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Theatre under the Trees

By creating a perfect synthesis of man, art and nature, Sukracharya Rabha's unique 'Under the Sal Tree' theatre festival takes innovation to new levels

For Sukracharya Rabha, theatre is not merely a passion but it is also about innovation and celebration of nature. Welcome to 'Under the Sal Tree' - a unique theatre festival that seeks to capture the essence of nature while, at the same time, promoting drama at the grassroots. Held under the aegis of Badungduppa Kalakendra of which Sukracharya Rabha is the founder, the annual theatre festival was held at Rampur near Agia in Goalpara district recently.

Held amidst Sal trees in a rustic and serene environment, the festival attracted thousands of theatre lovers from across the country. With a number of performing groups from different parts of the world participating, the festival explored new possibilities in the realm of theatre and the arts amidst nature.

"Our motive is to give theatre the respect that it deserves and take it to the people. We wanted to prove that theatre can be performed in broad daylight without high end technical equipments. Our aim is to popularise theatre at the grassroots level," says Rabha.

With a total of nine theatre performances, the international groups were from countries like Brazil, South Korea, Poland and Sri Lana besides other parts of the country. The festival was organized with the support of Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, the Directorate of Cultural Affairs, Government of Assam and the donation of theatre lovers.

"The response this time was overwhelming. We never anticipated this kind of a response. Last time most of the publicity regarding the festival was done by local newspapers. This time, we had just announced the dates of the festival and put up the posters on a social networking site. But the enthusiasm of the people was so high that the crowd turnout exceeded our expectations."

Such was the turnout that many people had to leave the place without even being able to enter the performing arena. "Since this year we were planning an international festival, our estimate was around 1700 people. But the crowd was more than 3000 souls this year".

The festival was inaugurated by Prof HS Shivprakash, School of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The inaugural play was Nukhar Renchakayni, staged by Badungduppa Kalakendra and Black Hen, a play staged by the Theatre Company Mindulle of South Korea.

The other plays staged in the festival were Question Mark (Bengali) by Alternative Living Theatre, Moja Podroz do Veda Prakrith (Polish) by Wojciech Marech Kozak and Manish Mitra, Nian the Fire (Oriya) by Natya Chetana, Payanihal (Passengers) (Tamil) by Janakaraliya - Theatre of the People, Sri Lanka, Antigone - The sword against State Power (Bengali) by Keshava Arghya and Estrelas (Stars) (English) by Opostro Tatro Laboratorio from Brazil.

Man and Nature

Elaborating on the concept behind the festival, Rabha says, "Our effort has been to provide theatre in a natural ambience. We firmly believe that theatre should be a mirror of life and it should act as a catalyst to strengthen the bond between man and nature," adding that life's beauty is best manifested when a man feels an affinity for nature.

The open trees and absence of all things artificial takes the audience to a different world altogether where nature and acting seem to unite. Even the plays are staged in a narrow opening amid the woods without a single tree being cut and bamboo galleries make up for the pavilion at the makeshift theatre.

Since the performances are held in the daytime, there are no provisions for artificial lighting or sound systems. We emphasise on natural acting without the use of any make-up or accessories," he said, adding that the fest has taught the villagers to appreciate theatre in natural settings.

The Genesis

Originally an idea of noted Manipuri theatre personality Heisnam Kanhailal, a Padmashree awardee, Rabha has over the years promoted the festival by taking the audience and across closers to the lap of nature. Kanhailal has first conceptualised the collaborative project as 'Nature-lore'.

"I had met Kanhailal in 2003 during a workshop in Kalakshetra. He was the camp director while I was the coordinator. We bonded and after that I stayed with him for two years. I used to oversee the production processes of his plays. "While in Manipur, I was introduced to new waves in the field of theatre. I began to see theatre in a new perspective."

Badungduppa Kalakendra was earlier known as the Rampur Youth Club and the name was changed later on. The ashram way of life had always fascinated Sukracharya. "I have always loved the idea of staying in an ashram. When I met Kanhailal, my dream became a reality," he says.

Under the Sal Tree was started by Badunduppa Kalakendra in 2009 with meagre funds as a pure passion for Rabha and his team of volunteers. However, gradually the group got the support of a Norway-based theatre group and Sangeet Natak Akademi.

As he says, "In 2009, we started the festival. The first edition was called 'Celebrating Rituals through theatre". Four to five months before the festival, we had convened a meet between directors of the Northeast for a discussion on our project."

Learning through collaboration

Many people believe that art needs to be too refined to be understood by the common people. However, Sukracharya Rabha and his team differs and feel that art needs to be understood to be able to connect.

When asked if the local people of the area have been able to understand his theatre, he says that the amount of support has been amazing. "People have been able to find a taste through the small plays that we have staged. The local people are so understanding and cooperative because all the resource elements of the plays staged are inspired from day to day life."

The ability to "connect" has been a major plus factor for Sukracharya Rabha's 'Under the Sal tree' festival. "Most people can connect with the themes of our festival. That is why people have been so supportive. Of course, there is still a section of so-called critics who cannot grasp the simple meanings of the plays and make them more complicated by thinking for deeper meanings".

The number of people involved in Badungduppa has also been increasing over the years. A huge number of people come forward to volunteer for the festival. I had gone to Dudhnoi recently and one person approached me saying he wants to volunteer for the festival. We have a total of 27 members in Badungduppa out of which 19 are permanently working at the camp throughout the year".

Many might feel that an attempt on such a large scale cannot be commercially possible. But Rabha and his team have proved them wrong although the financial angle is always an issue. He said, "Funds have always been a major issue for us. Since ours is an innovative project, it takes time to convince people to support us. It has been a herculean task to get the support of the rural people here, who previously did not have any idea of theatre."

But, over the years, the toil has paid off and Rabha and his team of volunteers have managed to construct an eco-friendly art resort in the form of Badungduppa Kalakendra. Without disturbing the environment or rather 'progressing in sync' with it, the Badungduppa Kalakendra has become a unique cultural centre that offers artistes the opportunity to interact with art and nature. Even the structures of Badungduppa Kalakendra are made of environment-friendly materials like bamboo and wild grass which are commonly used in villages of Assam. Complete with lodging facilities, the cultural centre also conducts a free drama workshop for children in June-July ever year, culminating with a children's drama festival".

"We started the children's drama festival from 2009. Every year during the school vacations, we invite school children to take part in the workshop and six to seven presentations are made every year. We do not have any participation fees as our aim is to educate rural people about theatre. We feel that the community participation is very important".

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