A unique experiment in theatre that began two decades ago has just lost its founder. Sukracharya Rabha has been snatched away at his prime from our midst, and the onus is now on the well-wishers of ‘Theatre in Nature’ movement to keep his spirit and vision alive. There has been a vast outpouring of grief at the untimely demise of Rabha, only 41 when he passed away due to a massive cardiac arrest last week. When Rabha founded the Badungduppa rural theatre centre at his village Rampur in Goalpara district, he seemed to be going against conventional wisdom of theatre workers heading towards city lights in search of opportunity, fame and the right audience. Instead, Rabha centred his life’s work right in his village, so much so that theatre lovers from across the country and abroad beat a wide path to his doorstep. In the process, he also created a knowledgeable audience deeply committed to meaningful theatre in his native region itself. The open air theatre festival Rabha organised every December inside a sal grove in Rampur village, broke new ground in contemporary theatre. Christened ‘Under the Sal Theatre’, this festival in totally natural setting had the objective of bringing the theatrical experience directly to the people. All artificiality was eschewed — no swanky auditorium, no sound and light system, no makeup. The performers had only their finely-honed craft and superbly trained bodies to reach the audience, in the absence of microphones, they relied on modulation to get their dialogues heard clearly to the back rows. The natural amphitheatre formed by the sal forest trapped the sound, the clay stage was illuminated by sunlight, while locally available bamboo, straw and leaves were used as building material. Rabha thus sought to drive home the message of conservation among theatre goers, even as he trained artistes by insisting that they stay in close touch with nature and value their cultural roots. In the beginning though, it was tough going for Rabha but fate intervened in the form of Manipuri theatre maestro Heisnam Kanhailal during a theatre workshop in Guwahati in 2003. Inspired by Kanhailal to stick to theatre, Rabha faced down all odds to turn Badungduppa Kalakendra into a respected institution of training and research in theatre. What is more, it set off a movement to give expression to marginalised tribal existence and tap their creative power. Rabha wrote, adapted and directed many acclaimed plays in his native language, served as a role model for youths in a once militancy-hit area, and above all, he showed that it is possible to do creative work even in the midst of farming responsibilities. His passing has left an immense void, it is true. The courage and commitment with which he stayed true to his calling should continue to inspire.
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