The mobile theatres of Assam

What is the connection between Titanic, Lady Diana, Anaconda, The Invisible Man and the north-eastern Indian State of Assam? Well, these are plays that have been enacted by the roving or mobile theatres of Assam in the recent past. Every year, theatre aficionados of the State wait in eagerness to the ‘surprise packages’ each theatre company have up their sleeves. About 30 companies start on their mission throughout the State usually in September every year and continue their journey till April. Even with the entry of satellite channels into lakhs of homes of Assam’s villages, mobile theatres remain the single largest mode of entertainment in rural Assam and even to a considerable extent in urban Assam.

Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev, founder of the Vaishnavite movement in Assam, also pioneered the drama movement in the State. In the 16th century he introduced Ankiya Bhaonas, plays that reflected his philosophy and various socio-cultural issues. This went along for ages and is prevalent even today. Bhaonas, based on mythological themes are held every year in namghars throughout the State.

The modern mobile theatre concept in Assam is widely believed to be the brainchild of Achyut Lahkar, who founded the Nataraj Theatre Company in 1963. Pathsala in lower Assam is considered as the home of the roving theatre movement in the State.

Unlike West Bengal’s Jatra and Maharashtra’s Tamasha, which are still sticking to mythological themes, Assam’s mobile theatres have come a long way. The theme of these plays over the years have covered a wide range of subjects – mythology, classic Greek tragedies, Shakespearean tales, plays based on novels of Assamese and other writers, to subjects like sinking of the Titanic, the Gaisal train tragedy in India, Lady Diana and Osama bin Laden’s kamikaze attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Moral issues-based plays have a wide fan following and each year almost all the companies enact these plays.

Kohinoor Theatre set the ball rolling on the ‘new trend’ of plays based on global themes, with the portrayal of the sinking of the Titanic, based on James Cameron’s Hollywood blockbuster. The result was obvious. It was the biggest hit in the history of Assamese theatre. The special effects, coupled with superior music, brought new dimensions to Assamese theatre. The depiction of the ship colliding with the iceberg in its fatal crash, landing of the helicopter and the overall illusion of the ship on stage, brought international acclaim.

Inspired by the grand success of Titanic, Abahon Theatre staged Lady Diana, based on Andrew Morton’s book on the charming princess, The Life of a Princess. The role of Diana was played by Jubilee Rajkumari and Prince Charles by Mukib Ahmed. The play brought in rave reviews from national and international circles alike. Lady Diana’s life in Buckingham Palace, her tensions with Prince Charles, her bouts of extra-marital affairs with Dodi al Fayed, the never-ending paparazzi attention and the fatal car tragedy in Paris which ultimately ended her life were a treat to the eyes.
Decks opened and Bhagyadevi Theatre enacted Hijack, based on the hijack drama of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 from Kathmandu to Kandahar. Srimanta Sankardev Theatre staged Anaconda, based on the Hollywood super hit on the world’s largest reptile. Hengul Theatre staged The Invisible Man, based on the H. G. Wells sci-fi and also the Hollywood success My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Srimanta Sankardev Theatre staged Osama bin Laden last year, a two-hour play on the daring 9/11 attack on the WTC by al Qaeda. Directed by Sebabrata Barua, the role of Laden was played by Pranab Sarma.

This year also, the various theatre companies have begun a new journey across Assam.

Of late, there has been a drive by the Government to give industry status to the theatres of Assam. The various people linked with the mobile theatre movement have raised their voices against the move. They are also not optimistic about the mushroom growth of small theatre groups which are not consistent and fade away not being able to make it to the big league. They feel that this ‘unhealthy growth’ has affected the overall standard of Assamese mobile theatres.
In spite of these challenges, the mobile theatres have been able to earn a place as the most important mode of entertainment in Assam.

By Zafri Mudasser Nofil. Zafri works for The Sentinel, Guwahati as Senior Sub-editor. He can be reached at: zafrimn@rediffmail.com