In Photos: The Story of a One of a Kind Theatre Festival in Assam

A Rabha dialect play kicks off the three-day 'Under the Sal Tree' festival in the Agia forest of Assam. The play is a one-of-a-kind experiment in minimalist theatre.

Agia (Assam): Like the morning of every December 15, Agia’s Rampur village, a forest area in Assam’s Goalpara district, awaits the hustle of the arrival of a crowd.

The stage lights up, with words spoken in the local Rabha dialect (bhaxa) of Assam to stage a play that kicks off the three-day ‘Under the Sal Tree’ festival. The play is a one-of-a-kind experiment in theatre since 2008, conducted in the most minimalist manner possible.

So minimalist that the lights and mic, considered the basics in proscenium theatre, are not present.

The missing elements rather help the audience appreciate the theatre actors’ ability to throw their voices at them in a way that makes the performing art form different from cinema. (No tickets are charged from the audience.)

The audience gets to appreciate how a play covers the entire stage, no matter if it is a one-act or a performance with multiple characters. The sounds needed for the play are produced by a live ensemble seated close to the stage.

Like on every December 15 morning, this year too the three-day festival’s curtains were raised with a Rabha play, before the itinerary, including plays from different parts of the country and outside, began to unroll.

The Rabha play, Rishi Jolonga, was directed by Dhananjay Rabha and the script was written by Madan Rabha – both trained by Badungduppa Kalakendra and the theatre festival founder, the late Sukracharjya Rabha.

Sukracharjya Rabha founded Badungduppa Kalakendra in 1998.

Along with a fine performance by each actor, the play exuded the form of physical theatre that Heishnam Kanhailal, a renowned theatre person from Manipur and Sukracharjya’s teacher, had ingrained in them.

Each step by an actor was well-contoured, each expression used as a theatrical language no less than words, and the dialogues were added only when needed.

This year’s festival is significant as it’s being conducted in a full-fledged manner two years after the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival, however, continued to take place in those two years but on a smaller scale.

And as expected, a sizeable crowd, both from villages in and around Agia and elsewhere, thronged under the giant Sal trees, some arriving over an hour early to grab the seats in the audience gallery, made of bamboo with help from local villagers.

But truly, this year’s fest is also important because it has returned to its full-fledged avatar without its founder and a noted theatre person from Assam, Sukracharya Rabha.

Rabha passed away in 2018, due to a cardiac failure. His death left the fellow travellers in the theatre group in shock, coupled with uncertainty about the future of the group and the annual festival. It also left several other theatre lovers across the state and the country heartbroken.

But as all good things find a way to survive, the ‘Under the Sal Tree’ festival of Badungduppa also found its survival route to make this experimental theatre form work.

Sukracharjya’s influence had reached such a stage already, that in Assam, there are now several theatre festivals that take place in natural settings drawing inspiration from what he had begun.

Another significant first in this festival was the presence of Sukracharjya’s wife, Chinna, on stage, as an actor in the inaugural play. Having known Sukracharjya, I can only imagine him flashing that shy smile of his on this new development in Chinna in appreciation.

Actor Madan Rabha from Sukracharjya’s theatre group sets off the inaugural play presented by Badungduppa at Rampur village in Agia under the Sal grove. Madan has been the leading light of the theatre group and festival since Sukracharjya’s sudden demise. (The hay on the walls of the stage is called ‘Hamprang’.) Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

A still from the ending of the play, Rishi Jolonga. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

In one part of the Sal forest lies the resting ground of Sukracharjya, cremated as per the traditional custom of the Rabha community under the Sal trees which it revers as a sacred grove. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

A bust of Heisnam Kanhailal, a noted theatre person from Manipur, at the premises of Badungduppa in Agia’s Rampur village. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

Launch of a book by Lakhikanta Rabha, a crew of Badungduppa, on the opening day of the festival. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire

Chinna Rabha, Sukracharjya’s wife and now part of Badungduppa’s crew. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/The Wire