject, the Manipuri play has wandered into contested arenas of the ownership of the memory of the catastrophe, of grief and bereavement,  into the where-were-you-on-9/11 conversations that still pop up at dinner-parties around town.  The tragedy is still an exposed wound.  Despite all our head-shaking at the American people's ready compliance then with State propaganda interpreting 9/11 as an attack on our values of democracy, ignoring the history and nature of American involvement abroad, we understand we all need to cope as well we can.  

I am not sure America is ready to see on stage a loving husband being killed on 9/11, an Osama bin Laden giving his point of view.  I was only saddened to hear, for I felt I knew where she was coming from, when a New York presenter confided that her colleagues thought she might lose her job at a prestigious arts institution if she went ahead with an invitation to World Trade Center. 

I was born in Manipur.  I am a New Yorker.  Seeing World Trade Center at Tentha Village was like seeing my own dim reflection, as in the windowpane, as I gazed on through upon a distant, darkling world.  And I saw that it was looking right back at me.