Covid-19 decelerates India’s roving theatre

Vast changes are expected in the way the theatre would be experienced in the post-corona socio-cultural scenario, predicts Nava Thakuria

India’s unique theatre groups, presenting international classics to mythological pieces to contemporary themes with energetic plays for millions of audience, find a rare hindrance from the novel coronavirus. While the human race is fighting a survival battle against Covid-19, Bhramyaman Natya Gosthi (mobile/touring/roving theatre troupe), a vibrant communicator the mass, almost faces extinction.

Popularly known as mobile theatre groups because of its nature of roaming across Assam in northeast India, the troupes carry all their artistes, artisans with other workers along with pandals, twin stages, seating arrangements, light & sound equipment to every location where they exhibit plays. Owners take the responsibility to feed all people, arrange necessary lodging besides taking medical care for everyone in the group.

Mobile theatre groups start their commercial session by August every year and it continues till the middle of April. Just before Bohag Bihu festival, the groups wrap up presentations for three months and regroup by July annually. As the deadly virus surfaced at the end of 2019 and reached India by early 2020, New Delhi declared a compete lockdown initially up to 14 April and then extended twice till May 17 so that the chain of infection with Covid-19 could be broken in the populous country.

So the groups couldn’t finish the session this time properly because of the nationwide lockdown. Now they are not sure whether the new session can be started on time. Moreover, even if they prepare the productions little late but within the year, there would be no assurance for necessary participation from the valued audiences in the shows! Thus the life-threatening virus puts the groups to an uncertain future.

Theatre goers in Assam today support over 40 active groups. Each group comprises over 150 performers and other workers. At an average, a theatre group performs two evening shows a day. After 2-3 days performance at a particular location, the groups move to next one nearby, as planned the schedule in advance with the local organizers.

More than 1,500 people can enjoy a play where the ticket costs from 150 to 500 per person. The owner normally charges 1,00,000 per show from the organizing committees across Assam. Nearly 10,000 people, half of them are technocrats, get engagements with the groups.

The theatre industry, which does a business of over 100 million annually, provides indirect economic opportunities to thousands others as well.

Most plays of these theatre groups are based on Assamese literature, folk-tales and mythological stories. Many times, the playwrights adopt ontemporary themes based on the lives of Lady Diana, Benojir Bhutto, Osama-bin-Laden along with dramatic versions of Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic, Jurassic Park, Anaconda, etc.

Classics like Shakespeare’s Othello, Cleopatra, Hamlet, etc, Greek epics Homer’s Iliad, Odishi, etc, splendid Indian epics Mahabharat, Ramayan, etc, Sanskrit play Mrichakatikam, Assamese evergreen plays like Piyoli Phukan, Siraj, Maniram Dewan, etc were performed on makeshift stages in different localities with tremendous enthusiasm from the rural audiences.

Indian theatres enjoy a history of over 5000 years where those were initially performed as rituals in public places. Later the energetic cultural activities embraced social causes and became popular in different parts of India with exclusive contents. Theatres in India comprise various art-forms from both visual and performing to emerge every time a new creation in front of the audience.

Though Assam has a long history of theatre movements starting from great Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardev in 15th century, the present day mobile theatre practice came to exist in early Sixties. Creative cultural personality Achyut Lahkar took inspirations from the mobile theatre model of Natyacharya Brajanath Sarma in Twenties and launched Nataraj Cine Theatre in 1963.

Lahkar from Pathshala town in lower Assam developed the traditional way of presently a play in Assamese language. He started using modern systems of light & sound to enrich the productions and even went to show his plays in neighboring States. Jatra parties of Bengal were also popular at that time, but Lahkar designed his troupe technically more advanced and entertaining.

The commercial theatre industry comprising Kohinoor Theatre, Awahan Theatre, Sankardev Theatre, Madhabdev Theatre, Hengul Theatre, Theatre Bhagyadebi, Theatre Binapani, Saraighat Theatre, Bordoichila Theatre, Ashirbad Theatre, Debaraj Theatre, Nataraj Theatre, Pragjyotish Theatre, etc remained a sustained economic exercise.

Many glamorous film actors also joined the theatre groups as they could earn handsome amounts as remunerations. It is in contrast to local film business that faces shrinkages because of socio-political disturbances in the last few decades. Now-a-days the theatre groups arrange colourful outdoor advertisements announcing the engagement of celebrated actors to their journey.

However, many believe that the mobile theatre had lately lost its popularity because of low-quality plays with unnecessary doses of cheaper entertainments. Tarali Sarma, a national award-winning singer of Assam observed that the goodwill to the medium was slowly declining. The talented music composer argued that more emphasis on celebrities on stages reduced the space for genuine artistes and it was perhaps not blissful for the theatre groups.

Bad days actually started for the groups last year when Assam witnessed a series of massive public outcries against the Centre’s citizenship amendment initiatives, commented Gopal Jalan, a young entrepreneur who once owned a theatre group. Entire Brahmaputra valley, which is the roaming ground for mobile theatre groups, witnessed aggressive protest demonstrations and the situation compelled the groups to cancel many shows in the last winter.

“Once the situation turns little normal, Covid-19 struck by February-March this year and the corona virus emerged as a monster to mobile theatre groups,” said Jalan adding that unless substantial supports are extended by the government, the entertaining medium would be finished very soon. Until a specific medicine is discovered against the disease, the situation would not improve at all, he apprehended.

Rabijita Gogoi, a prominent experimental play director, however, believes that not only the mobile theatre groups, but the entire exhibition industry is at risk now. A pass-out from New Delhi based National Scholl of Drama, Rabijita believes that the audience may now demand online shows as they would feel safer at home. But, she argued, it would kill the exciting theatre experience on stages.

Hoping against hope, cultural journalist Diganta Choudhury pointed out that the mobile theatres survived the six years long Assam agitation as the society supported them. Now they may lose some goodwill, but regain it to some extent with sincere efforts put by the owners and vital government supports. Once a vaccine against Covid-19 arrives, the audience might get confidence to enjoy the plays. However, he admits it would be a different theatre experience in the post-corona socio-cultural scenario.

The author is an Assam based journalist. Views expressed are his own

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