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Spectacle under the sal

Jennifer Kishan | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on December 22, 2017
Ray of light: Jyoti Dogra, director and actor who performed her play, Notes on Chai, at the festival

Ray of light: Jyoti Dogra, director and actor who performed her play, Notes on Chai, at the festival

A drum roll’s bated breath: The festival uses indigenous musical instruments for sound and natural daylight for the performances.

A drum roll’s bated breath: The festival uses indigenous musical instruments for sound and natural daylight for the performances.   -  Jennifer Kishan

All the forest’s a stage: A performance by Manipur Theatre Troupe from Moulvibazar, Bangladesh, held the audience captive.

All the forest’s a stage: A performance by Manipur Theatre Troupe from Moulvibazar, Bangladesh, held the audience captive.   -  Jennifer Kishan

A feast for the eyes: Villagers in and around Rampur participate in large numbers each year. Under the Sal speaks their language and tells their stories, which has grown to give meaning to their lives.

A feast for the eyes: Villagers in and around Rampur participate in large numbers each year. Under the Sal speaks their language and tells their stories, which has grown to give meaning to their lives.   -  Jennifer Kishan

A small, one-of-its-kind theatre festival held inside the sal forest of Rampur in Assam with nature as the prop is steering a new performing arts discourse

Under a grove of a sal tree forest lies a most beguiling spectacle. Rows of bamboo seats fringe a rustic hand-made mud stage. As the notes from a bortal hit the air, there is pin-drop silence among the several hundred who make the crowd. The dialogues and monologues from traditional theatre spar against the beat of a leather drum. Shards of light break through the enchanted space. In a slow-building crescendo, Rabindranath Tagore’s Rather Rashi, reaches the peak of its crisis — the immobility of time. Almost mimicking this immobility is the standstill world that surrounds the stage.

The annual Under the Sal Tree theatre festival, held at Badungduppa Kala Kendra in Rampur, Assam, is one of its kind. Surrounded by nature and deeply embedded in values of traditional theatre, it aspires to reconnect man to nature by using theatre as a means to pass on stories.

Deep in the hinterland, the sleepy, quaint town of Rampur becomes a bustling hub of activity every year in December as people from in and around its villages come together to this sal forest, ominously called ‘the forest of Macbeth’, to set up a mud stage and a makeshift theatre village, and present an assortment of plays rooted in folklore. Performing arts is innate to this region; it does not merely entertain, but becomes a way to channel the most visceral emotions of the people.

Conceived by Heisnam Kanhailal, the legendary theatre director from Manipur, the festival started in 2008 with four plays, a joint venture between Kanhailal’s Kalakshetra Manipur and Badungduppa Kala Kendra, Assam. In 2009, it took on a festival format with the intention to explore research-oriented, non-commercial theatre. Since then, every year, plays are organised around a theme that evolves from a week-long workshop held at the Badungduppa Kala Kendra sometime in August-September. It is enriched with inputs from theatre critics and academicians. The festival has grown steadily over the past eight years, both in popularity and the theatre genres it has opened itself to. Last year, the festival registered global participation with plays from Poland, Brazil, South Korea, and Sri Lanka.

This year’s edition was supported by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (Delhi) and Assam’s ministry of culture. The theme ‘Rasong’, translates from Rabha language to ‘live theatre’, denoting that which gives life to existence. Open to interpretation, the theme conceptualises ‘live theatre’ and addresses the dichotomy between the ‘self’ and pseudo liberal expressions of the ‘self’, between nature and that which is perceived as ‘real’, issues that resound the disappearing ‘nature- man symbiosis’. ‘Rasong’, as the festival conceptualises, “aspires to meaningfully fill up the void between ‘living’ and ‘to be alive’.”

Sukracharya Rabha, theatre practitioner and co-founder of the festival, insists the festival veers more towards research rather than a competitive format. The ambience in which it is held makes it unique. Nestled in the woods, it relies on daylight and the echoing acoustics of the sal forest. This kind of theatre, Sukracharya says, is linked to identity and personal space. As it intends to forge back the link between man and his natural environment, it cannot resort to the alienating threshold of an artificial stage. Instead, it draws from the old and indigenous form of ‘ manch’, and aims to use its flexibility and freedom from a romanticised vision of a proscenium stage to reach its audience in its purest form.

