Nov 28, 2010

অসমীয়া নাটক Assamese drama

Assamese theatre has a glorious history from past days. One type named Ankiya Nat or Bhaona, composed by Vaishnava reformers like Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, staged in community halls termed nam-ghar. There are also some other traditional performatory modes such as Bhaoriya, Dhuliya, and Oja-Pali. In 1875, Theatre of a Western mould, with proscenium stage and Anglo-European dramatic structure, made its first appearance at Guwahati. This was forty-nine years after the British annexation of Assam. English education and exposure to Bengali theatre during higher studies at Calcutta inspired new generation Assamese in the late nineteenth century to launch theatre in their own language, which became instantly popular and in no time swayed all of Assam. Initially, performances were held on temporarily erected stages. But permanent structures came up in the 1890s and by the second decade of the twentieth century, all the district and sub divisional towns, including a few semi-urban places, had at least one theatre. However, it was neither daily, nor weekly, nor even monthly fare. Usually plays were performed during festivals or important occasions or just for the pleasure of putting up a show. Till this day, apart from the recent touring repertory companies known as Bhramyaman Mancha i.e. `mobile theatre`, no group performs daily or weekly on a regular basis. This happened in spite of the fact that a few made unsuccessful attempts previously. Yet shows take place almost daily in the cultural capital, Guwahati, by one group or the other.

Although proscenium theatre arrived in 1875, modern playwriting commenced eighteen years earlier. The first play, Gunabhiram Barua`s Ram-Navami i.e. a festival dedicated to Rama on widow remarriage, was written in 1857. The next, Kania kirtan i.e. `Kirtan to Opium` in 1861, was a satire on opium addiction by Hemchandra Barua. Rudra Ram Bordoloi wrote a social farce, Bongal-bongalani or `Bengali Couple` in 1871-2, satirizing lascivious concubines and promiscuous women who married non-Assamese outsiders. However, there is no documentation whether these texts were staged. Neither is it known for certain with which play Assamese theatre raised its curtain. The first mythological drama, Sita haran i.e. `Stealing Sita by Rama Kanta Chaudhury, came in 1875. With two exceptions, all ten or twelve plays written later in the nineteenth century belonged to this genre. The presumption that the first staged Assamese drama was mythological may stand confirmed by a gazette notification of four shows of Ramabhishek i.e. Rama`s Coronation, from 15 May 1875, though this earliest available record does not mention if it was the first-ever production. Bhaona was the most popular traditional Assamese form of that time. This usually drew its plots from mythological sources like the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Puranas. It was perhaps natural in the transition from traditional theatre to the new variety to retain the content. Mythological drama dominated till about 1920, though it survived till the 1940s, as in Atulchandra Hazarika`s plays.

Early Assamese drama of this age was in blank verse modeled on the Bengali amitrakshar metre, containing fourteen syllables in each line. Later playwrights broke these constraints by adopting the gairish metre, a kind of free blank verse popularized by the Bengali actor-manager Girish Ghosh. Benudhar Rajkhowa introduced prose dialogue in his Duryodhanar urubhanga i.e. `Duryodhana`s Broken Thigh` in 1903. Historical drama appeared alongside the mythological from the beginning of the twentieth century. The example can be given as Padmanath Gohain Barooah`s Jayamati in 1900, as Indian nationalism and the struggle against British colonialism grew in strength. Emotions ran high. Courage, valour, and glories of the past were recreated to arouse patriotism. Such plays dominated after 1920, supremacy that remained intact till just after Independence in 1947. Maniram Dewan, Lachit Barphukan, and Piyali Phukan, collectively by four members of Nagaon Shilpi Samaj in the town of Nagaon, written and staged immediately before and after Independence and earned phenomenal popularity as well.

