Brig Shalendra S Katariya ( Retd )
Watching plays enacted by touring theatre groups is one of my oldest memories. Then there were Ramleela, Krishnaleela, plays in boarding school, the ones enacted by our worthy jawans in the great organisation I served. National and international theatre in our bigger cities and metros were a must watch whenever I had the opportunity.
But the best play, an act beyond description that I have ever watched was performed by amateurs in a small mountain village on 02 October 2019 in a spoken language I do not understand.
One day, I received a call from Dr Aotoshi, the Managing Trustee of the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram located at Chuchuyimlang, a small mountain village in Mokokchung district of Nagaland. He wanted me and my wife to come for the celebrations of the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma.
Me and Shalu found ourselves at the entrance of Anu Mai amphitheatre of Chuchuyimlang at the appointed time. The weather was wet and a slight drizzle fell from the sky, but we met faces at the entrance as bright as sunshine. The brightest and with the widest smile was that of Dr Aotoshi. We felt warm and grateful meeting him and so many nice people.
The drizzle stopped by the time we made our way to our seats through the happy crowd bustling in the arena and the wet grass. The open to sky amphitheatre has covered stands with steps that serve as seating. One stand is elevated and is used for seating those presiding or for guests. Below this is a masonry platform with stone flooring, where activities could be performed. The circular arena has one large tree on one side with a distinct stem in two parts joining several feet above ground, thus appearing as an inverted ‘V’. A round raised platform surrounds the tree with enough space left for earth between its perimeter and the tree trunk. There are at least three entrances to the arena. The place is modest with the roof of stands revealing the sky in a few places; and it was strikingly clean.
Women, men and children of all ages dressed in bright festive clothes had already filled the stands to capacity. Students of various institutes sat in their groups. For a small village it boasts of a National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology, Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development and few schools. Thanks to the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram and the desire of locals for better education. The arena has small hillocks rising on two sides. A traditional log drum covered by a shed and a couple of buildings stand on one side and an Arju (a traditional waiting shed or community space), a flight of stairs and few houses are located on the other . Both these sides were full of people. Those who could not find place under sheds were out in the open, their umbrellas now folded as the drizzle had stopped.
The weather was as fabulous as could be. Clouds had descended on the mountain village. A very mild breeze was carrying these across through the modest buildings and robust people perched atop the hillock with Arju, opposite to the elevated stand where we sat .The chairman of the Village Council sitting next to me leaned over to tell me that it never rains during events organised in the Anu Mai amphitheatre. No wonder, the meaning of Anu Mai is ‘place where Sun never sets ‘, as I learnt from a local.
The highlight of the simple yet impressive ceremonies lasting well over two hours was the play. It was a tribute to the founder of Nagaland Gandhi Ashram, Padmshri late Shri Natwar Bhai Thakkar and his pillar of support Padmshri Smt Lentina Ao Thakkar. The play was directed by a young local man, Bendang Walling, an alumni of National School of Drama. Every department including the artists in the play were local.
The play opens with a young Natwar Bhai entering the arena. A voice comes alive in the background. The audience is being informed that the 23years young Gandhian is arriving in what was called Naga Hills in 1955.
In order to see the proceedings which were to happen all over the arena we moved to vantage points. Me and Natwar Thakkar’s son sat on steps in a stand with a group of students around us. Lentina Ao Thakkar sat on a chair under the large tree with Imlibenla, her daughter and Shalu my wife who had escorted her. Sentimenla, the youngest progeny of the protagonist sat in a nearby stand with locals who had been part of her growing up years.
Shortly Natwarbhai is out of the arena and we are introduced to a very young Lentina who is the first among local women to get formal schooling up to class seven. She has a deep influence of the Gandhian thought and has presently travelled to Gauhati to learn more about Gandhi and to dedicate herself in the service of people. As Gauhati fades out Naga Hills zoom in , and Natwar Bhai is seen bathing children suffering from scabies and fungal disease due to lack of hygiene . The bare chested kids are energetic and cute; their act of scratching their bodies and shunning the bath makes the entire amphitheatre go up in joyous mirth. The audience is lit up. The bath is followed by a lesson in alphabet and the energy of child actors is palpable – their comic acts capture the audience totally.
Activities of Natwar Bhai were seen as an aggression on local tradition and certain elements specially those referred to as underground found it unacceptable. A group of tough looking antisocial elements armed with deadly weapons disrupt the class and threaten Natwar with life. Kids running away in glee and fear, and Natwar pleading with hoodlums; the audience is undecided – to smile or grieve. Not so the octogenarian Lentina, she is now serious and watches with great focus.
On the stage we are drawn into another world where Lentina is young and effervescent. She has returned from Gauhati and is educating women about health, hygiene, childcare and simple ways to contribute to family income. Being a trained nurse she is also shown to be going to houses in difficult terrain to bring babies into the world. We all know babies have this curious way of arriving at odd hours. Young Lentina fears walking in the dark with only a lantern for company. That is when Natwar steps in, to accompany her on these trips to houses in the night. The two young actors create a very delightful scene. But I get the emotion of this small trip made many decades back from the face of real Lentina. She now has a handkerchief covering her mouth but her eyes and face are radiant with the memory and she looks like a saint radiating divine aura.
Natwar and Lentina both having been trained in the philosophy of Gandhi and having dedicated their lives in the service of people start working together. Soon they develop fondness for each other. The two young artists are marvellous in their craft and cast this fondness in stone. The tenderness however flows on the face of the gently rocking Lentina sitting under the tree; the fondness of the young couple comes alive in the deep calm smiles of her children who are awaiting the moment of their arrival into the world. Most of all it is the moist smiles on radiating faces in the audience that bring the love that was blossoming alive into the arena, into every blade of grass, every leaf of the tree, the moist air .Everything seems soaked in that blissful love and ecstasy brought on stage by the two artists in natural light without any makeup – for it was true and eternal love of which the very surroundings were witness.
By now the audience was bound to the artists and their performance with unseenglue. We were swaying to the moods of the play and to the emotions of the Thakkar family and elders in the audience.
Love led to marriage and kids. But the arduous journey of Natwar and Lentina who were now an inseparable couple continued. They were threatened by those against the establishment and suspected by those in the establishment. They face regular threats to their lives and their activities are disrupted. After one such episode they take refuge away from their modest dwelling, a thatched house, in a government establishment. During the night, miscreants burnt down the house thinking the inhabitants are inside. A chill runs down the collective spine of the audience; the Lentina amongst it is unable to control herself and is sobbing into the kerchief. I find my face is wet and vision blurred. I feel Dr Aotoshi is trying unsuccessfully to control his tears, while my wife is visibly weeping sitting next to Lentina. The two daughters have no need to hide their tears; they are among their own people among an extended family who have cared for them and whom these ladies have cared for. There is not an eye in the audience that is not wet.
The extended families, the villagers of Chuchuyimlang, are presently bringing provisions for the devastated Thakkars who have missed an attempt on their life by a whisker. The resilient and brave Thakkars rebuild their house and lives and get down to their business of social service. People are trained in bee keeping, jaggery and oil production, carpentery, khadi and other means of Swadeshi ways of livelihood and living.
Lentina in audience is again lit up seeing the young Natwar and Lentina doing what they loved so much. The audience heaves a collective sigh of relief and the mood is lifted, only to again descend with the announcement by Natwar Bhai to proceed to Gauhati. He feels he is needed there more and can go as things have settled down in Chuchuyimlang. The departure is heart rending, like the vanvas of Ram, yet the audience are able to laugh at the show of anger and utterings of a young Aotoshi. Sitting in the audience are people who witnessed this scene in real life including Sharmaji who actually accompanied him to Gauhati.
The drama on the stage played out the very difficult times that Lentina and Natwar had to undergo in their life; but the epic drama of their journey was experienced through the audience that had become one with the actors and were swaying through gloom and cheer, tears and mirth, speculation and introspection, understanding and bafflement. No one wanted it to end, but it did, to receive a standing ovation that reverberates through my being even today.