Assam’s mobile theatre face bleak future

Experts look at ways to circumscribe the challenges posed by pandemic.

The majority of the 30 mobile theatre groups in Assam may find it difficult to stage a comeback after almost two years of closure due to two phases of COVID-19 lockdown preceded by unrest associated with the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests.

The Krishna Kanta Handique State Open University on July 9 organised a virtual meeting of Bhramyoman (travelling theatre) producers, directors and cultural economy experts, to find a way forward for the mobile theatre groups crippled by months of inactivity.

The meeting coincided with the birthday of Achyut Lahkar who started the mobile theatre revolution by forming the Nataraj Theatre group in 1963.

“The Bhramyoman season from July to April suffered a bit towards the end of 2019-2020 before COVID-19 struck to keep those associated with the industry virtually unemployed. The situation does not look like improving soon, and because the investment is huge for a theatre group, 99% may not survive this phase,” actor and head of Awahan theatre group Prastuti Parashar said.

“Given the popularity of mobile theatres across Assam’s rural landscape and the demand, we have to think of ways to stage plays while coexisting with COVID-19. Maybe we can cut down the audience size of 1,500-2,000 during normal times to 700-800 and increase the number of shows per day,” playwright-director Abhijit Bhattacharya, who has been associated with the Bhramyoman for 25 years, said.

Suresh Ranjan Goduka, a mass communication design researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati, said the annual turnover of the mobile theatre groups was ₹25 crore.

“Mobile theatre owners said materials such as bamboo, iron poles and fittings, timber and tarpaulin have been damaged or are unusable because of almost two years of inactivity. They will need to pump in ₹40 lakh-₹45 lakh more to be back on the road. It will be difficult unless there is some kind of assistance,” he said.

Revenue sharing model

Mobile theatres have had a unique model of revenue-sharing with local committees of a village or a group of villages that host them for a considerable period of time. Some committees pay the theatres in advance and they get 40% of the profit earned through tickets and associated activities.

The toughest challenge for the mobile theatre groups is to find the technicians who handle a range of activities from setting up the stage and makeshift theatre halls to cooking for the unit and transporting them from place to place.

“Each theatre group involves 120-150 people who get paid daily on the condition of no-work-no-pay. The challenge for the theatre groups is that many workers have either moved out in search of jobs or are selling perishables for a living,” Jayanta Kumar Sarma, professor of the university’s Mass Communication department, said.

“Mobile theatres have withstood challenges from other forms of entertainment and gone from strength to strength. But COVID-19 may have dealt them a blow difficult to recover from,” the university’s Vice-Chancellor Kandarpa Das said.

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