April has always been a special month for 31-year-old Moon Saikia. With the return of spring come birds, blossoms and Bohag – the Assamese New Year.
For Saikia, an actor working in Assam’s biggest entertainment industry – bhramyaman (or mobile) theatre – this is also the time when the nine-month-long theatre season comes to an end and she visits her family in Kholaguri village in Lakhimpur district to celebrate Bohag.
This year though, things panned out a little differently. Before meeting her family, Saikia journeyed to Bengaluru at the end of April with other members of the Assamese travelling theatre group Awahan to perform in the southern city.
The stagings were 40-year-old Awahan’s commercial debut outside the state – and a big departure for the industry. Prior to this, the last, and perhaps only, time a popular bhramyaman troupe had performed outside Assam was in 2010, when Kohinoor Theatre was invited by Delhi’s National School of Drama to showcase Assam’s “unique model of entertainment”.
In Bengaluru, Awahan staged three of its most successful plays – Mokorajaal (Cobweb), Madhuri Mur Naam (My name is Madhuri) and Moi Maar Suwali (I am my mother’s daughter). Like most touring theatre performances, all three plays were infused with a healthy dose of romance, comedy, tragedy and revenge. Much like Bollywood films, every scene in the “social dramas” was “larger than life”. Every dialogue delivered a punch. And everyone watching was riveted.
“The thundering applause from the audience is still ringing in my ears,” said Saikia. “It was an overwhelming experience to perform in such a big city.”
Bengaluru was the perfect venue for the productions. It has a well-defined theatre tradition and a strong Assamese connect – around 2 lakh migrants from the North Eastern state live in the southern city, most of whom are students or workers employed in sectors such as information technology and hospitality.
Awahan was invited over by four associations – the Assam Association Bangalore, the Assamese Society of Bangalore, the East Bangalore Bihu Society, and the Srimanta Shankardev Cultural Society Bangalore. The idea was to showcase to a “national audience” the Assamese theatre that has deep roots in the Bengali folk theatre form jatra.
“Mobile theatre is our pride,” said Munindra Kumar Bharti, a member of the Srimanta Shankardev Cultural Society Bangalore. “Very little is known about the art form outside Assam. We are glad theatre enthusiasts in Bengaluru loved it.”
Nearly 1,600 people – Assamese, Bengalis and Kannadigas – watched the performances spread over three days at a field in Kaikondrahalli on Sarjapur Road. “Assam’s mobile theatre is larger than life,” said Nandini Kumar, a fashion designer and aspiring actress from Bengaluru who was in the audience. “It has a captivating power. I don’t understand Assamese, but I enjoyed the plays.”
Assam’s travelling theatre industry is more than half a century old – the first bhramyaman troupe called Nataraj was formed in the town of Pathsala in 1963. Today, there are 30 such troupes in the state, each employing around 150 people.
In terms of size, scale, budget and popularity, bhramyaman has long surpassed the local film industry. Every year, starting mid-August, the troupes travel for nine months across villages and small towns of Assam, lugging along their costumes, props and sets.
“The backbone of bhramyaman” are rural people, said playwright-director Abhijeet Bhattacharya, who has been part of the industry for 22 years. “The audience and performers are mostly rural folks. Ninety per cent of the artistes, including technicians, are not trained and educated.”
According to him, to understand bhramyaman, one must understand the life of the rural poor. In their stricken regions, the theatre offers the rural indigent something that many other industries don’t: guaranteed employment for nine months a year on an income of anywhere between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 crore. The top slab is usually reserved for stars such as Prastuti Parashar (who currently heads Awahan) and Jatin Bora, both of whom have successful film careers.
“This is as good as landing a regular job, which is scarce in Assam,” said art director Brojen Koch, 43. “There are hardly any alternative sources of income. Unemployment is a big reason driving the rural youth towards mobile theatre.” A school dropout, Koch started out in bhramyaman in his teens as “a helper, running errands for the seniors. That is how I learnt my work”.
For Saikia too, touring theatre was a more lucrative option than working in her father’s paddy fields. “Crops in the flood-prone areas of Lakhimpur and neighbouring Dhemaji district often get destroyed,” said Saikia, whose acting career has provided financial stability to her family. “I supported the education of my two younger sisters. Plus, food, lodging and travelling are free here. Whatever we earn, we can send to our family.”
But even the most ambitious of theatre groups would scarcely imagine performing in a city thousands of kilometres away from home. “The invitation to perform in Bengaluru was very tempting,” said Parashar, 38. “We took it as a challenge. It took us months to plan the travel and stage the plays. I’m happy the risk paid off. The audience loved our plays.”
The biggest challenge for Awahan was to take its 90-member crew and stage equipment all the way to Bengaluru. The artistes and technicians travelled 2,992 km over 54 hours on the Guwahati Bangalore Express, while two trucks carried the marquee, bamboo sticks, wooden planks, sound and light equipment and utensils.
Parashar’s “major headache” was that most of her colleagues had never stepped outside Assam. “They are simple rural folks,” she said. “They don’t speak Hindi or English. A lot of them were working as farm labourers and shop assistants before joining mobile theatre.”
In his 30 years of acting and travelling, veteran actor Jayanta Das had never dreamt of performing in front of an urban audience in a “mega city”. In Assam, bhramyaman performances are usually frequented by people from villages and towns. Most people in urban areas view touring theatre as a bit crude, or at least used to until fairly recently.
Performing in Bengaluru felt surreal, said Das, as he sat on a plastic chair outside a makeshift tent erected by Awahan in a field off Sarjapur Road. The trucks that carried the props and equipment were parked in a corner of the field. Inside the tent, a 72 feet x 24 feet wooden proscenium was built, where the drama unfolded.
“[It was] an experience of a lifetime,” said Das.
Two decades ago, Kohinoor Theatre had staged a production titled Titanic, inspired by the eponymous James Cameron film. The adaptation garnered acclaim, even drawing the attention of national media. The positive response in Bengaluru, said Das, was another “Titanic moment” for the industry.
The willingness to experiment has been the cornerstone of the industry. “We understand the pulse of the audience,” said Prayashi Parashar, younger sister of Prastuti Parashar and an actor with Awahan. “That is why we are popular. Our plays are rooted in reality.”
The three plays, staged in Bengaluru on April 26, 27 and 28, were on “socially-driven subjects”. While Mokorajaal was a suspense thriller, Madhuri Mur Naam and Moi Maar Suwali were about an autistic child and a lady police officer, respectively. All three plays relied on the “star power” of the lead actor Prastuti Parashar, much in the manner of Bollywood potboilers. From dancing and nursing a child to thrashing villains, Parashar was seen doing all this and more.
The Bengaluru trip, said Parashar, was “a big learning experience”. While the enthusiastic response was proof enough that there existed “a market for mobile theatre outside Assam”, Parashar acknowledged that the industry still needs work on its planning and preparation before it can “go national”. “I am confident that Awahan’s Bengaluru sojourn would inspire other theatre troupes to showcase their work outside Assam.”