Mobile theatre: Genesis and transformation
Mobile theatre, also called the Bhramyaman Natak in Assamese consists of actors, singers, dancers, directors, producers, etc just like any other kind of theatrical group. There are about 60 mobile theatre groups performing plays across the state presently. But what led to the beginning of this mesmerizing form of folk media? How did it come to be one of the most popular forms of traditional media even in this new age of advanced communication technologies?
The concept of theatres appealed to the audiences and gained popularity among the Indians due to establishment of a close and intimate relation between performers and spectators. The Sanskrit dramas, one of the oldest in the world, gradually lost popularity due to a change in the preferences of people with the rise of the Islamic Sultanate and the fall of ancient Hindu empires. The growth of Indo-Aryan and modern Indian languages were another of the reasons for classical Sanskrit drama to gradually disappear.
Ankiya Naat, the oldest form of Assamese drama, emerged after the disappearance of the classical Sanskrit dramas that had once left a lacuna in the theatrical world. Just like any other form of modern day theatre, this native Assamese form of drama shared some habitual rudimentary attributes. The Ankiya Naat is what we commonly refer to as Bhaona, especially in the upper Assam region today.
The Neo-Vaishnavaite preacher Srimanta Sankaradeva was the polymath who propagated and promulgated the art form which later diverged into Ojhapali, Dhuliya Nisukoni Geet, Kushar Gaan, Bhari Gaan and the Putala Naach or the Putula Bhaona puppetry. Srimanta Sankaradeva's most accomplished disciple Madhavdeva continued this tradition of spreading religious reforms through this traditional mode of media.
Later, with the rise of the British Empire, the contemporary theatre in India also began. This contemporary form of theatre is what influences our modern day concept of theatre and drama in India. Shifting focus from religion to romance and entertainment, this form of theatre engulfed other forms of folk theatre throughout the country. The separation of the audience and the performers on the stage and having to pay for the tickets to watch a performance not only disconnected the audience from the performance but also created a demand of “value for money” among the audience making it a more competitive mode of entertainment.
Mobile theatres began in the rural concept and later even catered to the urban areas of Assam. It started first in a small rural town called Pathshala, situated 110 kms from Guwahati and gradually spread across the state.
Scholars have argued that mobile theatre cannot be looked at in binary terms. This is an encounter between the modern and the traditional, the rural and the urban, the local and the global within it. It can only be understood by using the conceptual category of “hybridity.”
Mobile theatre uses Assamese language, addresses no deity, has no fixed theme, yet cannot be described as modern theatre.
Although the mobile theatre industry receives no financial assistance from sponsors, the mobile theatre industry has arrived at a milestone where it has an annual turnover of over Rs 10 crores and will not pass into oblivion anytime soon.
(The author is a student of Mass Communication at Royal Global University, Guwahati)