When the final draft of the National Register of Citizens, an exercise in Assam to determine who an Indian citizen is, was published in 2018, Sahidul Haque’s name was missing. “My immediate response was, ‘There has been a mistake. I am definitely Assamese,’” he recalls. At the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, where his play The Old Man, was performed as part of the national theatre festival, Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM), this month, Haque could be found lounging in the food court with his troupe. He is relaxed because his mother went to the NRC office in Guwahati armed with land papers, photographs and every document she could find and fit in her bag to convince the state about his citizenship. In September 2019 the final NRC list was published and I was on it,” says Haque
Assam is the protagonist of Haque’s theatre. It flows like the undeterred current of the Brahmaputra in Bubbles in the River (2018), a play about lives, cultures and traditions of ethnic tribes and indigenous people that are threatened by globalisation. In Nawor (2017), a folk tale about a prince who falls in love with a common girl, Haque worked with a tribal language, Tiwa, which is spoken only by a handful of old people. He explores the indomitable spirit of the Assamese people in The Old Man, adapted from Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, by placing an elderly fisherman, who is determined to catch the big fish of the river, alone in the waters of the Brahmaputra on a stage where darkness alternates with cold blue light.
The Old Man has been shortlisted for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), in categories such as Best Play and Best Light Design (for Tapan Baruah). Niranjan Nath, who plays the fisherman, has been nominated for Best Best Actor (Male) in Lead Role while Haque is competing in a wide range of categories, from Best Director to Best Stage Design to Best Choreography. “I have learnt many art forms. I have been painting, singing and dancing since I was very young. This is because, in Assam, you will find an artist, actor, dhol player or Bihu dancer in every household. In a state with many ethnic groups, tribes and migrant populations, culture binds people. Assamese believe that culture is more important than religion,” says Haque.
The stage of The Old Man boasts a box that changes, from a house to a boat to a platform for the fisherman. A chorus of four uses lyrical body movements to depict waves, fish and a wide cast of characters. “”There are a lot of physical movement in my plays. I like using the body to speak,”” says Haque.
He began performing in theatre as a child. His father, a farmer who was determined that Haque would not follow in his footsteps, left him free to pursue his art. The plays they staged were small and simple, depending on folk stories or legend to capture the imagination. “Theatre is where I went to forget my reality. I wanted to escape my background, the social unrest and my personal issues. Even today, when I am disturbed, I work on a play. That is the only option I have to relax,” he says.
In 2007, after graduating in political science from Nagaon College, Guwahati University, Haque enrolled at the Himachal Cultural Research Centre in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. He was carrying a vast vocabulary of body movements he had picked up as he grew up performing among farmers, labourers and boatmen who were artists in Nagaon. In the past seven years, he has created 35 plays — many of which were made when Haque was actor-researcher with the Theatre in Education programme at NSD. Among these are Black rain (2019), a play he devised with children about children in the war zones of Kashmir, Syria and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ‘I wanted to ask, ‘How do children see war?” says Haque.
The grim performance – not many in the audience were convinced it was “meant for children” — used vignettes such as a group of children turning shrapnel from bomb blasts into toys. The buzz of an airplane is a signal to duck inside a bomb shelter in an improvised game of hide and seek. In some scenes, children find a crater formed by a bomb that the rain turns into a swimming pool. “When children can’t go to school or parks, what else will they do but play with whatever is available to them,” says Haque, who drew upon the experiences of orphaned children he had worked with in NGOs.
A month before a performance, Haque and the troupe start living together with their families in an apartment in Akshardham. The conversation there is buzzing with ideas for the next play. “‘We are thinking of a play on the CAA and NRC. We have experienced the fires burning in Assam. Newspapers tell you facts but a play can show you details of what happens to normal people on the ground so that you feel their anguish,” he says.
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