Hanging in Τhere—Theatre Under the Sal Trees

Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri*

Abstract

A theatre commune set deep in the jungles of a rural Indian space, its founder no more, a community that tries to sustain both its environment and its art— Badungduppa. Precarity and the theatre are no strangers; any theatrical event hangs on the unknowable, the unpredictable. All performance is, in that sense, unfixed, incomplete and open to failure; vulnerable. This paper attempts to map how such a space can be read in terms of the notions of vulnerability, of precarity and environmental activism. While such a space actively conjures up notions of a romantic pastoralism where theatre activists experiment in an idyllic setting, Badungduppa is, de facto, a place where the theatre and the environment collide, coalesce and co-exist. Where the theatre becomes the means for sustaining and building up local and global concern for the forest; the forest that is on the edge of extinction provides a unique organic performance space able to sustain large audiences drawn into its intimacy. Under the Sal Tree is a unique theatre festival that brings international theatre communities together under the canopy of the Sal forests of Assam. There is an acute fiscal crunch, and they do not allow “branding” and advertisements; the hosts are rural, agrarian folk who have learnt to skirt clear of corporate sponsorship. There is also a debt burden that is to be paid: festivals require money. Meanwhile the rubber plantations nearby eat away into the Sal forests—it is perhaps just a matter of time before they disappear. Both the environment and the theatre on the edge, Badungduppa deploys specific strategies of survival in the face of odds that appear insurmountable; their existence precariously perched on the brink of no return.

Keywords: Badungduppa Kalakendra, sustainability, precarity, ecology, vulnerability

Badal Sircar (56)[1]

Must we, in fact, be overwhelmed to some degree in order to have motive for action?

Judith Butler (“Precarious Lives”)
Under the Sal Tree Festival, 16 December 2020. The pandemic years have not disturbed the continuity of the open-air festival. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri

Sometime in 2016, Sukracharjya Rabha, the founder of Badungduppa Kalakendra came to conduct one of the two theatre workshops for the students at Gauhati University with a group of performers from his village. The other workshop was being conducted by an American visiting scholar. The obvious polarities of these two ways of doing and seeing the theatre aside, it also brought into sharp focus the hunger in the rustic artistes who survived on next to nothing and still managed to concoct an entire vocabulary of their craft. The fact that the other exponent was from the West (and all of its resources) is not the point—we have many Indian theatre performers who come from similar contextual urban spaces and with vast resources at their disposal. The point of departure that I want to indicate is the simplicity and visceral nature of their performative oeuvre that is both intense and precarious: vulnerable and supremely open to fallibility, with no ready or facile improvisational tools at hand. The very seams that it reveals in performance is the key to its affective process; aligning itself with the weak, the marginal and the vulnerable, their performances problematizing the notion of theatre not only in the bourgeois sense of the term but also that of the highly intellectualized content that emanates from experimental theatre practitioners of the west. The power and intensity of their performances are directly tied to the power and precarity on which the Sal[2] forests of Agia hang; their performance space and their performative destinies seem to have merged in the loop of this vulnerability.

Nukhar Rengchakayni Gopchani (Rabha), Badungduppa Kalakendra, Rampur. 15 December 2016. Retelling Shakespeares’ Macbeth. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri
Badungduppa Kalakendra and Precarity

As a community that recognizes the imminent destruction of its natural ethos, Badungduppa Kalakendra tries to sustain both its environment and its art, each through the other. It is a theatre commune set deep in the Sal forests of Agia, Goalpara in Assam, at the village Rampur founded by Sukracharjya Rabha. After successfully structuring a resistance model against the commercial rubber plantations that degrade the fertility of the soil, on the one hand, and the rapid urbanization that threatens its folklore and performative tenor, on the other, Rabha suddenly died in 2018. A reminder, as Artaud remarkably put it, that “the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all” (79).[3] Precarity and the theatre are no strangers; any theatrical event hangs on the unknowable, the unpredictable, as the story of the first ever human performance as narrated in The Natyashastra demonstrates.[4] All performance is in that sense, unfixed, incomplete and open to failure; vulnerable. I attempt here to read a space like Badungduppa in terms of vulnerability, precarity and environmental activism.

My understanding and exploration of these terms might require a slight explication before I move on to track the genesis of this space. The work and personal trajectory of Heisnam Kanhailal’s theatre in Manipur and its profound impact on the model built in Assam by Sukracharjya Rabha are evocative of the notion of vulnerability; of something as precarious as life itself—as Butler puts it (Frames of War)[5] — yet powerful in its response. The theoretical discourse on precarity as a critical idea is already a complex web, drawing from the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler among others to read the human condition in the wake of industrial capitalism. For Butler, precarity is seen as a specific marker of our times, and “not a passing or episodic condition, but a new form of regulation that distinguishes this historical time” (Foreword vii).

