I heard the news at 11 pm on Friday when SP, Goalpara, Amitava Sinha, called me and said, ‘I have very bad news’. The last time I met Sukracharya Rabha was in the SP’s house, where we had dinner and talked about starting a walking track in the forest so that the local people from the town and the tribes could interact while they walked. Sukra said, ‘Adil, you should come and inaugurate it and talk about how walking helps and how connecting with nature helps’.
When an individual dies, you, somehow, reconcile with the fact that it was the person’s time to go. But, when the kind of work he has done is so far-reaching in terms of creating a society through art and theatre, you feel a deep sense of despair and anger.
For almost 10 years, I saw the finer human qualities, which are empathy, compassion, respect for diversity and plurality, looking at truth from several perspectives and also teaching people, directly or indirectly, that you can have an opposite point of view but you don’t need to fight and become violent if you disagree, in the works of Sukracharya. Art, if it is practised genuinely and sincerely with the intention of spreading generosity and large-heartedness in people, becomes a bridge that opposes the human ‘dog-instinct’ that is territorial and present in each and every human being on the planet. Art comes as a glue, a gum and a bridge to bring people together in spite of different beliefs systems, colour, age, ethnicity, faith and gender. The loss I feel at Sukra’s passing is severe and irreparable. He is survived by his wife, his father, who is bedridden with paralysis, a son, a daughter and 25 theatre workers from his group, Badungduppa, who are feeling orphaned.
When I first saw Sukra’s work, it was in Delhi and I did not know the language though, strangely, the performers live only a few kilometres from the town of Goalpara — to which I belong — in a village called Rampur. I was simply blown by the concept of the performance and the simplicity and innocence of the Rabha actors. There is an arrogance among us, the people from the plains and the so-called educated classes, which makes us look down upon others who are not like us. We don’t even bother to learn the language that they speak, such as Rabha and Garo.
Sukracharya did not force people or say, ‘Learn our language, learn our culture’, but he, through plays, tried to depict the innocence, the wisdom and the beauty of the Rabha people. He showed us the sense of camaraderie that they have with the environment, the knowledge that they have about the oral tradition from their ancestors and the wisdom of the folklore. People from all over the country watched his performances and were totally bowled over.
He trained with India’s foremost avant-garde artistes, Heishnam Kanhailal and Sabitri Devi, whose theatre is rooted in their culture and is yet universal. Sukra stayed with them for two years. Kanhailal was invited to his place in Assam to initiate the process of his group with actors and, slowly, Sukracharya took over. My biggest regret is that I never attended the festival, Under the Sal Tree, which Sukra had initiated to showcase theatre in the open air. When I met him last, we were planning to take the 2019 edition of the festival truly international. I told him that my most-favourite theatre groups come from eastern Europe and we could get in touch with them.
Sukra had practical future visions, such as creating an art university because he deeply understood what art can do for society. It can play the most important role, of the unifier, of bringing hearts together from different parts of the world. We had long chats about that. I used to say that, if we truly practised art — not the touristic art propagated by government agencies but art that is practised vigorously and rigorously — from the primary school level, and art becomes as important as Math that we learn, the government would spend a lot less money on law and order. Exchanges could happen between different states regularly instead of only during cultural festivals. We used to dream and plan how, after a while, I would come and join him in Assam. Now, we have to think about how to sustain the group and keep alive the work Sukra did.