“In public nobody can escape from it; everyone is forced to be either spectator or performer. Some performers perform their refusal to perform. They play insignificant “little men”, or, if they are many they may play a cohort of “the silent majority”. The change-over from performer to spectator is almost instantaneous. It is also possible to be both at the same time....”
John Berger, Theatre of Indifference
Written in 1975, collected in The Sense of Sight, (edited by Lloyd Spencer, Vintage International, New York, 1985) p. 68-73
“What is important for the bourgeois aesthetic is that its object be rare and that only the most powerful have access to them. That is, that it fixes upon the art we cannot have or effect. Indeed its major value, even beyond its supposed aesthetic power, is its rarity……….not only can the majority not own it, they cannot even understand why it is valuable or that it is valuable”.
Gary Tartakov, “Dalits, Art and the Imagery of Everyday Life”,
(Art and Activism in India- Tulika Books, New Delhi)
The Assamese One Act (Ekankika) play competition is a post Independent phenomenon that overwhelmingly increased in the urban and sub-urban areas of the Indian state of Assam in the last five decades. In 1959, the first Ekankika Play competition was held in Dibrugarh and in the same year Assam Ekankika Play Association (Asom Ekankika Nat Sanmilani) took a shape. Since then the thousands of plays, written and produced for the competitions, performed remarkable role in the contemporary cultural practices of the state. This paper attempts to find out a possible way to contextualize the sub-urban Assamese Ekankika as a comparatively minor genre of theatre practice and examines its relevance with relation to the conceptualized “Everyday”.
During a seminar on Cultural Practices and the Discourses on the 'Minor', held in the Department of Art and Aesthetics, M S University of Baroda, February 2007, we tried to examine the Assamese Ekankika play practice under the light of "Minor" cultural practices. The presentation titled as The Silent Majority: Mapping “One Act” as a minor Genre of Theatre and its Relevance with Relation to Everyday, intended to establish a comparatively ‘minor’ (in the sense of ignored) tradition of theatre as alternative to the mainstream proscenium and it tried to analyze the problematic of/within such a process (of naming something alternative). So what is alternative and where the need for an alternative is, both the questions remained relevant at the outset. Thus it was a highly auto critical way of articulation since I was trying to propagate a particular form as alternative, and in the same time myself was making a critique of doing so.
Before going to the discussions let me establish the background on which the search for ‘everyday’ in/with/for theatre instigated among us. We are promoters and practitioners of a typical theatrical practice provocatively coined as The Disposable Theatre. And our basic premises include some interdisciplinary queries.
The inter-relationship of the performer and the spectator in a live art like theatre is our prime concern. We propagate our discomforts with the ongoing disciplinary institutions, the ideological strategies of the mainstream National Theatre with a claim that they constantly put a spectator into an exile instead of making him/her an active contender. The Disposable Theatre is essentially time-and-space specific and hence not repeatable in a different context. By disposing itself on the spot the Disposable Theatre counteracts the hegemonic presence of the grandiose theatre and appraises the ephemeral nature of a performance art. It denies the narcissist disorder of the Actor as Hero or the Actor as Celebrity. The Disposable Theatre tries to demolish the architecture of grand theatre and bring theatre to ‘everyday’. It searches the hidden ideological constructs and politics of everyday practices and observes the instantaneous performative circumstances. It observes the performative circumstances in a mundane everyday practice. It is interested in the power relation of the performer as the ‘giver’ and the spectator as the ‘receiver’ that the commercial and mainstream artistic practices try to establish.
On the process we researched the contemporary theatrical practices where the imagery of everyday is best executed, what comes close to the everyday. The One Act or Ekankika play tradition of Assam displayed some persuasive examples in front of us.
Contextualizing the Sub-Urban Assamese Ekankika
Disciplinary queries around writing a performance:
Paradigm shift and critique on the ‘elite’ construct.
As said above, there was an intense search, in our recent works, against the phenomenal existential celebrity error in theatre practices. The widely appearing Assamese plays under the one-act play competitions are always cast away for the rejection of the grandiosity and for its hesitant presence as minor practice in the larger theatre-scenario. Our dramatic or theatre discussions are mostly centred on (a) urban theatres, (b) National Theatres or (c) traditional grand narratives. The cultural practice in suburban spaces and in the rural areas is different from the most privileged urban theatres in both terms: in execution and in experience. Thus essentially a different kind of methodology they demand other than the artistic-aesthetic appreciative model of conventional theatre criticism. Instead of a textual criticism they require a contextual criticism. And for a contextual or sociological criticism also they provide least apparatuses to a researcher. The non-city, non-metro urban theatres have no well maintained database, no meta-theory and thus no past or future. But we know that the larger part of the population of our continent only belongs to this category, and they demand our sincere attention since all those locations have been transforming rapidly and altering their characteristics in the post independence phase.
