Remembering Sukracharjya Rabha – a people’s artist

Sukracharjya Rabha was born in 1977, in a remote village Rampur in Goalpara district of western Assam. He started working with local tribal people to promote theatre. Within short span of time he authored and directed number of drama and got recognition as a unique theatre activist in the part of the country. After attending workshops on theatre direction and design at Guwahati, he underwent training under H Kanhailal and Sabitri at the Kalakshetra, Imphal, Manipur for two years. He founded his theatre group, Badungduppa, a rural-based theatre centre at his village in 1998 and made a mark as a young talent early in life. He directed several plays in Rabha, Bodo and Nepali languages. He was honoured with the Bismillah Khan Yuba Puraskar from Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2009 for direction and the Aditya Bokra Birla Kala Kira Puruskar in 2010. On June 8th 2018, at the age of just 41 years he succumbed to a massive cardiac arrest. He is survived by his wife and two children. Maulee Senapati, filmmaker, and  Abdul Kalam Azad, an activist writer, pay their tributes.

“A True People’s Artist: True Green, True Sunshine, True Forest

Maulee Senapati remembers his friend

Now the world is still full of roles
which we play
as long as we make sure, that,
like it or not,
Death plays, too, although he does not please us.

But when you left a strip of reality
upon the stage through the very opening
through which you vanished: Green,
true green,
true sunshine, true forest.

We continue our play. Picking up gestures
now and then, and anxiously reciting
that which was difficult to learn; but
your far away,
removed out of our permanence

sometimes overcomes us, as an
descending upon us of this very reality,
so that for a while we play life
rapturously, not thinking of any
                “Death Experience”- Rainer Maria Rilke


For many of us, the very busy-ness of our daily lives often leads us to taking our lives for granted. When someone we loved dearly dies, our grief for his or her absence tends to trigger an urge deep within us to hit the brakes on life and reevaluate the precious value of life itself. Much has already been penned on Sukracharjya Rabha who suddenly passed away from our midst leaving a trail of shock, silence and pain. But, who exactly was Sukracharjya Rabha? A playwright of immense potential? An innovative theater director whose very art is a seamless creative coalesces of the folk with the modern? An artist who gave a completely fresh meaning to theater in Assam, an art which has been one of the oldest entertainment for humankind that has vigorously undergone changes with time like all other art forms have? Or, was Rabha an artist snatched away by the merciless cudgels of death very early in life, leaving a movement of infinite potential within the cultural realm of Assam incomplete? Or, was Sukracharjya a flicker of hope for life and the art which grew into an illuminating flame under the tall Sal trees of his people and his land? A flame which got suddenly extinguished to leave the cultural realm of Assam in the abyss of darkness? For those who connects to any art as a cause to serve the society, Sukracharjya remarkably filled up a void prevailing for long in Assam as the ‘people’s artist’ reaffirmed like a refreshing breeze the very purpose of an art to life backed by a philosophy that emphasized on man’s return back to nature to mediate with, and meditate on life itself. In the midst of the emerging existential chasm of post-post-modernism, and the cracks and crevices it has deceptively created, the poetics and the polemics of Sukracharjya’s theatre was, perhaps, a staunch protest against what modernization has imposed on the very independence of the man. Today, when the playwright has passed away leaving a lull, I am feeling the compulsion to evaluate how best one may set what Sukracharjya Rabha, a man of immense simplicity whose very humility was a rare trait in a world ruffled by self-promotional ambitions, endeavored to achieve through theater in the context of the muddles globalization has imposed across the entire globe, transforming the world into a mass market adhering to a mono-culture instead of the wonderful stage that it has always been for celebration of plurality of choices, practices and performances.

Sukracharjya Rabha hails from the very place where he practiced the distinguished principles of his art with his own people, the sleepy hamlet of Rampur in Western Assam, where the peoples’ artist breathed his last. Following his early training in theatre under the tutelage of the Indian theatre legend, Heisnam Kanhailal of Manipur, Sukracharjya returned back to his native moorings to practice theatre with an approach slightly different from his mentor. In doing so Rabha took the very first nascent step towards a distinguished journey in life by introducing an innovative form of theatre to the simple tribesmen of Rampur belonging to the Rabha community to which Sukracharrya himself belonged to. By doing so he successfully mobilize the pastoral masses fractured by insurgency, and related insecurities, into a force dedicatedly engaged to what the playwright, theatre director introduced to them. Community participation has long been the essence and strength of the traditional societies. This political awareness of the playwright, theater director resulted in Sukracharjya’s timely move to harness the potential of community participation as the spirit behind the egalitarian principles Rabha practiced through theatre. By engaging the people from not only his own community but also from outside through theatre when Rampur and its neighbourhood was unleashed by factionalism, fratricidal differences and assertions through militant means, the visionary artist singlehandedly changed the destiny of the entire area using theatre as the tool to bind people together. Badungduppa Kala Kendra, the organization established by the playwright-theater director attained the significance of not only a roof under which theater was practiced, rather it emerged as a social platform for practice and performance of the art as an avenue of creative release driven by narratives of pain, suffering, angst, atrocities, betrayal, hope, aspirations and love through hard-hitting political aesthetic.

