Effect of the West on Assamese Theatre
Theatre of a Western mould, with proscenium stage and Anglo-European dramatic structure, made its first appearance in 1875 at Guwahati, forty-nine years after the British annexation of Assam. English education and exposure to Bengali theatre during higher studies at Kolkatainspired the young generations of late nineteenth century to launch theatre in their own language, which became instantly popular and in no time swayed all of Assam.
Stage and Light Design of Assamese Theatre
Initially, performances were held on provisionally erected stages, eventually in 1890s permanent structures came up and by the second decade of the twentieth century, all the district and sub-divisional towns, including a few semi-urban places, had at least one theatre. However, it was neither daily, nor weekly, nor even monthly fare. Usually plays were performed during festivals or important occasions or just for the pleasure of putting up a show. During those days theatres were lit by candles; later, by hanging rows of kerosene lamps, gaslight, or pressure lamps of the brand name Petromax, producing a very bright light. When portable power generators became available, they were pressed into service.
Stage decor before 1930, meant rolled-up painted screens and drapes. Later of course, along with painted screens, flats were used. Small numbers of attempts at realism were made by using three-dimensional set pieces. However, replacing painted backdrops, realistic scenography made a permanent entry only in the late 1940s. Stylized sets, even bare stages, have served as theatre designs of late. Costumes were usually hired from agencies that specialized in renting them out. But this practice was more or less forsaken, after the 1950s, when mythological and historical plays gave way to realistic social drama, and costumes started to be specially designed for each production.
Playwrights of Assamese Theatre
Although proscenium theatre arrived in 1875, modern playwriting started eighteen years earlier. The first play, Gunabhiram Barua's Ram-Nabami ("Ram and Nabami") on widow remarriage, was written in 1857. The next, Kania kirtan ("Kirtan to Opium", 1861), was a satire on opium addiction by Hemchandra Barua. Rudra Ram Bordoloi wrote a social farce, Bongal-bongalani ("Bengali Couple", 1871-2), satirizing lascivious concubines and promiscuous women who married non-Assamese outsiders. However, there is no documentation whether these texts were staged. Neither is it known for certain with which play Assamese theatre raised its curtain.
The first mythological drama, Sita haran ("Stealing of Sita") by Rama Kanta Chaudhury, came in 1875. With two exceptions, all ten or twelve plays written later in the nineteenth century belonged to this genre. Historical drama appeared beside the mythological from the beginning of the twentieth century with Jaymati (1900) by Padmanath Gohain Barooah (1871-1946), as Indian nationalism and the struggle against British colonialism grew in strength. Emotions ran high; courage, valour, and glories of the past were recreated to arouse patriotism.
Until 1949, men portrayed female characters. There were a few attempts to cast women in the 1930s - by Braja Natha Sarma in his short lived, commercial Kohinoor Opera Party; by the playwright, actor, director, scholar Satya Prasad Barua (1919-2001) in his Sundar Sevi Sangha (Guwahati); and by Rohini Barua in Dibrugarh. But the trendsetters had to wait till 1948 when All India Radio launched twin stations at Guwahati and Shillong. Since radio drama required women for female roles, these readers grew used to acting along with men, hence facilitating their appearance on stage. By that time Assamese theatresociety also had grown liberal enough to accept, in fact to demand, actresses performing alongside men.