Sukrachajya Rabha, founder director of Badungduppa Kala Kendra — a tribal theatre group of Assam, gives us a glimpse of the unique ‘Under The Sal Tree’ Theatre Festival
School children lugging their backpacks, mothers with children in arms, old folks, youngsters, smartly dressed urban travellers, researchers, scholars, activists, photographers and others huddle together on makeshift bamboo benches, peeping through majestic trunks of Sal trees, to watch a play unfold on stage. And the stage too is a makeshift space, amidst the Sal tree jungle.
No, this is not a scene from a film, but a theatre activity in the remote parts of Rampur in Assam. To be more precise, it is the 8th edition of Under The Sal Tree Theatre Festival, an innovative venture started by Sukrachajya Rabha of the Rabha community. The theme of this edition of the festival was ‘Live Theatre’, which aspires to meaningfully fill the void between ‘living’ and ‘to be alive’.
The idea of ‘Under the Sal Tree ‘was conceived by renowned theatre director, Padma Bhushan awardee Heisnam Kanhailal, through his project named Nature-Lore in 2008, which was a collaborative project of Manipur Kalakshetra, Imphal, and Badungduppa Kala Kendra, Rampur, Assam — both important theatre activities in the North-East.
It is unique amongst the theatre festival circuit, as its basis lies in nature, while exploring newer possibilities in theatre. As one person from the audience said, “Even the trees and the jungle listen to the music in theatre and watch the plays.” It is this strong belief in nature that has helped propel this activity all these years, with a devout audience of more than 1,700 people coming in everyday, from the adjoining villages and far off hamlets to partake in the festivities. The jungle space has now been fondly called the ‘Macbeth Jungle’.
Rabha learnt the art of theatre through workshops conducted by Kanhailal and his wife Padma Shri awardee H Sabitri at Kalakshetra, Manipur. He put this training together, to start his own theatre group, Badungduppa (traditionally a Rabha musical instrument) Kala Kendra, a tribal theatre group in his village in 1998. Since then there has been no looking back. He has directed many acclaimed plays and is the recipient of various prestigious awards and fellowships for his work, conferred both by the local government and institutions, and also at the national level. He is trying to promote and preserve the cultural heritage of the Rabha community, as well as other ethnic groups of the North-East through theatre. ‘Under the Sal Tree’ is one such project which is getting national and international recognition.
Connect with nature
“My tryst with theatre started in 1995, when we did theatre in the local traditional forms, on a simple platform. It was rustic,” says Rabha, founder director of Badungduppa, adding, “But I felt that theatre could only be done in an auditorium. That said, we used to do workshops in open fields and jungles. I wanted to preserve the connect with nature. But this lingering need for an auditorium was all pervading and nearly drove me away from theatre.”
When he did a workshop with Kanhailal, it opened new doors for him in the understanding of theatre. “I was exposed to contemporary and experimental theatre. I worked at his centre for two years in Manipur and then returned, more focussed, to set up my own group,” says Rabha.
In the initial years, getting people to train was difficult and girls were not allowed to participate. “Our commitment and dedication to our work turned the wheels. Often when rehearsals were delayed, the girls stayed over at my home. Soon it became like a big family. This helped getting the audience for the performances,” shares he and continues, “I had made a pact with myself. For one that I would continue working in my village, be in sync with nature, which is an integral part of our culture, rituals, beliefs, and strive to bring a reform in my community through theatre. Initially, people came out of curiosity. When they realised that our workshops started on time as did our performances, they got into a habit of being there on time. There is no political sloganeering or sermons in my productions, which relaxed the audience and gained their confidence. The actors are local village folk who work in the fields and do theatre after a hard day’s toil.”
Workshops for all age groups
Badungduppa plans activities throughout the year. “We have workshops for children, who are trained by our senior artists, a small presentation follows which is attended by parents and relatives. We also conduct workshops for the youth and seniors. We make some productions in a year, which travel on invite. Funding has been the most challenging part of our activities. But seeing the way our theatre works and its benefits for the community, we are drawing private donors and funding from the Government of Assam, the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture,” says Rabha.
For the annual festival, they design an open air theatre in the jungle, and the shows mostly take place during daytime. “An intimate theatre is set up on our campus, where some provision of lights can be made for evening shows. We have had productions from abroad too. I try to keep the use of technology to a minimum, with no use of microphones. The Sal trees provide excellent acoustics. In Badungduppa, we have some residential actors who stay on campus. The others are local. Through our activities we have created five to six groups and many children are part of our troupe,” says Rabha.
In 2014, Rabha shortlisted some directors who underwent an intensive directors’ workshop. They went back to their respective villages and started similar theatre activities in mangroves and bamboo jungles. “Other spaces , doing similar work like ours, have started in Tangla, Kamrup district, Dhemaji district, Naogaon, Johrat, Mongoldoi, Nalbari, and Goreshwar. I am pleased this activity is moving outwards. However, it is copied from our pattern and needs to find its own essence. I feel an internal revolution has started in these parts, with the connect between nature, community and theatre,” says he adding, “One challenge we face is the preservation of the Sal forest, which is being denuded to replace with rubber trees, which is a faster source of income for the locals. Hopefully, our theatre activity will help preserve a part of the forest area.”