There is also an emerging scholarship on the specific linkage of precarity with theatre studies, among which the work of Katharina Pewny was probably the earliest: her idea of a “theatre of the precarious”[6] linked ethics to aesthetics (qtd. in Fragkou 3), examining how the audiences may be drawn into spaces of vulnerability of the other. A recent book by Marissia Fragkou outlines the strategies of reading ecology through performance, the similar concerns of ecology and precarity and “how performances of precarity may leave their mark on ideologies of dispossession” (6) and that this “shared precariousness” might throw up ways to “forge alliances against such practices” (7). Many of Fragkou’s observations resonate in the way I read the theatre of Sukracharjya Rabha, in that it tries to negotiate with theatre practices, methods and politics to understand precarity as ecology.

Resistance and Romanticism

The account I narrate below of my first visit to Badungduppa Kalakendra is perched on the edge of romanticism, but there is no other way to get across the actual experience and to demonstrate why this is important. The linkages to affect theory that I will make later in the essay might help in our understanding of the experience. In 2016, I visited Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival at Badungduppa, conceptualized as “performing laboratory” by Sukracharjya Rabha, where different cultures of the region would interact and try to formulate a new performative vocabulary. After a three-hour drive from Guwahati,[7] we turned into the village of Rampur, into a field where we could park our cars. Stepping out of the vehicle, it was as if our senses were assaulted by the sheer silence of the place. Silences such as these are alien sensations to the average urban Indian coming from the cacophony of the Indian city. To be able to hear our own breathing and the breeze whistling gently through the leaves of the tall Sal trees—the encounter can only be described as the specific moment that shapes the imaginary of this essay.

Two significant things happened here, simultaneously: we became aware of our own life-breath and that of the trees. We were quietly ushered into the ongoing performance. Nukhar Rengchakayni Gopchani, a Rabha[8] version of Macbeth was playing to a full house of maybe a thousand strong that included even small children, and one would not have guessed this huge number judging from the silence and rapt attention with which they watched the performance, perched on the bamboo seating. Shakespeare’s play had been successfully appropriated through tribal language, folk mythology, rhythms, dance and music and held the attention of the village folk (who did not know, or care, about Shakespeare). The intensely physicalized action of the interpretation made it readily accessible to non-Rabha spectators like me. The themes of usurpation and illegitimacy began to resonate with what was happening to the Sal forests.

Nukhar Rengchakayni Gopchani (Rabha), Badungduppa Kalakendra, Rampur. 15 December 2016. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri

Sukracharjya’s manifesto is clear enough, “We have made the stage under the Sal trees because we want to make people renew their relationship with nature through theatre” (Rabha 2014). With the relentless proliferation of civilizational and technological paraphernalia into the theatre, how could theatre intervene to salvage human connection with nature? On the other hand, how could the indigenous theatre save its own mechanisms—the songs, dances, and the folklore?

Modern theatre and theatrical methods were taught in the cities, in the modern auditoria, with complex acoustic systems. Having been trained thus, if the performers were to return to their own villages, they would not have the wherewithal to perform without the aid of such accoutrements. But the Rabha understanding of theatre is organic and connected to their daily agrarian life, and it made sense for Sukracharjya to start locally, in the Rabha language and performative idiom:

I have always believed that theatre is not for a particular group of people, and it should not be kept confined to an auditorium.  For me, theatre is life, and the entire universe is a part of it. I simply want to take theatre to the masses, to make them feel that they are part of it. While writing or directing a performance, I try to get into the skin of both the enlightened as well as the common audience. . . . I always encourage my co-artists not to act, but to express their feelings and experiences of life while they perform.

Rabha 2014
The mud, straw and bamboo stage at Badungduppa Kalakendra. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri

Theatre is both an art and a public space shared by actors and audiences. Its materiality and history are intimately tied to its politics: a politics of inclusion and exclusion, of distributions and placements, of spatial appropriation and, oftentimes, utopian ideas. So, how does one understand what is at stake when a theatrical space like Badungduppa is created and performances begin? Thomas Postlewait posits that the theatre is an “event” that displays “a perspective on and of the world” (12); this is a subtly different position than the old idea that theatre holds a mirror to the society from whence it springs. In a world fueled (I use that word in all its ironic undertones) by machinery that has brought in species extinction, climate crisis and various other human-induced precarities, can theatre make a difference? The rubber plantations of Rampur generate wealth for the people and elevate living conditions. The Sal trees that are endemic to the region grow five times slower—and so are not as profitable. But rubber degrades the soil, and for an agrarian society, that is a significant loss. In typical capitalistic mode, a few become rich while the larger milieu suffers in the long term. Can the experience of doing theatre through such vulnerability and representing a self-reflexive precarity make for both effective and affective interventions? How do the theatre’s representational and affective devices invite its audiences to care about the crises that relentlessly confront us?

