Mobile Theatre of Assam and new aesthetics of drama

Assam has a very long history of drama and even the common people have very close ties with this genre of art in every aspect and stage.
Mobile Theatre of Assam and new aesthetics of drama

Sumanta Rajbanshi


Assam has a very long history of drama and even the common people have very close ties with this genre of art in every aspect and stage. It is for the tremendous impact of Srimanta Sankardeva, who introduced the open floor of the naamghars for learning dance, drama, music and performance of his ankiya naats far back in the 15th century. It was not for the entertainment of the kings and their courtiers or the elites of the society, but for the aesthetic pleasures of the common people, who were directly associated with performances of the dramas as musicians, dancers and actors. With Sankardeva's Chihnayatra this glorious tradition was set in which continues in full bloom and glory. Therefore, it is no wonder that a unique institution like the 'bhramyaman' theatre has grown on the soil of this state with a very close connection with the masses. Despite its inherent commercial objectives, the mobile theatre gave the producers a great opportunity to bring aesthetically rich dramatic compositions to the nook and corner of the state giving the villagers exposure to dramas of diverse themes and treatments shaping their taste in drama. It is for this reason that mobile theatre has played a great role in the formulation of the new aesthetics of drama in the last decades and thereby ushering in a new era for commercial theatrical productions in Assam.

Mobile theatre was introduced in an organized form in 1930 by the legendary actor Natyacharjya Brajanath Sharma with his historic Kohinoor Opera Party launched in imitation of the popular Yatra tradition of erstwhile West Bengal. It was the first part of the state to tour and perform dramas in various places till the group was dismantled in 1936 paving the way for the birth of commercially successful mobile theatres in Assam after three decades in 1963. Actor and dramatist Achyut Lahkar is popularly known as the father of the bhramyman or mobile theatre who founded the popular Nataraj Theatre at Pathsala on 2nd October 1963, which later performed across Assam and other states for about four decades. It was a very innovative idea to introduce a profit-making and commercial form of theatre bringing the theatre hall in its full-fledged form to the doorsteps of the audience living even in far-flung areas of the state. As Achyut Lahkar himself once told his objective behind this endeavour was to make theatre more people-friendly. Besides, he adopted a realistic approach in the portrayal of characters and the use of setting and language. The newly founded industry of drama offered the audience a very new experience of enjoying the great creations of the Assamese and foreign writers in addition to financially supporting a huge staff of actors and artisans. It was all set to create a glorious history of a unique cultural tradition with the emergence of several theatre groups faring well commercially with the production of many good plays. With the advent of a couple of groups, the mobile theatre became a popular art form among the people of Assam which ignited a new passion for drama. Excellent contributions of talented dramatists like Phani Sharma, Bhaben Baruah, Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Mahendra Barthakur, Hemanta Dutta, and Sewabrat Baruah have made it remarkably popular among the people. People still fondly remember the plays of the yester years like Saraguri Sapori, Miri Jiori, Ejak Jonakir Jilmil, Xurangar Xeshot, Andhakup, Nilakantha, Puoti Tora, Matir Garhi, Bagh Hazarika and others which gave them the unique experience of aesthetic pleasure. Adaptation of Shakespearean tragedies, Greek Tragedies, Works of Kalidasa, works of the great novelists and biographical stories of many legendary historical personalities offered the audience a very new taste of drama. Such exposures to the classics from various cultures potentially helped in setting new norms and standards in the light of which the aesthetic value of a new play could be judged. It is for this reason that theatregoers from the 1970s to 1990s are of low opinion of the current trends in the 'bhramyaman' theatre.

Despite its continued success with plays of appreciable aesthetic values, the standard started to dwindle gradually in the first decade of this century. Kohinoor Theatre's Titanic is a breakthrough and a turning point in the history of 'bhramyaman' theatre. Kohinoor Theatre enacted in Assamese this eponymous blockbuster movie by James Cameron in 2002. The massive commercial success of the play encouraged the producers in different theatre groups to resort to thrilling, action-packed and melodramatic plays for driving the audience to the theatre instead of original plays of appreciable and long-lasting aesthetic values. The producers started to resort to cheap, trashy and formulaic stories from popular Hindi and South Indian movies with ingredients of dance, music and action for the entertainment of the audience. A new trend was unrolled that had encouraged the use of a gimmick, spectacles, and spicy ingredients directly borrowed from movies on the stage. How strongly it has influenced the taste of the audience is evident from the productions of different 'bhraymaman' groups in the last few years doing lucrative business with just trash. Being one of the most popular forms of mass media, the mobile theatre has tremendous potential in exerting a benevolent influence on the audience for the growth of a healthier creative climate. But we have seen only unhealthy competition among the theatre groups to bring out substandard melodramas leading to dilution of the previous standard of their performances. In creating gimmicks and enacting spectacular scenes on the stage with more sophisticated and innovative techniques the producers have achieved great success, but it has led to the decline of the past glory of the industry. The recent row over the performance of a distorted version of Jyoti Prasad Agarwal's Lobhita by Abahan Theatre is only the upshot of this process of debasing the values the industry was previously based on. There is no denying the fact that the industry supports hundreds of artists and artisans along with their families, and everyone expects it to grow further with more strength, vigour and success. But it cannot be overlooked that it is a trade that deals in art. Art is the raw material that it processes to be delivered to the audience in packaged form. If greed for money drives talented authors and artistes, their endeavours will cause great damage to our culture. Import of more elements to the stage from commercial movies has already set a different trend that marks the beginning of the erosion of the glory and standard of the plays. There are a good number of dedicated and talented workers of drama in the state who are voluntarily grooming young artistes in different rural areas of the state with experimentation of new techniques and ideas by organizing workshops and acquainting them with the richness and versatility of this art form. They are the unsung heroes who, without any monetary gain have been greatly contributing to the creation of new artistes and audiences with a genuine love for the genre and respect for the inherent values it represents. Despite the huge scope the mobile theatre has within its reach it fails to nourish that taste and spirit in the audience, rather it has encouraged the enactment of second-rate compositions of very ephemeral existence. Mere gimmicks and imitation of consumer culture will only close the way for further progress of this glorious industry of the state besides destroying the taste for truly good plays.

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