Staging the World

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From playing out Shakespeare’s classics in remote areas to generating funds for charity, the Bhaymmaman theatre of Assam is a unique phenomenon

SUNIL PEGU is a Class 5 dropout and a poor sharecropper in Assam’s backward and remote Dhemaji, the headquarters of a district by the same name, but he can easily critique Michael Henchard’s—the Mayor of Casterbridge in Thomas Hardy’s novel—life, follies and wrongdoings. And Bimal Poran, a panwallah at Dhapalialgaon, a small township nearby, can stump students of English literature with his knowledge of the trails and travails of Oedipus and the Greek tragic hero’s daughter Antigone. Similarly, Kamal Das, a marginal farmer (a Class 7 dropout) in lower Assam’s Nalbari district, can surprise you with an analysis of the character of Fleance, the son of Macbeth’s friend Banquo.

It’s not as if rural folks in Assam have suddenly become avid students of English literature, Shakespeare and the classics. They can also shed light on the lives of Lady Diana or Benazir Bhutto. The answer to this strange observation lies in Assam’s unique mobile or Bhaymmaman theatres. For seven-and-a-half months—end-August to mid-April—every year, at least 40 such theatres crisscross Assam, especially its rural and border areas, staging plays ranging from Shakespeare’s works to dramas on terrorism, entertaining millions of people, providing employment to thousands (including top-notch Assamese filmstars), posting turnovers in crores of rupees and generating funds for many a charity—educational, social and religious institutions.

This does not have any parallel in the country or even the world, not even remotely. The entire crew of about 150 become one large family for not only the period they’re on the road, covering more than 70 destinations all over the state, but also the two months when they rehearse the four to five plays they’ll be staging. The sheer logistics involved in feeding and housing so many, transporting them and the heavy equipment as well as the large tents and stage props from one destination to another every third day, and other related aspects, are truly overwhelming.

The entire operation through which Bhaymmaman theatre thrives in Assam is complex, intricate and fascinating. The theatre groups go to a city, town or village only on invitation. Local clubs, NGOs, educational institutions or other such bodies invite them to stage performances on a revenue-sharing model. For instance, it was the managing committee of a girls’ school that had invited Kohinoor, one of the largest and most popular groups, to Dhakuakhana, a small town in Upper Assam. “Kohinoor took the standard Rs 60,000 from the committee for the first show, and 60 per cent of ticket sales for the subsequent eight shows. With tickets priced between Rs 30 and 90, and donor cards at Rs 500 or more, and pandals that can seat about a thousand, the committee made a neat profit of around Rs 200,000,” says Krishna Roy, owner of Abahan, another prominent theatre company. “This was the third time we invited Kohinoor here. The school was set up with the profits we earned from their shows in the past, and with this year’s profit, we hope to extend the school building,” says headmaster Kamakhya Prasad Das.

The process of fixing schedules and giving out dates for performances at various places is intricate. Since performances are back-to-back, travel time between destinations has to be minimal—three to four hours at the most. “We performed at Dhakuakhana from 22 to 24 March this year, moved to Lakhimpur, about three hours away, to perform from 25 to 27 March, before moving to a nearby town for the next three days,” says Ratan Lahkar, owner of Kohinoor.

Incidentally, the committees that invite the theatre companies have to bear the expenses and make all arrangements for food and lodging for the entire crew. While most of the junior artistes, technicians and helpers are put up in ordinary dormitory-like accommodation, the lead actors stay as guests in the houses of prominent or affluent local residents.

The theatre companies engage a host of writers. Munin Barua, one of the top scriptwriters, says that he tries to not only entertain, but also educate and enlighten people through the topics he chooses for his scripts. “I’ve written scripts for plays on Aids (that it’s not a pariah disease), on the Ulfa (futility of violence), on the issue of influx from Bangladesh, and many of my plays carry the message of social cohesion,” he elaborates. But there are times when theatre owners provide explicit briefs. “A theatre owner asked me once to write a play that would be titled ‘Twenty-twenty’. That was his one-line brief. Limited twenty overs cricket had just become the craze then and I wrote a play on a cricket addict. The play became a hit,” says Barua. Abhijit Bhattacharjya, another top scriptwriter and director with a number of popular plays to his credit, says, “Earlier, plays were mythological, and they evolved to social themes to highly melodramatic family dramas. Now, this past decade, plays revolve around social issues or are dramatisations of popular or classical novels, or recent events.”

