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Benil Biswas
Date of Publish: 2016-02-27

Reverberations of Badungduppa: Between Identity, Ecology and Theatre


Thousands of people comprising the audience (predominantly rural from neighbouring villages, semi-literate or mostly illiterate), theatre experts and critics ecstatic and energized by the awesome, finely tuned and vibrant performances of those artists, delivering dialogues and expressions through their body-movements and neatly curved steps- without any make-up, artificial sound and light system, as if blending with the surrounding Sal trees.  If the sun’s rays were sufficient to dazzle body-movements of those (rural) artists, the tranquillity of nature and pin drop silence of the (rural) audience were ample for the artists to spread their powerful dialogues to every audience even the farthest one; spell bound expression of audience with little children in their stillness trying to savour the expression with intermittent burst of glee and laughter. They admire the beauty, skill of the artists who engage in long hours of regular physical exercise sessions and meditation periods adequate to accentuate their bodies devoid of any artificial make-up.

This is not the description of a Robert Wilson, Peter Brook, Pina Bausch or Ariane Mnouchkine1production that you must have thought of, but this event definitely has all the facets to stand parallel to the production of these stalwarts. It is the performance by Badungduppa artists, in their performance space deep inside a forest of Sal trees with local villagers as audience in their loved natural setting. Save for the urban and “informed” audience, even the actors have never heard of these makers and theories of so called ‘modern theatre’. The only knowledge that they have is the consciousness of self and the audience. This sheer presence of the actors, on and off the performance space armed with only their basic tools of acting- the body, making it into a mode of language apart from spoken words to create these awesome performances is something to be closely looked at. Every muscle has a different story to tell, as the chill runs through the spine of the actor in a scene of high suspense, a sudden twitch of an eye lash, leads the audience too into that chill mode. That’s the intensity of the performance they create.

To attain this intensity, Sukracharya Rabha, the director of the group, has not only taught these artists the rudiments of acting, but he also took the responsibility of creating an assemblage of a sensitive audience in this remote pocket. He envisaged Badungduppa in 1998 as an experiment to create a commune of artists in residency, which would equip them to stay in an environment that has twenty four hours access to learning tools suited for making theatre and create performances. Moreover the development of these performance spaces among the peoples of the community empowered the people to watch and admire theatre that essentially draws elements, echoes and intervenes into their own life. A close study of the texts and how performance elements are gathered from people’s daily existence would shade more light on to what are the tangible manifestations of the intangible experience, which these actors and the audience go through in such performances. “Besides giving artists the necessary guidance, I have also had regular conversations with the rural people, imparting to them the knowledge of how to enjoy a drama during the time of performances,” Sukracharya ruminates.

It was in 2005 when for the first time doyen of Modern Indian Theatre, H Kanhailal from Manipur organised a workshop at Rampur village, Goalpara distrct and emphasized the potential of Sukracharya’s visualization. Under his guidance, to bring every artist’s excellence at par, Sukracharya, apart from constructing the performance arena inside the Sal jungle, also established the Badungduppa Kala Kendra with hostel facilities, separately for boys and girls. Artists residing there take part in different activities apart from the regular rehearsal. “The initial days were too difficult,” recollects Sukracharjya, “when I planned to create Badungduppa along with my actors (the local youths), it was easier said than done to convince the village elders and relative to share the vision these youths had in mind.” Of course, Sukracharjya defends as says, “Time is such, Benil Da3(As he often addresses me) with the overarching shift towards the city nowadays who would have understood what the hell are you going to do here in the village. But now things are changing.4Badungduppa is now a name that is creating national news headlines.5

 In this techno-cratic age, when people do not pay attention to the wonders of creation, nature and they contaminate natural resources, Badungduppa stands as an experiment, when it is our utmost duty to revitalize the relationship between human beings and nature. Badungduppa stands an example of how sustainable development is possible with close coordination with nature, and that also gives on the one impetus to create an art that rings with the resonance of ‘universality’. The title of an article about Badungduppa in news daily rightly says, “Acting Natural”. Ascribing to this philosophy, the structures of Badungduppa Kala Kendra are also made of environment-friendly thatches and bamboo, which is in common usage in the villages. The whole environment is build to provide the artists with avenues of close association with nature. Along with regular rehearsals, a walk in the early morning inside the village, and hours-long physical exercises, are a routine course of the artists. Explaining the rehearsal scenario at Badungduppa, Sukracharya says, “The walks in the morning provide them with an opportunity to get attached to nature and village life2…I cannot demand a good performance from them, until and unless they themselves understand the roots of our culture.6 

