The modern period of Assamese drama begins from 1857 when Gunabhiram Barua wrote his serious social play Ram-Navami on the problem of early marriage and widowhood, in the western model. Gunabhiram Barua’s contemporary Hemchandra Barua, more famous as a lexicographer, wrote the first modern humorous play Kaniar Kirtan in 1861.
They were followed by a galaxy of playwrights of whom the most prominent were Padma Nath Gohain Barua (1871-1946) and Lakshmi Nath Bezbarua (1868-1938). Gohain Barua wrote the first Assamese historical play Joymoti in 1900. He wrote all types of plays social, historical and mythological. His forte was blank verse but he also wrote in prose. His “Gaonburha” was the most significant social play of the period. Lakshmi Nath Bezbarua also wrote a number of historical and social humorous plays like Pachani, Litikai and Nomal. His Joymoti Kunwari on the theme of the Ahom princess who sacrificed her life for the sake of her husband provided materials for the first Assamese film produced in 1935 by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala.
The eminent playwrights who wrote a good number of plays with a view to enriching Assamese dramatic literature however did not pay much heed to make them actable on the stage. Some of the junior compatriots like Nakul Chandra Bhuyan (Badan Barphukan), Mitradev Mahanta (Kukuri Kanar Athmangala), Prasanna Lal Chowdhury (Nilambar), Daiba Chandra Talukdar (Bamuni Konwar), Atul Chandra Hazarika and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala did keep an eye on the stage while writing their plays.
Atul Chandra Hazarika wrote quite a few mythological plays like Narakassur, Nanda Dulal, Kurukshetra and Sri Ramchandra to start with and these plays immediately caught the imagination of the actors and became immensely successful on the stage. He has made an invaluable contribution to Assamese dramatic literature by writing his magnum opus ‘Manchalekha’, being the history of Assamese theatre, which has been awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award.
Although today Shri Hazarika can claim superiority over others quantitatively he himself has no reservation in accepting Jyoti Prasad Agarwala (1903-1951) as a trend setter.
Nourished by the rich theatrical heritage left by the playwrights who preceded him, Jyoti Prasad’s untiring quest for identity inspired him to bring about a real fusion of the new wave which he directly brought from Europe, with the traditional aspirations of the people. This however became more pronounced in the plays he wrote after Sonit Kunwari (1925). In this play the theme has been woven around the episode of Usha and Aniruddha, with dialogues rich in lyrical content and songs set to indigenous tunes by the author himself. But the myth has been recreated to give the feel of contemporary Assamese society. Jyoti Prasad built up the plot of his second play Karengar Ligiri (The Maid of the Palace) written in 1937 in a mediaeval milieu but this was only a cover to outwit the conservative sections of the society, because he wanted to portray most ultra-modern ideas of love within and outside wed-lock. In this play he also introduced, for the first time in an Assamese play, debate oriented dialogues to discuss various points that emerged out, in the context of Kanchan’s marriage with Sundar Konwar who knew full well that she was in love with Ananga his friend. Jyoti Prasad has very deftly brought out the lyrical beauty of this romantic tragedy through the unobtrusive maid of the palace, Sewali, who nourished unalloyed love, in the core of her heart, for the prince Sundar and sacrificed herself to save him from ignominy.
Satya Prasad Barua’s Sakoi Sakowa, a discussion play with a “sense of Psychology”, Prabin Phukan’s Kal Parinoy and Lakshmi Kanta Datta’s Sangsar Chitra were also significant social plays of the forties. Two other popular plays were Ganesh Gogoi’s Sakunir Pratisodh and Prabhat Sarma’s Raj Nati.
The trend considerably changed after independence. The playwrights felt free to write as they wished and a new responsibility was realised in this direction.
Of the patriotic historical plays mention may be made of Pabin Phukan’s Maniram Dewan, Nagaon Natya Samity’s Piyoli Phukan, Atul Chandra Hazarik’s Tikendrajit and Jugal Das’ “1857”.
