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Lights dim for Assam’s roving theatre troupes

Workers clean a theatre hall which has been closed since the COVID-19 outbreak in Guwahati.   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Many men in Manikpur spend seven-nine months of an Assamese year on the road. A large village in Assam’s Bongaigaon district, about 185 km west of Guwahati, Manikpur has for decades been the ‘setting’ source of several Bhramyoman groups.

The Assamese year of 365 days starts mid-April of a Gregorian calendar. Bhramyoman translates into mobile theatre and ‘setting’ entails a range of activities from putting up tents to decorating the stage. A travelling theatre group of an average of 150 persons has 55-60 stage workers engaged in settings.

Lights dim for Assam’s roving theatre troupes
 

About five months ago, more than 30 stage workers boarded a bus in Manikpur. “This would have been routine had the bus not been sent by a Kerala-based firm that offered them jobs,” says Abhijit Bhattacharya, a playwright associated with mobile theatres for 22 years.

About one-fourth of some 4,000 stage workers and technicians employed directly by at least 30 Bhramyomans have left Assam for jobs or in search of greener pastures after the first COVID-19 wave eased by October 2020. Most of those who stayed back, primarily because of age and because they had not picked up any other skill, have been struggling to sustain their families.

Gunajit Das, who played multiple musical instruments for 30 years, has switched to vending fish on a bicycle after selling vegetables that did not earn him enough for his family of five. Fellow musician Prabhat Roy, who spent 35 years with mobile theatre groups, has become a ‘jogali’ (helper) to a mason. Pratap Boro, who played the violin, mandolin and flute for 32 years, has opened a small pan shop. Stage craftsman Lohit Pathak earns whenever people need his service for cutting or filling up earth. The situation is similar for theatre troupe cooks Dharma Roy and Dilip Das. Setting specialist Remsing Teron wields an axe to sell firewood. All of them are from districts across Assam: Bajali, Baksa, Barpeta and Nalbari.

 

The more resourceful have managed to stay afloat. Music director Jatin Pathak of Manikpur turned his attention to his agricultural land to become an organic farmer. He commands a good price for his produce. “Many of us never thought beyond theatre. The lockdown taught me to have a backup plan,” he says. Popular actor and playwright Champak Sarma opened a restaurant in Guwahati’s Gorchuk. “The new business has not been profitable with the restrictions in place but I hope to see better days for the restaurant as well as for mobile theatre,” he says. Two of his plays – Danab (Demon) for the Itihash Theatre group and Draupadir Bastraharan (Draupadi’s Disrobing) for the Kohinoor Theatre group – were among the last to be staged before the 2019-2020 mobile theatre season ended prematurely in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Struck by a virus

Pathsala, about 80 km east of Bongaigaon, is perhaps the only town that “prospered” post-lockdown in 2020. In August that year, it became the headquarters of Bajali, Assam’s 34th district carved out of Barpeta.

Prior to the administrative upgrade, Pathsala was known primarily as the hub of Assam’s mobile theatre. It was here that Achyut Lahkar, a pioneering dramatist, actor, director and producer, founded the Nataraj Theatre, the first of the Bhramyomans in 1963.

He was inspired by the Jatra, a popular folk theatre form of Bengal, but tailored his theatrical presentations to local specifications and tastes besides adopting a unique business model. He let a local committee in Pathsala publicise his plays, organise the shows and take a share of the profit in return. All the 132 mobile theatre groups – at least 32 of them remain – born after Nataraj have followed this cooperative business model based on informal agreements. Nataraj Theatre folded up after the death of Achyut Lahkar, revered as the father of the Bhramyoman, in 2016.

 

A stone’s throw from Achyut Lahkar’s house is the complex that his relative Ratan Lahkar constructed in Jyotinagar, a locality in Pathsala near the landmark Bhattadev University. Ratan Lahkar, who died in 2017, founded the Kohinoor Theatre in 1976 after several groups tried to do a Nataraj only to fade away. Kohinoor’s co-founder Krishna Roy broke away to form the Abahan Theatre in 1978 but sold it to popular Assamese cinema and theatre actor Prastuti Parashar a few years ago.

Kohinoor brought in the element of special effects with Mahabharat, a costume drama that took the audience by storm in 1984 with cinematic fight sequences. It shot to international fame by adapting Titanic in 1998, using indigenous special effects to turn and sink the ill-fated luxury ship on stage. In 2010, Kohinoor became the first Assamese mobile theatre group to stage three plays at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts at the invitation of the National School of Drama in New Delhi. Apart from plays, the troupe presented special effects scenes in the Titanic and Dinosaur, a play based on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Kohinoor soared as the Titanic sank in more than 200 shows during the 1998-99 season. The Bhramyoman season starts mid-July. Two months go into readying three plays and rehearsing with the actors, dancers and musicians. The shows start around Vishwakarma Puja (mostly September 17) and end on the eve of Bohag or Rongali Bihu (usually April 13). Each troupe sets up its temporary stage and hall for three nights each at 75-80 places, ending a season without breaks even if there are natural calamities or political disturbances, with 210-235 shows.

