Theatre personality and founder of Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival, Sukracharjya Rabha passed away in Rampur in Assam’s Goalpara district late Friday night.
Rabha was 42. On Saturday night, he slipped and fell in the bathroom after a massive stroke in his residence in Rampur village, about 142 km from Guwahati. His family found him unconscious, and he was later rushed to a private hospital 15 km away. He was declared dead on arrival.
Condolences poured in on social media from various public figures, including Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal and actor Adil Hussain.
Deeply saddened by death of Sukracharjya Rabha, founder of the Badungduppa Kalakendra which led a new movement of theatre in Assam. We have lost a great son of the soil. My heartfelt condolences to his family and wellwishers. pic.twitter.com/peo9GTWr6E
— Sarbananda Sonowal (@sarbanandsonwal) June 8, 2018
I am just so Stunned by sudden Death of one of my most Admired theatre Visionary Shukracharyia Rabha! I cannot emphasise enough the importance about his contributions to theatre. His Absence will be accutly painful for for those who know about his Future Plans! My Deep Respect.
— Adil hussain (@_AdilHussain) June 9, 2018
Hussain, who was visiting his hometown, Goalpara on Saturday received the news around 11 pm. “My immediate reaction was anger. How could this be true,” he told The Indian Express over the phone from Goalpara, “Whenever I come home I invariably end up meeting him to talk theatre, life and art. This time I thought I would pay him a surprise visit and thus did not end up calling him.”
Rabha’s most notable plays include Rupalim (a Rabha language adaptation of Assamese playwright Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s work in the Rabha language), Madaiah, The Cobbler (a Bodo adaptation of Kannada playwright, HS Shivaprakash’s work) as well as original Rabha plays such as Dangai and Dumukchi.
“We have lost a dream,” say Assamese filmmaker Sanjib Hazarika, “Who will run the Badungduppa now?” The Badungduppa is a Rampur-based theatre group comprising local villagers trained and taught by Rabha. Established in 1998 by Rabha, it is touted to be one of the country’s few contemporary “tribal” theatre groups.
“The first time I saw his play, I did not understand a single world, despite it being in a language spoken 8 km from my hometown,” says Hussain, “This is a reflection on how non-tribals would look down upon tribals. The tribes knew Assamese, but we (the non-tribals) didn’t even care to learn their language.” In this context, Rabha’s contribution to theatre — and society — has been manifold. “Through art, he has touched upon finer human sensibilities of love and respect. And reestablished the fact that genuine practice of art creates learning and dialogue.”
Rabha himself was trained under Manipuri theatre legend Heisnam Kanhailal, who he considered his guru. “His style of practising theatre was very much like Kanhailal’s,” says filmmaker Utpal Borpujari, who collaborated with Rabha on his recent National Award-winning film, Ishu. “Most people from the Bandungduppa Kala Kendra acted in Ishu while Rabha helped me with the dialogues. Without him Ishu would not have bene possible.” he says, adding that Rabha was more a friend than a colleague.
In 2008, Rabha and Kanhailal co-founded the Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival in Rampur— an open-air festival of traditional theatre in the middle of a forest filled with sal trees. Last December, the festival had its eight edition. “He has shown us how to respect nature while working within it,” says Borpujari, “He had recently acquired a new plot of land near his village and was very excited about it. He planted 600 saplings of local varieties there.”
What made Badungduppa such a crucial turning point in Assam’s theatre industry is that it served as a viable career option for many local Assamese youths, especially from the Rabha community. In the 1990s. when the armed insurgent struggle was at its peak in Assam, it would invariably absorb many impressionable youngsters. “He transformed the entire area where he lived — an area which was for long infested by aggression and insurgency,” says Hussain.
“He was a dedicated soul. The concern and hope now is for his work and vision to live on,” says Hazarika. There were talks of making the Under the Sal Tree festival — where has a strict policy of no artificial lights or sounds— international in 2019. While it did see global representation in the form of participation of groups from Sri Lanka, Poland and Brazil last year, the next step was to make it “a truly international theatre festival”. “I had been scouting around for groups abroad for this reason,” says Hussain, “In a region where people were fighting with each other, Rabha made them care for trees. We have lost not just an individual but an institution.”