Jhumur Kathinach Utsab 2017 (Photo courtesy: Chorus)

In Conversation with Madan Rabha, Rupjyoti Mahanta and Biswajit Das: Alternative Non-Proscenium Theatre Practices in Assam

in Interview
Published on: 31 January 2020

Mithu Biswas

Mithu Biswas is currently pursuing her PhD from the Department of Bengali, Assam University, Silchar. She is working on Third Theatre of Bengal for her doctoral thesis. She completed her first MA in Bengali from the same university in 2014. Later, she completed a second MA in Linguistics from University of Delhi in 2016. Her areas of interest are the history of rituals, in tracing the origin of the rituals of different societies in the cultural history of people; and the literary history of different linguistic communities and the interrelations between the literary spirit of people from different ethnic groups.

An alternative stream of non-proscenium experimental Indian theatre has had a presence in Assam for three decades, registering a strong counter-voice in the context of the mainstream trend of commercialising theatre along with other cultural media.

This text interview highlights the journeys of three avant-garde non-proscenium theatre forms in Assam as depicted by one representative practitioner from each group—Badungduppa Kalakendra of Rampur, Goalpara; Replica Theatre Village of Jorhat; and Silchar-based Chorus. These groups have cultivated their own cultural spaces, identified gaps and given shape to their own theatre. While there have been some earlier influences, their decades-long paths are marked with uniqueness as they searched their roots and relevance into the crises of people of their time. 

The interview focuses on the live representation of the pre-history, origin, course of development, basic philosophy, structural characteristics, future plans for development and, last but not the least, the artist’s struggle in non-commercial theatre forms from the perspective of practitioners.               

Sukracharya Rabha, an eminent Indian theatre activist founded the first tribal theatre in the sal groves of Rampur, Goalpara, which is inhabited by the Rabha, Garo and Nath communities. He and his theatre group Badungduppa Kalakendra earned international acknowledgement for their open-air theatre festival, 'Under the Sal Tree', that takes places on a yearly basis. His groundbreaking journey with Badungduppa has pioneered an unprecedented pathway in Indian Theatre. The young doyen’s sudden passing on July 8, 2018, left a void in the cultural arena of Assam. Sukracharya’s journey and the core issues unique to Badungduppa’s theatrical structure and philosophy have been extracted from an interview with Madan Rabha, fellow artist and long-time companion of Sukracharya. The interview was conducted by Mithu Biswas at the residential campus of Badungduppa on September 18, 2018. Madan Rabha spoke about the background of Sukracharya’s theatrical journey, establishment of Badungduppa and how it gave shape to tribal theatre, and how Sukracharya’s lessons from Heinam Kanhailal became impactful in the later phase of Badungduppa and added new dimension to its journey. He spoke about the history of the legendary open-air theatre festival ‘Under the Sal tree’, and core issues and material facts regarding the choice for the set in nature as well the use of the folk cultures and ancestral resources in their theatre. He also spoke about future plans for a self-sustainable residential campus to reduce the struggle the practitioners face.

Rupjyoti Mahanta is a theatre practitioner from Jorhat and the founder of Replica Theatre Village. Replica’s theatrical journey, starting in 1997, follows. It was recorded on September 7–9, 2018, in Replica Theatre Village, Jorhat, by Mithu Biswas. Rupjyoti Mahanta spoke about the history of his theatrical journey before establishing Replica, his initial works as a solo performer, Replica’s work before his exposure to the practice of Kalashetra in Manipur, the role of Heisnam Kanhailal's teachings in determining Replica’s theatrical orientation, and how Replica’s dramas relate to the contemporary crises of the people. He also spoke about the use of rural living style in theatre and highlighted the key role of folk cultural forms and elements such as masks and musical instruments in their theatre. Replica’s struggle to meet their financial needs and their future plans were also discussed.