Baz Kershaw offers important strategies to address this: “While humans assume that they possess agencies unique among the species, we are fundamentally performed by Earth’s ecologies. Hence, the only hope of averting our extinction is to perform more responsively and ethically with those ecologies” (113). Again, “What on Earth could constitute a minimalist unit of human performance? A process through which people would always perform in favour of Earth’s biosphere” (116). And while Sukracharjya was probably unaware of such theorisations, he deployed identical strategies to achieve analogous goals at Badungduppa.

Building Badungduppa

The genesis of this theatre-in-the-forest tells its own story. Sukracharjya did not receive any formal theatre training until he worked in a production of the Assamese classic Rupalim[9] at Dudhnoi Cultural Centre and then attended a workshop conducted by Asom Natya Sanmilan. By this time, he was already unhappy with the inherent superfluities of these platforms and their vocabulary. The turning point for Sukracharjya came when he attended another theatre workshop conducted by Heisnam Kanhailal, the intrepid Manipuri theatre maker at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra at Guwahati, opening up for him new ways of imagining a “different” kind of theatre. Under his tutelage for about two years, Sukracharjya must have resonated with Kanhailal’s break with the National School of Drama,[10] and the setting up of Kalakshetra Manipur. Together, they embarked on a collaborative project titled Nature-Lore that would connect with the audience without the interference of the urban machinery of modern Indian theatre. Badungduppa was to become research-oriented theatre that would explore new possibilities of survival and sustenance of theatre in a pristine rural ambience, by taking the performance into nature itself:

I was stubborn in insisting that we must take theatre out of the sophisticated auditorium or stage, and take it to our own people. Forests are always an integral part of the life of the tribes in Assam, and the idea of celebrating drama in the midst of a forest environment took roots in my mind. At the same time, I tried to conceptualize my drama in such a way that it can be performed both on stage as well as off it, driven by the desire and need to reach a wider audience.

Rabha 2014

Tying the forest and nature to a form of storytelling that comes naturally in the folk environment, Sukracharjya rid his theatre of unnecessary paraphernalia. Badungduppa was named after a Rabha musical instrument, traditionally used to drive out evil; the nomenclature resonated with the ecology of the theatre that he was seeking to establish. The group consisted of about eighteen actors, all drawn locally from nearby villages. Sukracharjya was familiar with the trappings of Western/modern/realistic/proscenium theatre, but he chose to root himself in the forest, with a stage fashioned out of mud in the shape of a semicircle, similar to the proscenium. His theatre travelled and performed elsewhere, but it is its site specificity, deep inside the Sal forests of Agia that lent it that specific kind of undefinable utopian, “magical” quality.

Badungduppa, the indigenous musical instrument of the Rabhas. Photo: https://badungduppa.com/

At this point, it might be useful to bring in Michel Foucault’s linkage of heterotopias with the theatre in “Different Spaces” (1986): “more often than not, heterotopias are connected with temporal discontinuities” (182). This is connected with two extremities—festivals and museums/libraries. He argues that museums and libraries serve as spaces in which “time accumulates indefinitely” (182). And that festivals are spaces “that are linked . . . to time in its most futile, most transitory, and precarious aspect” (182). Sukracharjya started the Under the Sal Tree Theatre Festival at Badungduppa in 2009, the performances placed on the earthen stage in the forest under the sunshine that filtered in through the sap green canopy of the Sal trees. The backdrop made of thatched walls was supported by the Sal trees and bamboo, and the gallery for the audience used locally available bamboo and betel-nut trees without felling a single Sal tree, not even when it might be blocking the view: the spectators must wrap their bodies around the forest. All of these mechanisms are geared to reiterate the relationship of the human with trees. No artificial material is used anywhere, there are no microphones or lights; and after the festival concludes, the group ensures that the forests return to its natural tranquility.