The thematic choice for this paper itself problematizes the practice of 'dramatic critical writing' and even broadly the 'mainstream cultural writing'. We see most of our critical writings remain engaged to the literary text, the playwright or the 'verbal' contexts only. The performative circumstance of theatre is broadly left apart. Thus left apart the visual vocabularies. Frequently we find the literary text, the script as the "bible" and the playwright as the "hero". Perhaps it happens for the mercy of the university faculties of literatures. One can easily get thousands of writings on Shakespeare or Kalidasa, but very limited number of writings on the performances, the time and space specific experiences and on the spectators. Since criticism is mostly a verbal or literary practice, it is feasible to work on a written or verbally explainable text; but how to read a performance itself as a text upon a particular time and space?
Again my intervention problematizes the practice of ‘mainstream cultural writing’ by not addressing a traditional performing space (like Ramlila, Yakshagana, Yatra etc.), or not covering the other well-accepted theatre practices (be it Persi theatre tradition, Bombay-Calcutta-Delhi-based metro theatre) and also by not focusing on individuals (like Girish Karnad or Habib Tanvir). Consequently we face a twofold trouble in choosing a minor (though influential) practice and in trying to write a performance as the ‘text’. We see, such a study not only addresses the crisis of theatre, but also the crisis of theatre studies as well.
Modern Assamese dramatic practice, like other Indian languages, sprouted with the new waves of revivalism under the British rule. Ram Navami, a play on the suffering of the Hindu widows by Gunaviram Baruah in 1857 is considered as the first Assamese modern play. Bhramaranga, an Assamese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors by a group of students studying in Kolkata was staged in 1890, at a temporary stage in Patuatola Street in Kolkata. This play performance revived the modern Assamese Drama and now onwards formation of temporary auditoriums took place in various places in Assam. From the same time span Hemchandra Baruah’s Kaniyar Kirtan (A Tale of Opium) motivated with a social reformation is considered as a pioneering play. For the nationalist revolutionists the ancient mythological themes started taking place on stage in a revivalist tendency in the mid of nineteenth century. The new waves of thoughts influenced by the activities of the British Kolkata gave a new shape to modern plays and gradually much western dramatic practice introduced in local places. Ibsen, Barnard Shaw and many other playwrights influenced modern Assamese playwrights. Padmanath Gogainbaruah’s Joymoti (1900) was the first Historical drama in Assamese. By the time of independence many new trends introduced along with Absurd plays, symbolic plays and other avant garde practices. Assamese dramatic practice reaches its most vibrant days after Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s Romantic Revolutionism. The establishment of Ban Theatre in Tezpur in 1906 and the contribution of the legendary trio: Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Bishnu Rabha and Phani Sharma were remarkable in constituting the modern Assamese Dramatic practice. In post independence phase playwrights like Bhabendranath Saikia, Mahendranath Borthakur and Arun Sharma contributed several cotemporary plays with higher artistic degree. Bhabendranath Saikia through his use of details and realism, Borthakur though his narrative structure remains most acknowledged figures where Arun Sharma explores many experimental genres including existentialism and absurdity in Assamese drama.
One major phenomenon of Assamese theatre is the Bhramyaman or Mobile theatre, the most popular, grand and commercial venture in Assamese dramatic history. In 1963 the commercial mobile theatre took birth under the initiation of Achyut Lahkar and Sadananda Lahkar in Pathshala. This mobile theatre is unique and received world wide popularity in using double stage in a singular dramatic performance and for the extravagant use of light, costume and stage crafts. And thus when we talk about post independence Assamese theatre, we can categories it into three broad divisions: a) the mainstream modern Assamese drama, b) the Bhramyaman or mobile theatre, and thirdly c) the Ekankika or one act.
But the history and circumstances of Ekankika are somehow different from the other Assamese modern play traditions. The method of categorizing plays as social drama, mythological drama, historical drama, patriotic drama or romantic drama may not be applicable to describe Ekankika.
Atulchandra Hazarika’s Manchalekha is a well compiled anthology of the Assamese dramatic tradition within the time span of 1468 – 1967. Perhaps this is the only book in Assamese to research and document Assamese dramatic traditions according to the performative practices instead of a textual documentation. Hazarika painstakingly collects all the evidences of performances and deals with them with the contextual references. Here I would like to refer his book Manchalekha to make a summary of the history of Assamese Ekankika plays.
Ekankika Play is a modern phenomenon. To simplify the term, One Act, Ekanka or Ekankika means containing one single act instead of multiple acts. Anka means Act in Indian languages. Interestingly the most influential Assamese traditional theatre is called “Ankiya Nat” that also means ‘containing one act’ and it was propagated by Vaishnavite leader of the medieval Bhakti movement Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhavadeva in the fifteenth century. Since then the Ankiya Nat practice has been vigorous in the region till date. Perhaps it is the only complete dramatic form surviving for such a longer time in India. The other surviving traditional theatrical forms available in India are mostly musical or dance-based. Some other theatrical forms are there to inculcate dialogues, debates and verbal narrations, but they also lack some of the characteristics of a complete dramatic form. Perhaps the Ankiya Nat is the only form to contain a complete dramatic form along with all the elements: characters, scenic descriptions, use of masks and costumes and make-ups, music, dance, dialogues and so on. The dramatic structure was derived from ancient Sanskrit dramatic traditions but it was locally adopted according to the people of the land. Inclusion of many locally popular pre-existing art forms furnished Ankiya Nat into a unique feature.
