• Theatre The origin of theatre in Assam can be traced back to ancient Ojapali and puppetry. Ojapali is even now performed in Lower Assam. The backbone of the Ojapali performance is the Oja (Lead singer) accompanied by four or five Palls who narrate tales from the Mahabharat, Ramayana, Katha-Bhagavat etc. in a musical narrative expressed by dance and facial expressions together with movements of the hands and feet. A pair of small sized cymbals (Khuti Taal) is used as an accompaniment. The tale is recounted in such a manner, that it leaves the audience spellbound. Puppetry is a folk art form where puppets are dangled on thin black strings and moved back and forth according to the requirements of the narrative. The tale is told by a narrator, who provides the voice over. Puppetry, as an art form is not only confined to Assam, but has its roots in other regions of India as well. Srimanta Sankardeva is the famous saint-poet of Medieval Assam who was responsible for the setting up of theatre as an art form. He was able to bring about a resurgence in theatre, because of the wide spectrum of experiences gained from the observation of the Ojapali and puppetry art forms which were prevalent before he arrived on the scene. His travels across the length and breadth of the country also helped him in this regard. All these experiences coalesced into the first ever Bhaona or Ankiya Naat staged by Sankardeva through his play Chihnayatra in 1468. This was the auspicious beginning to Ankiya Naat which is performed even today in the Naamghars (a place of public worship) in the open air theatre style, without any sort of partition. The centre of the Naamghar serves as the stage. The audience sits in a circular formation. The lead players are accompanied by the fellow singers and instrumentalists who play the Khol and Taal and direct the Naat-Bhaona (play). Masks depicting demons and the animals are worn by the actors according to the demands of the scripts. All in all Ankiya Naat is an amalgamation of dance, song, acting and instruments. The chief character in a Bhaona is the Sutradhar. So to speak the responsibility of the play, rests on the Sutradhar because it is he who conveys to the audience the various facts of the play, that is : the appearance on stage of the different characters, their exit, their dialogues etc. He acts as the narrator and the director.
With the change of time, the original script had undergone changes. The modern. Assamese language is used as the medium of expression. There is a reason for this change and that is that very few people are conversant with Brajavali, the language of neo-Vaishnava lyrics used by Sri Sankardeva and his followers. Bhaona in its traditional form is still performed. Baresaharia Bhaona of Jamugurihat at Sonitpur and the Hezari Bhaona of Nagaon are remarkable. The speciality of these two performances is that hundreds of groups excelling in art form display their talent in front of huge crowds. Bhaona is played on auspicious days like Janmastami, Guru Tithi, Ras Purnima, Doul Purnima etc. An offshot of the Ankiya Bhaona propagated by Srimanta Sankardeva is the Khulia Bhaona and Khulia Bhaoria performed in Darrang district of North Assam. The theatrical pattern in Assam underwent a change in the 19th century when young men having had their education in Calcutta staged plays of a high order. Prominent among these were Gunabhiram Baruah’s Ram Navami (1857), Hemchandra Baruah’s Kaniya Kirtan (1861), Rudraram Bordoloi’s Bangal-Bangalonee (1872) etc. It was around that time that many travelling drama companies flourished in places like Goalpara, Nalbari etc. These drama companies could be called the successors of the various Bengali theatre groups that toured Assam and visited places like Lumding, Furkating, Chaparmukh, Rangiya, Bongaigaon etc. Some notable names were Bholanath Opera, Shailabala Opera, Notto Company, Mahashakti Opera etc. The closing years of the 19th century saw the birth of a new genre of drama in Bajali and other places which was a combination of the elements of Bhaona, and plays staged by mobile theatre