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Curtain Call!

In conversation with Assamese theatre director Gunakar Dev Goswami

OUR BUREAU

In the field of Assamese culture, especially traditional Assamese theatre, Gunakar Dev Goswami is a name which hardly needs an introduction. An eminent theatre activist, Gunakar is recounted as one of the foremost actor-director-writer as well as composer in the world of Assamese theatre. Born in a culturally rich family, Gunakar is the youngest son of Sattriya doyen and Padmashri awardee Jatin Goswami and Kamala Goswami. Over the past many years, he has successfully honed the rich cultural genes passed on by his parents to emerge as one of the most powerful names in Assamese theatre. An artist with a vast repertoire of plays, he has been credited for discovering an alternative space for Assamese theatre by incorporating the rich traditional art forms of the State in his works and using it as a springboard to showcase and propagate our rich cultural heritage to the world audience.
Gunakar’s tryst with the world of theatre began at an early age. Right from 12 years of age, he had started doingvarious one act and full length plays and today, he has already written 15 plays and directed more than 50 plays – all of which have met with a lot of critical acclaim. An innovative artist who has always sought to carry his traditions with him, he has incorporated numerous folk elements like Bhaona, Sattriya Nritya, Ojapali and Deodhani dance in his plays. A man who believes in thorough research, he has taken extensive training in Bhaona and Sattriya Nritya besides learning fast vanishing traditional art forms like Ojapali and Deodhani from Guru Lalit Ojha.
While Gunakar has always been actively involved in the world of culture, his life received a sense of direction once he came under the tutelage of theatre doyen H Kanhailal of Manipur. He had first met Kanhailal when he participated in a theatre workshop organized by the later at Kalakshetra in Manipur. In 1991 Gunakar set up his own cultural organization “Purbaranga’ and started new planed projects, which included visiting remote areas and organizing workshops and seminars which explored the basic principles of theatre on performance aesthetic. His workshops are committed to Ankia Naat Bhaona, Ojapaali and contemporary recreation of ancient plays, dramatization of poems, folk songs, folk tales and performance of new plays.
Meanwhile,Gunakar has also led a parallel life as a successful actor and director, having participated in a number of national and international drama festivals. The plays Zerenga, Veerangana, Sati, Santras, Tula Aru Teja, Ratnakar, Abhijnanam, etc., composed and directed by him, were successfully performed in various places like New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bihar, Orissa, Dhaka, etc. Some of the prominent festivals in which he participated include the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, National Shool of Drama,Nandikar Theatre Festival, Young Directors Festivals organized by Sangeet Natak Akademi, etc.
Not just theatre,Gunakar has also participated in various prestigious dance festivals as a folk and Sattriya performer. Some of the important dance festivals in which he performed include the Khajurahu Dance Festival, Dweep Muhotsav, Mahabharat Utsav-2005, Viraasat-2006, Loke Kala Utsav, India Habitat Centre, etc.
Gunakar’s achievements in the cultural field have been duly recognised at various forums in the form of various epitaphs and awards. Among the many awards he has received, he was a recipient of Best Director Award at the Asom Natya Sanmilan for the play ‘Kalantarar Gaddya’ in the year 2000. The same year,Gunakar received the best folk playwright award and in the year 2003 he got the best Director award at the National Theatre Olympiads, Cuttack for his play ‘Santras’. In the year 2002, Gunakar received a fellowship from the Department of Culture for his project, “To study Assam’sinvaluable Mati-Akhoras of Sattriya Dance and its relevance in application in modern theatre as anew expression.” He also received financial assistance from the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Culture for his research project, ‘Ojapaali and Deodhani – its growth and development. A visiting faculty in the performing Art Centres of Dibrugarh University,University of Hyderabad and the National School of Drama STTC, the list of his awards is too long to reproduce in this article. However, it may be mentioned here that over the years, alongside theatre, he has also established himself as a noted music composer and choreographer by working on various national-level projects under well-known directors which includes the likes of H. Kanhailal, Baharul Islam and PranjalSaikia of Assam, D. Srinivash of Hyderabad, Vivek Mishra from Mumbai and Suman Vaidya from N.S.D.
The melange team recently entered into a tete-a-tete with Gunakar Dev Goswami to know about his brand of theatre and how the world around him influences him in his cultural journey. Following are excerpts.
Q. At the outset, we all know about your father JatinGoswami’s and grandfather Dharanidhar Goswami’s contributions to the world of Sattriya culture. How do you look back growing up in such a rich cultural environment? Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