Though the Ankiya Nat was derived from Sanskrit dramatic structure, it rejected the multiple Act structure and included various scenes into one single continuous act. Particularly the plays by Madhavadeva, are mention worthy for their one-act nature: their short duration and precision.
Ekankika is modern in many senses including the thematic choice, execution pattern, and ideological premises. The Ekankika is most suitable for the modern life, it is short spanned, it says about the modern lives. It is a secular practice and this secularism could be explained in terms of religion, the rise of individual artistry and also regarding its autonomous operation. The relation of a full-fledged play and an Ekankika is comparable to the relation of a novel and a short story. If a short story is elaborated, it may not be a novel, and just like that an Ekankika is not just a shorter version of a full length play. The attitude, mind-set and as a whole philosophy is different. An Ekankika is complete in itself. The demands of the form are different.
However, the modern Ekankika is different from that traditional theatre form. To trace the origin of modern Ekankika play in Assam one has to go to the post-world-war phase. Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s Pachani might be the first Assamese Modern Ekankika though it was popular as a farce. A lot of similar plays were available before the independence that was popular for the humorous and satirical elements. They were not dignified as a self-complete drama but were an additional element of a full-length play production. After a ‘serious’ drama was staged, they were played as a merry time. They were deprived of serious attention as a dramatic practice. Occasionally several such satirical dramatic events used to take place in the legendary Ban Theatre of Tezpur. The short satirical plays at the Durga Puja festivals were most influential. These plays were taken so casually by the actors that no proper rehearsal took place. Mostly they were full of instant improvisations instead of systematic method acting. Sometimes the dramatic text was manipulated accordingly on the spot.
Gadadhar Raja, a play by Bezbaruah was published in an issue in the eighth volume of Assamese Journal Banhi. It contained one single act and it took less than an hour to perform on stage. The play got popularity and was being staged in several places. Thereafter a several Ekankika plays like Bichar, Kabir Jivan, Prajapatir Bhul, Atmasanman, Hridayar Mulya by pioneering progressive writer Lakhsmidhar Sharma were got published in another celebrated periodical Avahan. We have very less evidence of staging of these plays, but definitely they had a role in establishing the psychology and philosophy of modern Ekankika Play.
In the 40s, in all the monthly assemblies of Guwahati Sandhiya, there used to be performed a satire regularly. Some of the plays performed there were written by Praveen Phukan but unfortunately the scripts are not available now. Narayan Baruah, Prabhatchandra Sharma (from Dibrugarh district), Surendranath Saikia (from Golaghat District) were some other playwrights of that phase. Tracing all these evidences Atulchandra Hazarika quite convincingly claims that Ekankika in Assamese cultural practice was never a trend that introduced only by the western world. Hazarika also regrets that in that time hardly anyone tried to evaluate these plays as a serious practice but all accepted an addition to a full length play production.
As mentioned earlier, the practice of Ekankika suits the modern lives in many terms. A “full-fledged” play production requires scientific auditorium architecture, a well examined matured script, numerous actors and technical persons along with a huge amount of monitory capital and a prolonged time of preparation. It demands full concentration, disciplined team-work, tremendous individual skills, dedication, patience and organization. The art of theatre as a whole requires a homogenous taste among the actors and spectators. Atulchandra Hazarika does not overlook the problems of a play production system in a modernized place in Assam. Assam is a state full of verities of castes, classes and languages. The popular cinema also appeared as a challenge in front of the theatre practitioners. Under all these conditions it was really hard to sustain a practice of full length play production. Contrarily, Ekankika could be done with limited money, limited actors and technicians and within limited time also. Again, Ekankika could be attached to any other cultural occasion as an addition. Any cultural festival, public occasion could easily produce an Ekankika as an additional element to a cultural celebration. All India Radio also added inspiration to the Ekankika playwrights. Many Ekankika plays were turned to radio plays over the time.
In 1957-58 two Assamese Ekankika plays, Bhola Kataki’s Bibhrat and Ghanakanta Saikia’s Mahasamar drew attention of the new playwrights by achieving success in inter-state youth festivals. In 1959, the first Ekankika Play competition was held in Dibrugarh and in the same year Assam Ekankika Play Association (Asom Ekankika Nat Sanmilani) took a shape and had a long term promise under the initiation of the personalities like Bishnu Rabha, Phunu Baruah, Phani Talukdar, Taphajjul Ali, and Prafullakumar Baruah and so on. In 1960 the second congregation was in Sivasagar. In 1961 the third one was in Guwahati and then in Tezpur, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia in the respective years. In each of the annual congregations Ekankika play competition was organized along with some discussion sessions on theatre and dramatic arts and thus the process initiated a promising environment theatre practice and research. The All Assam Surya Bora Memorial Ekankika Play Competition starts in Biswanath Chariali in 1962. Like that, numerous competitions are being active in several urban and sub-urban places in varieties of scales. Jyotirupa (Guwahati), Jagyeshwar Bora Memorial (Biswanath Chariali), Naren Mahanta Memorial (Purani Gudam), Joga Bora memorial (Bihpuriya) are some of them. A new trend of organizing Ekankika play competition emerged in almost all the subdivisions, all the places. Thus in the last five decades we get thousands of new Ekankika plays.