Biswajit Das, a theatre activist of Silchar, Assam, is the founder-member of Chorus, the only existing third theatre group in Northeast India. In an interview with Mithu Biswas he provided  answers that highlighted the prehistory and the three-decade-long journey of this political theatre through the difficult times of sociopolitical unrest in this state. The interview was recorded on  September 12, 2018, in the rehearsal space of Chorus, Silchar. The interview covered the background of third theatre practices in the Barak Valley, Chorus’s early journey in the late 1980s, its core works during the political turmoil and communal riots in the region, and the raison d’etre for this improvised play form. He highlighted the basis of their theatre to reach people, communicate effectively and arouse consciousness about the socioeconomic reality. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interviews conducted with Madan Rabha, Rupjyoti Mahanta and Biswajit Das, respectively.  

Badungduppa Kalakendra: In Conversation with Madan Rabha

Mithu Biswas (MB): Sir, could you throw some light on the pre-history of Badungduppa Kalakendra?

Madan Rabha (MR): Badungduppa was established in 1998. Sukracharya Rabha, our Sukracharya da, had an interest in theatre since his school days. When he was a school student, he would go to the jungle to practise vocals and dramatic monologues and would record it. In 1991, after he completed his matriculation, he was given a chance to play a short role in a mini mobile theatre in Rampur area. His journey as an actor or a theatre person started here. From 1991 to 1993 he attended several theatre workshops of NSD (National School of Drama). I met Sukracharya da in 1996 and we, the people around him, were influenced by his enthusiasm for theatre. During the monsoon of 1998 in our village Rampur, while taking part in a seasonal farming with our village friends, we along with Sukracharya da planned for a theatre with our co-farmers and asked Sukracharya da to direct it. Initially Sukracharya da formed a group and named it after the Rabha people’s traditional folk instrument Badungduppa, which becoming extinct. In 1998 and 1999, we prepared two scripts on the local issues of the communities and played them in our village. This was how Badungduppa Kalakendra began its journey. 

MB: Was Badungduppa conceived as a community theatre or tribal theatre?

MR: Badungduppa started its journey with no deliberate consciousness about community theatre. Rampur is inhabited by three communities—Rabha, Garo and Nath. These three ethnic groups share an integrated community life. There are indeed some ancestral resources such as traditions of folktales, myths, indigenous cultures and customs of the communities, there are deprivations, struggles for survival in the face of extinction with the cultural resources and rightful spaces. Our first plays were based on local issues and cultures. The first big production of Badungduppa was an adaptation of Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s Assamese play Rupalim. This play was adopted in the Rabha language and it portrayed Rabha life in such a way that Rupalim was mistaken by the audience as originally being a Rabha community play. Hence unconsciously we were doing the same thing but later, in the course of development, we acquired an enriched vision and wider structure of a rural theatre based on the ethos of tribal life.


MB: How was Badungduppa connected to the theatre schooling and thought of Heisnam Kanhailal, the theatre doyen of Manipur?

MR: Badungduppa’s production of Rupalim in Jyoti Theatre Festival, 2003, in Dudhnoi, was the first production outside of our village periphery and drew the attention of many theatre practitioners. Sukracharya da was invited to a 45-day workshop in Guwahati Kalakhetra as a regional coordinator. He spent time with Sir Kanhailal and learned from him. He went to Manipur and was introduced to Sir Kanhailal’s concept of rural theatre. His exposure to Kalakhetra’s practices helped Badungduppa gain a figure of its own, based on the unique resources we had. 


MB: What were the major changes in Badungduppa’s theatre and practices after Sukracharya came back from Manipur?

MR: Previously there had been no idea of the strength of the economy of words and verbal dialogues in theatre. Rupalim seemed to us as a rich production for that time, but now I think it was not as good as we allowed elaborate set-settings, costumes and properties, and there was hardly an aesthetic economy of verbal dialogues and music. 


MB: How do you connect to nature through your practices? What is your perspective about the uniqueness in Badungduppa’s theatre?

