The Northeast is known as a region where the English language has found easy acceptance, perhaps this is the reason why you find a burgeoning audience for English theatre in Guwahati. It also comes as no surprise that one of the pioneers of English theatre here was an Anglo-Indian theatre enthusiast, George Baker who later created a name for himself in West Bengal; he is also known as the inimitable hero of the Assamese film from yesteryears, Chameli Memsaab. Other names that come to mind are Babi Barua, Asha Kothari Choudhury, Ranjit Choudhury, Rupa Shome, to name only a few. Today, Ranjeev Lal Baruah , Rohan Das, Manash Das, Dr Bijoy Chaudhury are the ones who are keeping the flag flying high for English theatre.
Driven by Passion
A cursory comparison of English plays with amateur plays in Assamese would illuminate the fact that there are not many elements which are similar. As far as themes are concerned, English plays are mostly adaptations of English classics. Assamese plays, on the other hand, deal with a wide range of themes ranging from the vernacular to famous plays in different languages of the world. There seems to be a difference in treatment too, especially in the handling of plots and characters. Assamese plays have gone along with both the tried and tested as well as experimented with new themes. English theatre till date has mostly gone by the book. But having said that, Art for Art’s Sake by Rohan Das proved to be a welcome deviation where a French play was adapted to suit Indian sensibilities; the end product turned out to be a good effort in the post modern genre.
To get back to the origins of English theatre, theatre enthusiasts like Babi Barua and Ranjit Chaudhury, both professors of English at Cotton College, felt the need to do theatre in English when they first returned armed with degrees from the nation’s capital. That there was definitely a viable and sizeable audience for English plays in the Northeast dawned on them, and, in no time, popular theatre groups like Shakespeare Society, and, more recently, Arohan Enterprise, and Stage Fusion came up. Stage Fusion has been staging plays almost annually and successfully generating quite a buzz. One of the first plays that made an impact was Merchant of Venice directed by Babi Barua, which was in the true sense of the term a runaway hit. More plays of Shakespeare followed with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. But there were other plays like J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, A Streetcar Named Desire, and a Plot for Murder based on the very successful Dial M for Murder that did well too.
A Space of One’s Own
However, directors and actors involved with English theatre often impress upon the fact that although English plays run to almost full houses, the audience is a niche one. Perhaps language could be a limiting factor. But it has also to be considered that English plays are mostly restricted to adaptations and only the entertainment quotient is kept in mind while performing a play. Addressing serious concerns afflicting our society such as terrorism, corruption, rapidly deteriorating environment, or divisive elements that are corroding the fabric of society is essential, art after all can ill-afford to exist just for its own sake. The actors and directors engaged with the craft also desire to do serious work; almost all of them pursue a different calling and take out time to stage plays from their busy schedules.
Some have also commented that there is a dearth of original scripts and script writers and hence adaptations are often a compulsion, although they also express a desire to do original Assamese plays provided they are well-translated. It is, however, encouraging that everyone agrees that niche or not, there is definitely an audience for English theatre. And, if there is an audience, there will always be actors and directors who will cater to that need.
Meenakshi Gautam is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati
Photo Courtesy: Meenakshi Gautam
This article was first published in Eclectic (September 2015) issue