Shift over from the grandiosity to the everyday nuances:
One-act as an extension of the everyday
It is true that the modern theatre practices of amateur groups of sub-urbia are highly influenced by the “high theatre”/ “mainstream practice”/ “elite-avant-garde theatre” of the city; or by the political capital which also claims to be the cultural pole for some particular region (i.e. Guwahati in Assam, Kolkata in West Bengal, Delhi in India). To some extend those are only a subversive adaptation of the other. But it does not mean that we never should bring those instances to our discussions. If not with the regard of canonical aesthetics, then, with the concern of its socio-political impact the sub-urban amateurish theatre demands intense attention. But along with
(a) Its frequency of happening,
(b) Availability to the “common” in the under developed sub-urban semi rural places and
(c) The realistic execution (by its formalistic demand),
the Assamese Ekankika claims its own relevance as a free standing genre which we can trace as an alternative to the mainstream.
Let me put my initial arguments here:
1. The Ekankika with its frequent happenings and subtle nature tries to capture the everyday as well as tries to bring the theatre to the everyday lives.
2. Ekankika is a medium for the poor performers who have desires to do but cannot effort the auditorium cost, light, music, ticket-selling etc.
3. Ekankika is a medium for the non-professionals (if we avoid the term amateur), the learners and mostly the college students.
4. Ekankika happens mostly in the outskirts of the cities, and thus receives the ordinary non-professional theatre viewers (spectatorship too, demands professionalism).
5. Ekankika, by its nature, mostly entertains the day to day realities in place of any grandiose narration.
Regarding all these above mentioned characteristics, we can assume the imagery of everyday life (in Gary Tartakov’s sense) being appropriated in Ekankika plays. It contains the promise within it to subvert the bourgeoisie character of the aesthetics of art. In one hand the Ekankika plays try to distribute the power from the isolated, concentrated professional performers to the numerous insignificants. It refuges the celebrity status of individual actor/playwright/director and reduces the existentialist/phenomenal exaggeration of the ‘high’ theatre. The narcissistic actor or the wounded actor is lost in Ekankika. Secondly, it subverts the ‘desire’ of the grandiose theatre. In most of the cases, adjoining the performer’s personal living into the character being portrayed by him or her, it puts an insight to the performer’s subjectivity; which may resist any kind of mannerist method acting.
An ideal full-fledged play contains five acts -- metaphorically resembling the Aristotelian pyramid (beginning, ascending, climax, descending, and catharsis). An Ekankika can compress all those elements into its ‘only’ act, but also radically can reject the dramatic structure as in Ekankika the “unity of action” hardly fails. Due to its short-timed-experience it does not lose its coherency of experience. Ekankika reduces the epical expansion, elaboration and prolonged time. Yet we cannot de-mean the Ekankika saying to be a compressed play. The relation of an Ekankika to a full-fledged one is comparable to the relation of a short story to a narrative novel. Though the basic structural elements are the same (narrative, character, event and so on…) short story and novel are completely different genre in their characteristic feature.
Most of the time an Ekankika tries to merge the symbolic time to the real time into a similar plane in contrast to a full-fledged drama or to a novel. For example if a full-fledged play adapts the life span of Mahatma Gandhi as its object, the other takes a particular event of the same personality as its object. If the first one researches a historical chronology, the other will only search for a tiny moment through which the historical insight could be captured or recaptured.
Ekankika prefers to tell a story of half an hour event in half an hour span of time as precisely as it can. So it compiles the symbolic reality and physical reality on the same psychological plane.
Because of the precision of time an Ekankika is lesser privileged to develop a dramatic character in detail; it precisely concerns about its central content avoiding all the hyperbolic rhetoric of language (of dialogue), clumsy characters or decorative elements. So, as a result the Ekankika by its nature tries to capture the everyday nuances with its most possible precision and subtlety. It simply rejects the grandiosity and epic narrative and comes closer to the everyday realism; which one can easily describe as a trend of social realism. In most of the cases a spectator of the one-act does not want to see the glittering costume or bright make-up on the face of the actor, neither he wants to see a story of the king and queen which starts with a sentence like “once upon a time”. But a spectator wants to see the everyday cup of tea, the market, the newspaper stall, the bus stop, the middle-class drawing room, the bedroom; the footpath etc. The Ekankika is ephemeral in it’s all the senses. A single script of Ekankika survives hardly for long. Therefore it is also bound to its time and this time specificity makes it very much reflexive to the contemporariness.
In Ankiya Nat or Bhaona, the Assamese vaishnavite traditional theatre, we see, the performer is anybody; which is not similar to other regional forms. Since Ankiya Nat is not commercialized even now like the Yatra of Bengal, anybody, from any caste and class of the village can perform in the village performing arena. Other than some particular exceptional cases, character casting is essentially made skill wise, not by the performer’s family identity. There is no professional group of performers in the village to identify distinctly from the other folks. There is no performer’s community in its sociological sense. Actors are not aliens or strangers or outsiders to the everyday social life.
