For the late Assamese theatre doyen Sukracharya Rabha, theatre was a tool to nurture the democratic spirit, keep the local culture alive and usher in change. His vision of the “theatre of life” (jeebon naat) was like that of a sprawling sal tree: accessible to everyone, a gateway to social justice.
More than three years after his death, that vision continues to guide not just his theatre troupe of 25 but the villages they come from—even through the pandemic. Both in 2020 and 2021, Kala Kendra, in Rampur village in Agia, in Assam’s Goalpara district, saw theatre-lovers grouping for a festival that is distinct, democratic and revolutionary. Set amidst nature, its props too come from nature, be it the swish of the sal trees or the chirping of birds.
Sukracharya, who would have been 45 this year, set up the Badungduppa theatre group, recruited largely from Agia, in 1998. It stages numerous performances, largely free, every year, most of them in the Rabha language. Its annual Under the Sal Tree festival saw its 12th edition in December. In 2020, the theme was hygiene, in view of the covid-19 protocols. Last year, it was “Salonir Ejug” (an era under the sal tree). Sukracharya’s wife, Cheena Rabha, says he strove to carry the message of folk theatre far and wide.
Small folk theatre groups have perhaps been hit hardest during the pandemic. Pabitra Rabha, a performer, says, “He had encouraged a conglomeration from among many ethnicities in the region and also outside it. Be it Rabha, Garo, Kalita, Koch—all that matters is the zeal for theatre and art. Indigenity, he believed, derives its backbone from the ability to embrace a common ground for social justice.”
Pabitra’s words are echoed by Dhananjay Rabha, who directed the play Bodaraja, based on a Rabha folk tale, Randana Chandana Jantur Pantur, for the 2021 edition of the festival. Sukracharya, he says, “never used the mic, though many from the theatre industry would prompt him and ask: why? This happens to be his and Badungduppa’s most unique strength.” For the natural sounds and symphony depend not on modern tools like electricity but on the sounds from the groves.
Nilotpal Baruah, who has authored Sukracharya Rabha: Jatra Aru Matra, the only book on the theatre doyen, emphasises the need for ecology-related discussions through art. “The medium of theatre might be slow when compared to digital art transmissions or other performing arts these days. That’s a definite challenge. But any creation of art becomes timeless not due to this chronological pace but by its capacity of grasping and contributing to the human condition,” says Baruah, who had known Sukracharya for nine years.
Sameli Rabha, 26, who has been performing since 2013 at the Kala Kendra and has trained under Sukracharya and Dhananjay, says they are trying to experiment within the form and introduce theatre to children through workshops. “The computer age is very much here and so we wish to share this knowledge of folk drama, folk instruments and so on with the upcoming generation. Children joining theatre brings a lot of encouragement as many Rabha tales are now getting lost,” she says.
A reliance on natural props comes with its own worries, though. There’s a growing scarcity of hay—an important part of some props. Madan Rabha, an artist and a coordinator of the festival, says: “Hay is tough to find as more and more human inhabitation is occupying grassier spaces.” When we met, Sukracharya’s daughter had waved and escorted me to the sal groves to introduce me to a few wild berries. “They taste good, don’t they? Father lives here,” she told me.
Rini Barman is a writer and researcher from Assam.