Images: Merajur Rahman Baruah
Images: Merajur Rahman Baruah

A mobile mirror

Living in the realm between social reality and scripted stage, the mobile theatre community in Assam not only entertains, but also reflects the absurdity of life.

The onslaught of television channels for the last two and a half decades seems to have redefined the very notion of leisure and entertainment in the average Indian household. Today most of the population is beholden to satellite television for their daily dose of amusement. However, the majority of the rural population in the state of Assam still remains engrossed in the art form of mobile theatre. Imagine people queuing up to buy theatre tickets at 5 am. It's not an illusion or some utopian situation, but a reality across the state from mid-August to 13 April every year.

Assam, situated on India's northeast frontier, is home to this unique form of entertainment. The touring theatre groups visit towns and villages, carrying their own stage equipment, generators and even auditoriums in trucks. They pitch their tents in open spaces and erect makeshift auditoriums with seating capacities between 2000 and 2500. For quick changes of scene, two stages are erected. After rehearsing for about two months, each theatre troupe travels across the state to 70 pre-determined locations and performs for 210 consecutive nights, staging plays for three to four days in each place. Come winter, spring or early rain, nothing deters the local folk, and every year theatre aficionados pack the tents in droves, making mobile theatre the biggest entertainment industry in the entire Northeast and leaving mainstream cinema far behind.

The mobile theatres' source of income is completely restricted to ticket revenues, with prices ranging from INR 40 to 60 for gallery audiences and 100 to 200 for those in the front rows. Interestingly, mobile theatres donate 40 percent of their income to schools, colleges, village clubs, and other social and religious organisations, thus concurrently performing a social service. This arrangement is perhaps the only one of its kind in the world. Another unique feature of the mobile theatres is that the entire company – nearly 130 people, including the actors, directors, producers, technicians, cooks, helpers and even the drivers – travel and live together like a commune, performing their respective duties, coordinating their activities day in and day out for nine months and eventually sharing a common cultural space and identity. Self-reliance is the intrinsic rule of this art form.

Initially the mobile theatre repertoire was based purely on mythology and folklore. With the passage of time it has undergone an exceptional transformation, and today the uniqueness of mobile theatre dwells in the topicality and diversity of its themes. Mobile theatre embraces a range of contemporary material; this has included plays based on the royal palace massacre in Nepal, the attacks on the World Trade Center, the lives of Saddam Hussein, Benazir Bhutto and Lady Diana, and adaptations of James Cameron's Titanic and other Hollywood successes like The Lost WorldGodzilla, and My Best Friend's Wedding. While tackling contemporary issues from around the world, over the last few years mobile theatre has received rave reviews in the international media, with dozens of foreign journalists and television crews trailing the travelling theatres through bad weather and muddy villages. In spite of the lack of state support or any other patronisation, mobile theatre has sustained itself as an alternative art form, coping with the changing times and adapting in order to stay relevant. Embracing modern technology to compete in a world of sleek media production, it has revamped and redefined global trends in a local context.

Forgotten heroes
Recently, this writer filmed a documentary entitledThe Nine Months about the tradition, style and aesthetics of this unique form of performing art, delving into the lives of the approximately 5000 people engaged in the 40-odd mobile theatres during their nine-month season. The journey started from Pathsala, a small town in south Assam and the traditional hub of mobile theatre, where the legendary Achyut Lahkar, the founder of mobile theatre, realised his dream in 1963. While today's mobile theatre groups celebrate their resounding success, the man who gave the world this new performing art sits alone in a sombre mood at his dilapidated residence. The interior of his house is designed like a mobile theatre set, the walls swarming with trophies, mementos and certificates of appreciation, all bearing testimony to his long journey of artistic experimentation and accomplishment.  When we met, he was ecstatic about the grand success of the medium, though he did not hide his disappointment about the closure of his pioneering Nataraj Theatre group after 40 successful years. He is still unable to recover from a deep creative slumber, which is indeed a great loss to the history of mobile theatre.

One of Achyut Lahkar's most significant contributions to performing art was to bring women to the stage. This opened new vistas for female artists, enabling them to fulfil their artistic passions and aspirations, and giving them the confidence to lead lives of independence and dignity on par with male artists. This is illustrated by Anupama Bhatacharya, who played the first female lead role in the Nataraj Theatre. She started her acting career in the Assamese film Siraj in 1948, and her family was socially ostracised since working in film meant that she was considered a fallen woman. But she defied societal sanctions and continued to act in the film. When Shiraj was a major hit she was acclaimed and established her career in acting. When Achyut Lahkar formed his mobile theatre group, he offered Bhatacharya a leading role with remuneration of INR 2000 for the entire nine months. It was a lucrative offer for any actor then, and as a single parent with family obligations to fulfil Bhatacharya could not refuse. Bhatacharya made history as a pioneer in her own right. She expressed her deep satisfaction at having been a path breaker for female actors in mobile theatre, as it was her decision that opened vistas for other female actors now making a career in mobile theatre and earning handsome salaries. Some of the actresses charge more than INR 30 lakhs for a theatre season. But Bhatacharya also laments that she now leads a solitary and retired life, and none of the theatre groups ever invite her to watch their plays even if the company's stage is in the field right next to her home. She grieves, and expresses her enduring love for acting.

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Himal Southasian