In the similar way, in case of Ekankika, there is no professional Ekankika player to be distinguished from the other ordinary man. The actor of an Ekankika is simply anybody. If s/he is not, then also, s/he tries to portray that anybody. And so the saga of a suburban hero or of the insignificant pan-shopkeeper continues.
Acknowledging some promising attempts
There are many plays written and staged with their all the perfections in the late couple of decades. The playwrights and thespians along with half a century experience with the form have grasped the essential demand of the form. Rejecting all the grandiose narration and phenomenal acting methods they are now very much closed to the everyday nuances.
Among the young playwrights to name a few, Pankaj Jyoti Bhuyan stands on the forefront with his deeper understanding of dramatic structure, visual sensibility and music. Most of his best plays took place in Sadou Asom Surya Bora Sowarani Ekanka Nat Protiyogita (All Assam Surya Bora Memorial Ekankika Play Competition), of Biswanath Chariali as one-acts since more than one decade. Pankaj Jyoti does not only capture the everyday nuances in a realist manner, but also with a better understanding of the technical formalities his plays claim higher aesthetic attribution.
In Pankaj Jyoti’s Tinita Rongin Pokhila (Three Colorful Butterflies) we see: three friends, a lawyer, a business contractor and a doctor meet at one’s house while their wives were not there, and celebrate a drinking party. Under a big round-shaped light-shade they converse intimately and as the intoxication grows high they start to confess many hidden truths of their personal lives - excavating the pathos of urban individualism, career bound and middle class hypocrisy. The business contractor friend (brilliantly enacted by Dipak Gogoi) out of his suppressed desire all of a sudden gets hallucinated: the light-shade above head to be the apple that provoked Adam to commit a sin. He stands upon the table and tries to catch the hanging shade; as a result the hanging shade starts moving to and fro like a pendulum. Consequently the only source of light on the stage makes a commotion in the entire mise-en-scene with a revolving luminary illusion. Pankaj Jyoti understands well, within the limitation of a “competition space”, with the limited light and sound effects how to utilize the given technical facilities at its best.
His A Political Dream deals with a theatre craftsman’s ambition, dream and private family life which ends up with a very ordinary confession; “An ordinary thief also left his shoes in my house, now he says he does not want it any more. Only I could not give up anything, as if I am in a poorer state than the thief.” In 2005, he offers a play Biday Kangkona (Goodbye Kagkona) on a real event of a female research student’s suicide out of the corrupt education system which was simply ended up with this simple statement: “…that means I have to leave to dream. Without a dream how can I live a life?” She commits suicide, only suggesting, “There is a ceiling fan above me, and a dupatta (a piece of cloth) on my hand.” No outcry, no scream, no exaggerated action was there. Neither was any so called message for the society at the climax by the protagonist. Gradually Pankaj Jyoti develops a naturalist method of narration where the actors copy the everyday conversation instead of any actorly imitation, it seems, the actors of Pankaj Jyoti’s plays are not bothered about the last audience in the auditorium at all, neither are they fascinated to make any historical moment through the process.
Contemporary to Pankaj Jyoti, Dipak Gogoi is constantly representing events from his own village Chotea. It seems the actors of Gogoi are portraying characters of their own, telling a story of their own village and also doing for the audiences from their own village. So there is no scope for copying any grandiose attitude, neither any scope for developing the narcissist wounded actor within them. Pankaj Jyoti has a tremendous horizontal range of subjective choice and formal exploration where as Dipak Gogoi’s practice is steady, limited to his thematic choices (all are on the pastoral lives) and uncompromisingly stuck to the rejection of any grandiosity. His Bhekulee (frog) shows a situation of people’s gathering in a flood-effected village and the growing panic among the people for the catastrophe. Very brilliantly the panic situation for the flood-relief represents the penetrating power of the nation state into a circumstance of the village folks. His earlier play Ojan Barhise (Weight is Increasing) portrayed a panic situation out of a rumor of discovering a time-bomb at a public place. In the both of the cases we see the penetrating middle-class panic into the lower class people. All these plays only re-pre-sent the current situation: that is what just out there.
The realist method of Assamese Ekankika includes numerous social concerns of everyday. In the time of Indian military invasion we saw the sufferings of the village folk: the victimized youth, the raped village females. We saw the consequences of the ethnic insurgency. We saw the social disorder due to the economic stagnancy of the state. In these numerous plays one can find each and every subject from the evryday lives. But they reject the kings and queens, the hystorical heros, or imaginary creatures without the reference of the social reality.
Looking into the Rules and Regulations of the “Competition”
And the ‘Mediocre’ Thespian
The organizations of the play-competitions emerged in the post Independence phase mostly with some nationalistic attitude and all the problems within the term nationalism are reflected in the completion-plays. For example the most influential Ekankika play competition of Biswanath Chariali was named after Surya Bora, a martyr of the nationalist movement around the debate after Language Crisis in 1960. Again, to make a competition successful an organization has to go through some sort of rules and regulations, and those rules and regulations become determining factor of the canon of contemporary Ekankika play production after a while.
