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December 17, 1999
Theatre thrives in troubled Assam
Nitin Gogoi in Guwahati
In an age when most of India is beholden to the satellite television for its daily dose of amusement, a majority of Assamese rural population keeps itself engrossed in an almost forgotten form of entertainment: the roving or the "mobile" theatre.
For eight months in a year, between September and April, at least 20 drama companies, simply known as theatre in the local parlance, tour across the vast state, staging plays come winter, spring or early rains. And every year, the audience packs the makeshift pandals in droves, making the mobile theatre the biggest entertainment industry in the north-east, leaving the mainstream cinema far behind.
The USP of the Assamese theatre industry is of course the topicality of its themes. And there perhaps lies the reasons for its stupendous popularity and commercial success. Unlike the jatra in West Bengal or the tamasha in Maharashtra, which are still very much rooted in mythological subjects, the topics in roving theatres of Assam range from contemporary issues like militancy and the dilemma of politicians torn between duty and well-being of their families to the adaptation of 1997's smash hit, Titanic or a play on the life and times of Lady Diana, which is running to packed houses this season.
Although the industry in its present form traces its beginning to the early 1960s, its origin is said to be in the 16th century when social reformer Sankardeva, introduced the Ankiya Bhawona, popular plays through which he highlighted various issues and preached his brand of philosophy. In the early 1960s, a group of people from Pathsala, a small township in lower Assam's Barpeta district, established a theatre company and decided to enact plays which were close to people's heart.
Achuyt Lahkar, largely credited to be the pioneer in establishing the roving drama company concept in Assam, opened the Nataraj Cine Theatre in 1963 which depended heavily on amateur actors and technicians. The initial dramas were also based on folklore and mythology. As a Pathsala resident, Shankar Lahkar recalls: "In our childhood days, we learnt most of our history through the roving theatre dramas. In my mind's eye the Krishna I saw in one of the plays as a child cannot be replaced by any television character of the present age," he says.
The concept of entertainment throughout the world may have changed but in rural Assam, mobile theatre remains the single largest form of entertainment even now. And not surprisingly therefore, the theatre industry has grown manifold in the last 35 years. From a couple of companies, largely run by businessmen with abiding interest in drama, the mobile theatre industry can now boast of nearly 30 full-fledged companies, all run professionally.
Their total turnover: Rs 10 crore a year at a very conservative estimate. Most of the owners are into the business full-time, a sharp contrast to the initial days when it was seen more as an expensive hobby. As Jiten Burman, promoter of a prominent theatre company, Bhagyadevi, says: "Now-a-days running a drama company requires full-time involvement since we are moving all over Assam for almost eight months at a stretch. There are so many things to be taken care of."
Indeed, with nearly 100-odd people, including actors, actresses, technicians, cooks, helpers and even drivers living, travelling and performing their respective duties together, co-ordinating their activities day in day out for eight months is a major task. And, as Burman says: "With each passing year, the expenses keep mounting."
A new trend in the past few years, that of popular heroes and heroines from mainstream cinema playing the main parts in the roving theatre dramas has only added to the expenses since they charge much higher fees. Even mainstream cinema writer-directors like Bhaben Saikia, who is a six-time national award winner, write a play a year especially for the mobile theatre. Says Saikia: "The reach of the mobile theatre is something that attracts me immensely." Even stars like Biju Phukan and Tapan Das have thought it worthwhile to move to stage. After all, a fee of Rs 6 lakh and above is not to be sneezed at. In any case, no Assamese cinema producers can ever afford to pay that kind of sum to their biggest stars.
The growing financial involvement has forced a rethink among the owners and producers of theatre. They have requested the state government to collectively grant the mobile theatre companies the status of an "industry."
"If the state government recognises us as an industry, we can avail bank loans, ask for subsidised electricity and even rations for our employees," says Burman. An average company spends almost Rs 20 lakh per annum on wages for artists, technicians and other hands. Another Rs 10 lakh is required for food items and transportation. The source of income is of course limited to the ticket sales which range from Rs 5 for gallery audience to Rs 500 for those who sit in the front rows.
The collections by themselves would be sufficient to take care of the expenses of the entire troupe, but the mobile theatres put away almost 40 per cent of their income for development of schools, colleges and village clubs. As Dilip Chandan, who grew up watching roving theatre plays and is now the editor of an influential Assamese weekly, Asom Bani, says: "The mobile theatres not only entertain, they also perform a social service by generating funds for development of village institutions. This arrangement is perhaps only one of its kind in the world."
The mobile theatre has also undergone tremendous changes from its initial days as far as the themes, acting standards and production qualities are concerned. In the beginning, amateurs played various parts in plays adapted from Indian epics. Gradually, people like Ratan Lahkar, a veteran producer now, who has brought Titanic to the Assam shores this year, started producing adaptations of classics like Illiad, Cleopatra and Crime and Punishment. As the audience response increased, companies like Abahan, Kohinoor, Hengul and Bhagyadevi, began giving more attention to production values too. Large authentic sets made their appearance on the mobile theatre scene. These days of course, people like Ratan Lahkar have managed to rig up a set which even depicts the collision of Titanic with the iceberg. With a budget of nearly Rs 3 million, Lahkar's team of technicians have spent almost Rs 50,000 on building two stages side by side to create the illusion of an entire ship.
If Titanic was a big hit even in its Assamese stage version in 1998, it was the turn of Matal Ghora, a play loosely based on the kidnapping of Rubiya Sayeed, daughter of former home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, but adapted to local conditions, to be a runaway success. The local adaptation of lady Diana's life is also running to packed houses. It even attracted international attention when mediapersons from abroad flocked to Assam in November to witness the play.
Says playwright Jiten Sarma, a bank employee, who scripted Matal Ghora: "These days, the audience, even the rural audience, demand plays based on contemporary issues. And contrary to expectations, the rural audience is far more mature in reacting even to controversial issues." Sarma has a point. His play, which took a critical look at the militant leadership in Assam, was lapped up by the pre-dominantly rural audience, which is normally known to be sympathetic to the insurgents. Ironically, Sarma's play came under state government scrutiny, after it was felt by some one in authority that it was a well-disguised propaganda for the militants.
The reach and impact of mobile theatre has given a new impetus to some socially-important issues like anti-AIDS, anti-drugs abuse and family planning programmes. Most companies voluntarily enact short, 10-minute skits based on these issues at the beginning of each play.
Another unique feature is evident in the way the entire company lives and travels throughout its seven-month journey. Everyone, from the stars right down to the helpers live together in a commune, eat the same food and travel in the same bus. Why, the actors do their own make-up. Self-help is the unwritten rule here. And the teamwork pays.
For the rural population in Assam, besieged by militancy, lack of development and ravages of nature, the entertainment provided by full-length plays in mobile theatres is the only escape from drudgery of every day life.
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