Rampur village, Goalpara (Assam): With her five-year-old daughter perched on the bicycle carrier, Minoti Rabha precariously peddled on the dirt road linking her village Bordamal with neighbouring Rampur in Assam’s Goalpara district.
The mid-morning sun spread a bright light somewhere far behind the paddy fields that lined the road. Refusing a village woman’s call to stop for a chat, Rabha yelled, “I am getting late. Later. Are you not coming?”
She cycled away without waiting for the answer.
A little further away, Pranab Rabha lifted himself from the paddy field onto the dirt road and began pacing. He too seemed to be in a hurry.
“I should have been there by now, it is nearly 10 am. I came here only to check the grazing cows,” he said.
After walking about a quarter of a kilometre, Pranab got onto a lane that swerved off the main road. It opened into a huge field, one end of which touched a dense grove of Sal trees that soared high into the sky.
By then, Rabha had lined up her bicycle next to many others – parked in a row on that field – and like all the others had rushed into the Sal forest.
Alongside the bicycles were a string of cars, which had been driven 150 kms from the state capital Guwahati, over 200 kms from Nagaon and Morigaon districts and from the district headquarters Goalpara, situated 15 kms away.
Pranab paced faster to catch up with a congregation of men, women and children of all ages who were crossing the field with a purpose. By the time he reached his destination, there were already about 1,200 people under the trees.
He wasn’t surprised by the gathering. Since 2008, his village had been witness to a three-day hullabaloo in that forest every mid-December. Every morning, first at 10 am and then at two in the afternoon, people would gather in large numbers under the Sal trees to watch something that would warm the cockles of the heart of any theatre enthusiast – a series of plays.
With the passing of years, the number of people coming from far away places to join the villagers has increased, thus creating an annual festival for the residents of Rampur and the adjoining villages.
Many educated village youth who work in far away cities like Delhi return home to participate in what is popularly called Under the Sal Tree festival.
In the latest edition, the crowd had swollen all the more. The festival, for the first time, featured a play each from Brazil, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Poland. More significantly, the festival has been successful in giving a much-needed avenue for entertainment to the villagers and has been able to provide a unique format of contemporary theatre in India.
Every December, young volunteers gather to erect a mud stage under the Sal trees. The backdrop is delicately arched with a fence of straws. Bamboo planks are placed around the stage in an ascending order to seat the gathering, like in any open air auditorium.
Besides being located inside a forest, what makes the venue unique is that the performers don’t make use of mics or artificial lights – features commonly associated with proscenium theatre.
The actors typically modulate their voices so their dialogues reach the audience. The Sal grove also acts as a natural receptacle for trapping the sound. The background music is played live and the stage is set up in a way use the sun rays filtering through the trees as the natural spotlight.
The man behind this one-of-a-kind concept is Rampur resident and theatre practitioner Sukracharjya Rabha. Since 1998, he has been teaching drama to a number of village youth under the banner of Badungduppa Kalakendra, set up on his family’s paddy field.
On December 18, the last day of the 2016 edition of the festival, Sukracharjya watched the crowd build as he stood next to a garlanded photo of his mentor – one of the foremost theatre directors from the Northeast – Heisnam Kanhailal.
Sukracharjya’s passion for such a theatre, he later told this correspondent, “was inspired by Kanhailal sir.”
“Every year, sir would be in the festival; this year we have only his photograph,” he said, referring to Kanhailal’s demise in October in his home city of Imphal.
Sukrachajya came across Kanhailal in 2003 at a theatre workshop held in Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati. “Sir gave me the resolve I needed to stick to theatre for life,” he reflected.
After starting out with a local theatre group Rampur Rupjyoti in 1993, Sukrachajya went on to set up Badungduppa Kalakendra five years later. It was also the time when several youths in the area were being drawn to the separatist outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).
Sukracharjya was active in student politics as the Goalpara district president of All Rabha Students’ Union.
“But I continued my interest in theatre and directed my first play, in Rabha language, at a natya samaroh in Barpeta town in 1991,” he recalled.
Around 2000, when he “was completely disillusioned by politics after seeing rampant corruption in the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council,” he began to take theatre more seriously.
“Through 2004 and 2005 I went back to Kanhailal sir [and] took training in Imphal. I began organising theatre workshop for our boys and girls in Rampur. I completely moved away from student politics. I wanted the youth to find a purpose in life at a time when the atmosphere was grim,” he said.
Not far from Badungduppa Kalakendra stands the reminder of those days – a memorial of a village youth who was suspected to have joined the ULFA and was thereafter killed by a police bullet.
