By Kishor Kumar Kalita
The demise of Ratan Lahkar, outstanding theatre actor and doyen of mobile theatre in Assam has left a huge void in the field of performing arts. Lahkar, who moulded mobile theater with a new vision and peerless magement skills, passed away on 29 January this year, leaving the mobile theatre industry contemplating how to move ahead now without its guiding spirit. The artist community as well as common connoisseurs of mobile theatre consider his demise a great loss to the artistic are which would be difficult to fill with similar enthusiastic spirit and creative energy.
The year 1976 is marked by the emergence of a new mobile theatre form in the cultural history of Assam. Two promising young artists – Rattan Lahkar and Kris Roy established Kohinoor Theatre at their hometown Pathsala – which blazed the path of a new era of Assamese drama on stage with a distinctive local style and professiolism. It also created employment opportunity for thousands of artists and performers mostly belonging to weaker sections of society.
Though traditiol artists and visual performers in Assam have enjoyed a cultural position for their contributions to the performing are, their livelihoods were much insecure as they were uble to earn sufficient income to support themselves and their families. As their performances were unorganized and performing troupes lacked the skills of fincial magement, most performers had to constantly struggle with dire poverty.
The year 1976 marked a break from this depressing scerio. After his post-graduation from Sagar University in political science, Ratan Lahakar, instead of becoming a college teacher, joined Purvajyoti Theatre as an actor. A dispute with its owner compelled both Lahkar and Kris Roy to establish a new mobile theater group Kohinoor Theatre, under their production and fincial magement. This theatre group, lead from the front by Ratan Lahkar, broke the traditiol pattern of stage performance. Soon, ‘bhramyoman’ theatre was on everybody’s lips – introducing good plays based on English classical novels, getting renowned litterateurs from Assam to write scripts, modernizing set designs and recruiting top-grade movie actors. In this way, Kohinoor Theatre brought about a revolution in Assamese professiol theatre by introducing new ideas of themes and issues, stage-techniques, production magement etc.
Before the inception of Kohinoor Theatre, most mobile theater groups were fincially unorganized, run by producers using their own money or with loan from moneylenders. Such unorganized structure inevitably resulted in total bankruptcy of the producer concerned, and all the artists had to suffer. Kohinoor Theatre is the first mobile theatre group that started its journey with fincial assistance from a tiolized bank .The Central Bank of India, Panbazar branch, provided a loan to this group in 1979, which is perhaps the first instance in Northeast India of a a tiolized bank coming forward to support a cultural venture.
Kohinoor Theatre also pioneered in introducing new techniques of production as well as set design, costumes, lights and music. Large, spectacularly designed sets made their appearance on stage, particularly when this group adapted a story like Titanic. Ratan Lahkar maged to rig up a set, in which he even maged to depict the collision of Titanic with the iceberg. The technicians built two stages side by side to create the illusion of an entire ship, with the producer spending around Rs 50,000 only for this part. Surprisingly, Lahkar could re-create this maritime disaster on stage convincingly without water!
Ratan Lahkar produced and directed more than 150 dramas and his group provided employment to thousands of performing artists, technicians and workers, with majority of them belonging to underprivileged sections of society. As mentioned earlier, these artists had long been underpaid and never socially recognized for their contributions. In their sunset years after retirement, they had to fall back on menial work to keep body and soul together. From the very inception of Kohinoor Theatre, Ratan Lahkar adopted a just policy of wage distribution and special health and insurance facilities for its workers. Only because of his initiative, the Government of Assam drafted a bill for mobile theatre in 2010, mely ‘The Assam Theatre (Regulation and Artists’ Welfare Fund) Act, 2010', for controlling administrative and fincial magement of different mobile theatre groups registered under this specific law. Sadly, the State government thereafter never got round to implement this bill as an Act.
Ratan Lahkar had a powerful vision to safeguard the future of mobile theatre in Assam, keeping in mind equally its commercial, artistic, technical and socio-cultural aspects. In an interview taken by this author in 2013, he said – “Mobile theatre will survive till the Assamese people survive. I cannot, however, predict whether mobile theatre will be able to maintain the same quality or not. But it will survive for sure. One point I would like to clarify here. The organizers who invite us to perform do so with profit motive. We have to earn for them enough so that they can keep some amount after meeting all expenses including payment to us. They need this money because often a mobile theatre group is invited to serve a far greater cause like construction of permanent building for schools etc.”
“I can cite two examples here. The people of Tangla and Dhekiajuli will always remember the contribution of Kohinoor Theatre in the construction of Tangla Girls’ High School and Dhekiajuli Girls’ High School. So, there is a commercial aspect to our performances. We have to think about the market. So, the market decides our limit of experimentation. Within this limit, we have been experimenting a lot. Matir Garhi, Aseemot Jar Heral Seema, Purush, Soraguri Chapori, Titanic etc., will speak for my efforts.
“But, at the same time, I am against compromising with quality of our production. I believe that good drama can be produced and staged even without compromising with the commercial aspect of it. Some people accuse us of ‘corrupting our culture’. They say, we are playing to the gallery and incorporating cheap glamour, ignoring our responsibility towards preserving and promoting Assamese culture. For these critics, this is what I have to say – we go to one place and stay there for three-four days. We perform, on average, for seven hours a day. What do you do during the rest of the year to preserve and promote Assamese culture?”
This stalwart of mobile theatre will always be remembered as a powerful, immensely talented and versatile actor, a visiory director, a master technician, a courageous producer deeply committed to performing art, and last but not the least, as the trailblazer who has bequeathed a successful business model to mobile theatre in Assam.