Shot in arm for roots theatre of northeast
New Delhi: It is not always script or role-bound; some of it is performed by the peasants themselves and some related to shamanistic rituals. Folk theatre of the northeast is battling to survive as it clings to its indigenous roots. A showcase-cum-symposium of roots theatre from the northeast is now on at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) here as the government tries to help preserve it through more financial support and greater exposure.
"The northeast`s indigenous theatre groups do not get adequate encouragement from their state`s art and culture departments because even the governments are not aware of the nitty-gritty of the indigenous theatre traditions," A.C. Bhagawati, head of division of the North-Eastern Regional Centre of IGNCA, told reporters here.
The performers are mostly poor peasants and have different vocations to earn livelihoods.
"They perform at fairs and festivals only if they are invited. They don`t have resources to buy costumes. Several indigenous theatre groups do not know how to approach the state department for grants," Bhagawati said.
For instance, the Kamarupia Dhuliya, a community of ancient percussionists and acrobats from Kaihati village in Nalbari district of Assam, is struggling to keep the 208-year-old Dhuliya-Bhaoria tradition alive.
The impoverished peasant performers staged a mythological play "Devi Durga" in the traditional "Dhuliya-Bhaoria" style and ethnic dialect at the Indigenous Theatre Festival of Northeast India at IGNCA April 2-10.
The dhuliyas enacted an extract from goddess Durga`s slaying of Mahisasura, the demon king, using a combination of dance, drama, dialogue and percussion music.
They are among 16 troupes from the remote villages of the region who are now part of the showcase. It is supported by the Guwahati-based Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra.
The lack of exposure and audience has made indigenous theatre troupes insular. They remain confined to their community.
"Tangkhul Nurabi" from Manipur is a ritual drama grounded in the tradition of Lai Haraoba, a shamanic prayer ritual about the quarrels and subsequent union of two deities who contributed to the growth of the Meitei community.
The culture ministry is helping roots theatre find a place for itself in the mainstream, culture secretary Jawhar Sircar said at a workshop on Indigenous Theatre from North East, which is complementing the showcase.
"We (ministry of culture) value the diversity of northeast. Please do not get into the homogenisation or standardisation that theatre is undergoing now," Sircar appealed to the performers.
The biggest problem for folk or roots theatre in India, according to Sircar, is re-creating theatre itself on the urban proscenium stage because roots theatre is not script- or role-bound. Folk theatre needs an open semi-circular stage, he said.
"The problem arises when we anglicise and move on - and in the process an element of Sanskritisation comes in," he said.
The culture ministry is trying to create more open, semi-circular stages for indigenous theatre troupes through a grant sanctioned by the national committee to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.
The committee led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and being steered by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has "provisions for funds to build new Tagore performance centres and renovate the existing ones".
"Cultural organisations can avail of the grant to build open-air semi-circular stages because Tagore was a patron of indigenous arts and theatre," Sircar said.
The government also has provisions for "salary grant schemes for traditional performers" and a studio grant for advanced performers.
At least 600 traditional troupes with one "guru and minimum 10 shishyas (disciples)" have benefited from Rs.14-Rs 15 lakh each under the scheme, a culture ministry spokesperson said.
The northeast is high on IGNCA agenda, said anthropologist Simon John, associate professor of folklore studies at the centre.
"The centre has initiated a study on the Vaishnavi tradition and Islamic heritage of northeast together with IIT-Guwahati and `Vimana in Ethical World (a north-east oriented)` project with JNU," John said.
"It is also documenting the textile heritage of the region with NID-Ahmedabad," he added.