For example here I am mentioning some notes from the authoritative rules and regulations circulated by Sardou Asom Surya Bora Sowarani Ekanka Nat Protiyogita Samiti (All Assam Surya Bora Memorial Ekankika Play Competition Committee) of Biswanath Chariali that started in 1962 onwards:
…..2. a) No translated play but only original play can be participated in the competition. With an authorized letter from the author an adaptation of literary fiction would be allowed.
b) No play having more than one child character would be entertained.
4. Number of characters in a single play should not be more than 8 (eight).
5. One play once staged in the competition can not apply for second time in the same competition.
6. The male characters should be enacted by male actors and the female characters by the female.
7. a) each play should be completed within 45 minutes including set arrangement etc.
This sort of ‘rules’ are standardized, all the competition organizers of various districts have been following the similar rules and regulations for half a century time span. As a result the canonical definition of an Ekankika or one-act play turns to: one-act is a play that happens within 30-45 minutes, contains strictly eight characters or less than that, and cannot contain more than one child-character. Rule 2.a limits the possibility of exploring a script from other languages. Rule 2.b and 4 limits the immense possibility of working with a larger group of thespians. And thus rule 5 suggests some kind of highly non-discursive attitude rejecting the scope of doing the same play for more than one times under the competition. For these canons Ekankika stands alone and we cannot generalize it to a mere ‘short-play’. Now as I stated earlier in sub-urban areas in our poor country the thespians have to remain dependent to the play competitions since it never becomes possible to effort all the expanses by their own and simultaneously they are also dependent to the limitations made by the ‘authority’. So, on one hand the competitions are providing spaces for the amateurs (they are not amateurs by their choice, but they are amateurs because there are no scope for being professional till today) and on the other hand limiting the practice.
And here we go for some funny situations: In a mediocre one-act, when the female actor laughs or cries or bursts out in a melodramatic mood, the audience come to know that she is doing so for the prize of “best actress”. When a mediocre group of thespians meets a playwright for a new play they ask if there would be one child character or not, because if no prize they can win at least there would be a chance in the child character. For a couple of weeks the thespians of a mediocre group will struggle to find out which character is fit for “the best actor” and which one is for the best “supporting actor”. The ‘character’ that made for the “best actress” knows her own limits and the ‘character’ that made for the “best supporting actress” knows her own limits. Sometimes some playwright give some troubles to the actors portraying the lead character in a humorous comic pattern, because it becomes hard to distinguish for which this character is suitable, for the “best actor” or for the “best comedian”?
A ‘mediocre’ group of thespians or their work cannot be an object for theatre-studies just as a ‘mediocre’ artist not supposed to be an object of study in art-history. But that ‘mediocre’ maintains the invisible hegemony in the sub-urbia and contradicts to the promises that I discovered in the earlier discussions on the possibilities of one-act as an extension of the everyday.
One-act as a chronicle: The middle-class narcissism
Dialectics of the Performer-Spectator Power Relationship:
The promise made under the structure
Regarding the frequency of happening and the availability to the sub-urban audience the Ekankika inherits some characteristics of a chronicler. The audience of one-act only wants to see current-criticism on the stage. But this criticism in the same time should fulfil the narcissism of the middle-class. And the narcissism of the particular set of people nationalist conscience homogenizes the local variations of the diversified area in the state. Ironically, in the process of obtaining the characteristics of a chronicler, the Ekankika departures from the promises of the form within and gets effected by the crucial problems of a state operated media agency.
Earlier I described how the Ekankika in Assamese theatre scenario distributes the power from the concentrated isolated “professionals” to the insignificant bodies. But, though it shows many subversive tendencies it does not stand outside the structure, neither it questions directly against the so called canonized national trend of proscenium theatre practice.
Speaking in a generalized manner, a beggar on the stage is superior to a rich man sitting on a spectator’s seat in the dark auditorium. The critique on the proscenium made by Badal Circar is equally applicable to the practice of Ekankika. That particular spectator had paid money to see that beggar (the actor), now is trying to believe whatever is being enacted, and getting ready to be convinced and waiting for a climax sequence when the concluding “essential” message will come from the “beggar’s” mouth. The beggar is under spotlight, the spectator is buried in darkness. The beggar is speaking, moving, whereas the spectator is bound to be silent, patient, stilled, switching off his mobile phone, and forgetting his subjective position. Above all he is by the way getting ready to clap at the end. In this one way traffic system the performer (the giver) simply forgets that his or her “gift” is a mere product of a construct of the unconsciousness. And in case of my object of study, the Assamese Ekankikas it is essentially affected by the middle classes. We also have to keep it in mind that, it cannot be a problem for Ekankikas only, but for the whole trend of representational theatre or narrative theatre.
The Ekankika play-competition-tradition provides a thespian a space to reach the target audience. But the thespian is not out of the structure. The structure can translate or manipulate the desire of a theatre person according to its own terms. There is an invisible power operation board in between what an actor speaks and what a spectator receives. The actor of competition play even does not recognize the hand of power to utter like Mephisto: I am just an actor, what do they want from me?