From theatre to cinema, music to the other visual arts, Assam has had its share of artists who have from time-to-time earned accolades through one’s own individual talent and understanding of one’s respective medium of expression. However, rarely has anyone stood out as a genius who used art to bind hearts and minds together under the sky of Assam to ease enraged minds, to calm difficult situations. This is where the simple man from Rampur will stand out as tall and robust, just like the two other tall predecessors, the legendary Dr. Bhupen Hazarika and Hemango Biswas, who had together used songs and music to ease unrest and connect minds across the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valley of Assam during the language disturbances of 1962. Assam and its social milieu which has withstood many tests of time, had to wait for nearly half a decade since what the two legends in the form of Hazarika and Biswas had proved to the world, to witness in yet another remote, nondescript corner of the same land, a Sukracharjya Rabha used his own art to forge a deep bonhomie between humans. In doing so, Sukracharjya sowed the seeds of hope and aspiration in the hearts and soil of a pastoral reality introduced to a modern form of theater enriched by folk idioms, practiced and performed in the very womb of nature, in the woods and under the tall Sal trees, inside Sal forests which are today symbolic of Rabha and his very vision itself. By taking theater closer to nature, Sukhracharrya accomplished in arresting massive destruction of the Sal cover across Rampur and nearby villages, which like certain other ills that once afflicted the natives, was born out of a situation of social unrest resultant introduction of a lure for easy money earned out of destroying the very forests which was central to the Rabha terrain.

The distinguished playwright-theatre director firmly believed that the purpose of all the arts is to serve the society and lives by addressing reality in unique ways. In accepting this universal premise and purpose of art of which theater is a vibrant, living form, the art of Sukracharjya affirmed its poetic roots in nature abiding the artist’s own philosophy, that art can be best experienced in the midst of nature alone without the understanding of which it is impossible to understand life itself. It is a belief that did stem out of the very edifice on which every folk culture has stood across generations, a historical truth that globalization has been trying to contradict and obliterate. As for Sukracharrya, he affirmed his philosophy based on a weltanschauung that stood its ground based on a firm conclusion, as firm as the roots of the imposing Sals, that the chasm which prevails in the mechanized modern world is essentially because of us humans moving away from nature, resulting in rising divides and disintegration within the social fabric across the world. Badungduppa, the name the artist had decided for his theater group, is after a popular traditional musical instrument of the Rabhas. By taking theater to the grassroots reassuring the pastoral masses about how the power of creation can transform realities, Sukracharjya stirred the imagination of his own people in presenting to the world not only a refreshing theater form new to contemporary Assam, it further confirmed in yet another time what the great 15th century social reformer of Assam, Srimanta Sankardeva, had experimented with his “Ankiya Naats” as a creative-and-spiritual medium meant to integrate minds and hearts to celebrate the essence of existence through an early renaissance. In achieving what Sukracharjya Rabha has, humility remained an ever-abiding trait of the passionate artist who used to be a man of sparse speech. Unlike many from Sukracharjya’s own milieu of Assam and beyond, his growing fame failed to contaminate the simple man who continued to seek inspiration from remaining comfortably rooted, vigorously practicing theatre for a larger social cause and not as mere art for the art’s sake. Under The Sal Tree Theater Festival, until now an annual event, is a child born out of this very cause which has in less than a decade’s time started drawing international attention.

The sudden death of the artist is bound to leave a void that will be difficult to fill up. Personally, for me, I have lost a friend in whose committed tryst with theatre and lives proved to be a powerful inspiration to my own creative pursuits and philosophy in life. “To be immortal and then die” (Breathless; Jean-Luc Godard) is what Sukracharjya Rabha has achieved in his own life, of course. However, Rabha will be remembered more as a true people’s artist because he stood tall through his selfless integrity to his art and life without ever aspiring for accolades or applause. This is why he was that one rare fabulous flame which illuminated the cultural realm of Assam and even beyond, extinguished all of a sudden, by the far greater performer in the drama of life, the ever disguised protagonist named Death. Like the dark clouds snatch away “true sunshine, true green, true forest”, Sukracharjya Rabha, too, was snatched away from his and our world which shall have to remain forever indebted to the tall artist for what he had selflessly gifted, by the powerful actor of life whom none can ever handle or direct. Of course, Sukracharjya died quite young at forty-one years of age.

Maulee Senapati is a filmmaker and teaches filmmaking


When Sukra Da came to Char-Chapori

Abdul Kalam Azad remembers on Sukracharjya Rabha dreams of a people’s theatre

Till this time, I was lucky enough not to write an obituary; perhaps, I have not been inspired and influenced by any living person to such an extent that his or her departure would put an end to this luxury. But Sukrachariya Rabha is different, he is unique and here I am writing my tribute!

