The Last Days of an Artiste

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Achyut Lahkar, pioneer of Assam’s legendary mobile theatre, lies penniless and forgotten in his old age

“I was shocked to read in the newspapers one morning [in 1968 or 1969] that Bishnu Rabha, doyen of the arts in modern Assam, had been diagnosed with cancer. I immediately sent him Rs 500 by money order and a telegram asking him to start treatment, assuring him that I would soon arrive with more money. As promised, I collected some second show earnings and generous donations from my troupe and reached Bishnuda’s place. He said, ‘I did get your telegram. But I committed a grave crime. You know Lahkar, we are in penury. So, with the money you sent for treatment, I had a nice meal after quite a few days. Do you mind?’” recalls Achyut Lahkar, the father of Assam’s mobile, or Bhramyaman, theatre.

It is important to start with Lahkar’s memory of Rabha’s last days because he too faces the same fate today. The man who in 1963 founded Nataraj Theatre—which paved the way for the huge mobile theatre industry in Assam, with more than 60 troupes performing every day for nine months a year—now sits alone in the verandah of his small house near Pathsala in Bajali, clad in a vest and gamosa. He looks on nostalgically at Station Road in front of his house on which, incidentally, is the home stage of the popular Awahan Theatre, and which turns into a sea of humanity when the group performs. Most people who come here do not recognise this frail, scantily-clad old man. The few who do walk up to him, take stock of his health and move on. “Axomoyot moi jotei goisilu tat xomaj hoisil (There was a time when a crowd formed wherever I stood). These evenings were mine once. I never thought I would have to spend them alone and forgotten,” Lahkar says, speaking slowly but in immaculate Assamese.

He often points out that his contemporaries—the firebrand Marxist playwright, actor and lyricist Bishnu Rabha, actor Braja Sharma and musician Bhupen Hazarika—had often warned him of the notoriously short memory of the state government and the people, and of the chances of his dying penniless. Rabha in particular, using his own life as an example, advised him to leave theatre “when there’s time left in life”. Lahkar had replied, “I did not take this path to leave it midway. I am here to correct the history of the many Braja Sharmas dying on hospital verandahs.”

Today, he admits that he has become another Braja Sharma. “Rabhada was right. One, I am deep in poverty. Two, many new producers of big Bhramyaman groups today do not even know who this industry’s father is. What can be sadder?” Lahkar sighs.

Bhramyaman is not just entertainment in the state. It provides employment to thousands of people and aids infrastructure development in the places it visits. A Bhramyaman producer traditionally donates some part of its profits to the panchayat of the village it performs at. According to Bhramyaman Theatreor Itihaas, a book by Kishor Kumar Kalita on the theatre’s history, since its modest beginning in the evening of 2 October 1963 at Hari Mandir in Bajali of Barpeta district, at least 120 more such troupes have been born. Among the 60 odd ones active now, some perform across the state, while others are confined to either Upper Assam or Lower Assam. Usually, a local organisation invites a troupe to perform, paying between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000 for every show. In three days, a troupe generally performs three different plays, at least one show each day, but often more on public demand.

Before the start of each season in August, every troupe producer finalises the schedule for nine months in such a way that not even a single day misses a performance. So for those nine months, they work, rehearse, act and travel constantly, often delivering extra shows late into the night.

Since Assam’s film industry has all but been killed by political strife, most prominent actors have signed contracts with different theatre groups, reportedly getting paid anything between Rs 12 lakh to Rs 60 lakh a year by an industry dependent on villages and small towns—not only for the tickets they buy, but also the goodwill and hospitality they show them. Many people happily open their homes to the actors, letting them stay as guests, often even taking the trouble to whitewash and repair their homes in anticipation of a visit.

But Nataraj, Lahkar’s group with which all of this started, shut down in 2003 after 40 productive years. With Lahkar’s health failing with age, he was unable to manage the group for months on end, and it ran into heavy losses. Head over heels in debts, Lahkar finally sold the group’s lights, projectors, vehicles, furniture and costumes for a sum of Rs 1.5 lakh. “I would never have imagined that things that needed to be kept in museums as symbols and memories of the first Bhramyaman theatre troupe would be sold in a bazaar. Now there is no tangible sign of Nataraj Theatre left. I too have to look towards others for my treatment, even for my daily needs,” Lahkar laments.

Lahkar’s plays are still remembered by those who watched them. Lahkar claims that his play Beula, based on the popular myth of Beula-Lakhindar, is the longest running play in the world, having been staged all 40 seasons of Nataraj’s existence.

Lahkar attributes its success to two reasons. One, Beula is a story written on the life of a sati and the audience always has a weakness for mythological satis. Second, Beula saw the first mobile theatre experiments with lights. Lahkar’s other successes included a play called Allah-Ishwar that had Akbar as its protagonist and called for religious tolerance, and Arena, influenced by Naxalite movement in West Bengal. Lahkar calls it his best protibadi natok (protest play).

The state government has often been approached to recognise Lahkar’s achievements. “A Padma award is the least the Union Government can bestow upon him,” says Dr Sammujal Kumar Bhattacharyya, leader of the All Assam Students’ Union. Ananta Mohan Sharma, a leading social activist in the Barpeta district, recently made a documentary on Lahkar, which was screened at Assam Sahitya Sabha and other events, and made a strong case for Lahkar’s national recognition. Ratan Lahkar, the producer of the successful Kohinoor Theatre, which also performed at the IGNCA in New Delhi in 2010 at the invitation of the National School of Drama, is more vocal: “Actor Dharani Barman, whom Achyut Lahkar mentored, won the Sahitya Academy [award] in 2006. I am not saying he should not have got it. But Achyut Lahkar has trained countless Dharani Barmans. Why does not he get considered? Awards are politicised.”

Sanjib Prabin, better known by his nom de plume Alex Figo, must be thanked for taking dictation for six months from Achyut Lahkar, editing it and ensuring the recent publication of his touching autobiography, Bhramyaman Theatre. Figo blames Lahkar’s state on the irresponsibility of the Assamese intellectual class and believes that before trying to get him a national award, Assam must be made to understand the legend’s worth.

Bhramyaman will celebrate its golden jubilee this year. Exempt from entertainment tax by Assam’s Prafulla Mahanta government and loved by an audience that cuts across caste and class, its prospects are bright. But the one who pioneered it lies on his deathbed. Come 9 July, he will turn 83 and a small number of admirers will visit him, perhaps sing a Bhupen Hazarika number on defying age, and the older generation will proudly remember being part of Nataraj on its travels to Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. But largely, he will be forgotten.

Once playwright Atul Chandra Hazarika met Lahkar and asked him to continue with theatre until his death so that Assam does not become ‘a dead tree’. Lahkar asked him, “Are you asking me to be an incense stick?” Hazarika did not understand, and so Lahkar explained: “An incense stick burns itself to give others fragrance.” And that’s what Lahkar believes he has actually become.