MR: We learnt the power of silence from nature. We were very close to nature and we used that privilege in our theatre. We conceived our practices in such a way that actor’s body can relate to the wild rhythm and impulses of nature. We practise rural games; enormous physical exercises like to imitate the way cotton floats in the air in order to provide the human body with a natural flow and balance. But some researchers have used the terminology ‘physical theatre’ to explain our theatre. This is not at all accepted by us. The actor’s body and its wild spirit is a basic resource in this theatre, but when you are defining it as physical theatre, you are limiting its horizons and possibilities. There are vocals, there are folk rhythms created by the indigenous instruments of different communities; live music is an integral part of our theatre. All we want through our practices is to make our theatre live. From that point of view you can refer to it as ‘live theatre’.     

MB: What have the major productions of Badungduppa been in its two-decade-long journey?

MR: Among the productions of Badungduppa Madaiya Muchi (2006), Sati (2006), To-Poidam [The Bird named Poidam] (2006), Bijuli [Puppetry] (2008), Rother Roshi (2011), Silence Reality (2013), Rhythm of the Valley(2014) are worth mentioning. Rother Roshi is an adaptation from a Bengali drama of the same name by Rabindranath Tagore. It relates to class consciousness and the role of the working class in making the seemingly static chariot of time move. The play To-Poidam depicts a Rabha folk story about the poidam bird, and finds relevance in the struggle of ethnic communities to preserve pride in their ethnic identities, aboriginal values and cultural resources in the face of modernization. 


MB: How was the concept of the unique theatre festival ‘Under the Sal Tree’ conceived? 

MR: In 2008, Sir Heisnam Kanhailal planned an international theatre festival under ‘Nature Lore’, a collaborative project of Kalakhetra and Badungduppa. There was no perfect stage for holding such a festival. The limitation became the power when Badungduppa choose the lap of the sal groves as the set for this festival. The festival was named ‘Under the Sal Tree’ by Sir Kanhailal. From 2009 onward it is has been run by Badungduppa. In 2017, we organized the eighth chapter of this festival. Each year a theme is announced with an open call for drama based on the theme. Dramas are being selected by the board comprising theatre experts and representatives from the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Academy, Department of Cultural Affairs, Assam, especially the funding bodies. Starting from 2008, it very soon gained international acknowledgement. Besides different regions of India, groups from seven different countries of the world came to take part in this festival. There is no ticket for this festival as we oppose the notion of commodifying theatre. People of villages from far and near come to witness the festival every year. We have a bamboo open air auditorium in the sal forest, with the capacity to accommodate an audience of 8,000 people. The festival is held in the middle of December. Three plays are performed in a day, starting from 10 O’clock sharp in the morning. Temporary straw-huts are made in the campus to accommodate audiences and researchers coming from far. The festival has drawn the attention of theatre researchers and practitioners from all over the whole world and has made its place in contemporary Indian theatre discussions. 


MB: What is the future plan of Badungduppa?

MR: The sudden demise of Sukracharya da left a void for us as well as an emptiness in the cultural arena of Assam as well as in Indian theatre. But we are working hard to implement his thought and dreams for Badungduppa. We have taken 5 acres of land to set up a self-sustaining campus. 

Now we also have a residential campus with space for practice. But we need to sustain financially to keep our theatre going on. It was Sukracharya da’s plan to have a campus for growing foods and crops to consume in order to live and practice theatre. We should be independent with regard to our sustainability to overcome the financial issues; we have our theatre not for monetary gain, we don’t consider theatre as a commodity. Sukracharya da’s dream for Badungduppa will come true soon.  


Replica Theatre Village: In Conversation with Rupjyoti Mahanta

MB: Rupjyoti da, what was the history behind the establishment of Replica?

Rupjyoti Mahanta (RM): Since 1997, it has been a 21-year journey for Replica. This journey started with solo performances in the city of Jorhat. I was interested in theatre and theatrical performances since my school days. I involved myself with several theatre groups during my adolescence. As my voice was changing and I was not given good casting in those days, I used to do domestic work for the groups. Soon I felt deprived and thought I would do something on my own. During my college days I received support from my friends and along with them started a group to work together. On October 1997, during Puja, I started with a solo performance in the crowd. I used the road divider as my arena for performance. That was officially Replica’s first performance with which its journey started.


