Rhythms of the Sal trees: Sukracharjya Rabha

ASHA KUTHARI CHAUDHURI

Just four days after the horrible shock of reading about the death of a man with a unique theatrical vision, I sat through the staging of Rather Rasi directed by him. The drums reverberated, the rhythms were absorbed and played off by the bodies of the performers of Badungduppa Kalakendra, and the audience sat mesmerized. Even outside of the shade of the Sal forests, Sukracharjya Rabha had managed to hold his audience. Even in his absence, the actors’ bodies unflinchingly delivered what they had learned through years of rigorous practice. In the midst of the troupe stood his five or six-year-old son, who had insisted on acting too. Performance delivered, the tears were allowed to flow. Not a single person in the auditorium left dry-eyed, mourning the sudden exit of the man who had built up an entire structure out of his vision of a ‘natural’ theatre.

Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri with Late Sukracharjya Rabha

And while this was an urban performance, on an artificially lighted auditorium at Guwahati, it still carried the flavours of the forest in that it used the meticulously developed vocabulary so distinctive to the work of Rabha, and of his master, Heisnam Kanhailal, or even the oeuvre of a Thiyam that accords primacy to the elemental presence of the actor’s body in performance.

At the same time, it recalls the work of a Badal Sircar who had stolidly announced his Third Theatre to the world which had then looked inhospitable to a bare, non-proscenium theatre, with the minimum of stage paraphernalia, lights, sounds, etal. When post-independence Indian theatre-makers were trying to bring back to life its ancient living traditions through a revival of what is now known as the theatre of roots, they were probably looking for just such experiments that would garner the rural, local and natural resources. Badungduppa Kalakendra is now just that repository of the local that is robust enough to hold its own on a global stage.

And this was what Sukracharjya Rabha, in a life cut short rudely at 41, was able to achieve and sustain since 1998, when he set up the theatre commune. His theatre travelled as it must, and performed all over the country, but of course it played best at home in Agia, under the sal trees. And other theatres travelled to Badungduppa, year after year. From all over the world. And as they enthralled the audiences at Agia, they went back enthralled too, with the magical tranquility of the sal forests, a space unlike any other.

The legend of Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival grew, and soon there were busloads of people from nearby place visiting, and the bamboo seating was filled to capacity, often bursting at the seams. If you were late, you would just have to quietly creep up and watch the entire show leaning against a sal tree. But the significant thing that Rabha achieved, to my mind was that he actually built up a love of theatre  among the rural folk who were able to see and comprehend performances from far-flung places such as Brazil and Korea apart from the numerous national theatre groups. Even more significantly, they all performed in their own languages.

So yes, when the news of the death came, we all went into a denial. And all of us are anxious about the sustenance and future of a beautiful vision. But the performance of June 12 somehow made it seem possible that the show at Badungduppa Kalakendra might just go on. Indefatigably, as it has by now acquired a life of its own.

And of course Sukracharjya Rabha will hover there somewhere among the sal trees and inspire them on, because ideas and visions do not really die. In the theatre, they can only multiply.

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Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri is Professor and Head of the Department of English at Gauhati University, and specializes in Drama and Theatre Studies. Among her publications are: Mahesh Dattani, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press (Foundation Books), 2005 and Ideas of the Stage: Selections from Drama Theory, Ghy: GUPD, 2010. Her Ph.D. was on the American dramatist, Edward Albee. On a Fulbright Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Award for the year 2015-16, she worked on a research cum lecture project called Theaters, Spectacles, Audiences: Indian and American Cultures of Viewership, at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, New York; she was invited to speak at Columbia University, San Diego University and West Virginia University while on the Fellowship. In September 2016, she curated the first GPlus Guwahati Theatre Festival that is now looking towards its third consecutive run later this year. She also does research and scripts for television documentaries and films.