Sohaila Kapur

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New ills among old hills


In the North-East, a theatre festival doesn’t end when the curtains come down



Theatre, like nature, is thriving in Assam. This November, the verdant pathways in Tezpur and Guwahati lead to the fourth edition of the regional theatre festival, Poorvottar Natya Samaroh, organised by the National School of Drama, New Delhi. The festival began on Nov 12 and will end on Dec 1. 

There are 13 local-language productions in Assamese, Manipuri, Maring, Garo, Nepali, Arunachali Hindi and Mizo to showcase the cultural traditions of the seven north-eastern states. The plays view contemporary society through the prism of tradition and several of them reinterpret the epics and classical texts. Most of the plays are directed by NSD alumni. 

Aakash, an Assamese play on the comic drama of a dismayed father having to watch his daughter marry a Lothario, is based on a story by Padma Shri Bhabendra Nath Saikia. Astoraag, also in Assamese, comments on the changing value systems in modern India through the lives of a desolate old couple who are forced to leave their ancestral home for the big city. Dakghar by Rabindranath Tagore talks of the freedom of the soul through the story of a young boy. Gauralila in Manipuri revolves around a mythical figure who searches for peace in kalyuga. Dukon is about the choices we make and the manner in which they affect our lives. In Garo, Miri Zeeyoree is based on the first Assamese novel written in 1890 and seen as a documentation of the life, language, literature and culture of the Mishing community of Assam. Khaalteba draws from Maring folklore in Manipur. Toile Des Morile Swarga, in Assamese, is meant to inspire patriotism and respect for one’s history (the writer, Padmanath Gohain Baruah, is the founder-secretary of the Ban Stage at Tezpur, where the festival is being held). Adapted to Mizo from the original German, The Caucasian Chalk Circle by the celebrated playwright Bertolt Brecht deals with tyranny and the fight against it. Sup-Ek Prahashan, again, is a story of tyranny and revolution and Siraj, a story of forbidden love with a social, political and psychological message. 

The festival also has plays in Bengali, Chhatisgarhi and three traditional forms of theatre — Therukoothu 

from Tamil Nadu (Panchali Sabatham), Yakshagana from Karnataka (Amba Pratijna), Sangeet Natak (Katyar Kaljaat Ghusli) from Maharashtra and Ankiya Nat (Sup-Ek Prahashan) from Assam. 

The writers and directors from the North East are progressive and proactive and strongly feel that theatre provides a creative alternative to youth being tempted by insurgent groups. For example, Heisnam Kanhailal’s group is dedicated “to expressing the realities of oppression and resistance that are a part of day to day living in Manipur”. 

The Prospective Repertory Theatre Manipur (PRTM), established by Toijam Shila Devi, one of Manipur’s two women directors, aims at “exploring new directions in theatre, arts and culture so as to spread the message of peaceful co-existence”. Director Pabitra Rabha of A Chik Theatre that produced Dukon says that the primary objective of his group is to “create a space for the articulation of talent amongst youth so that they have a space for positive creativity and recreation even in times of sociopolitical unrest”. The late Phani Sarma, another distinguished director (Siraj), was instrumental in introducing female actors on stage when it was unheard of, thus revolutionising the nature of Assamese theatre. 

According to the NSD director, Anuradha Kapur, the festival is the result of NSD’s active outreach programme in the North East that began five years ago. Emerging young directors were placed alongside distinguished ones like Kanhailal, Ratan Thiyam and Dulal Roy. This was combined with interaction and dialogue with other traditional forms from the rest of the country such as Yakshagana, Therukootu, Koodiyattam and Sangeet Natak, giving them an opportunity “to interact with a wonderful audience in the North East”. 

Tezpur was chosen this year because it is seen as the cultural capital of Assam, with its 106 auditoria. Several old auditoria have also been renovated by the NSD and their aim now is to hold more workshops and festivals in places like Sikkim, Mizoram and Arunachal, where there isn’t much theatre. “The NSD is not just a festival holder but also a training ground,” says Kapur. “Many youngsters have come to Delhi and joined the school after participating in these workshops.” 

Heisnam Kanhailal, Manipur’s legendary writer-director, however feels that while the NSD is doing a good job of harnessing youthful energy by holding theatre workshops in the North East, it is neglecting rural theatre. The result is an intellectualised kind of city theatre which has no heart and the mix of the traditional and the contemporary, that the workshops encourage in creating a kind of khichdi, which does not help the art form to develop. Known for his experimental style and emphasis on “learning from nature”, Kanhailal says he has moved “out of conventional theatre in an attempt to create a live performance which is sensuous, lyrical and logical”. 

MOUNTAIN DUE: The National School of Drama’s ongoing North East theatre festival in Tezpur has productions of the Manipuri play ‘Gauralila’ (right) and Tagore’s ‘Dakghar’ (above) directed by its alumni

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