Assam: Pathsala’s great mobile theatre culture on last legs due to COVID-19
Awahan Theatre, Pathsala

Over the past one-and-a-half years, the pandemic has impacted the lives of nearly every person in the world; whether directly or indirectly. It would also be safe to say that few if any, industry or sector has come out unscathed from its impact. One of the worst victims of the pandemic has been the field of art, especially theatre. A collaborative, performative art that thrives on people watching other people is always going to be hit by constant lockdowns, ban on gatherings and strict social distancing. In Assam, this impact has been felt nowhere more than Pathsala, the hub of mobile theatre in Assam.

Pathsala has been a pioneer in spreading the rich heritage of mobile theatre performances in Lower Assam. But now, it faces an uncertain future. Inspired by Brajanath Sarma, Achyut Lahkar, one of the leading figures in the domain of mobile theatre started the great wave of performing theatrical arts in Pathsala. Since then, it has grown tremendously in the region. Bearing the roots of our essential theatrical culture, Pathsala subsequently was tagged with the prefix ‘Natyagari’.

Following this spark in the field of arts and diverse artists contributing to the same, the term ‘Bhramyamaan’ was coined encompassing this genre of theatre art.

But COVID-19 threatens to destroy this great foundation. The pandemic brought in major challenges for the arts and the artists are now at crossroads owing to the bleak scenario. With lockdown leading to limitations, these artistic spaces are shrinking enormously and posing a multitude of constraints on the art and the performers.

Mouchumi Das, a student and a theatre enthusiast from Pathsala said, “We’ve never seen loss the way we’re seeing it now. The lockdown has crippled our minds and souls. Spontaneous rehearsals, performances were our everyday ordeal, but now everything has come to a standstill. Since we are only students and still learning, the pandemic crushed our learning process. Theatre is a very practical form of expression, and our computer screens are too limited to bear the weight of such a medium. My rehearsal hall hours have turned into random cycling hours now.”

Facing similar setbacks, Barasha Sarma, Assistant General Secretary of Gauhati University and a drama practitioner added, “Covid-19 has consumed our entire art fraternity. We have a community called ‘Assam Mime and Skit Theatre’ in Pathsala, where we used to perform a good number of shows. But with the pandemic striking in, we have lost two years of good work and money. I am still coping through the process because I have my university and education to tend to. But the ones who are associated with this field as their profession have been affected. Added to this, for the last two years, the government has been quite inactive in the implementation of CCRT scholarships for aspiring cultural enthusiasts like us. To say the least, we are facing a creative block which is only increasing with time.”

Tapan Lahkar, son of Ratan Lahkar, the father figure of Assam’s theatre industry and founder producer of Kohinoor Theatre, also spoke with EastMojo to talk about how bad the situation has become. “We are facing a time of severe financial and existential crisis. Keeping up with my father’s legacy, I have tried my best to keep the art of theatre alive. But the pandemic has shaken us to our core. The producers have lost a fair share of money and are on the verge of a mental breakdown. Since the mobile theatre is all about mass gathering with performers and audiences in sight, a world of social distancing isn’t favourable for such live and connecting form of expression,” he said.

When asked about the prospects of theatre, Lahkar added, “The entire industry is very apprehensive of how the situation takes turns. For now, we are still planning to host at least a few shows if the situation allows. We are thinking of conducting 4, 5 sessions out of the usual 10-month long session. Our actors, producers, directors, artists, everyone is waiting for better days to get back on track. Already, we’ve lost a good number of notable artists at the cost of the pandemic, and we cannot afford to lose more. It is a matter of grave concern that some artists are forced to resort to other means of livelihood, and the figures are considerably high.”

“In the history of 50 long years of the theatre industry, we haven’t met a greater evil than the pandemic. Times are hard, but the industry will bounce back, carrying forward the richest thread of our cultural roots, which the digital world can never take over. Like my father, Ratan Lahkar would put it, ‘Until and unless the Assamese community is alive, Bhramyamaan will never slip off its identity,’” he added.

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