companies. In Pathsala such a party earned much popularity, which was converted into Pathshala Natya Samiti in 1917. But truly speaking it was Ambikagiri Rai Choudhary’s Jayadrath Badh a musical drama composed in Assamese, which came to be considered as a trail blazer in Assamese theatre. There was another person Brajanath Sarmah, who has made an everlasting contribution to modern Assamese drama. Because it was he who revolutionised drama in Assamese by introducing Saha Abhinaya or co-acting. He formed the ‘Union Kohinoor Opera Party’ which was a travelling theatrical troupe or mobile theatre group in 1931. It gave its first performance in Doomdooma in 1933. The female players were Golapi Das, Sarbeswari Das, Phuleswari Das, Labanya Das, Shailbala Devi and Binoda Gogoi. This troupe was quite popular in its hey-day. But the popularity was short lived. For it was closed down in 1936. The troupes of that period were Binapani Opera (1927-28), Haripur Madhya Bajali Opera (1936), Assam Natvani Samaj (1920), Bamakhata Sanjivani Opera (1935), Rampur Nopara Opera (1946), Bamakhata Sri Sri Sankardeva Opera (1930), Natraj Opera (1959) etc. It was with the establishment of Natraj Theatre in 1963-1964 that theatre in Assam gained a new identity because theatres have come to be associated with business. Theatres of this period were Mancharupa Theatre (1967), Assam Star Theatre (1970), Natraj Silpi Niketan (1973, later Aradhana Theatre), Kohinoor Theatre (1976), Awahan Theatre (1980). The other theatres were Roopkonwar Theatre, Lakhimi Theatre, Rupanjoli Natya Samaj, Makunda Theatre, I ndradhenu Theatre, Manchatirtha Theatre, Bhagyadevi Theatre, Bordoichila Theatre, Saraighat Theatre, Hengul Theatre, Puberun Theatre, Srimanta Sankardeva Theatre, Moon Theatre, Saurang Manju (Bodo theatre) etc. Although most of the theatres have closed down but their contribution to the theatre movement in Assam cannot be denied. In the last few decades of 19th century when travelling drama troupes or mobile theatre groups were formed, permanent theatre for hosting plays came up at places like Guwahati (1875), Jorhat (1885), Tezpur (1897), Golaghat (1895), Dibrugarh (1872), Sivasagar (1899), Nagaon (1902) established by amateur actors where mainly the plays which were translated in.Assamese from Bengali were staged. Later on plays in original Assamese were held. Earlier plays were staged on auspicious days like puja, tithis of various saints or on other festivals. The themes were mostly taken from Puranas or historical texts. It was only from the 4th decade of the 20th century that social themes gained ground. Some of the popular plays of that period were Padmanath Gohain Baruah’s Gaon Burha (village headman), Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s Belimar (Sun set), Padmadhar Chaliha’s Nimantran (Invitation), Ganesh Gogoi’s Sakunir Pratisodh (The Revenge of Sakuni), Nagaon Natya Samaj’s Piyali Phukan, Mitradev Mahanta’s Kukuri Konar Aathmangala, Lakshyadhar Choudhury’s Raksha Kumar, Atul Chandra Hazarika’s Tikendrajit, Saradakanta Bordoloi and Krishnananda Bhattacharyya’s Magribar Azaan etc. In 1946 Matir Manuh written by Jagdish Phookan was the first play to be staged on a revolving stage in Calcutta, a model which was copied and established at Sibsagar in 1957: But whatever one might say, it was the.amateur actors, some of whom were brilliant actors, who tended the stage a rare vivacity and beauty. Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla with his staging of Sonit Konwari on the ‘Ban Rangamancha’ of Tezpur broke new ground. Male and female leads acting together gained popularity towards the end of 1950 even though the trend had started in 1930’s. The popularity of co-acting made it easier for social themes to be staged. Although changes occurred in the mode of writing plays, acting, theatre decor, lighting, music etc. they have not been able to keep up with modern requirements. One reason is the lack of adequate stage facilities. Even then plays of high order have been staged. One act plays have also contributed to the growing theatre movement in Assam.