MB: What was the nature of Replica’s theatre in the initial years?

RM: Replica’s works were experimental during the initial years. We shifted from one genre to another and practised several different forms to experience the acceptance of the spectators and also, as a matter of fact, economic hardship and the drive to cut expenses in theatre also played a role in our experimenting with different forms. In 2002–03, we used to work in open-air stadiums in front of an audience of 15,000 with no tickets.  We faced economic hardships and to cut down on the cost of light performed during daytime. The scripts were made on the sociopolitical problems village people faced. Bohag Mathu eta Ritu Nohoy and Rimjhim Borohone Nupur Bajay Kote showed the crisis villagers faced during natural calamities and terrorism. During turbulent phases, when artists felt alone, solo performances were presented, which related to the aloneness and crisis of the self in the modern time of alienation. Replica was well known for its experimental unique presentations in avant-garde forms.


MB: How did you come in contact with Heisnam Kanhailal? What was the learning from Kalakhetra and how did it influence Replica’s practice?  

RM: The theatrical language of Replica was different from that of the established mainstream theatres. Replica cultivated the alternative space for theatrical language. Less verbal dialogues, more body movements and physical language became a signature of Replica. Some theatre experts found a resemblance of this theatre with that of Sir Heisnam Kanhailal’s theatrical genre. As soon as I knew about his practices I went to Manipur for apprenticeship. I learned from Sir Kanhailal and Ima Savitri about their concept of Theatre of the Earth. A different alternative horizon opened out. What I was doing in an experimental manner I could relate that to a structured theatre movement and I could see Replica’s practices from a bigger perspective. I learned the role of rhythm and the spirit of folk music in constructing an alternative language for theatre. I saw the embodiment of wilderness in theatrical language through which significant body movements can result in a powerful language.

I witnessed how theatre could be deeply rooted in nature. Sir used to teach us how to synchronise with the resources of nature by feeling it as a living entity. The transformation of real physical acts of different creatures into theatrical acts was another important lesson from Sir.


MB: Could you talk about the connection of your theatre to the rich folk theatre traditions of your land?  

RM: Exposure to the theatre schooling of Sir Kanhailal has given me the eye to look at indigenous resources like performative traditions of different communities. We travel into villages and collect folk songs, dance forms, tales and myths from the old members of different communities to save them from being extinct. We transform these indigenous elements for theatrical representation. Folk elements, folk instruments have become an integral part of our theatre in this way. The use of masks is prevalent and has been an old tradition of Assamese drama since Sankaracharya’s era. We use masks as a strong tool to emphasize characters. In this way we root our theatre in the folk theatre traditions of our own land.  


MB: Do you think that your meeting with Heisnam Kanhailal influenced Replica’s journey?   

RM: Yes! I consider my meeting with Sir a turning point in Replica’s journey. My experiments with theatre became structured and gained a concrete base and orientation, they found their roots in nature and above all we found a unique structure of village theatre with community living. Sir’s lessons and my own way of implementation together figured it out. Later representations such as A Bedroom and Bau Eruwa Chaloni show the changing way of communication in theatre. Fewer verbal dialogues and more non-verbal means such as body movements, chorus and pantomime became integral to Replica’s theatrical language.  


MB: Could you highlight the history of the residential campus?

RM: The plan for a self-sustainable residential campus for theatre was derived from Sir Kanhailal’s concept of village theatre. In 2011, 6.6 acres land was taken in a village 19 km from Jorhat town. From January 26 of that year, approximately 36 people started living there as a theatre community, people who wanted to live for theatre. We developed a living style in that village where we would practise our theatre in different ways in different parts of the day. We will synchronise our theatre with our livelihood and with our dependence on nature. 

For sustainability, we grow rice, lemon, bottle gourd and papaya and rear chickens, and artists themselves take care of the farming. Replica has two fisheries that are taken care of by our own people. We fish there, collect crops from the farms and send them to the market. We have a community kitchen where according to the schedule artists make food. All we do is  live a rural life to be rooted in the earth, and the community living style develops a sense of togetherness that contributes to our theatre. Our struggle for sustainability is hence also a part of our theatre. We celebrate and transform our everyday activities into theatrical actions. As for example we bathe in the pond while doing vocal exercises with the water. We divide the day into different phases and schedule our exercises and practices according to the moods of those phases. 


MB: What are your future plans for Replica? 

RM: Replica has already become an international platform for cultural exchange. People and artists from different northeastern states of India have come and taken part in Rewlica’s workshops. We learned from them about their own cultural traditions and we shared our own. In this way artists here know the folk songs of Rabha, Boro, Garo, Kokborok, Mech Kachari, Bengali, Assamese and several other ethnic communities. We play instruments of different indigenous ethnic groups that are on their way to extinction. Artists and researchers from different countries like the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil and Venezuela have come and stayed in this campus and shared their own cultural traditions as well as experiences with us. 

In the near future we want to see Replica as a centre for celebrating cultural plurality of northeast India. People will come here to experience the different cultural trends and performing traditions of different communities. Replica thus will become a ‘replica’ of all of northeastern India through its theatre and its soul will indeed be rooted in nature. 

Chorus: In Conversation with Biswajit Das

MB: Hello Biswajit da, could you talk about the prehistory of Chorus briefly?

Biswajit Das (BD): In Hilakandi district of the Barak Valley the first spark of third theatre was given by Prasanta Ganguly in 1981. He was a banker by profession, and came from Bengal with the concept of third theatre. Along with Bijit Bhattacharya, Malaykanti Deb and Ajay Chowdhury, he formed a third theatre group named Gotrohin in Hilakandi district in 1981.  In 1985, Badal Sircar came to the Hilakandi district to hold a workshop on third theatre arranged by Gotrohin. I was privileged enough to meet Badal Sircar there. Before that there was a Bengali magazine Paribartan, published from Kolkata. Several pieces of writing on third theatre were published in it. From 1981 to1986 another two workshops were conducted in the Barak Valley by third theatre personalities from Bengal like Debashis Chakrabory, Subhasish Mitra and Dilip Roychowdhury. We, theatre practitioners of the Barak Valley, were familiar with the concept of third theatre through such exposures. Initially Bedouin, a group working promisingly in proscenium theatre, was transformed into a third theatre group during this time. We performed Badal Sircar’s Bhoma from Bedouin. But when we wanted to take a position in local political issues through our theatre, there was a conflict among the group members. Some of us thought that as theatre workers we were responsible to society. We departed from Bedouin for their support of the active movement against the notorious SEBA circular (imposing Assamese as a compulsory third language for Bengali students in secondary schools) of 1986, an explicit expression of Assamese chauvinism. As responsible theatre workers, we found the form of third theatre most suitable for reaching out to the people to make them conscious about their rightful spaces. We left Bedouin and formed Chorus in 1986.


MB: The initial journey of Chorus through this turbulent time, what was it like?

BD: To fight SEBA’s chauvinist circular and to retain the right to the mother tongue, we prepared a play. Under the curfew provisions of Section 144, theatre or any kind of gathering was prohibited. In the face of the direct threat from the government, we presented the play in several places in the city and before police reached we would leave. This is how Chorus started its journey. There were several people in Chorus who didn’t have any experience with theatre. They came to be a part of for the sake of their responsibility toward the society to fight for the rightful spaces of the people through cultural means. Some people with similar thinking such as Arup Baishya, Param Bhattacharya, Subhankar Chanda, Bijaya Korsome provided strong support to Chorus by being a part of it during the very beginning of its journey even if basically they were not theatre personalities.


