Sukracharjya Rabha: pinning Assamese theatre on the national map

Theatre for nature: Sukracharjya Rabha   | Photo Credit: Picasa

At just 41 years of age, theatre practitioner Sukracharjya Rabha had already notched up enough accomplishments of note to warrant the distinction of a full state funeral, deferentially organised a day after his untimely passing, late on Friday, June 8.

The rites were attended by peers and cohorts from the Assamese theatre world, arts aficionados, state officials and — in a testament to his extraordinary impact on local communities — teeming numbers from the rural populace of Agia, a quiet outpost in Assam’s Goalpara district where Sukracharjya had slowly and unrelentingly built an impressive theatre legacy over the course of more than two decades. His mortal remains, soberingly shrouded with flowers, were consigned to flames within the verdant confines of the very forest where he had, almost singularly, organised nine editions of Under The Sal Tree, the unique eco-friendly theatre festival that placed his otherwise sequestered village, Rampur, quite irrevocably on the national map.

Power of the feminine

Sukracharjya’s theatre collective, the Badungduppa Kalakendra, named after a traditional percussion instrument of the indigenous tribal community (also called Rabha) to which he belonged, was established in 1998, and formally registered in 2004. While his early practice already displayed glimpses of the unimpeachable social consciousness that was to become its calling card, it was a 2003 staging of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s multi-layered Rupalim, in his native Rabha language, that was to prove a significant departure for Sukracharjya as a director. Written in 1960, the play dealt with love and desire, with undercurrents of feminine rebellion. It was one of the earliest of Badungduppa’s plays to feature women actors, and their inclusion caused unease in the rural set-up that has since mitigated over the years. So much so that, in the latest edition of his festival, the evening performances were all presented by female performers of national repute, including Pakija Begum and Jyoti Dogra.

Taking theatre into nature with Under The Sal Tree, came about after Sukracharjya underwent an apprenticeship with his spiritual mentor Heisnam Kanhailal at Kalakshetra Manipur. Kanhailal’s ‘Nature-Lore’ project eschewed urban advancements for the rootedness of the rurally bound. Of course, some of the festival’s organic features were borne out of practicality. For instance, shows take place in natural daylight, because the outfit couldn’t afford light or sound fixtures. The forest enclosure, where the performances are staged in an atmosphere of disarming quietude, is hemmed in by gently undulating trees, with distinctive thatched screens lining the perimeter of performance. Audience seating is constructed out of sturdy rustic wood. While the festival had only started to gain national currency over the last couple of years, it quickly became an important fixture in Assam’s cultural calendar.

Dedicated to drama

It was with the festival that Sukracharjya’s quietly unostentatious work in Rampur, hitherto hidden away from the glare of publicity, came to be more widely known. The first edition, organised in 2008, was supported by a grant from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, which later awarded him the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in 2009. Since then, a trickle of funds from both international and Indian agencies, including the Ministry of Culture, have come in. Accordingly, the curatorship of the festival attempted to strike a balance between ambition and sensibilities. Works from overseas have been welcomed, and both large troupes and smaller crews from across India have made the trek to Goalpara, some 200 km from Guwahati, to what was becoming an increasingly prestigious destination. Sukracharjya’s own practice continued to thrive, and the Kalakendra began operations as a theatre residency in its own right.

As is now de rigueur, Sukracharjya’s social media timeline has been inundated with a profusion of digital tributes, that are perhaps ephemeral at this time but hold the hope for an abiding posterity befitting a bona fide cultural icon.

There are personal mementoes brought out for an airing — photographs, programmes, illustrations, hand-written notes. There are richly worded eulogies from both prominent theatre personalities and the relatively anonymous, on whose lives the imprint of his work has been majestically rich.

The news of his passing arrived alongside the state-wide pall of gloom caused by the lynching of two young Assamese sound engineers, Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das, in a remote village in Karbi Anglong, that same evening. The backwardness of vast tracts of the outback makes the veritable cultural renaissance Sukracharjya had effected in his own neck of the woods all the more remarkable and inspiring.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 5:21:49 AM |

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