Here is a person and his team who strive to stay in close contact with nature and its people, but by no means it is a luxury that he and his team is up to. They cannot afford luxury. It is not a luxurious ride ‘far from the madding crowd’, a picnic for a city dweller, a laboratory for research by some avant-garde alumni of any internationally acclaimed theatre institute of repute. Here, the nature, the people and the sense of be marginalized is the force that forged these young theatre practitioners to develop a way to showcase their creativity, which is now recognised world over.  Of course this conviction of creating own language, to tell own stories was initially fuelled by the sense of being ostracized on different levels culture, economy, language, etc. and slowly it gained its own momentum.

Since 2008, every year, Badungduppa organizes a four - day long drama festival titled, Under The Sal Tree. They construct a stage and the gallery with cost- effective and environment-friendly material such bamboo and betel-nut trees; the idea was so unique that not a single tree had to be cut while constructing the stage and the gallery. The modern theatres, within confined spaces of auditoriums and stages painted with artificial light, sound and make up habitually rob

these rural people of sensible drama, as they cannot afford the cost and moreover they cannot appreciate the context too. Meanwhile Mr. Rabha claims that his dramas are equally compatible to be performed in any sophisticated auditorium. For instance, play To-Paidom (The Bird) has been staged 14 times in different auditoriums after his first show in the open air stage in his native place.

At a time when unending violence literally paralyses the whole region of North East India, the role and vision of Badungduppa can be viewed as an eye opener for the outsiders- a model to reckon for, but for the Rabha people themselves, it is a matter of erudition, experience and pride, as if looking into an oracle orb that not only shows the present but reminiscences of the past and prophesies of the future. The following poem from To-Paidom sums it up quite elegiacally,


Chang bhabibamun ekhre changi rengo

Sansar gocha biye ringjo

Samaj gocha biye rengo

Jati gocha mae rengo

Mae rengo hasong.

Khechakaebe chaangi? Khechakaebe chaangi ?

Bahirani jentha na chingi majarini

Narong bhabichi narong bhabichi narong bhabichi

(Who thought this would happen?

One family is totally destroyed

One society would also perish likewise

One race would also be lost

Lost would be a Land/Country

Whose mistake is it? Whose...whose mistake

Of the outsiders or ourselves

Think for yourself, think for yourself, and think it on your own.)

Benil Biswas

(Benil Biswas is an assistant professor of Performance Studies in the  School of Culture & Creative expression at the Ambedkar University of Delhi.  He is also  pursuing his PhD in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi . )

[1]Each one of these masters has created a distinct style in their works. Robert Wilson is known for his acidic comment on Language. Peter Brook for liberating the space of theatre, Pina Bausch brings in the dynamics of movement and Ariane Mnouchkine pushes forward the conception of indigenous folk performances becoming core, thus destabilizing the foundation of the so called ‘modern theatre’.

[2] Sukracharjya Rabha. Personal Interview. 21 December 209. Rampur , Goalpara, Assam. All Interviews, if not mentioned otherwise is conducted by Benil Biswas. The interviews were in a mixed medium of Hindi, Bengali, Assamese and Rabha. The act of multilingual interview itself shows the inability on our part to articulate and derive meanings through the handicapped tool of ‘language’. Translations into English are by Benil Biswas.

[3]‘Da’ is shortened form of ‘Dada’, which means ‘Brother’ in Bengali, Assamese and in many other vernaculars in India.

[4]Sukracharjya Rabha. Personal Interview.  21 December 2009. Rampur, Goalpara, Assam.

[5]It features in National News papers. 25 June. 2010. -24 Dunia<< http://www.24dunia.com/english-news/search/badungduppa.html >>, The Telegraph <http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100506/jsp/northeast/story_12415630.jsp>, Eastern Panorama <http://easternpanorama.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=887:acting-natural&catid=45:web-special&Itemid=24>, The Hindu< http://beta.thehindu.com/arts/article69045.ece>, The Assam Tribune < http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/details.asp?id=oct2709/City10>

[6]Talukdar, Ratna B.  The Eastern Panorama, 25 June 2010 << http://easternpanorama.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=887:acting-natural&catid=45:web-special&Itemid=24 >>




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