RAMPUR, A sleepy hamlet situated about 150 km from Guwahati, the capital of Assam, is anything but a venue for a global event. For one, it’s completely cut off from airwaves. There are also no hotels. Plus, the whole area plunges into darkness even before it is 5 in the evening. But despite all this, the Rabha ethnic community living here—on the fringes of a highly-revered Sal tree forest—has ensured that their village’s weakness becomes its strength. From December 15-18, the village played host to an international festival of theatre, bringing in productions from countries like South Korea, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Poland—and nobody complained about anything.
Theatre as weapon
A theatre festival is nothing new for the residents of Rampur, who have seen drama companies from across India stream into their measly surroundings from as early as 2008. That was the year when the community launched its first theatre festival, christening it ‘Under the Sal Tree’. For many years now, theatre has been the new weapon for the community to engage with their own demons in the backdrop of the ethnic strife that has plagued Assam in the past century. “The community suffered alcohol abuse and there was rampant felling of Sal trees then,” says Sukracharjya Rabha, who founded the festival. “We performed plays dealing with drinking,” says 35-year-old Rabha, a former student leader.
When Rabha organised the first Under the Sal Tree festival in 2008, only 15 people turned up, he says. “But we started on time,” beams Rabha. By the second day, the number had gone up to 35 and people came one-and-a-half hours before the third performance, he adds. Interestingly, the venue chosen was the Sal tree forest, something that continues even today. At this year’s edition, the first involving international theatre companies, audience attendance was around 1,700. “It is a matter of prestige for the village,” says Rampur’s village head Hemar Singh Rabha.
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A few Sal trees spill on to the stage in the forest where the performances are held. A bamboo gallery serves as a sitting place for the audience. The festival organisers’ brief to the participating productions is to stay away from energy-guzzling lighting and audio equipment. Therefore, the only equipment the Janakaraliya theatre group from Sri Lanka used for their Tamil play Payanihal (Passengers) was a 10-foot pole they had brought from home. “We decided to not use our usual lighting,” says Parakrama Niriella, artistic director, Janakaraliya, which stages the original play in Sinhalese to bridge the racial divide in Sri Lanka.
“It is bringing us back to our roots,” says Shilpika Bordoloi, a movement artiste from Assam, who performed at the festival in 2014. “With everybody wanting to acquire wealth and material, this festival is going back to the community,” says Bordoloi, whose 2014 performance, Majuli, was based on the socio-cultural and spiritual life in the river island of the same name on Brahmaputra river in Assam.
Keeping with the festival tradition of forest and nature conservation, another participating entry was from Brazil, home to the dwindling Amazon rainforests. Estrelas (Stars), the Portuguese-English solo performance by Marilyn Nunes, captivated the audience with its minimalistic use of space and equipment.
“I am totally surprised by this festival,” says Inhyun Song, a South Korean artist, who performed his production Black Hen, which is about racial tensions in modern Korean society. “It is a natural festival.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer