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The Covid Theatrics in Assam

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‘Theatre is food for the soul, not the stomach.’ There exists a version of this aphorism that perhaps every theatre person has heard. For most, it is also a harsh truth they have learnt to accept. However, hundreds of kilometres away from the urban centres that shape our idea of modern theatre in India, the unique phenomenon of Bhramyaman or mobile theatre in the hinterland of Assam has not only fed the souls of its practitioners but also provided a steady means of livelihood to actors, playwrights, directors, musicians, sound, light and costume designers, technicians and backstage staff for close to six decades. Steady enough for them to never have had to look for alternative sources of income — until the pandemic struck.

“Assam is a politically volatile state and no stranger to the wrath of nature, but there hasn’t ever been a gap in performances in the 34-year-old history of our company,” says Sankalpajiit Hazarika, owner of Hengool Theatre in the Jorhat district, who is staring at a cancelled 2020-21 season of shows like at least 50 other companies in Assam that employ anywhere between 50 and 200 cast and crew members each. A decade-old conservative estimate pegged the annual turnover of mobile theatre at Rs 10 crore. In its concern about the relaxation in lockdown rules for theatres and fear among audiences that may prevent them from gathering in big numbers in the near future, the mobile theatre of Assam is faced with the same set of challenges that a Rangashankara, Prithvi or National Theatre is battling with, but there are also problems unique to this indigenous performing art tradition, which thrives on the patronage of those who put aside tiny sums of money round the year to witness the only form of entertainment known to them.

Posters for mobile theatre productions are designed like those for films. A poster for the play 'Moi Maar Suwali'.

The origins

The travelling theatre tradition in India goes back centuries. It was, however, in the late 19th century when Bengali jatra groups visited Assam with socio-political plays that the local theatre groups began to draw inspiration from them. “[Yet], Assam’s mobile theatre cannot be considered a modernised version of jatra. It shows a degree influence of community Bengali theatre but with characteristically modern sound and light and socially driven or family-centric, often melodramatic, themes,” explains Delhi-based researcher Mriganka Sharma whose body of work in the historiography of theatre in Assam includes exploration of the politics of Assamese identity through Bhramyaman theatre.

The high-tech aesthetic of mobile theatre was established with its very first company in 1963. “Achyut Lahkar, the father of Bhramyaman, founded Natraj Cine Theatre in Pathshala. The name itself speaks of the vision with which it was started. As a child growing up in a family of theatre artistes in Nalbari, I remember watching his stage adaptation of the film Joymoti, which was replete with effects unheard of 50 years ago,” says National Award-winning actress Seema Biswas, who on the insistence of the then owner of Hengool Theatre hit pause on her film assignments in 1999 to travel with the company to the remotest corners of Assam for a full theatrical season lasting nine months. Biswas also recalls the plays she would watch back then to be deeply rooted in literature and famous dramatists being associated with mobile theatre. Mahananda Sharma, Surendra Mahanta, Ela Kakoti, Chandra Choudhry, Reena Bora, Meena Kumari and Bhavesh Baruah are some of the names she counts among the legendary artistes of the tradition.

Awahan Theatre's pandal in Bengaluru

From among the artistes who worked with Natraj Cine Theatre, many of them went on to form their own companies, making Pathshala synonymous with Bhramyaman. The town is home to Kohinoor and Awahan theatres, both known to have taken mobile theatre beyond Assam — while the former was invited to the National School of Drama where it staged three plays, the latter travelled to Bengaluru to perform before a 1,600-plus audience for three days.

Sharma points out that the cinema-going culture in Assam is largely restricted to Guwahati and a few other cities. “Seventy per cent of the Assamese population lives in villages. Theatre travels to them and this is how they have always known entertainment to be,” he says, adding that the targeting of cinema theatres by ULFA insurgents in the 1990s dealt a serious blow to the state’s film industry, further strengthening the sway Bhramyaman held over the masses. “It was during this period that the cinematic treatment of plays became a big part of the production value.”

Months after Titanic was released in 1997, Ratan Lahkar’s Kohinoor presented a larger-than-life stage adaptation of the blockbuster, a feat still proudly remembered by its viewers. To quote a report in The Hindu, “if you ask anyone in Pathshala they will have you believe that Cameron made his version only after seeing Kohinoor Theatre’s production on one of his many visits there.”

The phenomenon

A typical mobile theatre season is aligned with the region’s seasonal cycle. It commences in July, with the first two months dedicated to rehearsals. The peregrination begins in late-August or early-September and ends in mid-April in the week leading up to Rongali Bihu, the spring festival. “With the stops or pandals booked well in advance, a 100-strong crew involved and a massive stage design that must be assembled and dismantled every third or fourth day, the itinerary runs like clockwork. Sometimes, the set is pruned for far-flung areas, but never is a show delayed or rescheduled,” says Biswas.

