Remembering Ratan Lahkar, Who Extended the Boundaries of Mobile Theatre in Assam

The famed producer, formidable actor and founder of Kohinoor Theatre, a leading mobile theatre company of the state, compelled all classes to pay heed to this unique theatre form.

In 2010, when the National School of Drama (NSD) invited Kohinoor Theatre – the troupe representative of Assamese mobile theatre – to stage three plays at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), I was an ignorant but pushy college kid who accompanied his professor for an interview with the producer.

Despite hailing from the same region, I would meet the much-revered Ratan Lahkar, the owner of Kohinoor Theatre since its inception in 1976, during rehearsals at IGNCA. I came away from the interview in a state of moderate shock, Lahkar was everything that one would not expect a famed producer, actor and social activist to be.

Even on camera, he uninhibitedly spoke in boisterous Kamrupi – the non-standardised variant of Assamese. Being tactful and subtle with his responses was simply not his way and he would typically be found reprimanding and restlessly correcting his actors, which, as seasoned actors would tell me later, was what the much loved Ratanda essentially was – a man who never feigned.

A few years later, when I met him at his house in Assam in connection with a story that I was working on, Lahkar, clad in a gamosa, beckoned to his son to fetch the albums and fondly showed me monochromes from the earliest productions – ‘Ganga-Jamuna’ (1976-77), ‘Tejimola’ (1977-78) and ‘Cleopatra’ (1982-83), among others.

‘Cleopatra’, an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s novel, is notable because it paved the way for Bhramyamaan theatre in Assam to exhibit unknown, exotic ‘foreign’ stories, as Kishore Kumar Kalita’s Bhramyaman Theatarar Itihas (A History of Mobile Theatre, 2011) also suggests.

Plays like ‘Titanic,’ inspired by the James Cameron movie and first staged in 1998 with heavy use of technology in both rural and urban shows, became blockbusters throughout the state and in numerous places, popular demand impelled the troupe to run three shows each day instead of the scheduled one.

Kohinoor was pioneering also because, until its launch, the audience for Bhramyamaan was primarily confined to a particular class of people – the lower and the lower-middle – from the greater Kamrup region.

“Before Kohinoor, mobile theatre was not able to knock on the doors of the middle and upper classes. Kohinoor extended Bhramyamaan’s boundaries and took it to all strata of people… [It] compelled the intelligentsia to pay heed to this unique theatre form for the first time, also because a tradition of Assam’s famous litterateurs writing plays exclusively for Bhramyamaan began,” writes Kalita.

Even in college competitions, Lahkar believed in breaking new grounds, his classmate and now a retired professor from Cotton College recalled in a telephonic conversation. Having completed his Intermediate of Arts from Bajali College in 1960, Lahkar joined Cotton College for a BA in Political Science and stayed at New Hostel – now Seetanath Brahma Choudhury Boys’ Hostel – where he prepared his plays in which he himself usually enacted comic roles.

He moved to the University of Saugor – now the Dr. Hari Singh Gour University – in 1964 to complete an MA in Political Science, and returned to join Purbajyoti Theatre group, run by Karunakanta Majumdar and headquartered in Hajo, as a full-time actor.

It did not take long for him to garner fame. His performance in the role of a differently abled person in the Assamese translation and adaptation of the 1956 Bangla play (written by Santosh Sen) ‘Erao Manush’ made Lahkar something of a celebrity.

From 1966 to the launch of Kohinoor by him and Krishna Roy, Lahkar ruled the roost as a formidable actor in the Bhramyamaan world.

When news of his death on Sunday, January 29, at the age of 77, came, I browsed through my bookshelf to find his authorised biography Long March (Writers’ Forum, Assamese, 2013) by Alex Figo and Purandar Patgiri and nostalgically reread the chapter where he talks about his trip to Delhi. “I remember one of those days particularly well. The final match of the IPL season was to be played that evening. The venue started teeming with people, and the National School of Drama director Dr. Anuradha Kapur quipped to me, ‘You clearly beat the IPL’,” said Lahkar to his biographers.

One of the people instrumental in facilitating Kohinoor’s triumphant show in Delhi was the NSD production manager Parag Sarmah, born in Assam’s Kaliabor and himself an NSD graduate. I closed the book as I remembered I had to rush for a production at the Sammukh Auditorium in the institute where diasporic Assamese kids were to perform in a play directed by Sarmah, in an attempt to introduce them to their roots and heritage.

It was an adept adaptation of poems by Navakanta Barua, one of Assam’s tallest literary figures. The child actors were whip-smart, and the auditorium was swarming with people for both shows.

The visions and dreams of Assam’s beloved Ratanda looked anything but dead even as the chief minister announced that his last rites would be performed on Monday, January 30, in full state honours.

Jyotirmoy Talukdar recently completed an MPhil in English Literature from the University of Delhi, New Delhi. His areas of interest are Dalit studies, sociohistorical linguistics and disability. He freelances for various publications in English and Assamese.