Standing Tall among the Sal Trees- Sukracharjya Rabha

Standing Tall among the Sal Trees- Sukracharjya Rabha

ASHA KUTHARI CHAUDHURI | June 18, 2018 18:47 hrs

GUWAHATI: In the middle of December, for the last few years, it was a good idea to visit the forests of Agia, near Rampur, Goalpara, if you happened to be a theatre-lover. In this unlikely place, you would attend a unique theatre festival – Under the Sal Tree. And it was under the sal trees that the stage and the spectators (some 2000 of them) were set up; it was here that artistes from the world over came to perform. And Sukracharjya Rabha, the life breath of this theatre commune, has suddenly breathed his last – leaving us all in shock.
Badungduppa Kalakendra was conceptualized as a ‘performing laboratory’ where different cultures of the region and the world would interact, blend and assimilate in search of a new performative language. “We made the stage under the sal trees… we want to make people renew our relationship with nature through theatre,” said Sukracharjya Rabha, at the festival. 

In a time when technology and complex paraphernalia have overpoweringly proliferated into the theatre, how could theatrical intervention change the human perspective? Theatre learners from the villages would go to towns and cities – to modern stage and sound systems; learning stagecraft in urban auditoriums. Returning to their own villages, they were unable to transpose their creativity without the aid of these urban, technological accoutrements; most did not have the wherewithal to ‘do’ theatre.
But it is possible to understand theatre organically. So once Sukracharjya’s theatre group was formed, it made sense to start at the local level and in the Rabha language. It was Sukracharjya’s encounter with Heisnam Kanhailal in 2002 that led him to imbibe the nuances of a ‘different’ kind of theatre that would connect with the audience through a collaborative project titled ‘Nature-Lore’ of Kalakshetra Manipur. Badungduppa Kalakendra was born in 1998, exploring new possibilities and enacting performances set within nature, organically. 

The connect with the forest and nature led Sukracharjya to adopt a very simple form of storytelling, using no props or artificial lighting and all the music that was used would be played in front of the audience. “I have always believed that theatre is not for a particular group of people, and it should not be kept confined to an auditorium.  I simply want to take theatre to the masses, to make them feel that they are part of it.  While writing or directing a drama, I try to get into the skin of both the enlightened as well as the common audience. ... I always encourage my co-artists not to act, but to express their feeling and experiences of life while they perform”, (Rabha, In Conversation). 

At Badungduppa (named after a local musical instrument, traditionally used to drive out evil), the local actors – his troupe consists of about 18 actors, all from nearby villages – trained under the NSD-trained Rabha who was familiar with all the trappings of the western / modern / realistic / proscenium stage. He crafted his new stage out of mud in the shape of a semicircle (similar to the proscenium) and started the “Under the Sal Tree” Theatre Festival in 2009. 

True to its name, the festival is performed in the forest using only natural light and a makeshift stage. The stage back drop is made of thatch; the gallery for the audience is constructed using locally available bamboo and betel-nut trees and not a single tree is felled. The show is mounted under the soothing silence of the Sal trees. No artificial material is used anywhere; there are no loudspeakers/amplifiers and after the festival concludes, the actors ensure that the forests return to their natural serenity. “The culture of theatre cannot exist without maintaining a close relationship with nature; and if theatre is my life, then the forest is the most important part of that life,” he said. 

With remarkable perseverance, he was able to take drama back from the urban confines of the closed auditorium to the forest of tall Sal trees. In this tranquil cocoon, performances are free from noise and extraneous sounds.
“Theatre is my entire life. I insist that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind, and I tried to conceive of my drama in a way where it can be performed both on stage as well as off it, to reach wider audiences”. (Rabha, In Conversation). Badungduppa had begun to develop into a place for generating and exchanging ideas, for feedback and dialogue.  Each evening during the festival, there were circular discussions among the participants and audience on issues thrown up by the performances, around a campfire, and theatre workshops for local children during the daytime. The celebration of theatre includes food and accommodation for groups, and for the audience as well, if they ask for it.

Rabha’s theatre travelled and performed too, but it is its site specificity that lends it that almost indefinably quality: deep in the Sal forests of Agia, the magic of his theatre came alive. Sukracharjya Rabha was a man with a vision, and the drive.

Badungduppa Kalakendra is a living example of what is possible: we theorize about the possibility of a theatre of roots, the experiments of a Jerzy Grotowski, a Eugenio Barba or a Badal Sircar; he actualized it at Agia. His trajectory was clearly going to place him with the greats like Thiyam and Kanhailal, his master, but tragically, the journey was cut short much too early.

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