• Cinema Cinema came into its own with the birth of talkies in the rest of India. Alam Ara was the first Indian talkie produced in 1931. Four years later Roopkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla followed with his Joymoti (1935). It was a revolutio-nary step by Jyoti Prasad who plucked up the courage to set up the first Assamese studio ‘Chitraban’ at Bholaguri Tea Estate near Tezpur in 1934, where basic facilities for primary laboratory work, sound recording and editing were provided. Needless to say it was due to his unstinted efforts that Joymoti was released. It was a pathbreaking film, because he worked amidst plenty of difficulties, because Assamese film industry was at a nascent stage. There was a lack of trained actors, actresses, trained personnels in film production but his contribution is all the more to be lauded. The screenplay of Joymoti was adopted from Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s play Joymoti Kunwori. Agarwalla added few characters like Laluk Sola Barphukan, Ganthi Hazarika, dramatic forms like Bhaona and dances like Japi Nritya (Hat Dance) which were not there originalhy in the play. It was released in Calcutta on 10th March at the Rawnak Theatre (presently Jyoti Cinema) and in Guwahati at Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir on the 20th of March of 1935. The editing of Joymoti was done in Dhaka. Even though there were a few faults in its production, yet it does not take away anything from Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla’s contribution; because it was a move which created history in the world of Assamese cinema. Aaideow Handique was the female lead in the film, the first ever Assamese film actress. The role of Godapani was enacted by Parashuram Baruah and Phani Sharma played the role of Ganthi Hazarika. Four years later he followed with his second and last movie Indramalati which had a social theme. This movie was followed by Rohini Barua’s Manomati (1941). Parbati Prasad Barua’s Rupohi (1941) and Kamal Narayan Choudhary’s Badan Barphukan (1947). But lack of adequate market, finance and experience in film making made the movies suffer. But what matters is the fact that these movies were the vehicles of the producers to establish the film industry in Assam and moreover they were also part of the glorious past of Assamese cinema. After the second world war five movies were released in the year 1948. Out of which mention may be made of Siraj which was based on the famous story by Lakshidhar Sarma. It was jointly directed by Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Natasurya Phani Sharma. This movie proved to be a milestone because it gave a new lease of life to the Assamese film industry and till today it is considered to be an ideal movie from the point of view of screenplay, acting and direction. The lead role was performed by none other than Phani Sharma himself, whose acting talent is considered to be sort of phenomenal. It was also a success at the box-office. Siraj was again made into a movie in the year 1988 by Dr Bhupen Hazarika. Other movies produced in that year were Prabin Phukan’s Parghat (1949), Asit Sen’s Bip/abi (1950), Suresh Goswami’s Runumi (1953) and Sunil Ganguly’s Sati Beula (1954) and they achieved financial success in some measure. After that there was a gap of two years until 1955 in film production due to lack of resources like capital and market. The years from 1955 to 1958 saw movies like Lakshyadhar Choudhury’s Nimila Anka (1955), Phani Sharma’s Piyali Phukan (1955), Nip Baruah’s Smritir Porosh (1956), Maak Aru Morom (1957), Ranga Police (1958), Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s Era Bator Sur (1956) etc. Out of these Piyali Phukan and Maak Aru Morom bagged Certificate of Merit. By acting as Piyali Phukan Phani Sharma gained immortality. Till now Nip Baruch had directed the maximum number of films (14). Dr Bhupen Hazarika was the music director
