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Posted at: Jan 8, 2017, 1:00 AM; last updated: Jan 8, 2017, 1:00 AM (IST)

A force of nature

A theatre festival held deep inside a forest in Assam’s Goalpara district is avidly lapped up each year by local villagers. It has, not surprisingly, evolved into a unique experiment in community assertion and cultural enrichment

Saibal Chatterjee

Sukracharjya Rabha is not given to making tall claims. Why would he be when his actions speak louder than words? A visionary theatre activist, he has created a one-of-a-kind festival in the middle of nowhere: a clearing in a beautiful forest of timber trees in remote Rampur, a village in Assam’s Goalpara district, some 150 km from Guwahati. His initiative is no less valuable than the indestructible wood that the surrounding sal trees produce.   

The unassuming, soft-spoken 40-something, however, talks of his achievements without being the least bit self-congratulatory. He seems aware that Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival — this year was its seventh edition — isn’t a goal in itself. It is only a means to one, and there is much ground that still remains uncharted.     

Sukracharjya, a botany graduate from Goalpara College, was active in student politics in the 1980s, and even held the post of district president of the All-Assam Students’ Union. He saw his village and its young people bear the brunt of the upheaval that rocked the state in that turbulent decade and its aftermath.

Not sure if politics could provide him the direction he sought for himself and his tribal community, he turned to theatre to articulate his inner angst as well as to trigger social and cultural change in the once-disturbed area. Under the Sal Tree, born nearly two decades later, was an offshoot of that move.         

A unique theatre festival that draws inspiration from nature and a fount of homegrown creativity, Under the Sal Tree went international this year. Held in December last, the four-day event had participants from Poland, South Korea, Brazil and Sri Lanka, besides troupes from Bengal and Odisha. An actor from Poland Wojciech Marek Kozak and a Brazilian actress Marilyn Nunes held the audience in thrall with remarkable solo acts.

Sukracharjya’s own Badungduppa Kalakendra, which organises the festival, presented a Rabha-language version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, inspired by an adaptation by Kannada poet and playwright H.S. Shivaprakash.      

“When we started this theatre festival in 2008, we had only three to four rows of seats. Today, we have 16,” says Sukracharjya, who honed his skills as an actor and director under the tutelage of the late Manipuri doyen Heisnam Kanhailal.

Shivaprakash’s connection with Under the Sal Tree goes all the way back to the festival’s very first edition. On that occasion, Badungduppa Kalakendra’s home production was a Rabha version of a folk tale dramatised by the Kannada writer and academic.

The audience at the Under the Sal Tree festival is made up exclusively of local villagers, who troop in from all directions to watch two plays a day – one starting at 10 am, the other at 2.30 pm.

The performances take place on a low open-air proscenium stage created entirely out of locally sourced materials. The festival leaves behind no carbon footprint — it eschews the use of any kind of sound equipment.

Sukracharjya also encourages all performers, even the visiting ones, to use the available natural backdrop and not insist on putting up black screens that interfere with the view the forest provides.     

“There was no tradition of daytime performances when we began and the audience here had no exposure to experimental theatre,” says Sukracharjya. “Things are now very different and the locals are amazingly receptive to plays of all kinds and in all languages.” Most performances at the festival now attract up to 15,000 people.

Sukracharjya is a stickler for punctuality. He waits for nobody, not even the VIPs, and every play at the festival begins right on the dot. “In the initial days, people who arrived late would miss parts of a play,” he says. “But now everybody is in their seats in advance.” 

Goalpara and the adjoining district of Kamrup are home to the Rabhas, a Scheduled Tribe community. They have a rich cultural and social heritage that has constantly been under threat. Under the Sal Tree is an example of what theatre can achieve in defining identity and upholding the innate positivity of village life.

Says Shivaprakash, who teaches at JNU’s School of Arts and Aesthetics, “The plays staged here are not only for entertainment, but also for community assertion.”

That, indeed, is Sukracharjya’s primary rationale. He began acting in and directing plays in the late 1980s, staging plays that addressed pressing social themes aimed at exposing and eradicating society’s ills. The growing popularity of the plays led to the setting up of the Badungduppa Kalakendra in his ancestral village in 1998.

Named after a traditional string and percussion instrument commonly used by the community, the centre started off with a rehearsal mandap built on a patch of land owned by Sukracharjya’s father.

Today, the Kalakendra is a permanent space where, among other things, Sukracharjya and his band of committed theatre enthusiasts organise workshops for local children during the summer holidays and at other times. In addition, Badungduppa has an 18-strong theatre troupe with nine floating members who come in as and when required.

With Under the Sal Tree festival having taken roots in its soil, Rampur village is now a theatre hub like no other.


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