Firsts are always special and so was the first-ever ‘Poorvottar Rashtriya Rang Utsav’ organised by the National school of Drama in Amritsar. The festival marked the beginning of regional theatre in Punjab and it also revealed the cultural sensibilities of theatre audience in the city. A total of five plays, two from Manipur, two from Assam and one from Sikkim were staged at the Punjab Naatshala in Amritsar.
The five-day festival that brought the best of North-Eastern theatre to Amritsar concluded with the power-packed play ‘Lakhimi’. A presentation by the BA theatre group of Assam, ‘Lakhimi’ was a play with layers of themes, including love, betrayal, religious conflicts and peace. It’s a story of two friends, one Hindu and the other Muslim, who live a life in communal harmony in a village called ‘Bheselimari’. Years later, a Muslim girl falls in love with a Hindu boy and despite social uproar and another village boy’s secret affections for her, she elopes and gets married to the boy she loves. What follows is a series of vengeful acts, evil plans that lead to destruction of the village harmony and integrity.
Written and directed by Anup Hazarika, who is a known actor and television personality, the play was rich on visuals. Amalgamating folk dances and martial arts into the play’s narrative, Hazarika also gave a glimpse of the culture of Assam to the Punjabi crowd. Confessing that the play ‘Lakhimi’ was written and revised several times over the years, Hazarika said it was one of his most difficult plays. “I revised the script at least seven times and while during rehearsals edited the play a number of times before coming out with the final product. The play needed to be compact, despite losing its message. We Assamese have a tradition of living in communal harmony and until the riots between ‘Tea’ tribes and Bodo community happened, something like this was unthinkable. These situations are really painful and I believe that Punjab too, like any other part of the country, will relate to the issues. With ‘Lakhimi’, I created a village where both communities live in peace and it might seem impractical, but there is nothing wrong in giving a hope and making an effort,” he said.
As for the rest of the festival, the impact was quite visible. The first regional festival that connected north eastern states and their talent to Punjab’s cultural heartland was a tremendous success. Not only in terms of footfall and critical acclaim, but also in terms of theatre aesthetics and production quality, the festival had intense storytelling, wrapped in folk aesthetics that got the viewers hooked.
The festival opened with the Manipuri play ‘Bacchae’, which is based on the Greek play of the same name written by Euripides (480-406 B.C.), one of the three tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. It was directed by Thawai Thiyam, son of Ratan Thiyam.
Another Manipur play staged during the festival was ‘Rickshaw Amasung Nongmei’, directed by S. Thaninleima.
Apart from ‘Lakhimi’, another Assamese play staged to an appreciative crowd was ‘Eserenga Rod’, directed by Pranjal Saikia.
A Nepali play from Sikkim, ‘Hami Nai Aafai Aaf’, directed by Bipin Kumar, was also staged during the festival.
“All the plays were critically acclaimed and the artistes from north-east were hugely appreciated for their acting and stage presence. Amritsar had never before experienced a regional festival, apart from Punjabi, and to understand the quality of work that was done despite the language barrier speaks volumes about the city’s theatre audience,” said Kewal Dhaliwal, festival director and an eminent director from the city.
“I am calling this the Renaissance period of the northeast,” NSD chairman Ratan Thiyam, a noted Manipuri playwright and theatre director, said, adding that some of the freshest poems today were coming from the northeast. “Whatever is happening in the northeast, we need to learn,” he said. He felt that the festival was one of the steps to develop theatre not only in the northeast, but in the country as a whole.
“Unfortunately, theatre economics in India has not grown. Theatre training also has not grown,” he said.
Stating that the people of the northeast were proud of the region’s theatre, Thiyam said: “In the northeast, three states are active in theatre culture -– Tripura, Assam and Manipur. But the rest of the states in the region do not have much. The NSD is trying to penetrate this space.”
NSD director Waman Kendre said the institute was laying emphasis on developing theatre in the north-east.
“The culture ministry has given us special financial aid to work in the northeast,” he said, adding that the NSD has held a number of workshops in various places across the region.