The festival opened with Sukracharya’s production based on Tagore’s Rather Rashi. It enacts a critical point in Hindu mythology when the chariot of Shiva (the lord of time) would not move forward, much to the dismay of the uppercaste people. Struck by the immobility of time, perhaps the worst crisis civilisation could be in, the world turns towards the downtrodden to finally show the way. Based on the traditional Rabha performance methods, it harnesses emphasised body movements to depict emotion, and focuses on the upending notions of caste politics and the struggle of the lowest strata for survival; a theme relevant even a hundred years down. The background score of leather drums and traditional wind instruments adds flavour to the performance.

The plays showcased at Under the Sal Tree festival are multidimensional and speak of universal human emotions that reaches out without the crutch of add-ons. This year, it had a spate of plays in Assamese, Bengali, and Manipuri. The Manipur Theatre Group from Bangladesh performed Ingal Adhar Pala, a poignant play on the forlorn predicament of a mridanga player. Intriguingly, the performers hail from Moulvibazar in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and are Manipuri Bangladeshis. Ergo, the dialogues of Ingal Adhar Pala weave in both Manipuri and Bengali. The natural affinity between these cultures become stark when the performers break out in Rabindra sangeet. Invariably, the play ends with Tagore’s poetry, immortalised in the national anthem of Bangladesh.

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Jyoti Dogra’s Notes on Chai, a contemporary piece, closed the three-day festival. A solo performance by the Mumbai-based artiste, it harnesses vocal techniques, and through a series of mundane, ordinary conversations forces the spectator to relocate their position in relation to the ordinary. Savita Rani’s interactive solo entry, RIP (Restlessness in Pieces) delves into a woman’s personal and political journey through time and space. Rani, trained at the National School of Drama, says, “An interactive play can get mixed reactions from the audience. Whenever I perform on a formal stage, I tend to feel the distance between the audience and the performer. Lights, sets, sound systems and the entire set-up of proscenium stage often alienate the audience from my act. I have always enjoyed open space performances where the audience vibes with the act itself. The informal atmosphere at Under the Sal Tree allows that bonhomie. I could feel a stronger connect and that energy reverberated through the performance.”

Manalmugudi Theatre Land’s Illusional Clowns Mystic Mirrors, taps into the burgeoning culture of Tamil theatre to tell stories of migration and displacement. These contemporary experiments that juxtaposed with more traditional performances gave the festival a new direction.

A special tribute was also paid to the festival’s guiding force, founder and mentor, Kanhailal. A statue of the theatre veteran, sculpted by Biren Singha, was unveiled by his wife and actor Sabitri Devi at the Kala Kendra premises.

Changes have been inevitable as the festival grew and expanded over the years. The selection for plays this year, for instance, was through a call for entries rather than a workshop. The venue has expanded to include a smaller mud stage with three floodlights to facilitate evening plays — a small deviation from its earlier stance to use natural light alone. The new venue is more compact and can accommodate three evening plays.

Theatre festivals take a life of their own, and Under the Sal Tree’s future, it appears, is all about playing it by ear. The festival has been gaining its place in the litany of viable theatre festivals in the country. Sukracharya recounts the considerable increase in footfall last year thanks to the presence of international productions on the itinerary. While exposure to more contemporary and global theatrical genres is welcome, this also entails a need for bigger budgets and more manpower. The growing crowd also poses challenges. The new venue as well ticketed shows were introduced this year to manage the growing numbers. “By next year we might add another venue and hold simultaneous shows for better crowd management. We have also decided to accept international entries biennially and showcase productions from the subcontinent in the alternate years.” His excitement, however, is palpable, “Next year we are hoping to have productions from at least a dozen countries, and it will aid a healthy exchange of ideas and contemporary styles of theatre.”

HS Shivprakash, playwright and academician, who has had a long association with the festival, draws a roadmap for the future. “Theatre can no longer be pure entertainment or pure folk theatre, or propaganda theatre. In the present political scenario, theatre must rise to embrace a new political imagination, albeit non-Western. Presenting itself as a parallel alternative space, Under the Sal Tree invokes an independent voice necessary in this changing theatre discourse.”

Jennifer Kishan is a Kolkata-based writer and photographer

Published on December 22, 2017
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