In the last decade, even though militancy had nearly died down in the area, Sukracharjya said, “A new wave of destruction had emerged.”
Villagers have increasingly been clearing the age-old Sal forests across the villages to grow rubber.
“A Sal tree takes about 25 years to yield money but a rubber tree takes only seven years. So most privately owned Sal trees are being replaced with rubber in the villages here,” Hamar Singh Rabha, the village head, later told The Wire.
“The trend is so strong that people have formed committees to take panchayat land on lease and grow rubber trees and share the profit,” informed Pranab.
He, along with five other farmers, had also taken such a plot in the Balijana village. The sap collected from the trees are pressed into sheets with the help of machines before being sold to local traders in Goalpara town. “I get about seven thousand a month,” he said.
Though farmers like Pranab are happy being able to supplement their monthly earnings, villagers like Hamar Singh and Sukracharjya are increasingly getting worried about its implication on the culture and customs of the Rabhas.
“Survival of Sal groves are linked to the customs of the community. These forests are sacred to us. It is under these trees that we bury our dead,” said Hamar Singh. Older Rabhas also smoke Khasreng, which is made from the Sal leaves. “Only the Sal forests in community land are now standing,” he rued.
It was this changing landscape that made Sukracharya envision the theatre festival under the Sal trees.
“Who knows, the popularity of the festival might save the trees,” he said. His dream “is to have plays under every existing Sal grove of Rampur in coming years.”
This year, Sukracharjya bagged funds for the festival from Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, the culture ministry and from the Assam government. In 2008, when he shared his idea with Kanhailal, he recalled, “Sir gave Rs 70,000 to organise it.”
The money was also to set up a few tents to house the visiting troupes. “I thought hard before zeroing in on Hamprang, a local variety of straw, to build the huts. These straws are also getting rarer as their areas are also increasingly being turned into rubber plantations,” he said.
This year, when he went about looking for Hamprang, he could find it only in one village.
In the latest edition of the festival, the huts made of Hamprang turned the sprawling lawn of the Badungduppa Kalakendra into a picturesque theatre village. The golden straws shone brightly under the winter sun. While one side of the lawn had the huts for the visiting troupes, the other side had a photo gallery of previous festivals besides a hut in the memory of Kanhailal.
“It gives me hope for theatre when I see this festival. It is the closest you can bring theatre to people; no grand auditorium, no mics, no lights, just the actors, the play and people,” commented Delhi-based playwright H. S. Shivaprakash, who has also been associated with the initiative since its inception.
This year’s fest opened with ‘Nukhar Rengchakayni Gopchani’, a Rabha adaptation of Shivaprakash’s Kannada play translated into English, ‘Midnight’s Play.’
On December 18, the last of the morning plays, ‘Estralas’ (Stars), began at 10 am. Murmurs soon died down as the audience began engaging with a story presented in Brazilian, a language they had not heard before.
It soon became apparent that actor Marilyn Nunes was more than adequately expressive to cross the barrier of language and evoke reactions from the audience. From a cleverly designed box which worked as a stool when needed, she pulled out props as and when the plot demanded, much to the delight of the audience. Children giggled when she swirled her hair to become Macabea, the female character, and then gathered the bunch into a bun and donned a cap to converse with Macabea as Olimpico, the male character.
Like in most other plays, Nunes earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
“If one would go by language,” Minoti later commented, “I connected the most with the Rabha play and then the two Bengali plays (‘Question Mark’ and ‘Antigone: The Sword Against State Power’) as most people in Goalpara understand the language.”
Sitting next to Minoti, Marami Nath added, “If you go by story, I could connect with ‘Nian’ (in Odiya) for the theme of insurgency and how innocent people can get caught in it. Our area once saw trouble.”
The Sri Lankan play ‘Payanihal’ (Passengers), and ‘Moja Podroz Do Veda Prakrith,’ a Polish presentation, also cut ice among the crowd.
The enthusiasm of the audience was palpable. While many village women said they woke up early to finish chores to be able to catch the morning shows, some in the audience even woke up at 3 am to begin their journey for Rampur from faraway places.
Each evening, after the performances, the theatre practitioners and enthusiasts would assemble at Badungduppa Kalakendra to talk about the day’s plays with the cast and the director.
On the concluding night the headman Hamar Singh lit a ceremonial bonfire and the village youth danced to the beats of drums. Watching the proceedings, Sukracharjya commented, “It is difficult to believe that all this revelry is for theatre.”