Dr Moushumi Bhattacharjee
Sukracharjya Rabha was an eminent theatre personality in Assam, was famous for shaping the identity of tribal theatre in the region. Based at Rampur village, Goalpara of Assam, Rabha was a firm believer in the former way of storytelling. For the past two decades, he has devoted his entire time to promote the Rabha culture and the language using theatre as a medium and connecting it to its root, and that too with using the medium to promote environmental awareness and discourage deforestation. To make people aware about the importance of Sal trees and discourage deforestation, Sukracharya started a theatre festival called “Under the Sal Tree” in 2009.
Immediately after the initial kick-start, Sukracharya took upon himself the dual responsibilities of a theatre organiser and director. He was fortunate to get a plot of five bighas (one hectare equals about 6.5 bighas) of land from his father Nilakanta Rabha, who donated it to support his son’s cause. “Theatre became not a part of my life, but my entire life. I was stubborn in insisting that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are always an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind. At the same time, I tried to conceptualise my drama in such a way that it can be performed both on stage as well as off it, driven by the desire and need to reach wider audience,” recalled Sukracharya, a recipient of the Bismillah Khan Yuba Puraskar from Sangeet Natak Akademi, 2009 for direction and the Aditya Bokra Birla Kala Kira Puruskar, 2010.
The venue for the Kalakendra was selected by Sukracharjya Rabha’s Guru Heisnam Kanhailal, when he visited this place for the first time. “We have developed this open-air theatre under his guidance. We have not cut a single tree in the forest. The stage and the seating arrangement have been made on space that existed naturally among the Sal trees. The pure natural atmosphere under the trees inside the forest gives the performing actors a feeling of attachment to nature,” recollected Rabha (probably in one of his last interview).
The festival also follows a strict no-technology policy – there are no artificial lights or sound amplification systems. The actors are, therefore, required to modulate their voices in order to be audible to the audience, which reciprocates by offering its complete attention in absolute silence. For Basanta Rabha, one of the actors, the bare minimum set-up is ideal. As he explains, “in such a setup, you can see the emotions on the face of the audience. When I shout, I can see them get scared; when I act funny, I can see them laugh with me. On a conventional stage, I can’t stare into an audience’s face, but here I can. That is both a challenge, and the best part,” he says.
Music for the shows are performed live on stage and most of the musical instruments are the traditional Rabha instruments made of bamboo, earth etc. Often, natural sounds like whistles of wild avian species or the sound that gets generated in bamboo bushes when winds hit them, form a large part of the music in his drama. The gallery for the audience is constructed using locally available bamboo and betel-nut trees without felling down a single Sal tree, and the show is performed in a soothing and grasping silence under the trees. The Sal tree becomes important in the context because over the past two decades, their numbers have come down substantially as people cleared forests for the more lucrative business of planting rubber trees.
In the 1990s when the armed insurgent struggle was at its peak in Assam, and it was invariably absorbing many impressionable youngsters, Sukracharjya Rabha at such a crucial point of time came forward as a savior. He transformed the entire area where he lived towards theatre and from then onwards there was no looking back. Rabha though unconsciously might have followed the principles of Theatre of the Oppressed created by the Brazilian theatre visionary Augusto Boalat the initial years when he was trying to bring out the native villagers from the fear of encounters and terrorism that was swamping the entire Rabha community of Agia. He served as a facilitator to help volunteers create dramas around problems that affect their lives and by doing so they gradually discovered new ways of resolving the dilemmas of their life. Sukracharya was successful in guiding their frustration and despair into creative intervention and thereby discover a way out of their powerlessness. Sukracharya has travelled to many countries including Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, Bangladesh, apart from moving across the length and breadth of India, spreading his message of humanity and brotherhood through theatre.
The main motto of this theatre form was to create a relationship with nature. The Badungduppa Kalakendra, have made sure that there is no food of any kind in plastic, and they remain along with the audience as close to nature as is possible,” Rabha added. The artistes from different parts of the globe who have participated in the theatre fest are elated to be a part of this. The festival has seen participation of artists from Brazil, Poland, South Korea, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Sukracharya believed that this theatre forms not only gave a platform for the local people to showcase their talent but also created an identity for the state of Assam. He once mentioned that in one incident a troupe from South Korea mentioned that they never knew or heard about Assam as a part of India. They were all full of praises for Badungduppa Kalakendra for not only giving them a lifetime experience but also improving their knowledge about our country India and to be specific Assam.
This unique celebration has become a coveted and exciting experience for theatre groups coming from different parts of the country. It is a different experience altogether to perform in front of the colossal audience comprised of enlightened rural audience, intellectuals, scholars, theatre lovers and renowned theatre personalities – all seated in rows in a panoramic gallery irrespective of their caste and creed. So, Badungduppa theatre can be understood as theory of folklore and cultural communication because both of these cannot be dissociated from one another and both contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage of a society. But the Covid-19 pandemic has turned out to be a double whammy for the already-struggling folk art form. In the time of quarantine and social distancing, all festivals, functions or fetes have been cancelled, and it has wreaked havoc on the livelihood of the actors by forcing them to sit idle in their homes and the future looks gloomy too.
Dr. MoushumiBhattacharjee is an Independent Researcher and Folk Media Enthusiasts.