MB: Instant or improvised drama is an important genre Chorus has cultivated. What is the driving force behind choosing that form?

BD: For us theatre is all about communication. Hence it should be a live medium between the actor and the spectator to exchange their views. Instant or improvised drama is that form where a discourse is prepared instantly on the basis of the reactions of the spectator. We find theatre among the people. We find this process very interesting when people spontaneously come up with their own views and add to the discourse and thus a theatre is generated instantly through this live communication. Direct communication and the spectators’ active participation are key to third theatre and are most facilitated in instant improvised plays. Behula Barak is an important play, generated through instant communication with the spectators regarding the root causes of floods in the Barak Valley. Several unique view points came up from the audiences and they became a part of this play. Behula Barak later became one of Chorus’s richest productions. Actors need to have an awareness about what the play is based on because there remains the space for being questioned. 

Kothay Amar Desh is another play of this nature. This play was about the issue of peoples’ suffering in detention camps with regard to the NRC [National Register of Citizens] situation in Assam. But the initial script was reformed every time it was performed as people added new characters to it. Not a single character was fictitious in it. It is a live story of the real suffering of real people.


MB: Apart from these instant plays Chorus has scripted productions also, like AdabBhul SwargaBasi Khabar, Bogolachorit Manos, Mahagyani, Hottomalar Opare. What goes into the making of these plays?

BD: Through workshop we reach the process of dramatisation. Each and every actor improvises his or her own dialogue and movement in a given situation. Plays like Adab and Bhul Swarga which are transformed to drama from other genre become scripted through a reverse process. Through workshops, the play is prepared first, with the active participation of every artist and in preparing their own part. Then in the final stage the play becomes scripted. A democratic and liberal way is followed for the scripting of a drama.


MB: When did Chorus start its Parikrama?

BD: Chorus has been organising its Parikrama in the end of January since 2001. Generally scripted and well-rehearsed plays are taken to Parikrama—that is to visit remote places of the Barak Valley and to perform theatre for the villages.


MB: Does Chorus inspire any other group to come up with third theatre?

BD: There are several other groups of children in places like Kalibari Chor who are coming up with their own form of third theatre.


MB: Apart from theatre is there any other cultural or political activity Chorus is associated with in the Barak Valley?

BD: Chorus not only awakens the consciousness of people through theatre. Further, people who want to work outside of theatre to contribute to the mass struggle to bring in bigger change in the repressive social system have formed the Forum for Social Harmony. Apart from this, Chorus organises a Jhumur o Kathinach Utsab, a yearly festival with the Jharkhandi Santal community of local tea gardens to nurture their indigenous folk dance forms. Sishu Natya Mela is another yearly programme organised by Chorus. Children from different places are supported to prepare their theatre and are given the platform to represent their plays. They are given the space to develop their own thought process about their theatre.


MB: As Chorus neither sells ticket nor accepts the notion of commodifying theatre, how do you manage to bear the cost of theatre?  Besides, how do the practitioners survive as they don’t see their theatre as a means of monetary gain?

BD: The common working class are our spectators. We reach them with our portable, flexible and inexpensive theatre, and after the play ends we stretch a piece of cloth in front of them. We appeal for voluntary donations from them according to their capability. They extend their helping hand to us. Whatever the contribution is, it helps take our theatre forward.

Practitioners are mostly from lower economic backgrounds, and they have to work hard during the day in private and government sectors for survival. After the end of their hectic duty hours, they come to Chorus for the sake of their unequivocal commitment to the society.  


MB: Last but not the least, what are your views about contemporary third theatre practices?

BD: Badal Sircar is no more but his ideology, his lessons, are alive with us today. He used to stress on the process of discovering one’s real self through the workshop process. To drop the veils that surround us and to face the actual self was the objective of workshop from his point of view. I saw this to happen to actors during a workshop of Kanhailal of Manipur. This orientation has to be retrieved in present-day workshops besides giving importance to develop physical balance and body flexibility. Third theatre groups have to inspire new groups to come up.