Moving away from the clichés of the popular realist modes, Rabha managed to reclaim the theatre and take it home to the forests of Agia—disrupting both the temporal and spatial continuities of mainstream modern theatre. In a logical shift, much of Sukracharjya’s later work, like his mentor, Kanhailal’s, veered towards physical theatre. Gradually reducing dialogues, prioritizing body-language and allowing the performers swiftness of movement that came naturally to the village folk, the performing body began to move in synchronicity with its environment. Traditional Rabha musical instruments made of bamboo or mud aligned with the natural sounds of the jungle: whistles of wild avian species or the sounds generated in the bamboo bushes when the winds hit them.

The performance spaces, the little commune that allows the visitor to quite literally “step into another world” into the space of the festival, becomes the equivalent of moving through time, back to “another pristine time” (Foucault 182). Space and time are peculiarly conflated as the visitor steps through the jungle into the performance space. The air hums in one’s ears in this space, unlettered and uncluttered with the sounds and sights of the chaotic contemporary urban existence in India, in a celebratory, affective and precarious mode.

Bamboo seating that accommodates around 1500 people. No trees are felled to make the clearing. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri.

It will be pertinent here to explain my use of the notion of affects[11] which is developed by Brian Massumi[12] and Sara Ahmed,[13] among others, to understand the workings of the eco-activism at Badungduppa. Closer home, India’s own Rasa[14] aesthetics might be a useful tool to understand how the audience might be drawn into a state of heightened sensitivity by the surroundings and into an alignment with the Bhava and the politics of the performer. This encounter between the emotion/politics and affect of the performer-audience might be understood in terms of what Massumi calls the “seeping edge” (43), where precarity (and its politics) connects the two. Butler also assesses the intersections of the affective and the political, understanding the body as a social phenomenon that is able to attract other bodies to act: “We only act when we are moved to act, and we are moved by something that affects us from the outside, from elsewhere, from the lives of others, imposing a surfeit that we act from and upon” (“Precarious Life” 136).

After thirteen years, the Under the Sal Tree festival has become an important marker within this given imaginary; a place for generating and exchanging ideas, for feedback and dialogue. While not every invited performance might contribute to its ecological agenda, it is the space itself that has inveigled itself into the consciousness and empathy of its audiences, insidiously generating a fragile, precarious kind of strength.

After the first performance in the morning, Badungduppa dislocates the habits of the often-jaded urban theatregoer, inviting the entire audience for a community lunch. Simple fare is on offer, but the act of breaking bread together draws everyone into the intimacy of a family; all are subtly induced to become part of the ecology: “precarity carries the promise to reinvent social relationships through the perception of human life as relational rather than autonomous and sovereign” (Butler qtd. in Fragkou 7). Each evening during the festival, there are circular discussions among the participants and the audience on issues thrown up by the performances, around a campfire. The performers and the viewers become invested parts of the whole.

Discussion in the round, post-performance. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri

While the West might find post-performance “talkbacks” to be a frequent phenomenon, this is a relatively novel phenomenon in India—even more so in rural performances. To first draw the audience into the performative spectacle and then break it down to achieve an immersive understanding of this precarious ecology, after having induced the spectator to become party to the entire exercise, might be read as both affective and activist theatre.

Community lunch for all viewers. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri
The Stakes

While such a narration of a performance space might conjure up notions of a romantic pastoralism, where theatre activists experiment in an idyllic setting, Badungduppa is de facto a place where the theatre and the environment collide, coalesce and co-exist. The theatre becomes the vehicle for sustaining and building up local and global concern for the forest, and the forest that is on the edge of extinction provides a unique organic performance space, able to sustain large audiences that are drawn into its intimacy through corporeal materiality (the bodies adjusting and giving space to the trees) and community. Here is precarity in conversation with marginalization and erasure and the permeable space that ties the theatrical (human) and the environment (non-human): the entire thing coming together through an ecology of vulnerability.

As the rubber plantations nearby eat away into the Sal forests—it is perhaps just a matter of time before they disappear—Badungduppa deploys specific strategies of survival in the face of odds that appear insurmountable. With the Under the Sal Tree festival, it has managed to garner national and international attention to the precarious existence of an entire way of life: the Sal forests and the performance arts that are inexorably intertwined together. Within this festival space, both the forest and the performance become exhibits in an activist theatre ecology. And precarity, vulnerability and sustainability become crucial prisms through which the commune may be viewed in both the corporeal and material senses.

The notion of the theatre’s and the environment’s vulnerability—even mortality—is reiterated when the life breath of Badungduppa was suddenly snuffed out with Sukracharjya’s death, immediately raising concerns about the future of the movement in the forests of Agia. There is an acute fiscal crunch, and they do not allow “branding” and advertisements; the hosts are rural, agrarian folk who have learnt to skirt clear of corporate sponsorship. There is also a debt burden that is to be paid: festivals require money. Sukracharjya was the recipient of numerous national and international grants, but after his passing, the members of the group and his widow, Cheena Rabha, have had to take loans to sustain the movement.