The source of most historical drama was the Ahom period of Assamese history, which provided many heroes and martyrs i.e. men and women. Among them, two were particularly revered, on whom several works have been written. As for example Jaymati and Lachit Barphukan. Jaymati was an Ahom princess that chose torture and death rather than discloses the whereabouts of her fugitive husband. Lachit Barphukan, a successful Ahom general, twice defeated the Mughal army between 1667 and 1671. His heroics and patriotism are legendary. The much-revered Jyoti Prasad Agarwala made a conscious approach to theatre production for the first time in Shonit Kunwari i.e. `Princess of Shonitpur` in 1924. Before him, attending to actors` speech seemed the manager`s only concern. After him, a few performers like Mitradev Mahanta Adhikar showed similar awareness, but by and large the existence of a concrete production plan correlating and coordinating all departments of theatre was evident only from the 1960s with the arrival of a number of persons formally trained in theatre arts. Within a few years after Independence, historical drama became scarce and made room for social consciousness. The era of modernist social drama may be counted from 1950. Social plays were written before 1947, as early as Benudhar Rajkhowa`s Seuti-Kiran i.e. `Seuti and Kiran` in 1894. But the number was very small. Most concentrated on reform and national awakening against foreign rule, while other aspects of life remained almost untouched. After Independence, playwrights extended their horizons into political problems, class struggle, the caste system, conflict between generations, erosion of values, communal tensions, enmity between tribals and non-tribals, unemployment, disintegration of the joint family, hopes and frustrations of the middle class, and individual psychological conflicts. All of the subjects were very contemporary.

After Kania kirtan and Bongal-bongalani, the first light social play or farce had been Lakshminath Bezbaroa`s Litikai i.e. `Servant` in 1890. It was followed by a number of similar comedies, particularly in the 1930s. Such scripts are written even today, especially in one act, but the number is not large. However, one-act drama holds an important position in Assamese theatre. From the mid-1950s, writers as well as performers felt attracted to it. It became so popular that, during the 1960s, it overshadowed full-length plays. Many one-act competitions used to be held all over Assam, and there were dramatists who specialized in writing short scripts. Until 1949, men portrayed female characters. There were a few attempts to cast women in the 1930s. These can be mentioned as, Braja Natha Sarma tried this in his short-lived, commercial Kohinoor Opera Party. The attempt was also done by the playwright, actor, director, scholar Satya Prasad Barua in his Sundar Sevi Sangha, and by Rohini Barua in Dibrugarh. But the trendsetters had to wait till 1948 when All India Radio launched twin stations at Guwahati and Shillong. Since radio drama required women for female roles, these readers grew used to acting along with men, hence facilitating their appearance on stage. By that time Assamese society also had grown liberal enough to accept, in fact to demand, actresses performing alongside men.

In the early days theatres were lit by candles. But in later days theatre got lighted by hanging rows of kerosene lamps, gaslight, or pressure lamps of the brand name Petromax. All these used to produce a very bright light. When portable power generators became available, they were pressed into service. Electricity came to Assam in the 1920s, but only in a few important towns. The process of electrification in the state started only after 1947. Before 1930, stage decor meant rolled-up painted screens and drapes. Afterwards, flats were used along with painted screens. There were a few attempts at realism by using three-dimensional set pieces. However, realistic scenography made a permanent entry only in the late 1940s, replacing painted backdrops. Stylized sets, even bare stages, have served as theatre designs of late. Costumes were usually hired from agencies that specialized in renting them out. But this practice was more or less abandoned after the 1950s, when mythological and historical plays gave way to realistic social drama, and costumes started to be specially designed for each production.

The idiom in the first phase after Independence was naturalism. Gradually, as contact was established with neo-modern playwrights from the rest of India as well as classics by Ibsen, Chekhov, Gogol, Gorky, Sartre, Camus, Brecht, Beckett, and Ionesco, novelty in form and content became distinctly visible in the work of Arun Sarma and some more. The present trend, in keeping with the rest of the country, is to use local folk and traditional forms. The interface of theatre with cinema has also created some star performers, notably Phani Sarma, and creative directors like Dulal Roy, etc.

(Last Updated on : 22/12/2008)


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