Still from ‘Firingoti’ (1991). Malaya Gos:wami (right) won the national award for best actress for her performance in this film with the movie Era Bator Sur (1956) which established him as a music director of repute. This movie had the amalgamation of folk dance and music, paving the way for others such movies to follow. Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s musical journey had travelled a long way, composing his own songs, enriching it with music and singing them in his mellifluous voice. Besides Assamese he has sung songs in Hindi and Bengali as well. His music direction for Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali (1992) earned him the best music director award at the Asia Pacific International Film Festival held at Fukuoka, Japan. He is also a recipient of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award (1992). His other movies include Sakuntala (1961), Pratidhvani (1965), Loti Ghoti (1966), Chikmik Bijuli (1969), Mon Prajapati (1979) and Siraj (1988). Of these Sakuntpla, Pratidhvani and Loti Ghoti have been awarded the President’s Silver Medal. Besides these-Dr Hazarika won the national award for the best music director for Abdul Majid’s Chameli Memsab (1975). The years from 1956 to 1969 saw the production of 25 Assamese movies. Out of these, 9 have been able to win awards in one category or the other. They are Maak Aru Morom (1957), Tejimala (1963) which were awarded Certificate of Merit, Ranga Police (1958), Puberun (1959), Sakuntala (1961), Moniram Dewan (1964), Pratidhvani (1965) and Loti Ghoti (1966) were awarded President’s Silver Medal and Dr Bezbaruah (1969) got the best Regional Film Award. Other contemporary movies of that period were. Bhakta Prahlad (1958), Amar Ghar (1959) directed by. Nip Baruah; Lachit Barphukan (1961) directed by Lakshyadhar Choudhury and Prabin Phukan, Eto Sito Bahuto (1963) directed by Brajen Baruah; Chikmik Bijuli (1969), directed by Bhupen Hazarik@. A social film Puberun (Dir. Prabhat Mukerjee) was sent as an entry to the Berlin Film Festival making it the first Assamese movie to be sent abroad. Ranga Police was a box-office hit. But it was Brajen Baruah’s Dr Bezbarua which stole the show, produced by Rangghar Cine Productions. It was the first Assamese suspense movie. It was a highly successful movie both from the technical and financial aspects. It was made taking in all the positive aspects of Hindi movies, its success in no less measure attributed to the fact that it was the first crime thriller. This movie was a hall mark film, because it had the new tangled concept of a character playing a double role. Eto Sito Bahuto in 1963 was the first Assamese comic film. It was in these years that Assamese cinema was finally able to come into its own from the points of view of screenplay, art direction, direction, choosing of good stories, action, dialogue etc: The 70’s saw Assamese movies earning financial success as well as earning appreciation for artistry. Bhaiti (1972) was the first colour Assamese movie directed by Kamal Narayan Choudhury. Art films had also started gaining a foothold by then. Movies like Aparajoy (1970), Padum Barua’s Gonya Chilonir Pakhi (1976),. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s Sandhyaraag (1977), Atul Bordoloi’s Kollol (1978), Pulak Gogoi’s Khoj (1975) etc. are noteworthy. Incidently the 1970’s saw seven Assamese movies winning award in the Best Regional Film Award category. They were Aranya (1971) by Samarendra Narayan Deb, Upaja Sonor Mati (1972) by Brajen Barua, Mamata (1973) by .Malin Duarah, Chameli Memsaab (1975) by Abdul Majid, Putalaghar (1976) by Samarendra Narayan Dev, Sandhyaraag (1977) by Bhabendra Nath Saikia and Kollol (1978) by Atul Bordoloi. Mukuta (1970) by Brajen Baruah, Sontara (1973) by Nip Baruah, Jog-Biyog (1971) by Dwibon Baruah were commercial success. Sandhyaraag (1977) gained appreciation outside Assam and was screened at various international film festivals. The 80’s saw the largest number of movies produced, which was 54 in all. Nine of them were awarded Best Regional Film award. Jahnu Baruah’s Haladhiya Charaye Bao Dhan Khai (1987) won the national award Swarna Kamal for the best movie. The other award