The 104-year-old Ban Theatre in Tezpur,Assam,has survived wars and cyclones and is still a modern cultural hub.
Phoolmani deka has lived all of her 20 years in the premises of Ban Theatre,Tezpur. The entrance of her house is via the stage wings,past actors in waiting,across snaking light cables,and up a flight of stairs. The crash of drums and the peal of violins on stage waft through the freshly painted walls of the Deka household. Over salty cups of lal cha,she recalls the day her three-year-old brother fell into a well in the auditorium. He had been playing on the wooden stage and slipped through the fragile,broken floorboards. I was in Class IV and that really affected me, she said. My brother was down there. He was screaming. My father jumped in and saved him.
Theatre halls resound with stories of brave deeds,tragic incidents and valiant wars but few theatre halls have their own stories to tell,then few theatres have a 100-year history,or have lived through national freedom struggles,Chinese aggression and cyclones. Started in 1906,Ban Theatre is the oldest in Assam,and likely in India as well. Originally a bamboo-and-mud structure,it is today a 600-seater auditorium,with cranky fans and creaky chairs. For three weeks (from November 12 to 30),it stirred into life with the fourth Poorvottar Natya Samaroh (PNS,Northeast Theatre Festival),organised by the National School of Drama (NSD),in collaboration with the Directorate of Cultural Affairs,government of Assam.
With the Northeast largely absent from Indias cultural landscape,PNS is a small but crucial attempt to bring its arts to the fore. Anuradha Kapur,director,NSD,says,Our intention at the fourth PNS is the same (as the previous ones that were held in Guwahati,Gangtok,and Agartala); it is to bring in distinguished directors from the Northeast,to showcase our workshop productions and to expose people of this area to plays from outside.
Tezpur,located on the Brahmaputra’s north bank,is a gentle town with a bloody past. The name originates from teza,meaning blood,as the battle between Krishnas army and Banasuras army is said to have left the city red. Like all small towns,the pace here is unhurried; the early morning traffic composed of washed faces in school uniforms walking to school. People nod a greeting to each other,every 100 metres. Shops named Rhino,Borah or Baruah appear with startling regularity.
Unlike much of Assam,Tezpur has a relatively peaceful present,points out Binod Sharma,NSD alumnus from Guwahati. The Bodo insurgency has not plagued it as it has its neighbours. The tension is obvious on the 175-km road from Guwahati to Tezpur,which passes through some of the most disputed lands. Army jawans with AK-47s patrolling the villages and convoys of army trucks is a common sight. In the last week of PNS,Tezpur and other cities were witness to unrest when the All Assam Students Union vandalised Vishal Mega Mart. But the festival at Ban Theatre,less than 3 km away,continued uninterrupted.
Tezpur boasts of 20-odd amateur theatre groups,which perform regularly at Ban. Commercial theatre companies run their billboards across the city and perform to packed maidans. And mobile theatre,a unique form of epic-scale,multiple-stage,commercial theatre,thrives. With around 25 major mobile theatre groups employing close to 150 people each,theatre is part of daily life. Ban Theatre,however,has had the distinction of promoting amateur theatre over the last century.
In the pre-Independence period,it was used for mythological dramas staged during Durga Puja. Karthik Hazarika,general secretary of Ban Theatre,says its golden period was 1925-45,because it was then frequented by people like Jyoti Prasad Agarwala (190351),Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha (190969),Phani Sarma (190970). Jyoti,Bishnu and Phani,who were freedom fighters and artistes,are colloquially called the teen murti of Tezpur. In the Chinese aggression of 1962,Ban was temporarily occupied by the Indian army for a year.
With four of its own permanent annual theatre festivals,Ban is a busy space. But NSDs festival is the biggest. The Delhi-based school provided a permanent sound system and light console,refurbished the green room,and Ban became the centre of activity,with two shows daily for nearly three weeks. For Assamese,Bengali and Hindi plays,which attracted the largest crowds,outdoor screens were set up. The compound was used for heated discussions as observers invited by NSD praised and shredded plays with equal fervour.
While most of the observers commended NSD’s attempts to bring theatre to the Northeast,they also found fault with the quality of some of the plays. Bipin Kotak,a multi-media specialist said,They should be more conscious about the standards. Madhu Rao,an actor from Ranchi,added,Groups performing for the first time should not be brought here. The audience and performers are going back richer,though, said Avinash Kaptan,a theatreperson from Vadodara.
The PNS banners have come down. But Phoolmani is already busy rehearsing for Lachit Barphukan,a play about a local hero. The show at Ban Theatre goes on.