Theatre goes to nature

Come mid-December, in a clearing within a moderately dense forest of Sal trees, an unusual four-day annual theatre festival quite appropriately titled Under the Sal Tree takes hold of both locals and visitors to the otherwise sleepy hamlet of Rampur in Goalpara, located some 200 kms west of Guwahati. The enclosure is a ramble through the woods that is literally off the beaten track, and its completely au natural amphitheatre is hemmed in by gently undulating trees, with distinctive thatched screens lining the perimeter of performance. The seating for the audience is constructed out of the sturdy rustic wood of bamboo and betel nut trees. The open-air performances typically take place during the day, sans the light or sound fixtures and assorted paraphernalia city theatre cannot do without. An almost meditative silence punctuates the battle cries and exertions of live drama that reverberate into the sky, and the numbers in attendance could rival any large proscenium in an urban centre. As a site for theatre, the setting seems wonderfully prescient; Buddha was born and died under a Sal tree, and Sal forests were home to the original shape-shifters of Hindu mythology — the Yakshas or tree-spirits.

The great outdoors

Theatre of such a manner was the brainchild of Sukracharjya Rabha, whose group, the Badungduppa Kalakendra has been organising the ‘eco-friendly’ festival since 2008. The word Sal is derived from Sanskrit (śāla, literally ‘house’), and in many ways, the sheltering confines of the performing space allows for much more than just the showcasing of performing arts in an elegantly rural ambience. Rabha, a young veteran of the arts, envisioned the festival as a space for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Those who have returned from the festival describe it as a veritable campfire around which outstretched hearts arrive at a rare kind of communion. Under the aegis of the Kalakshetra Manipur, the late theatre stalwart Heisnam Kanhailal had conceived of the ‘Nature-Lore’ project, which was “a move away from the conditioning of the city towards a ‘home-return,’ exploring the openness of the rural,” according to academic David Krasner. An apprenticeship with Kanhailal starting 2003 proved to be an ‘encounter of souls’ that dispelled Rabha’s uncertainty about the ways in which amateur drama could be taken to rural folk. Under the Sal Tree bears ephemeral testament to the fruits his efforts have borne.

Inclusion and diversity

This year, marked the festival’s ninth edition and drew to a close on Sunday, December 17. Over the years, the festival has acquired an international flavour, with plays from Poland, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Brazil being showcased at previous editions. This year, a roster of nine plays from India and Bangladesh were part of the itinerary, including Rabha’s own production, Rather Rashi (‘The Ropes of the Chariot’), an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s popular 1932 text against the evils of the caste system, in which lower caste workers become prime movers. A production in the local Rabha dialect, the play is one of Badungduppa’s most celebrated, and has been doing the rounds of art venues in Guwahati and Kolkata for some years now. The group’s name is onomatopoeic — from the rhythmic sound of their drums — and characteristically, their performances include spirited ensemble movement to the strident beat of martial music.

The out-of-towners included Pravin Shekhar’s Hawalat, written by noted Hindi writer, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, in which three disenfranchised young men seek to incarcerate themselves in a police lock-up by posing as criminals. Savita Rani’s RIP (an acronym for Restlessness in Pieces) and Jyoti Dogra’s Notes on Chai (which closed the festival), were solo performances that examined existential issues through the lens of powerful personal politics. Presentations in the Assamese language included a screening of Utpal Borpujari’s Ishu, a children’s film on witch-hunting in Assam; Pakija Begum’s play Padmapriya, based on Indira Goswami's novel Devi Pithar Tez; and Fall of a King, a King Lear adaptation from Sivasagar, directed by Palash Protim Mech, that had earned several nominations at the 2015 META festival.

Across the border

The lone international presentation was from the Monipuri Theatre of Moulvibazar, Bangladesh, who staged their play Ingal Adhar Pala, written and directed by Shubhashish Sinha. Rendered in both Bangla and the Bishnupriya Monipuri dialect, the drama highlights the perils faced by indigenous cultures through a narrative in which the traditional musical instrument of a Monipuri musician goes amiss.

Rounding up the selections was the Meitei play The Dance and the Railroad, written by David Henry Hwang and directed by Joy Maisnam, from the Inter Cultural Theatre Company of Imphal, and the Manalmugudi Drama troupe’s Tamil play Illusional Clowns Mystic Mirror, written and directed by S. Murrugaboopathy.

This diversity of choice is certainly a far cry from several other theatre festivals in the country that appear to showcase only Mumbai-centric work. Under the Sal Tree emphatically demonstrates that the centre of the theatre universe could possibly lie elsewhere.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 9:40:52 AM |

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