winning movies were : Anirban (1981) by Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Aparupa (1982) by Jahnu Barua, AalokarAhban (1983) by Charu Kamal Hazarika, Son Moina (1984) by Siva Thakur, Agnisnan (1985) by Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Ban (1985) by Charukamal Hazarika, Pratham Ragini (1987) by Dhiru Bhuyan, Ko/aho/ (1988) by Bhabendra Nath Saikia and Bonani (1989) by Jahnu Baruah. Agnisnan won the best screenplay award. Haladhiya Charaye Bao Dhan Khai was honoured at the Locarno Cine Festival with the award of Best Film of the year. lndra Bania won the best actor award for his captivating performance in the film. The 80’s saNni quite a few documentaries. Mention may be made of The Land Where Wind Blows Free, (1986) by Chandranarayan Barua and Golden Muga Silk— the Cultural Heritage of Assam (1987) by Siva Thakur, which won the prize for the best documentaries. Although a large number of films were produced during that period, only a handful of them achieved commercial success. These were : Ajoli Nobou (1980) by Nip Baruah, Bowari (1982) by Shiva Thakur, Kakadeuta Nati Aru Hati (1983) by Nip Baruah, Ghar Sansar (1983) by Shiva Thakur, Jivan Surabhi (1984) by Naresh Kumar, Son Moina (1984) by Shiva Thakur etc. During the first four years of the ’90s, more than 20 films were made come of these were brilliant e.g. Joon] (1990, Director : Hemen Das), Firingati (1991, Jahnu Barua), Sarothi (1992, Bhabendra Nath Saikia), Haladhar (1992, Sanjib Lipika Medhi, Nipan Goswami and Bhagawat Pritom in ‘Jon Jale Kapalat’ Hazarika), Relor Aalir Dubori Bon (1992, Pulak Gogoi) and the Karbi film Woshobipo (Gautam Bora, 1990). Firingati was adjudged as the second best movie in 1991 and Malaya Goswami won the national award for best actress for her performance in the same. During this period, several Assamese movies and their makers bagged several awards at the national level. These are : Sarothi (best regional film), Natun Asha (best documentary, 1990, directed by Arup Borthakur), Woshobipo (Indira Gandhi Award for the best maiden venture of a director), Hala.dhar (I ndira Gandhi Award), Sons of Abatani : The Misings (best documentary, 1991, Dir. Gautam Bora), best music director (Sher Choudhury, Woshobipo) and best sound recordist (Anil Talukdar, Sons of Abatani). On the other hand, Prem Janame Janame (1991, Dir. Jadav Chandra Das), Prabhati Pakhir Gaan (1992, Dir. Munin Baruah), Ranga Nodi (1990, Dir. Brojen Borah), Rikshawallah (1993, Dir. Dara Ahmed) etc. were some of the commercially hit movies released during that period. The onset of the ’90s witnessed the waves of both art and mainstream cinema in the State proceeding apace. Some brilliant movies were made in both the streams and the prestige of Assamese films were enhanced at the national level. In 1993, Abartan (Dir. Bhabendra Nath Saikia) won the Rajat Kamal award for the best Assamese film.
Director Sanjiv Hazarika’s Mimangsha was screened at the Indian panorama section in 1994. The Bodo movie Hagramayao Jinahar (Rape in The Virgin Forest, Dir. J D Bodosa) won the national award for the best film in the category of environment. Hridayar Aanre Aanre (Dir. Jadav Chandra Das) was a box-offibe hit made in that year. The Sound of Dying Colours (Dir. Sher Choudhury) got the award for the best promotional documentory on tourism. In 1995, Jahnu Barua won the national award for best director for Sagoroloi Bahu Dur. Bishnu Kharghoria won the best actor award for his performance in this film. Apart from that, the film won the admiration of cinema buffs around the globe. ltihaas (Dir. Bhabendra Nath Saikia), the national award winner in the regional category was screened in the Indian Panorama. In 1996, All Alone if Need Be, a documentary based on the life of former. Chief Minister of Assam, Sarat Chandra Sinha, won the national award for the best non-feature film. It was directed by Ranjit Das. In the same year Seema Biswas from Assam was adjudged the best actress at the national level for her performance in Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen.