Sanatombi, a girl from Imphal, Manipur, is in Delhi, having received a scholarship from the culture ministry to learn Kathak. After her first day at the dance school, she is back at the house where she lives as a paying guest. Her mother, a veteran Manipuri dancer, calls from Imphal to ask about the class.
“I don’t know whether it was a good decision to come here,” Sanatombi says.
“The first question everyone asks me is: Kahaan se aayi ho? When I say I am from Imphal in Manipur, they ask ‘Chinese ho? (Are you Chinese?) You do not look Indian.’ They told me that I should not learn Kathak; that there was no future for me in Kathak.”
The next morning, as she prepares to leave for the dance class, she looks in the mirror, at her eyes and nose. She pinches her nose with a clip to make it sharper, till she almost faints from the pain. Her mother calls. Sanatombi tells her that she is in pain.
“So you pulled your nose to look Indian?” the mother asks. “It’s not just the nose,” Sanatombi replies. “The eyes are small too.”
After a particularly traumatic experience in a market, Sanatombi wants to return to Imphal.
When she is asked to perform a Manipuri dance at a function, she uses the opportunity to give her compatriots a little lesson about her home state, including the fact that Chitrangada, the bride of Mahabharata’s Arjun, was from Manipur.
Sanatombi’s experience, lived through by many Indians from the country’s north-east, is shared by Molina Sushant Singh, the Mumbai-based Kathak dancer who played the protagonist in Nahaakgee Nungsirabi (Local Foreigner), a play performed on Tuesday as part of the Zindagi theatre section of the Hindustan Times Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.
“We are Indian but we are still struggling to be accepted. The identity crisis is so much, it hurts you psychologically,” said Singh. “How do you feel if you are not accepted in your home? It is a constant struggle to be Indian.”
The play received a standing ovation from the audience. “I liked the simple way in which the play delivered the message that people from the north-east are Indian and they are badly treated in other parts of the country,” said Rajarshi Banerjee, a theatre director who attended the show.