On a grey December afternoon, the Allahabad-based theatre group Backstage found itself performing in an unlikely venue – in the middle of a dense Sal forest in rural Lower Assam. In spite of the play’s sincere plot – a distinctively subaltern take on class struggle – the group had the audience in rapt attention. People chuckled as the actors made caustic references to the daily ignominies of the underclass and pursed their lips when the artistes melodramatically reflected on systemic injustices. All of this, despite the fact that the play was in Hindi, a language of limited proficiency for much of the audience.

This was the inaugural day of the eighth edition of Under the Sal Tree International Theatre Festival, an annual event organised in the picturesque village of Rampur in Goalpara district by a collective called Badungduppa Kalakendra. The festival, which was held on December 15-17 this year, has become something of a stand-out event in Assam’s cultural calendar in the past few years.

What makes Under the Sal Tree unusual are its eco-friendly venue and aspirations – as the name implies, the festival’s main stage, which is made of mud, is located literally under a thick canopy of Sal trees in a reserve forest. The festival also follows a strict no-technology policy – there are no artificial lights or sound amplification systems. The actors are, therefore, required to modulate their voices in order to be audible to the audience, which reciprocates by offering its complete attention in absolute silence.

Through the three days, the veneration of the audience, which is made up mostly of local residents, towards the performers’ craft was evident. Not that this was always the case. When the festival first started in 2009, Rampur’s residents were almost hostile to it. The change in heart is, by most accounts, almost singularly the handiwork of a man named Sukracharjya Rabha, who is also the driving force behind the initiative.

Man with a mission

The story of the Under the Sal Tree festival is intertwined with that of Rabha’s life – and you can’t tell the story of one without narrating the other. He directed his first play when he was a high school student in the early 1990s. “Without any girls, mind you, since they wouldn’t let them take part those days,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the festival. “I would make my friends dress up as girls.”

In spite of this puritanical approach to female participation, Rabha insists there was an “atmosphere in the village” during his childhood that tended to promote creative pursuits like theatre. This could be attributed to the fact that Assam has a vibrant tradition of theatre. Its mobile theatre industry – consisting of travelling performing contingents – has a huge following in many rural parts of the state and is currently commercially much more viable than the local film industry.

“We’d imitate celebrations of festivals like Durga Puja and Holi,” Rabha recalled. “That’s what our initial so-called plays were.”

The first real break for Rabha came when he was in Class 12. He had gone to watch a play in the nearby town of Dudhnoi but an actor in an important role had failed to turn up. The director was looking for a “proxy”. Rabha volunteered and an impromptu audition followed. According to him, the director was so impressed that he made him a “permanent” in the subsequent screenings. “That was the first time that people really appreciated my acting.”

Sukracharjya Rabha.

Paying it forward

Rabha then went on to perform one-act elocutions in college and stage plays in his village on what he calls “socially relevant themes”. In 1998, with like-minded friends from the neighbouring villages and towns, he formed a collective which was named Badungduppa after a traditional musical instrument of the Rabha community. The group staged plays and offered training to enthusiasts, and at the same time, Rabha started attending theatre workshops to sharpen his own skills. It was through one such directorial training workshop in 2003 that Rabha got to be part of the Theatre Forum of Assam, which had just been formed.

As part of its inception, the Forum wanted to stage various adaptations of one of Assam’s most revered playwrights, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Rabha was assigned to adapt a play titled Rupalim – one of Agarwala’s most popular works. He translated it into his mother tongue, which is also called Rabha, as is the community, infusing it with authenticity. The play, staged in a festival organised by the Forum in nearby Dudhnoi, was a resounding success. “It was the turning point of my life,” said Rabha.

There were other stumbling blocks ahead, though. For instance, Rabha struggled to find a place for his rehearsals and there was consternation towards female participation. Finally, as all options were exhausted, the theatre contingent stayed in his house, which he shared with his parents, and practised on the family’s paddy field. “It was war. I told my group it was now or never – we had to do this for the future of the theatre culture of the Rabha community.” He feels particularly strongly about this because it was theatre that saved him from being pulled into the throes of an armed struggle that took away so many of Assam’s youth in the 1990s.

A couple of months later, a play by the group was selected for screening at a Sangeet Natak Akademi event. Around the same time, Rabha got in touch with Heisnam Kanhailal, a noted theatre director from Manipur, and with four others from his troupe, he spent two years as Kanhailal’s apprentice in Imphal, studying his work. “It was an important stint,” he said. “I learnt much of what I know now then.” At the end of two years, Rabha returned home to Rampur. “I wanted to create some work that blended Rabha community life and the area’s ecological aspects. And I wanted to do it without lights or make-up. The idea was to give a contemporary meaning to our traditions.”

Celebrating rituals through theatre

In 2004, Rabha formally registered his training centre as the Badungduppa Kalakendra. With some financial support from Kanhailal, he upgraded infrastructure of the centre, setting up dormitories for his students. It was in 2008 that a theatre festival took place in Rampur for the first time. Working on a grant from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Kanhailal organised a “nature-lore” festival under the Sal groves in the area and named it Under the Sal Tree – Folktale in Performance.

Inspired by the positive response to the event, Rabha decided it was a good opportunity to carry on with the novel idea of a theatre festival that fused theatre with nature. “I wanted to celebrate our Rabha rituals through theatre and involve the community,” he said. Fortunately for Rabha, he found a generous sponsor in a Dutch cultural agency called the Theatre Embassy, Netherlands, which had previously worked with Kanhailal. The agency supported the festival for two years. After that, the India Foundation for the Arts took over.

One of his biggest satisfactions from the festival, according to him, has been its ability to build bridges between communities. “Ours is unfortunately a rather chauvinistic society,” he said. “The fact that people from other communities from the nearby villages come to this festival is really heartening.”

As word about the festival spread, the Union Culture Ministry and the Sangeet Natak Akademi also stepped in. The last three years have seen the state government also pitch in. The Badungduppa Kalakendra is now a full-fledged theatre residency. Almost 25 young students stay on its premises, practising and honing their craft under Rabha.

A threat looms

Much has changed in quaint Rampur in the last nine years, though – and not all of it has been for the better. While the people in the area have more than warmed up to the festival, its primary attraction – the Sal trees – are starting to come under threat. Acres and acres of Sal forests have been done away in the last few years to make way for frantic rubber production, the dividends of which is significantly higher. According to people engaged in the rubber trade – which is almost everyone in the village now – an acre of rubber, after around six years of the initial maturation time, can cash in around Rs 60,000 to Rs 80,000. “Rubber has been our saviour,” said a young Rabha man of Rampur, who also volunteered in the festival. “If there is no rubber there is nothing here. Sal takes around 25-30 years to mature. We need the money that rubber gives us to survive.”

Most don’t see a contradiction in their enthusiastic support for the festival and their business interests involving rubber. Has the festival’s ecological aspect, which was to primarily protect the Sal grooves in the area, then failed to serve its purpose? Rabha is optimistic – “The Sal trees are a part of our community life here. We need to preserve them. Maybe, the festival will convince people that we have to save them. The festival has, after all, bought the community together in the last few years.”

All pictures courtesy Ayan Sharma.