In June 2013, I travelled to the sedate locality of Bajali in Assam to do a story on the pioneer of Assam’s unique mobile theatre who was now indisposed, and utterly alone. On Sunday, June 12, Achyut Lahkar died at the age of 85, and I again rushed to his home Pathsala (around 100km from Guwahati) and then to the riverbank where his body was cremated in the presence of hundreds if not thousands, since death is not just a leveler, but an aide–mémoire too.
Lakhar is considered the founding father of mobile theatre, which is said to have begun in 1963. In many ways, he has written the history of modern Assamese art and culture. Today there are almost 60 troupes active across the state. All the companies continue to follow the practices and rules that Lahkar’s Nataraj Theatre first laid out. They usually have three or four plays for a theatre season that starts in August and continues till April, followed immediately by rehearsals for the next season. For the nine months—without a break in between—they perform at cities, towns and many villages of the state, usually tying up with a local committee or the panchayat. Lahkar’s revolution lay in the use of the latest technologies for the stage—he initially called his company Nataraj Cine Theatre—and moved all the equipments in trucks every three days to different locations.
June 15 also saw the launch of the reprinted edition of the first issue of Deepawali—a magazine that Lahkar had started on the same date 64 years ago as a student in Calcutta. The chair for Lakhar remained conspicuously empty during the event. Attended by the who’s who of art, culture, literature and academia of Assam, the launch also turned into a condolence meet, where, importantly, ways to preserve Lakhar’s memories and take forward his dreams and visions were discussed.
From my meetings with him—just before the golden jubilee of mobile theatre —I remember his weakness for October 2, 1963. Lahkar wanted this date to be remembered as the day that this industry, which is appreciated in Assam and outside, started. In the state it continues to be the biggest source of entertainment. Outside it has won laurels, notably in 2010 at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi where Kohinoor Theatre played to a packed ground for three days, on the invitation of the National School of Drama.
Bhramyomaan, as mobile theatre is known in Assamese, is also close to people’s hearts for its generous humanitarian initiatives like donations to schools and other infrastructure development projects, not to mention the huge employment it provides to actors and other technicians in the state.
Lahkar must be remembered by all of us, for not only conceiving a profit-making and commercial form of theatre, but also for creating a form of theatre that is supported by ordinary people. He tailored his plays for his audience. Most of the plays in the early sixties were translated from foreign and Indian languages. Lahkar realised that many references do not hold for an Assamese audience. He gave the example of the zamindari system prevalent in much of India but not in Assam. So, the translation of zamindar into Assamese was usually done as mouzadar—the revenue collector, which further flummoxed the audience. So, he started writing and commissioning plays like Joymoti, Miri Jiyori and Beula which, as he put it, ‘smelt of Assam’. Another aim of his was to make plays for sohormukhi to gaaomukhi—take them from city centres to villages, without compromising on quality or technology.
Today mobile theatre draws in not only those from villages and towns, but also leading film stars who wish to be a part of it. It is speculated that these stars earn close to a crore of rupees in a season. With names like Papon and Zubeen Garg doing the music for the shows, it would appear that mobile theatre can only get rich and bigger from here. The least we can do is not lay Achyut Lakhar aside.