Bhaymmaman theatre took shape in 1963 when Achyut Lahkar, whose brother Sada Lahkar was running a traditional theatre Nataraj Opera from Pathsala, pioneered this concept. “The two brothers launched Nataraj Theatre in 1963 and started staging plays in neighbouring towns. That year, due to technical glitches, the Lahkars incurred huge losses. But by the next year Nataraj Theatre became a runaway success. Soon, many other mobile theatres came up,” says Kishore Kalita, who is authoring the history of Bhaymmaman theatre.

“Earlier, Bhaymmaman theatre was considered infra-dig and never patronised by the middle class and affluent lot. It was identified too closely with Lower Assam by the elite, who were always from Upper Assam,” says Kalita. The perception changed from 1979. Kohinoor broke through this barrier and popularised Bhaymmaman by introducing good plays, many based on English classical novels, getting renowned novelists and literateurs to write scripts, modernising set designs and recruiting top-grade movie actors like Prasanta Hazarika.

An interesting aspect is the entry of top Assamese movie stars into Bhaymmaman theatre—the theatre companies have signed on all top stars like Jatin Bora, Jupitara Bhuyan, Jintu Sarma, Angurlata and Nayannirban. And, believe it or not, they get paid much more for their stage than screen performances. Jatin is said to have bagged an annual contract of over Rs 40 lakh from Kohinoor. His signing amount in movies was about Rs 1 lakh.

But there is a flip side to this. “It is tough being away from home for such long stretches. I wasn’t there on my daughter Aastha’s fifth birthday on 15 March and she was very sad. Aastha wonders why I can’t be like other dads who go to work in the morning and return home every evening,” Bora confesses. “Being on the road for so long is tiring and takes its toll on my social and family life,” says Angurlata. But these rigours don’t deter many bright young actors from joining Bhaymmaman theatre. “I’ve always wanted to be part of the adventure, getting on stage with big stars and proving myself. Bhaymmaman also allows me to showcase my talent all over the state,” says Pankaj Bora, 26, who put up a sterling performance as a villain in Kohinoor’s plays in the 2008-09 season. While the top actors make quite a pile, those like Pankaj and his juniors earn between Rs 5,000 and 15,000 a month.

Bhaymmaman, however, has its fair share of critics as well. “Bhaymmaman was never a movement to promote Assamese culture as some make it out to be. It has always been a purely commercial venture that has, admittedly, benefitted artistes. Bhaymmaman’s only contribution to the literary world is that it has given birth to some good dramatists,” says Kishore Kalita.

Munin Barua says, “The plays used to be very good. Nowadays, the stress is on gimmicks, item songs and special effects that can barely hide thin storylines, weak scripts and miserable performances.” Manoj Goswami, dismissive of Bhaymmaman, says, “While the form and format are unique, the content is poor. There is less intellectual content and more vulgarity.”

Bhaymmaman’s proponents, however, reject this criticism. “Bhaymmaman plays an integrating and inclusive role in Assam. We provide good entertainment to people who do not have access to any other form of entertainment. Theatre also has an educative aspect. Bhaymmaman helped the construction of hundreds of schools, colleges, community halls, religious places and other public facilities all over Assam. Inviting us to perform is a sure shot in raising funds for a proposed public welfare project,” argues Abahan’s Krishna Roy. Ratan Lahkar contends that through stage adaptations of many of classical English and Bengali novels, Assam’s masses, especially the rural folk, have not only been entertained, but also educated. His son Ratan, who introduced item songs in Bhaymmaman, says, “These are necessary in today’s environment. However, I will not call them item songs at all. They don’t take away from the central theme or message of the play.”

At Dhemaji town’s Sankardev Vidyaniketan playground, where Abahan had pitched its large tent on 25 March, the hundreds who flocked the theatre were not bothered with such debates. They had come to watch Benazir Bhutto, scripted by Abhijit Bhattacharjya, and were thrilled to bits when Angurlata, playing the Pakistani leader’s role, came on stage in a spaghetti-strap top and low-waist jeans to dance while romancing Nayannirban who plays the fictitious role of Benazir’s Indian colleague at Oxford.

Forget the fact that Asif Ali Zardari would not be pleased with this fictionalisation, what really mattered that evening was that Dhemaji’s residents were entertained, and to an extent educated on Pakistan and the Bhuttos. The following week, they lapped up Assamese plays put up by another mobile theatre group. That’s what Bhaymmaman theatre is all about.