“Mobile theatres have withstood many a challenge. Often, our theatrical adaptations became more popular than the films they were adapted from. The travelling theatres thrived as the Assamese film industry suffered. We held our own against all other forms of entertainment – cinema, television and even digital. But an invisible virus has deflated us,” says Tapan Lahkar who took over charge of Kohinoor from his father.

Kohinoor lost about ₹15 lakh when shows were cancelled for 12 days during the violence that erupted against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019. Most Bhramyomans thought it was a temporary setback like the two-month hiatus in 1983 at the peak of the anti-foreigner Assam Agitation. The mobile theatres overcame the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom’s threat in 2007 to stop them from destroying Assamese culture with “Bollywood-inspired stories” and the counter-insurgency operations in the 1990s when security forces discouraged people from venturing out at night. The mobile theatres have traditionally been staged at night with the last show at 5 a.m.

Mapping the route

Representatives of the All-Assam Mobile Theatre Producers’ Association headed by Bordoisila Theatre owner Nazrul Islam met Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma over a fortnight ago for restarting the show to bail out of poverty hundreds of people associated with the industry.

The association has so far recognised 22 theatre groups, the criteria for membership being at least two consecutive years of sustainable operation. There are about 10 non-member groups that have a small budget and operate mostly in villages within a district or two unlike the big-budget groups that perform across Assam and beyond.

 

“If we can start the 2021-22 season in October even with 500-600 viewers compared to the normal 1,500-2,000, we may be able to stay afloat. The government said it will ramp up the vaccination drive. This will facilitate a sizeable audience for the mobile theatres. If the situation does not improve, it could be very tough for theatre groups to be revived later,” Tapan Lahkar says.

The glimmer of hope has made the likes of Lankeswar Barman, the manager of Kohinoor Theatre, fish out the seasonal travel map. “Our travel route is planned around where our group will perform on Shasthi (sixth day of the 10-day Durga Puja, usually in October). Our performance calendar is fixed as and when we ink an agreement with a local organising committee. Experience is needed to juggle with the dates of more than 70 organising committees every season and plan the routes so that we don’t end up travelling 100-150 km in different directions,” he says.

Each travel theatre has two sets of “skeletons” — bamboos, wooden planks, iron frames, etc. — of a 130x90 ft temporary hall inclusive of a two-in-one stage. The route is planned in such a way that the stage workers travel the least on the night of the third and final day of the shows from place A to set up the theatre in place B in time for the first show there. The last stop of a group is invariably a place 15-20 km from its base.

Important for the rural economy

The survival of the mobile theatres is crucial not only for the groups but also the rural economy, says Suresh Ranjan Goduka, a mass communication design researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati. He had done a project on the Bhramyoman-driven economy more than a decade ago. “Mobile theatres work on two payment systems – a nine-month contract and lump sum. In the first category are the star actors mostly from cinema and TV and the general character actors, dancers, members of the orchestra, sound arrangers, background voice artists, make-up artists, costume designers, tent and stage workers, lighting technicians, set designers, transporters, managers and up to eight cooks for the entire travelling team. On lump sum pay are the directors, choreographers, music directors, art directors, playwrights and lyricists,” he says.

Workers clean the Bhagyadevi Theatre at Marowa in Assam’s Nalbari district.

Workers clean the Bhagyadevi Theatre at Marowa in Assam’s Nalbari district.   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

 

There are also graphic designers and printers, who have been deprived of their “assured” seasonal income from the theatre groups since the 2020 lockdown.

“Before the pandemic, the annual turnover of the Bhramyomans averaged ₹25 crore with the major groups investing about ₹2 crore. Some attracted corporate sponsorship. More importantly, Bhramyomans stimulate various indirect economic activities by contributing to the local economy with seasonal employment and community contribution. Numerous namghars (Vaishnav prayer halls), libraries, voluntary associations and schools have been built all across Assam and mostly in rural and semi-urban areas as a result of the profit-sharing between the theatre troupes and the host committees,” Goduka says.

A local committee negotiates the deal with a theatre group ahead of the season and pays an advance ranging from ₹50,000 to ₹1.5 lakh. The advance is adjusted with a fixed amount per first show per night to be paid to a theatre group. The organising committee takes 30%-40% of the money collected from the second show and gives the rest to a group. The collection from the third show – in the case of smash-hit plays – is shared 50:50.