Ans: We originally hail from Adhar Xatra in Dergaon; to be precise I am the ninth generation of the Xatra family. I am the youngest among four brothers. My father Jatin Goswami, mother Kamala Goswami as well as my brothers are all deeply inclined towards the world of culture. In fact, it is a herculean task for me to live up to the standards which have been laid down by my father and mother. I have an added responsibility of living up to their standards.
I was born and brought up in Guwahati as my father and mother had shifted to the city for work purposes. In those days, my father led a cultural troupe wherein he used numerous folk and traditional elements. He used to spend most of the time performing with his troupe in other parts of the State. So I got to spend a lot of time with my mother and got inspired about the world of theatre from her.
I did my initial schooling in Pub Guwahati High School, higher secondary from Guwahati college and completed my graduation from B Barooah College. Throughout my entire student life, I was highly active in the world of theatre and even got the Best Director Award in the Gauhati University Youth Festival. Although I was actively involved in club theatre, it was only in 1990 after I met H Kanhailal of Manipur that I began to think of taking up seriously.
Looking back at those days of the 90s, the entire State of Assam was going through very troubled times. People all around me were suffering from a sort of identity crisis. I too suffered from the same; every person who loved Assam and its people did. It was that very crisis which took me on the part of developing an alternative brand of theatre. I wanted Assamese plays to be a medium through which we can define our own Assamese identity. Since I had a strong family background in traditional art forms, those elements gradually began getting incorporated in my plays. So over the course of time, knowingly or unknowingly, my theatre became an amalgamation of various traditional Assamese folk elements and identities.
Q. How would you describe your brand of theatre?
Ans: Well, first of all, I believe in performance text. People can understand my plays even if they watch it with their eyes closed. My plays are actor-oriented ad not script-oriented. Secondly, rhythm plays an important part in my plays; almost all my plays are rhythmical by nature. Thirdly and most importantly, I am a staunch believer of recreation. For instance, even if I perform a part of the Ramayan or Mahabharata, I will recreate it by adapting it to our own natural settings.
Q. What kind of traditional art forms do you use in your theatre?
Ans: To be honest, I don’t do plays with the intention of utilizing or showcasing any traditional art form. I use them according to the demands of the script. I understand my own limitations and that is why I have not yet attempted to recreate a work of William Shakespeare. However, yes, I have used traditional Assamese elements in my own adaptation of plays like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.
In the beginning, I used Sattriya elements as they came naturally to me. However, once I started learning Ojapali and Deodhani dance, I found that these traditional art forms can be used in modern theatre in a number of ways as well.
Q. Please tell us about your theatre organization, Purbaranga.
Ans: As I said, Purbaranga was established on 20th June, 1991 and this year, it has completed 27 years of research and experimental work in the field of performing arts, especially in the field of traditional theatre of the north-eastern region. The group is committed towards the propagation and performance of Ankia Naat Bhaona, Ojapali and contemporary recreation of ancient plays, dramatization of poems, folk songs, folk tales and performance of new plays.
Over the years, the group has produced more than 50 plays and worked with several eminent directors. This group has taken up an experimental project to create inter cultural performances by pulling up the talents and expertise of artistes from different regions. This project helps the group to consolidate the methodology of the actors training and also takes the group out of its ethnic exercise to the national theatre scene. The group is striving to achieve excellence through performance of purposeful, meaningful and socially-relevant theatre.
Our research area includes the study of ‘Maati Akhoras of Sattriya dance and its relevance in modern theatre as a new expression’, ‘Comparative study of Ankia Naat Bhaona with other traditional forms of Indian Traditional Theatre’, the growth and development of Ojapali and Deodhani, and ‘Mask Making and its implementation in modern-day theatre as a new form of expression’.
Workshops, seminars, festivals, new productions are regular features of Purbaranga and it has also performed in innumerable state-level, national-level and international-level theatre festivals, both inside and outside the country.
We have started the Purbaranga International Theatre Festival under our banner and it has met with a very encouraging response. This year, we will be celebrating the 4th edition of the festival.