Though the Ekankika plays try to distribute the power from the isolated, concentrated professional performers to the numerous insignificants or it refuges the celebrity status of individual actor/playwright/director and reduces the existentialist/phenomenal exaggeration of the ‘high’ theatre, yet, submitting itself to the other institutional structures it limits its own possibilities. It may subvert the ‘desire’ of the grandiose theatre but it cannot resist the visible/invisible hegemony of the enriching middle-class and the constitutional power.
Assamese Ekankika from its early days appeared as competition plays. So, as amateurish competition plays these one-acts have some other distinct features, which one can notice with greater interest. The matter of competition carries the other issues around rule and regulations, canonization and the competition psychology which can lead our discussion to some other direction. A comparatively minor, rather alternative tradition, defining its own territory excludes other minor objects from its thematic choice and thus it questions its own alternative-ness with regard to power operation. Though the Ekankika is minor in comparison; cast away for long by the intellectuals; alternative for the mainstream; yet, it also carefully preserves the hierarchal authority of mainstream practice other way around. All the constructive formal possibilities I wanted to discover within it, actually bear some satisfactory apparatus for a particular “set of people”, i.e. the emerging middle class. So, an alternative attempt against some other middle class attempts preserves the same class-ideological premise within its system of alternativity (or alternative-ness).
In the half of a century historiography of Ekankika, in the thousands of plays produced in space, I see how the minor (the children, the adolescent, the women, the people using localized linguistic dialects, the tea-garden tribes, the migrant-farmers, the Bodo-Missing-Karbi and thousands of north-eastern tribes) are carefully kept minor.
From two census reports from 1891 and 1991, we can trace the ratio of urban population and rural population in Assam remains constant. It shows some kind of socio-economic stagnancy. But the conflicts of the cultural, linguistic as well as racial diversities of the late 19th and the late 20th give us just an opposite picture of Assam, contradictory to the above-mentioned economic “stagnancy”. It may refer the predominance of the middle class that keeps some hegemonic cultural practice supporting. It is ever said that, the process of constructing an Assamese nation (/-alism) is still in the process or under-development. Language, dialect, cultural practice or ways-of-living, none of these elements allow us to have a self complete idea of “The Assamese”. While working in Assamese language, in a state level ‘production’, these questions invoke in one’s mind: as Paris for the French, as Kolkata for the Bengali, so, is the Guwahati for the Assamese? Is the political capital, Guwahati, cultural capital also? It is not. Guwahati is focused only due to the economic and geographic centralization. Again, in the so called Assamese literature, Assamese theatre, Assamese music we feel the presence of “some Assamese” – so to speak, which includes neither the minor migrant Muslim peasants, nor any of the thousands of tribal natives, nor the tea-garden tribes, where some kind of ‘feudal’ system is still entertained. Then with whom the ASSAMESE is constituted? There is no certain answer, but here in this articulation I have an answer, that is - the middle-class. it may not be a strict economic distinction, but a conceptual one. The conceptual category of the middle class is significant with the process of maintaining a certain degree of value system.
The formal aspects and possibilities could provide scopes to the one-act to stand out as an alternative practice to the grandiose theatre, but till now no Avant garde attempt is seen. A counter cultural practice could emerge on the basis of one-act as a genre. We can acknowledge the most promising playwrights or directors for their continuous involvement within the structure, and also for not submitting themselves to the urban elite practice. But within the giant structure those attempts are seem to be individualistic attempts and they lose their promise for supporting the structure. though social realism is its prime feature, Assamese Ekangkika fails to generate a strong political identity. It fails to initiate a politically motivated cultural activism. the form of Ekangkika has all the potential, still it does not come out of the hegemonic stagnancy of the priviledged class: the emerging Assamese Middle Class of the post Independence era. And we are sceptical about if should we imagine in a Hegelian model that one day Assamese Ekankika will come out breaking down the barricade and mingle up the represented everyday with the present every day.
So, today we are waiting for a better time when the one-act tradition would come out of the competition spheres and fulfil its own promises. Assamese Ekankika would really penetrate to the everyday life of the ordinary mass. There would be no authority with their pointing fingers to the artistes. ‘More than eight’ characters, more than two child-characters, would comfortably appear in an Ekankikas. Other than the systematic presentations of weeping, crying and laughing aloud, the female characters will appear with their own subjectivity. The locale dialects would establish their own presence. And if possible, one day the Ekankika would come out of the proscenium architecture, and take place in front of a roadside pan-shop.
- Anjan Kumar Ojah, Istantic Natya Sankalan, a collection of six short plays by Pankaj Jyoti Bhuyan and Dipak Gogoi (Istantic Silpa Samabai Samitttee, Chatia, 784 175, Sonitpur, Assam, 1999)
- Aparna Bhargava Dharwadkar, Theatre of Independence: Drama, Theory and Urban Performance in India Since 1947 (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006)
- Atulchandra Hazarika, Manchalekha, a history of Assamese stage from 1468 to 1967 (published by K N Dutta Baruah, Lawer’s Book Stall, Panbazar, Guwahati 781 001 on behalf of Sahityacharya Atul Chandra Hazarika Trust, Guwahati, 1967, 1995)
- B B Mishra, The Indian Middle Class, Their Growth in Modern Times (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1961)
- Badal Circar, The Changing Language of Theatre, (Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture, (Printed by 30b/1 Sarat Ghosh Garden Road, Calcutta 31) delivered in 21st April, 1982)
- Badal Sircar, Theaterer Bhasa, (collection of lectures Dwijendralal Roy Memorial Lectures in Calcutta University in 1981. As a book it was published by Pradip Bhattacharya, Raktakarabi, 10/2 b, Ramanath Mazumdar Street, Kolkata 700009, in 1983)
- Benjamin Lloyd, The Wounded Actor: A Problem with A Solution”, Villanova University.