I had a very short but an extraordinary meeting with Sukra da in March this year. After several rounds of telephonic discussions, Rahul bhindeo (Rahul Dev Nath, a noted filmamer from Goalapra, I address him as bhideo – husband of elder sister) confirmed that he would be visiting our “Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ in Barpeta district of Assam along with two distinguished personalities one of them is Sukracharjya Rabha. It was almost unbelievable for me, I asked him twice and his confirmation gave me goose bum!

I heard and read a lot about his theatre involving the rural community. I became a fan of his initiative to bring back the theatre from sophisticated urban sphere to the nature. We are living in a time, when the political class conveniently ignores the destruction of nature and silently approves further destruction in the name of development. One the other hand, the artists’ community run towards urban area, chasing their dream to make them reality through the recognition and fame provided by the urban elites. But as I have mentioned in the very beginning that Sukra da was different, he was unique. While living in the age of market driven creativity, he rejected the conventional way of art and life. In an interview with Ratna Bharali Talukdar, he said “theatre became not a part of my life, but my entire life. I was stubborn in insisting that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are always an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind.”

When I met him for the first and unfortunately for the last time on 11th March, it didn’t take much time to read his simple but eclectic outlook towards marginalized and hard-working rural communities. He was traveling from Guwahati via Nalbari (to pick up Pankaj Govind Medhi, well known columnist and author from Nalbari). I told Rahul bhindeo that I would be waiting either at Barpeta town or at Howly so that they don’t have to face any trouble to reach, around 40 kilometres in southern side from national highway at Sorbhog. But they advised me to go to Mazidbhita char directly and they would reach by their own. I waited for them near the Janata Baazar, close to char.

They came by a while car, Sukra da was seating in the front seat. It didn’t take a moment to recognize him. During winter to spring, the stream of river Beki which flows through the northern part of the char gets dried up. They decided to drive the car through the sandy river bed. I was riding my scooter while the car followed me. The river bed was so sandy that sometimes, because of blown-up dust, I couldn’t see the car on rear view mirror of my scooter. After travelling about one and half kilometre we reached the campus of Jhai Foundation where the ‘Parag Kumar Das Char Library’ is situated.

After getting off the car, Sukra da panned his eyes across the char. I could see in eyes, he was impressed by the greenery of the char surrounded by river Beki, a tributary of mighty Brahmaputra. But his focus was not on the greenery only also on those people who toiled under the sun to turn the flood-ravaged char into greenery once again. The first reaction he gave ‘how beautiful place and such hardworking people!’

Within a very short time, we spoke on various issues including flood, erosion, language, nationalism and of course about theatre. He told me “Abdul, theatre doesn’t need anything extraordinary, it’s not something different. The entire universe it part of it. You saw those people working in the paddy field? They are the best actors. Theatre is way of life”. I could hardly grasp his philosophical teaching but his lively and compassionate chain of words brought a beautiful motion picture into my imagination.

In his unique annual theatre festival “Under the Sal Tree” (Theatre in Nature), he conceptualized theatre in such a way that the life of an ordinary man or woman can be reflected amidst of nature and the wider sections of audience can relate with. ‘Under the Sal Tree’ as a festival, celebrating nature through theatre without using artificial lights and sounds not only got acceptance among the local tribal people but also attracted huge attention across the globe.

I sought his suggestions and guidance to form a theatre group in the char. I thought he would be busy and for him it might not be much productive to come to char once again to teach us basic things about theatre. So, I requested him to send some actors from his group to train us. Surprisingly, Sukra da told me “Don’t worry, Abdul, I will come back and we will work together. Next time when I come, I will come for few days, preferably during flood”. We exchanged telephone numbers for future communications. But who knew that the ‘future’ would turn into ‘history’ so quickly!

Sukra da wanted to have a walk around the char. He along with Rahul bhindeo, Pankaj da and my colleagues Kazi and Zahedul visited the farmers in their field, talked to them about crops, experience of flood, erosion, displacement, and politics among others. They went to individual households of char dwellers to understand their lives more closely. While coming back, Sukra da saw few plastic packets nearby our campus. The person who was so nice to me didn’t hesitate to warn to me to be respectful towards the nature and asked me clean the plastic packets as soon as possible. His honesty and conviction to the cause he believes, earned respect from core of my heart.

While having lunch in an open space, another round of discussion took place. This time Pankaj da took lead and started finding out how we could bridge the growing gaps between the communities. Sukra da showed the ways and means how we could work together among the marginalized groups including char dwellers to minimize this gap. I remember, along with the proposal of starting a theatre group, one of their suggestions to me was to develop a handbook on char-chapori dweller and invite members from other communities and train them on culture, tradition, food habit as well as dialects to make them familiar with the people living in char-chapori areas of Assam.

Sukra da has been one of the few individuals who have given me such radical and original ideas to bring the conflict-torn-estranged-communities of Assam together. In his short visit, Sukra da has given me so much of tasks and made me feel how much challenges has he headed on. But didn’t allow me to think for moment that he would leave me alone to complete all those challenging tasks and he would leave for heavenly abode.

Abdul Kalam Azad is a researcher and community worker. He tweets @abdulkazad


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