The stage under construction

With no physical venues or auditoria in most locations, chairs and gigantic marquees to be pitched in village playgrounds — besides stage construction material, props and light and sound equipment — constitute an important part of the paraphernalia loaded on to trucks. The stage is a massive one, usually divided into two portions of about 40 feet each. “There is no luxury of time for changing scenes and parts of the set are constantly but quietly under construction as the play unfolds. I even remember gumboots being kept backstage, so actors wouldn’t soil their costume while navigating the often marshy 80 feet between entries and exits,” adds Biswas.

With never a dull moment in those nine months, she was once exhorted by an insurgent outfit — perhaps inspired by her rebellious Bandit Queen image, which she was also portraying on stage — to espouse their cause. “One night, I was whisked away by the organisers soon after a show because seated in the audience were a bunch of ‘surrendered insurgents’ with a plan to kidnap me for a king’s ransom,” she recalls.

Theatre companies, then, have displayed great adroitness in keeping both humans and inclement weather from meddling with a show in progress. What they weren’t prepared for was a virus that would bring all theatrical activity to a grinding halt.

The pause

Already battered and bruised by the developments surrounding the National Register of Citizens and The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the last leg of the 2019-20 season was further truncated when the lockdown was imposed. “Between March 12 and April 13, 34 of our shows got cancelled. Posters, banners, advertisements and tickets had already been printed,” rues Subodh Mazumdar, owner, Bhagyadevi Theatre, Assam’s oldest existing mobile theatre company. Sankar Jyoti Rajkhowa, an actor popular for his villainous roles in Bhramyaman plays, states a figure of another kind. “The NRC-CAA and lockdown combined, we lost our pay for 71 days in total,” he says, pointing to the no show-no money policy that the All Assam Theatre Actors Association of which he is assistant secretary, has been seeking to address.

Prayashi Parashar in the play 'Makarajaal'

Rajkhowa also speaks of the hierarchy-driven pay structure of theatre companies that run on star power. “The lead actors get about Rs 50 lakh for nine months whereas most other actors and technicians earn between Rs 2 and 5 lakh for the same period. We can run our families on this sum but there is no scope for savings, which would have come handy in these times,” he elaborates, adding that the acting assignments for Assamese television channels that he and his fellow actors would take on in the three-month gap between two seasons got stalled due to the lockdown too. “Many of our families have small land parcels which we are tending to to grow vegetables. Some of my friends are looking for private jobs such as those in the insurance sector.” In a region of poor mobile network, the possibility of going online is a feeble one for actors and audiences alike, Juri Roy of Awahan Theatre observes.

Finding an alternative source of income isn’t proving to be easy for technicians who have spent their lives in mobile theatre either. “They have honed their skills in theatre for the last 25 to 40 years. Many of them don’t have the capital to start a small business,” says Mazumdar. “As part of the All Assam Mobile Theatre Producers Association, we are planning to appeal to the government to provide relief to the technicians. After all, this is an art form unique to Assam,” adds Hazarika.

Audiences aside, mobile theatre finds its patrons in local organising committees, which could be associated with educational or religious institutions or NGOs and invite companies to perform in their villages or towns well in advance by paying them a token amount. “It is an interesting revenue-sharing model where the committees take care of the local arrangements including food and lodging and they get a certain amount from the ticket sales. This money could then be ploughed back into the creation of something in public interest like the temple in my hometown of Nalbari. Understandably, these committees are bearing the brunt of the lockdown too,” Sharma explains.

For a theatre company of 100-plus cast and crew members, it is important that shows run to a packed capacity, which in the case of Bhramyaman is 2,000 to 4,000. “If the capacity is reduced to half for social-distancing measures, it will not be viable for us. Besides, local residents who often host us are hesitant to do so now,” says Hazarika.

This seems like a far cry from the picture he paints of a typical mobile theatre outing in Assam, one that seems to be receding into the future but is waiting in the wings to make a comeback the day the virus has been routed. “You will find the owner of a BMW in the front row and a rickshaw puller at the back. There are no switch-off-your-cellphone announcements. Just the magic of theatre and unrestrained applause.”

– Snigdha Hasan

About Snigdha Hasan

Snigdha Hasan is Editor of the On Stage, the arts magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. She has worked with the Outlook, Reader’s Digest and Mid-day, having written extensively on subjects of human interest and culture.

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