 

“Whether or not a committee profits from the first show, it has to pay us the fixed amount according to that agreement. Besides, a committee takes care of the accommodation of the troupe members, provides a kitchen and firewood. We spend on transportation and food,” says Subodh Majumdar, producer of Theatre Bhagyadevi based in Nalbari district’s Morowa. Founded by his father Sarat Majumdar in 1976, this group had made a passenger aircraft take off in the play Hijack, based on the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The way forward

Kalpajit Hazarika, producer of the Jorhat-based Hengul Theatre believes staging a comeback would be an uphill task. One reason is the damage of acoustic and other equipment and tent and stage materials because of non-use over a long period of time.

“Starting afresh needs an investment of ₹40-45 lakh, and we are not sure of recovering the cost because of the prevailing uncertainty. More importantly, the issue is to get experienced technicians, many of whom have gone out for jobs,” he says.

Synchronising a play on a double stage is a special skill set not many can handle. The scenes move from one stage to the other like a fast change of frame in a film.

Some groups have taken strength from Gitashree Theatre, a small budget group based in Morigaon. Gitashree was the only group to stage some plays adhering to guidelines such as physical distancing and providing hand sanitisers to the viewers for a few months before the second COVID-19 wave struck.

 

“The emotional attachment with and popularity of Bhramyoman should see us through a difficult phase. But it will be easier for smaller groups with a minimal budget to rebound compared to the major groups which have more to lose because of the volume of investment,” Abahan’s Parashar says.

Bhagyadevi’s Majumdar is apprehensive of how the audience will react after the gap. “We are not sure how the country’s economy has impacted them, whether they can afford spending on a non-essential mode of entertainment and whether the younger generations will get over their addiction to their smartphones,” he says.

He has already begun thinking in terms of leaving the theatre business if the “age of social distancing” does not give way to “social gathering” that the Bhramyomans depend on. “I sold off three trucks and have started undertaking local contractual assignments to fall back upon,” he says.

Jiten Das, a dancer-choreographer for 18 years, has joined him as an employee for contractual jobs. “This is better than going out with a spade and shovel in search of work back home in Poritopa Thutikata village (Nalbari district),” he says.

According to Tapan Lahkar, the mobile theatres began feeling the pinch with producers competing to add glamour to their plays. It began with Assamese film star Jatin Bora in 2005-06, who ended up earning six-seven times more from the theatre than from movies. The budgets subsequently became bigger as producers broke a tradition by bringing film effects specialists from elsewhere to execute plays that turned Bora into a dwarf or a fat blob on stage. The oneupmanship saw another actor, Mridul Chutia, playing triple roles – a dwarf, a person of normal height and an abnormally tall man – for another group. “Quality suffered as producers relied more on gimmicks, masala, glamour and double entendre,” he says.

Bhattacharya says there are very few playwrights who can maintain both quality and quantity, who can race against time, and gauge the capabilities of the actors. “We go from historical and mythological to contemporary and social issues after interacting with the actors a producer ropes in. I have ended up writing 20-25 scripts in a season,” he says.

The last of his plays were the historical Joymoti for Abahan Theatre, the mythological Sakuntala for Surjya Theatre, social dramas Madhubala for Abahan and Sonar Kharu Nalage Mok for Itihash Theatre.

Bhattacharya says nobody could have envisaged the pandemic. But the Bhramyomans became complacent about their popularity, never bothering to set up institutes to train people in a range of theatrical skills. “I have been insisting on a mobile theatre policy like we have a film policy, although the government did try to come up with one in 2013. We also need an archive to preserve everything about this cultural tradition for generations to come,” he says.

“Mobile theatres do not have the industrial tag and are hence not included in government support schemes. They want to avoid complications in taxation, but a formal structure could have made them eligible for insurance. Their economy is solely based on the number of people in the audience, which is why the COVID-19 restrictions have damaged them like never before,” Goduka says.

Theatre producers are not sure how a new experiment by Guwahati-based Nexster Studios to stream their plays on digital platforms would pan out. “We are paying the artists for recreating plays to be released online via an app. Our fingers are crossed,” the studio’s Ashim Nath says.

But there cannot be any replacement of the real thing, says Nagen Deka, secretary of Nalbari’s Hari Mandir Committee. One of the largest theatre organisers, this committee hosts as many groups on its nine fields, especially during the October-November Raas festival and Durga Puja.

“Mobile theatre is an inseparable part of our cultural heritage. Many livelihoods are associated with it and organising committees benefit from them. The public facilities we have, including schools, have come up from the money from mobile theatres. Yes, we lose some when the shows do not click. But the profits for the society at large far outweigh the losses to not want them back as soon as possible,” he says.


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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 8:21:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/lights-dim-for-assams-roving-theatre-troupes/article35642260.ece

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