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”.
TRANSLATIONS AND ADAPTATION
The first drama of Shakespeare to be adapted into Assamese was ‘Comedy of Errors’. It is called Bhramaranga (1888). Since then quite a good number of Shakespearean plays have either been translated or adapted into Assamese. The first play of Henrik Ibsen to be adapted into Assamese is “The Warriors at Helgoland”. The author Suresh Goswami places it in the tribal areas of North East India and calls it Runumi (1946). After independence we have come closer to World Theatre. Greek Tragedies Oedipus, Antigone and Alcestis have respectively been translated by Satya Prasad Barua, Dr. P. Goswami and Navakanta Barua. Ibsen’s The Wild Duck has been adapted into Assamese by Satya Prasad Barua while Ghost and the A Doll’s House have been translated respectively by Dr. Mahendra Bora and Padma Borkataki. An Enemy of the people has been translated by Pankaj Thakur. ‘Palasar Rang’ and ‘Pinjara’ Assamese adaptation by Ram Goswami of Tennessee Williams’
‘The Glass Menagerie’ and Agatha Christi’s ‘Mouse Trap’ have also been published. Mention may be made here of Dr. Kanak Mahanta’s Assamese version of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and S.A. Malik’s rendering into Assamese of the Chinese opera The White Haired Girl. The latest addition to the repertoire is Godor Apekshat, Assamese translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot by Dr. Sailen Bharali. A few Hindi plays Jagadish Mathur’s Pahle Raja and Mohon Rakesh’s Adhure have been translated by Phani Talukdar. Plays awaiting publication but successfully staged are Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Two Assamese versions are available, one by Dambaru Das and the other by Tasadduque Yousuf. Three Assamese versions of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls have been staged. Phani Sarma’s version has however been published (in an incomplete form). The other two versions are by Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia and Tasadduque Yousuf. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has been adapted as Preyasi by Dulal Roy and Satis Bhattacharyya. Dulal Roy has also adapted Moliere’s The Miser as Masar Telere Mas and Lorca’s The House of Bernada Alba as “Fatema Bibir Ghar”. Dr. Birendra Kumar Bhattachryya’s adaptation of Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’ as Brahmachari has also been received well by the audience. Deba Kumar Nath has translated Arthur Miller’s A view from the Bridge and Sartre’s Man Without Shadow. There is another version of this play by Dulal Roy. Pabitra Deka has rendered into Assamese Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation of Gorki’s Mother. Imran Shah has translated Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Gogol’s The Government Inspector has been rendered into Assamese by Dulal Roy and Satis Bhattacharyya as Sarkari Inspector. Chekhov’s Bear and Proposal, Houghton’s The Dear Departed, Ionesco’s The Lesson have been translated by Trailokya Khound, Jogen Chetia and Dulal Roy respectively. Some of these adaptations have been successfully staged outside the state as well.
RADIO AND ONE ACT PLAYS
Several thousand plays have so far been broadcast over All India Radio, Guwahati, since 6th of July, 1948 when Satya Prasad Barua’s Dharaloi Jidina Namiba Swarag was on the air. The Publication Board, Assam, has recently brought two volumes of 43 radio plays compiled and edited by Arun Sarma. These published plays have gone a long way enriching the dramatic literature of Assam.
The Radio studio has provided a forum to many playwrights to listen to their plays being enacted and has enabled them to form an idea as to how they would take shape on the stage. Veteran playwrights like Prabin Phukan would never have been able to get an idea of the actable qualities of his latest plays Samidhan or Pangu Baba had they not been broadcast.
Radio plays have also helped the writing and staging of one act plays. Godadhar Raja, the first Assamese one act play by Lakshmi Nath Bezbaroa was published in a magazine long ago. Short plays like Prajapatir Bhul, Sringkhal etc., by Lakshmidhar Sarma have also helped in the process of writing one act plays. Satya Prasad Barua’s one act play Kalpanar Mrityu was published in 1940. Dr. Hari Bhattacharyya has also brought out two collections of his one act plays.
Along with the advent of Akashvani to Assam one act play competitions were organized at the University level. These gave Philip to one act play writing. Bhola Kakati’s Bibhrat, Ghana Kanta Saikia’s Maha Samar, Tafazzul Ali’s Nepati Kenekoi Thako deserve special mention. Satya Prasad Barua’s historical one act plays Kunal Kanchan and Ranadil reflect modern sentiments. Narayan Bezbarua’s Ghatakalir Ghamaghanta, Phani Talukdar’s Emuthi Tora Emuthi Sai, Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s Bawana, Putala Nach etc. Tilak Hazarika’s Chikitsa, Atul Bordoloi’s Ekhan Dwar Bage, Detui Barua’s Sihato Jiai Thake, Prafulla Bora’s Luitak Bhetiba Kone, Samarendra Narayan Deb’s Bhiksha, Himen Borthakur’s Dwip and Sarpil, Girish Chowdhury’s Palasy, Arun Goswami’s Aaji, Anil Majumdar’s Eya Borbheta Eya Itihas, Karuna Datta’s Ghora Bab, Prasanta Goswami’s Duhswapna, Ranjit Sarma’s Prarthana, Arup Chakraborty’s Manchat Panchanan are some of the one act plays which have been acclaimed by the viewers. Durgeswar Borthakur’s Bih Gutir Biloi, Prabin Phukan’s Chakari, Feriwala, Tamasa Rati have also won the hearts of the viewers and the readers. Satis Das, Deba Kumar Saikia, Homen Borgohain, Binode Sarma, Birinchi Bhattacharyya have also written successful one act plays.
It is heartening to find that the National Book Trust, India has taken up a project of bringing out a collection of Assamese one act plays. These would be translated into all Indian languages. The task of compilation and editing has been entrusted to Dr. Prafulladata Goswami. One of the versions (Bengali) has already been published.
Realism influenced Assamese drama from the beginning of the modern era. There were streaks of realism in the mythological plays like Sonit Kunwari of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Atul Chandra Hazarika and his compatriots had also borrowed some of the type characters of their plays from real life. Even in the medieval atmosphere of plays like Karengar Ligiri of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala we find modern ideas of modern men. It may be mentioned here that the Souvik drama group staged Kerengar Ligiri in modern dress and the audience did acclaim such experiments.
From the days of Karengar Ligiri (1937) inner conflicts have found place in our plays and this became more pronounced in plays like Sakoi Sakowa. Dialogues of such plays have also been realistic and intellectual. The numbers of scenes have also decreased. Coherent and concise presentation is one of the important characteristics of modern Assamese plays. Prabin Phukan’s ‘Satikar Ban’, with three acts of one scene each may be mentioned in this connection.
The flash back sequences of Sarbeswar Chakraborty’s ‘Abhiman’ and the dream sequences of Anil Chowdhury’s Chirantan also deserve mention. Some critics have described flash backs as part of expressionistic ideas. Satya Prasad Barua used the mind of the playwright, the chief protagonist, as the stage in his one actor Bhaswati in 1966. Enlarged edition of this play called Nayika Natyakar has been published in 1976. Like Shir Barua the stream of consciousness has been welcomed by Mahendra Borthakur in his Janma, Phani Talukdar in his Agnipariksha and Basanta Saikia in his Mriga Trishna although each of these plays tackled different problems.
Endeavour has been made by Abdul Majid and Arup Chakraborty to minimize spatial distance in his plays Chor and Agamoni by eliminating the front proscenium in some of the sequences.
Allegorical and symbolic approach in exposing themes have been taken by Parvati Prasad Barowa in Sonar Soleng and Lakhimi, Kirti Bordoloi and Mukti Bordoloi in their Basantir Abhisek, Sur Bijay, Meghawali etc., Kamaleswar Chaliha in his Dhuli. Arun Sarma has viewed the problems of the artist from a new angle in his Nibaran Bhattacharyya. It is more or less psychological in so far as an old artist’s frustrations have been projected through symbolic and poetic images. This is one way of expressing lack of communication and the play reminds one of Ionesco’s The Chairs. Arun Sarma’s Purush depicts a shrew of a woman in a circus environment. Shir Sarma has used ingenuously the circus clown Phutuka as the narrator to expose the theme.
We find class struggle and socialist realism in Atul Bordoloi’s Brikshar Khoj and Prafulla Bora’s Baan. We find echo of socialist realism also in Chiyar and Buranji Path by Arun Sarma.
Some of the new plays written in Assamese have also been called absurd. Arun Sarma’s Ahar is generally referred to in this context. To my mind selective symbolism and expressionism have been taken resort to rather than any absurd theory of play writing although it constantly reminds one of Badal Sarkar’s Paglaghora and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Significantly the characters have been used also as narrators in this play. We rather find absurd ideas in Basant Saikia’s Manuh and the play reminds one of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.
Satya Prasad Barua’s Jabala, Mrinal Mahi and Phool Kali are also experimental plays. In Jabala the author has recreated the ancient episode of Jabala and Satyakam of the Upanishads in modern form. His Mrinal Mahi is a modern tragedy and his Phool Kali is expressionistic. Mahendra Borthakur has also recreated an ancient episode in his Pitamahar Sarasajjya.
Socio economic problems have been projected in the Brechtian epic style by Munin Sarma and Arun Goswami in their plays Sabhyatar Sankat and Aaji. Prafulla Bora’s Baan is also similar type of play. Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s ‘Nimati Kanya’ is a verse play which brings to the fare the concept of total theatre.
Ananda Mohan Bhagawati has indirectly used the mode of presenting Assamese traditional Ankiya Nat in his play Jatugriha. Jugal Das has brought in traditional Bhawna sequences into a modern social play Bayanar Khol. The traditional Assamese Ojapali has been utilised by Satish Bhattacharyya to narrate and comment upon the incidents of his play Maharaja. Arun Sarma has also used this mode in his play Buranji Path. Our playwrights have also used mines in their plays. Mention may be made in this connection of Ali Hydar’s play Ahaituki Desaprem. Lakshyadhar Chowdhury enriched a branch of our dramatic literature by writing his successful high comedy Thikana. Matrimonial maladjustment has been psychoanalytically analyzed by Ram Goswami in his Jiban Britta and Prabin Phukan in his Chaturanga. Phukan’s Overbridge is a play about the slum dwellers who live under an overbridge. He has projected mercy killing in his Samidhan and his latest play Pangu Baba has become significant for spiritual overtones.
Satya Prasad Barua writes on Indian Review.