Changing times of Assamese theatre movement
Narrating the changes the theatre industry has witnessed in Guwahati and Assam, noted theatre activist, writer and senior advocate, Dilip Hazarika, said that in the 1940s there were theatre halls in four districts of Assam - Guwahati, Sivasagar, Tezpur and Nagaon. Hazarika said, “In Guwahati, the theatre industry was growing because of the theatre movement carried out by the Bengali artists.” There was Arya Natya Mandir and they used to perform Bengali plays and theatre groups from Calcutta used to perform in Guwahati.
Simultaneously, according to Hazarika, during those days the Kamrup Natya Samiti used to organise theatre plays almost every month and during festivals like Kaali Puja and Durga Puja, there used to be 5 to 6 shows regularly. During that time in Guwahati everyone felt that there was a dearth of original Assamese dramas and plays as then plays mainly translated from Bengali used to be showcased. To change the situation, four dramatists Atul Chandra Hazarika, Prabin Phukan, Lakshyadhar Choudhury and Satya Prasad Baruah started writing original Assamese plays.
Atul Chandra Hazarika also became the president of Sahitya Sabha and was better known as Sahityacharya Atul Chandra Hazarika and he wrote mythological Assamese plays like Chatrapati Shivaji and Sri Ram Chandra. At that time Satya Prasad Baruah was around 25 years old. He completed graduation and law and wanted to be a lawyer. Hazarika said that Satya Prasad Baruah became popular in 1942 with his play Chakai Chakwa as the drama was staged by all the theatre halls of Assam. Baruah never looked back.
Meanwhile, vice president of Pragati Silpi Sangha and Kamrup Natya Samiti, Kiron Barua said that Pragati Silpi Sangha started in 1952 and a few people like Ishan Baruah, Dhiru Bhuyan and Purna Kanta Goswami started the group. She said that initially the Sangha struggled and started performing in thatched houses; it is surviving till date. It has also played a vital role in the history of Assamese theatre. She said, “The credibility of Pragati Silpi Sangha was that they always performed original scripts.”
Pragati Silpi Sangha became very popular and great artists like Jayanta Hazarika, Sarbeshwar Chakravorty, Prabin Phukan, Dhiru Bhuyan, Ishan Barua, Amar Chakravorty and Nilu Chakravorty constituted the Sangha. Pragati performed popular plays like Purush and many more.
Pragati Silpi Sangha was the first group which worked for women empowerment and allowed female actors to perform. Barua said that in those days, women were not allowed to perform in theatres. But Pragati decided that roles of women will be performed by women. She said that even now whatever plays are staged by Pragati, people like it.
Dilip Hazarika said that in Jorhat, the main player was Indreswar Borthakur who was also a famous playwright and who should be termed as the father of Assam’s theatre movement. Borthakur wrote one book on Natya Kala which became the guide book for all the artists of Assam. In Nagaon the stage theatre movement was led by two persons, Chandra Nath Phukan and Sarada Kanta Bordoloi. Nagaon brought out one drama, Piyoli Phukan, which revolutionised the Assamese theatre movement.
Hazarika said that from 1955 to 1970, radio had become popular in Assam. On radio also the theatre movement was reflected by Satya Prasad Baruah. Satya Prasad Baruah became a theatre luminary and people waited to know what he will do next. Many playwrights started exploring radio as the popularity of the medium was increasing. Radio stations used to organise theatre festivals and play radio theatres from 7 pm to 9 pm, and people used to wait for it.
At the same time Phani Sharma and Bishnu Prasad Rabha were handling the theatre movement in Tezpur. The play, Siraj, became so popular that a film was also made on the script.
After radio, the theatre artists wanted to act in movies and many films were made where theatre artists performed. In the 1980s television (TV) started becoming popular in Assam and most of the theatre people wanted to work in television. Hazarika said that it was not a tussle between radio, TV and theatre, but the theatre movement gradually started moving backward and the position was the same all over Assam.
But in rural areas, particularly from Hajo and Patshala, mobile theatre groups started coming up in the 1990s which gave a fillip to the theatre movement in Assam. Gradually mobile theatres started becoming like Hindi cinema and Ratan Lahkar even made Titanic on stage.
Hazarika revealed that theatre in Assam, after 1990s, started witnessing a downfall for various reasons.
Audiences want to watch theatre for free
Secretary of Kamrup Natya Samiti, Rupjyoti Hazarika, said that theatre is gradually witnessing a downfall as no one wants to buy tickets. He said, “Audience these days want to watch theatre for free and no one wants to purchase tickets.”
Noted theatre activist, writer and senior advocate, Dilip Hazarika, said that theatre is facing a problem now. He said, “Producing theatre plays became an expensive matter. The lights, sound and other equipments have to be hired. Anyone wanting to produce a play should have a budget of Rs 1 to 1.5 lakhs.” He said cost structure played a heavy role in reducing the theatre movement and the audiences do not want to purchase tickets.
Hazarika narrated that he was the president of Kamrup Natya Samiti in 2013 and decided to start theatre shows regularly. So it was decided that on Saturdays and Sundays theatre plays will be performed at Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir and they started the process, but could not sustain it for more than three months.
Vice president of Pragati Silpi Sangha and Kamrup Natya Samiti, Kiron Barua, said that these days people are engaged in watching TV serials and movies and don’t like going to theatres. Barua said that these days even plays are not scripted well so they cannot pull the audience.