We find a new Jyoti Prasad in his play Labhita. The Plot structure is quite different from his earlier plays. He presents in this play the significant episodes of the revolution of 1942, the glorious advance of the I.N.A., more like a cavalcade, than as a well knit theme of a well made play. He emphasises on the events more than character portrayal. The plot depicted the reactions of events on the mind of the simple village girl Labhita, who swims courageously through the torrents of the times. This play heralds the dawn of a new era in the realm of Modern Assamese drama and theatre.
One of the prominent heroes of the revolution Kusal Konwar, has been projected by Suren Saikia in his biographical play of the same name. A significant slice of the revolutionary times has been caught by Satya Prasad Barua in his Jyoti Rekha. On the same theme Atual Chandra Hazarika has written his Ahuti. Prabin Phukan again brings up the problem of widow remarriage in his Satikar Ban but tags it with a new problem arising out of a sense of property. His Biswarupa is a pungent satire on some of the failings of the upper middle class society. Socio-economic problems of the lower middle class have been analysed purposefully by Lakshyadhar Chowdhury, Girish Chowdhury, Arun Sarma and Sarada Kanta Bordoli in their Nimila Anka, Meena-Bazar, Urukha Poja and Pahila Tarikh. The problem of the neglected wife has been poignantly portrayed by Anil Chowdhury in his Pratibad. He also has taken up a dialogue oriented psycho-analytical problem in his Chirantan and dramatises in his Manik Raitang a Popular Khasi folktale. Dr. B.K. Barua and Satya Prasas Barua have written two-domestic tragedies Ebelar Nat and Sikha. Jyoti Prasad Agarwalw’s Rupalim written earlier but published after independence depicts the clash between love and jealousy, between love and lust. A patriotic fervour runs through the plot finding expression in the inspiring speeches of Itibhen and the silent surrender of the innocent tribal damsel Rupalim. Phani Sarma’s Bhogjara is a new type of compact historical play; His Kiya focuses attention on the economic problems of the artists in our society. Parag Chaliha’s Son Rup Neosi holds aloft an ideal. S.A. Malik and Uttam Barua recreate history in Rajadrohi and Bar Manuhar Dola keeping in view contemporary aspirations of the common people. An ordinary taxi driver becomes the lead character in Durgeswar Borthakur’s play Saknoya. In Interview Amarendra Pathak deals with the problems of the unemployed youths. Communal harmony has been highlighted in Sarada Kanta Bordoloi and Krishnananda Bhattacharyya’s Magribar Ajan and Prafulla Bora’s Sako. While Arun Sarma’s Jinti and Janardan Thakur’s Bhaiamar Senduri Ali are on the need of integration between the hills and the plains. In Chor and Agmoni Abdul Majid and Arup Chakraborty castigate social evils and corruption. Akhil Chakraborty’s Ami Swapnatur is based on the personal diary of a freedom fighter. His Uttar Purus brings out some of the episodes of Assam’s history with a view to inspiring the present generation. Arun Sarma projects in his Chiyar the mental conflict of a representative of the declining bureaucracy in the midst of capital and labour struggle. Lakshyadhar Chowdhury’s Thikana is a high comedy of humour in which he presents ridiculous situations arising out of the obsessions of an old pensioner. The Chinese and Pakistani aggressions provide materials to Phani Talukder and Atul Bordoloi to write their plays Juye Pora Son and Teze Dhowa Kemeng. Dwijendra Mohan Goswami’s Rudra Singha and Kal Yandabu are effective additions to the repertoire of our modern historical plays. Arun Sarma has thrown new light on the minority problem in his Kukur Nesia Manuh. In Bagh Himen Borthakur has compared the activities of anti social elements of society with the depredation by a tiger. The mental conflict of a police officer has been analysed by Ranjit Sarma in his “Sanglap”.
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Satya Prasad Barua writes on Indian Review.