A tribute to a progenitor of new ideas, Sukracharjya Rabha

NAMRATA PATHAK

A progenitor of new ideas, Sukracharjya Rabha, is a familiar name in the realm of amateur theatre in Assam. This man from Rampur, Agia, known for his unique experiments in theatre has given a new bounce and identity to it. Every December, theatre enthusiasts all over the world throng to a village in Goalpara situated 200 kms away from Guwahati to witness the famous Under the Sal Tree Festival, an event that attracts around 1200-1500 people annually. With a mud stage, a barricade of straws as a backdrop and bamboo planks as seats, this theatre festival is held in one of the most remote corners of Goalpara, with no spotlights, sound systems, and other technological aids. In the grove of Sal trees, every year, we get to watch a theatre of an unusual kind, radical and nature friendly.

Sukracharjya Rabha’s Badungduppa Kalakendra was founded in 1998 in Goalpara. Once you enter Sukracharjya Rabha’s Badungduppa Kalakendra, you are ushered into a lush green landscape, and a theatre space that worships nature.  Not only Rabha creates a consecrated space of trunks, stems, branches and roots to give us a feeling of a performance rooted in a rural, idyllic setting, but he also dispenses with the proscenium arch. There is no need to vouch for an artificial setting and light. He paves way for an intrinsic, regulatory time of nature with the sun as the only source of light— the performance is attuned to a specific time of a day, be it a warm, scorching afternoon or a not so well-lit evening. Add to it the occasional play of light and shadow—the canopy of the Sal trees act as a natural sieve that filters light. The sky acts as the roof on your head. The twitter of a bird, the rustle of the wind-caressed Sal leaves, a clap here and a footfall there—all add to the rhythmic sound that you get to hear, occasionally spiced up by songs with the accompaniment of musical instruments. Rabha’s strategy is to turn the autonomy of artificial sound upside down. The stillness of the place is occasionally penetrated by music, that too when there is an extreme necessity, otherwise a loaded silence pervades the air. In Badungduppa Kalakendra you are ushered into a world of theatre that is pared down, stripped off the extraneous layers. Once you do away with the outer coverings, peel them off, you are led into an inner essence or the core—this is a world of minimal propensities. Herein lies the charm of Rabha’s performance. You won’t come across an excess, but a selective output, or to name it, a bare theatre.  

The ecological concerns of Rabha’s Under the Sal Theatre Movement are hard to miss. Dialogues are often toned down in favour of a body-centric performance. The performers’ tanned brown bodies reveling in a world of nature erase various kinds of boundaries and walls. Not only such a kind of performance explores the contact point between man and nature, but it also shows how important it is to strike a balance between various domains, to return to the folds of the green, to spread a message on mutual coexistence. Rabha’s performers who put up a spectacle surrounded by the big, tall Sals create an interesting ensemble of movement, sight and sound. They create a unique ensemble of “green theatre,” something that is akin to a search for roots, a drive to cultivate an “intrinsic rural mechanism”, in the words of H. Kanhailal, a renowned theatre exponent and Rabha’s mentor. There is an urge to capture the ebb and flow of country life, the humankind’s vital affinity with nature. Rabha fuses life worlds, bio-forms, and landscapers. He gives birth to a new theatre vocabulary. Rabha weaves the synergy of life into the fabric of theatre.

Sukracharjya Rabha is no more. The pathfinder is gone. The flame is extinguished quite early. Our conversations are left unfinished. Some months ago as I was discussing the intricacies of an academic paper with him, he extended a hearty invitation to his Kalakendra, stated that we need days and days to go on like this— we cannot confine such intriguing discussions to one or two hours. Today I can’t help staring at some blank spaces in my half-done paper. I intended to fill them up after meeting him in December this year. Many things are left undone! Many! But as they say, the show must go on. The legacy would be carried forward. The sals are going to blossom again!