- Bolin Borgohain, Rafikul Hussain (Edited), Natyaranga (selected Assamese Ekangka Nat, 1960-2006), published by Nava Kalita, Kiran Prakashan, DK Market, Dhemaji- 787057.
- Eugenio Barba, Four Spectators, in TDR, The Drama Review, (edited by Richard Schechner, published by MIT Press, New York University, Tisch School of Arts, Spring, 1990 )
- Gary Tartakov, “Dalits, Art and the Imagery of Everyday Life”, Art and Activism in India- Tulika Books, New Delhi
- Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life, (vol. II, Continuum Impact)
- Hiren Gohain, Asomor Madhyabitta Samajor Itihas, (History of Assam’s Middle Class Society), collected in Sahitya aru Chetana, by Banalata Publication, 1991, p. 9-71. First published in a periodical named Natun Prithivi, Aug.1972-Feb.1973
- Indibar Deori’s article “Shatabdir Sandhilagnat Asomor Gramya Somaj aru Sanskriti” (the rural culture in the juncture of two centuries); published in Bingsha Satabdi aru Asom (twentieth century and Asom) edited by Geetashree Tamuli and Hem Phukan, and published by D R College Golden Jubilee Celebration Committee, Golaghat, January, 2000, p. 23-43
- Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, (edited by Eugenio Barba, with a preface by Peter Brook, Methuen & Co Ltd, Eyre Methuen Ltd, first published in Denmark 1968, reprint, 1975)
- John Berger, Theatre of Indifference, Written in 1975, collected in The Sense of Sight, (edited by Lloid Spencer, Vintage International, New York, 1985) p. 68-73
- Jyotirmoy Jana, Unais Shotikar Natakat Somokalin Asomor Nimnashrenir Jibanar Pratissabi, published in Goriyosi, edited by Chandraprasad Saikia, Vol 8, issue 9, June 2001
- Jyotirmoy Jana, Unais Shotikar Natakat Somokalin Asomor Nimnashrenir Jibanar Pratissabi (the reflection of the contemporary Assamese subaltern life in nineteenth century drama), published in Goriyosi, edited by Chandraprasad Saikia, Vol 8, issue 9, June 2001
- Munin Goswami (Edited), Ariya, souvenir of Chariali Veenapani Natya Samaj platinum Jubilee, 2009-2010
- Prafulla Mahanta, Asomiya Madhyabitta Shrenir Itihaas, a social history on Assamese middle class (M/s Purbanchal Prakash, G N Bordoloi Road, Ambari, Guwahati-1, 1991)
- Samudra Kajal Saikia, Residing in the Shifting Spaces: an Attempt to Conceptualize the ‘Spectator’, An MVA dissertation submitted to Department of Art History, Faculty of Fine Arts, M S University of Baroda, 2007.
- Satyendranath Sharma, Asomiya Natya Sahitya, Assamese Dramatic Literature, (Soumar Prakash, Rihabari, Guwahati-8, 1962)
- Tarun Saikia (Edited), Souvenir of Sadou Asom Surya Bora Sowarani Ekangka Nat Pratiyogita Samiti (all Assam Surya Bora memorial Ekankika play competition committee), 1986
 See the Critique of Badal Circar on Proscenium theatre. Protesting the proscenium architecture Badal Sircar promotes Third Theatre which is (a) Flexible, which is worth playing in various places under various conditions, (b) Portable, which is easy to bring here to there, (c) Inexpansible, which is not dependent on big-budgets. Sircar, by first says about the traditional folk theatres and by second refers the whole proscenium convention which is essentially a colonial and Europeanized phenomenon. See: Badal Sircar, The Changing Language of Theatre, (Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture, (Printed by 30b/1 Sarat Ghosh Garden Road, Calcutta 31) delivered in 21st April, 1982), Badal Sircar, Theaterer Bhasa, (collection of lectures Dwijendralal Roy Memorial Lectures in Calcutta University in 1981. As a book it was published by Pradip Bhattacharya, Raktakarabi, 10/2 b, Ramanath Mazumdar Street, Kolkata 700009, in 1983)
 In Christopher Mann’s famous play (Istavan Tzabo’s film) Mephisto, an enthusiastic struggling actor Henrich Hoffgan eventually becomes the most powerful super-actor in Nazi ruling Germany. At the saturation point of his popularity, fame and professional success, he realizes that he has lost his subjective self and fully seized by the state. He feels, he is no more a free agent. He utters, “I am an actor, why blame me, what can I do? What do they want from me?”