Sukracharjya Rabha. In memorium, Badungduppa, 2018. Photo: Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri

The immense popularity of the event has turned it into a touristy destination, which lends itself to another kind of precarity. Scores of write-ups and posts on social media have rendered the festival into the “place to be”, come December. Many of the city folk who flock here treat the event like an “exhibit” for selfies and do not partake of the meals or the discussion. This audience is discrete from the others and in no way affected or part of this precarious ecology of activism. This is the conundrum that will require thoughtful and strategic handling.

Will the popular attention benefit Badungduppa’s ecological activism or only serve to morph it into the very thing that it resisted? Will the political imaginary it generated blur and disappear, or might this popularity be harnessed properly and the circle of resistance widen? Sara Ahmed’s emphasis on the politics of emotion where it “reanimates the relation between the subject and a collective” (171) might be a useful (and hopeful) way out in our understanding of how affect might work in a specific theatrical moment. Up until now the festival has managed to dig in its heels despite the pandemic and continued even as the group flails and looks around for resources. Meanwhile, the Sal trees perilously yield space to the ficus; the edges are demarcated, and the lines drawn.


Endnotes

[1] From Sircar’s most well-known play of 1965, Evam Indrajit. Sircar (1925–2011) founded his group Shatabdi in Bengal and was the proponent of what he called the “third theatre,” the “poor theatre” of Jerzy Grotowski being one of his inspirations. He went on to inspire the work of Heisnam Kanhailal and, through him, that of Sukracharjya Rabha.

[2] The Sal tree is also known as Shala, or Sakhua, or Sarai tree in India. Its scientific name is Shorea Robusta, and it belongs to the family Dipterocarpaceae. It is endemic to the lower Assam regions of Goalpara district. It is also found in a few other Indian states mostly along the foothills of the Himalayas. The following link is a fascinating recording of the manner of its seeding.

[3] Antonin Artaud articulated the precarious life of the theatre way back in 1938, in The Theatre and its Double.

[4] Written around two thousand years ago, the first chapter of the Indian treatise, The Natyashastra speaks of the resounding failure of the very first (mythical) performance in human history.

[5] Butler notes, “Lives are by definition precarious: they can be expunged at will or by accident; their persistence is in no sense guaranteed. In some sense, this is a feature of all life, and there is no thinking of life that is not precarious. . . .” (Frames of War 25).

[6] Originally in Das Drama des Prekären (2011) or, in English, “Tracing the Other in the Theatre of the Precarious” (2014).

[7] The capital city of Assam, in India’s northeast.

[8] The Rabhas are a Tibeto-Burman tribe living mostly in lower Assam and in pockets of Meghalaya and the Doars in west Bengal.

[9] One of the well-known plays of the iconic Assamese playwright and filmmaker, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala

[10] Kanhailal was expelled from the National School of Drama, where he had enrolled in 1968. A misfit in the school, where he was unable to cope with dominant language theatres in Hindi and English, he set up Kalakshetra Manipur in 1969 in the outskirts of Imphal, began to create his own performance vocabulary through a shift away from the dominance of language and created remarkable pieces like Tamnalai and Pebet.

[11] Much of this emanates from the work of Baruch Spinoza, for whom affects straddle the mind and body, actions and passions; formulating a new ontology of the human that is constantly renewed..

[12] For Massumi, “affect is unqualified. As such it is not ownable or recognizable and is thus resistant to critique” (27–28) When affect and emotion collide, it is “the edge of virtual, where it leaks into actual, that counts. For that seeping edge is where potential, actually, is found” (43). It is here that the intersection with theatre may be significant.

[13] Sara Ahmed underscores the politics of emotion where it “reanimates the relation between the subject and a collective” (171).

[14] Rasa theory from the Natyashastra. Literally meaning “juice,” it is the bhava or emotion of the performer that evokes a corresponding rasa in the viewer.

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*Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri is Professor and former Chair of the Department of English and Director of the Centre for Performing Arts and Culture, Gauhati University (Assam, India). A Fulbright Fellow (2015–16), she is currently writing a history of specific aspects of Indian theatre. She is also a member of the core committee of NÃT: Theatre Archives of Assam that will cover local theatre history from 1648 to the present. She leads a translation project of the collected works of Arun Sarma, the noted Assamese dramatist.

Copyright © 2022 Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri
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