Exploring The Wonderful World of Assam's Mobile Theatres

Posted on 11 April, 2016 by Team Wishberry

Crowds gathered for a mobile theatre play. Image courtesy: Times of India Picture this: somewhere in a distant village in Assam, when the evening inches closer, the crowds gather on a ground where a temporary theatre has been erected. The plays are adaptations of works such as Titanic, Anaconda, Lady Diana, The Invisible Man and many plays by Shakespeare.   Wait, what? Yep. Welcome to the mobile theatres of Assam – a form of entertainment that’s been blooming and thriving in an environment where regional and independent forms of entertainment are losing out to mainstream Bollywood blockbusters. The city of Pathsala is said to be the home of mobile theatre – in fact, it’s called the Hollywood of Assam! These mobile theatres are not such a low-key caravan of a group of people roaming from village to village putting up a haphazard play. It’s a well-organized system – the team consists of 150-180 people – this includes EVERYONE- the actors, the playwrights, technicians and even the cooks! All these and the costumes, props, equipment etc. come packed in at least half a dozen trucks. Each season of a mobile theatre consists of three to four plays. And some groups perform as many as 200 shows in a year! A mobile theatre group stays in each village for a period of three days, post which they’re back on the road again.   What makes these mobile theatre groups so popular? In a time when regional and indigenous films are all but dwindling in Assam, mobile theatres continue to rally on. Even in urban Assamese cities like Guwahati, this form of theatre continues to draw large numbers from all strata of the society, be it the educated upper middle class or those from the lower classes. Let’s look at why. Doing the impossible! Could you ever imagine a theatrical adaptation of an international blockbuster like Titanic or the iconic Bollywood film Sholay done in a regional language? That’s what these mobile theatres are doing. They’re bringing the big stories to smaller towns and villages.   Not just entertainment Making optimum use of its grassroots reach, these mobile theatre groups use their plays as an effective medium to not only educate the masses about social evils, but also about political upheavals from all over the world as well as global issues making the headlines (like the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers). These groups bring conversations taking place on a global level to remote villages.   Larger than life Just because they’re staged by a group that’s always on the move and are often equated to West Bengal’s Jatras which are more simplistic and rustic in style and execution, doesn’t mean that plays performed by Assam’s mobile theatre groups are in any way low key. These are larger than life productions that recreate the visual extravaganza of a level that one’s likely to see only in the movies.   Active participation from the village When a mobile theatre group is performing in a village, the village isn’t playing the part of a mere audience. It actively participates in the various aspects of putting up the show. For ever play staged by a mobile theatre group, the entire process of ticketing is handled by the host village. Post the play, the village gives the theatre group feedback on the plays staged – what they liked, what they didn’t like, what could’ve been handled better. This, in turn, not only helps the theatre groups improve their work but also forms an interesting creative relationship between the team and its audience.   Who are the guys who do this? Assam has been abuzz with group theatre since 1963, although the early roots of this form of theatre were seen in the 16th century when Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev founded the Vaishnavaite movement, which play a key role in forming the state’s drama movement that has shaped works even today. Today there are close to 200 mobile theatre groups in India. Some of the most renowned mobile theatre groups are as follows:
  • Nataraj Theatre company: The start of mobile theatre as we know it today can be traced back to Nataraj Theatre Company started in 1963 by Achyut Lahkar. Nataraj Theatre has been credited with introducing the use of mikes, lights, cinematic effects and an extremely organized arrangement of staging plays into the mobile theatre movement.
  • Kohinoor Theatre: Kohinoor Theatre was started by Ratan Lahkar – nephew of Achyut Lahkar. They made the Assamese stage adaptation of James Cameron’s Jurassic Park, titled Dainosoror Atanka. They also staged a stunning adaptation of Titanic – complete with the music, special effects of the ship, its crashing, helicopter landing! It obviously went on to become the most successful which went on to become the greatest hit in the history of Assamese theatre!
  • Abahan Theatre Another extremely prominent theatre group from Assam, Abahan is known for its adaptation of Andrew Morton’s book Lady Diana. The idea for such an adaptation was inspired by the huge success of Kohinoor’s Lady Diana too, like Titanic, went on to make waves all across the country as well as abroad!
  Other noteworthy mobile theatre groups include Hengul Theatre, Srimanta Sankardev Theatre, Theatre Pragjyotish among others. It is important to note that the entire mobile theatre movement in Assam is not only thriving, but also making profits, without any support from the government. Group members chip in their own money and survive on the unwavering loyalty and support of the locals. Today, this 54 years old movement is an industry with an annual turnover of Rs. 10 Crore!

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