Shamsi Ara Syeka wasn’t prepared to wade through towering trees during her solo performance. In fact, trees were not part of the set of her monodrama dealing with rape and violence. But when the name of the theatre festival is Under the Sal Tree, it is safe to expect some trees on the stage. Bengali play Gohonjatra (Dark Journey), staged by Bangladeshi theatre group Padatic Natya Sangsad at Under the Sal Tree festival, is an intense portrayal of violence in the contemporary world. Written for its sole actor, Syeka, by well-known Bangladeshi playwright Rubayet Ahmed, it tells the story of Salma, who stands up for peace even after she is raped and left to die. “The play didn’t have trees, but it connected with the forest,” says Syeka, who had to negotiate a few trees on the stage to make herself visible to the audience.
Held earlier this week in Rampur village near Goalpara in Assam, Under the Sal Tree theatre festival promotes minimalist theatre. Organised by the Rabha tribal community inside a sal tree forest, the festival uses no artificial lights or sound and has virtually no sets. Theatre groups often improvise to stick to the spirit of the festival, which is respect for nature. A bamboo-built gallery at the venue is quickly filled up by an audience of more than 1,500, mostly from the villages around the forest.
However, this year’s edition of the annual festival, which stages productions by domestic and international theatre groups, was a mountain to climb for the Rabha community. Months before the event, its founder and award-winning playwright and director Sukracharjya Rabha passed away following a massive heart attack. “It was a challenge,” says Cheena Rabha, widow of Sukracharjya, who stepped in to organise the festival.
“I was sceptical of organising the festival without my husband; I wondered if it will even be successful,” says Cheena, a former state shotput champion, who left athletics to join theatre after her marriage to Sukracharjya. “But the community supported us,” she adds. The resilience of the Rabha community, a matriarchal indigenous tribe living in Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal, came to the help of Cheena and Badungduppa Kalakendra, which runs the festival.
Cheena, who has two young children, showed no emotions as she led the festival, launched in 2008 by Sukaracharjya with the help of his mentor and Kalakshetra Manipur’s founder Heisnam Kanhailal. Among the plays this year was Pebet, the Meitei drama written by Kanhailal more than four decades ago. “As an actor, you feel the pulse of the audience,” says Kanhailal’s widow and celebrated theatre actor Sabitri Heisnam. “It is a very intimate festival,” adds Sabitri, also the lead actor in Pebet, a story of social struggle between the marginalised and the rich.
Also at the festival was another Meitei play, Black and White, directed by Imphal-based National School of Drama graduate Victor Thoudam. A participatory play, Black and White, is also about social struggle with an indirect reference to the people’s opposition to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Manipur. “I come from a place where the people are oppressed,” says Thoudam, who studied physical theatre at the London International School of Performing Arts. Both Pebet and Black and White, which represent physical theatre, blended in with the festival’s aim to respect nature through drama. Sons of Earth Mother, a play by the Rabha community, produced by Badungduppa Kalakendra, opened this year’s festival.
Written by Sukracharjya, the play was under production when he died in June this year at the age of 41 years. Badungduppa’s younger members, including Madan Rabha and Dhananjay Rabha, completed the production to honour their mentor’s legacy. Based on a tale of kings from Indian mythology, Sons of Earth Mother shows the fight between two opposing forces, one accumulating power by exploiting natural resources, and the other living in conformity with nature.
Sons of Earth Mother was the 20th play by Badungduppa Kalakendra, established by Sukracharjya in 1998, in the aftermath of the insurgency in Assam that had drawn many young Rabha men. Through his plays, which talked of social struggles and respect for nature, Sukracharjya succeeded in helping the young men return to the mainstream and also overcome a severe alcoholic addiction affecting them after the end of insurgency. Staged on the first day, it was the group’s first play without Sukracharjya. The group, however, gave him the credit for direction. Under the Sal Tree missed his leadership, but Sukracharjya’s spirit for a festival with a difference seems to have lived on.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer