India’s Unique Roving Theaters in Danger

A distinctive cultural phenomenon is threatened with extinction

By: Nava Thakuria

India’s unique roving theater groups, presenting an energetic array of drama from international classics to mythological pieces to contemporary themes for millions in the country, have run up against the coronavirus. The Bhramyaman Natya Gosthi–mobile/touring theater troupes that employ up to 10,000 itinerant actors, musicians and technicians– almost face extinction.

The mobile theater groups, so versatile they can go from McBeth to the Mahabharata as they roam across Assam in northeast India, sadly face disaster from diminished audiences and other problems stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Covid-19 has emerged as a monster to mobile theater groups and unless substantial support is offered by the government, the entertaining medium could be finished,” said Gopal Jalan, a young entrepreneur who owned a theater group until last year, adding that until a vaccine or effective antiviral is developed or discovered, the situation is unlikely to improve.

The roving theater troupes are almost circus-like, self-contained convoys carrying their artists, players, artisans and other workers in colorful vehicles along with open-sided pavilions, dual stages, seating arrangements and light and sound equipment, setting up almost instantly to manage spectacular stage effects via special lighting, specially tailored clothes and ingeniously-engineered devices that allow protagonists to fly around the stage. They are noisy, colorful and entertaining, with plenty of drama. Owners of the groups take responsibility to feed people, arrange necessary lodging and take medical care for everyone in the group.

The mobile entertainers start their commercial session by August every year, continuing through to the middle of April. After the Bohag Bihu festival marking the beginning of the Assamese New Year, the groups wrap up presentations for three months and regroup by July.

But as Covid-19 surfaced at the end of 2019 and reached India by early 2020, New Delhi declared a complete lockdown, initially until April 14, which has been extended twice until May 17 in an effort to break the chain of infection.

That left the touring groups unable to finish the season. Now they are not sure whether they can start the new season on time. Moreover, even if they prepare the delayed productions there is no assurance that there will be audiences given the widening effect of the virus. 

Theatergoers in Assam today support over 40 such active groups. Each group comprises more than 150 performers and other workers. On average, a group performs two evening shows a day. After two to three days of performances at a particular location, the groups move to the next town to start again, with the schedule planned in advance with local organizers.

More than 1,500 people can be crammed into a venue enjoy a play, with ticket costs ranging from Rs150 to 500 per person.  The owner normally charges Rs100,000 per show from the organizing committees across Assam.

The theater industry, which does a business of over Rs100 million annually, provides indirect economic opportunities to thousand of others as well, giving actors and other stage participants a place to practice their art.

Although most plays are based on Assamese literature, folk-tales and mythological stories, many times the playwrights adopt contemporary themes based on the lives, for instance, of Princess Diana, the assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto or even the now-dead Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden along with dramatic versions of Hollywood blockbusters like Titanic, Jurassic Park, Anaconda,  etc.

But they also extend to classics like Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet and others. Homeric epics including the Iliad and Odyssey are performed along with splendid Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the Sanskrit play Mrichakatikam. Assamese evergreen plays like Piyoli Phukan, Siraj and Maniram Dewan, among others are performed on makeshift stages in different localities to tremendous enthusiasm from the rural audiences.

Indian theater enjoys a 5,000-year history, with dramas originally performed as rituals in public places. Later the energetic cultural activities embraced social causes and became popular in different parts of India with exclusive content. Theaters are likely to comprise various art-forms from both visual and performance to re-emerge every time as new creations in front of the audience.

Though Assam has a long history of theater movements starting from the great Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardev in the 15th century, the present-day mobile theater practices came into existence in the early 1960s when a cultural personality named Achyut Lahkar took inspiration from the mobile theater model of Natyacharya Brajanath Sarma in the 1920s and launched the Nataraj Cine Theatre in 1963.

Lahkar from Pathshala town in lower Assam started using modern systems of light and sound to enrich the productions and even went on to show his plays in neighboring states. Jatra parties–a popular traditional folk-based form of Bengali theater that has spread throughout most of the Bengali-speaking areas of the Indian subcontinent, were also popular at that time, but Lahkar designed his troupe to be technically more advanced and entertaining.

Many glamorous film actors have joined the theater groups as they could earn handsome amounts of money from the touring extravaganzas, in contrast to the local film business that political and social disturbances have shrunk over the past few decades. The groups arrange colorful outdoor advertisements announcing the engagement of these celebrated actors.

Rabijita Gogoi, a prominent experimental play director, however, believes that not only the mobile theater groups but the entire exhibition industry is now at risk. A graduate of the New Delhi-based National School of Drama, Rabijita believes that audiences may now demand online shows as they are likely to feel safer at home. But, she argued, it would kill the vibrant theater experience on the stage and spell the end of a genre that has enchanted thousands of young people and indeed propelled many from the small towns of India into the theater.