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Since 1st March, 1999
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Culture cradle inspires icon to end song drought
- Bhupen Hazarika sings paean to glory of Ban Theatre at start of two-day centenary celebrations

Sept. 4: The cradle of Assamese culture turned 100 today, moving old-timers to tears and inspiring its most famous student, Bhupen Hazarika, to sing his first composition in almost five years as a paean to his muse.

In a century of existence, Tezpur-based Ban Theatre nursed a constellation of talents, including the maverick poet Bishnu Rabha, playwright-filmmaker Jyotiprasad Agarwalla and theatre icon Phani Sarma.

The two-day centenary celebrations in the 'city of romance' ' legend has it that even Krishna's son Aniruddha wooed Usha, the daughter of King Bana, in Tezpur ' got under way with a procession flagged off by Rabha's widow Mohini from the Kolibari office of the now-defunct Asomiya Bhasa Unnati Sadhini Sabha.

The procession depicted the cultural unity of the different tribes and communities inhabiting Assam.

Tulashi Das, a contemporary of Rabha and Agarwalla, appropriately hoisted the centennial flag. 'This is the stage where we started our careers in drama along with Rabha, Phani Sarma and Jyotiprasad. The respect that people have bestowed on me today is the greatest thing to have happened to me at the fag end of my life,' Das, now 85 years old, said.

In the evening, Bhupen sang his new song in praise of Ban Theatre. Former Asam Sahitya Sabha president Nagen Saikia, too, attended the function.

'The celebrations will continue till September 3 next year and a roadmap of programmes, including a state-level drama competition, will be prepared during the next couple of days,' an organiser said.

A book on 100 years of Ban Theatre will be published during the concluding ceremony next year.

Nagen Saikia will inaugurate a library while Bhupen Hazarika will conduct a seminar on Memories of Past Days tomorrow.

Long ago, Assamese and Bengali actors used to jointly stage their plays, particularly during Durga Puja celebrations, under the aegis of the Bengali Amateur Theatre Party. But there was a division of opinion in 1903 among the two linguistic groups of artists, leading to the formation of Ban Theatre.

It was in 1906 that the Asomiya Bhasa Unnati Sadhini Sabha ' the precursor of the Asam Sahitya Sabha ' decided to have a theatre exclusively for Assamese plays.

Some prominent people of Tezpur took the initiative to construct the Ban stage on a plot at Kolibari. In 1955, the hall has shifted to its present location in the heart of the town on the north bank of the Brahmaputra.

It was also in Tezpur that the legendary Phani Sarma introduced the concept of performance of female roles by women in 1952. Till then, male actors had performed female roles.

Sarma invited three actors ' Baruna Mukherjee Choudhury, Bina Das Manna and Girija Hazarika ' to act in two highly successful stage productions, Samudragupta and Ranjit Singha.

It was also at Tezpur that a young singing talent was spotted by Bishnu Rabha and Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, who took him under their wings.

Decades later, Bhupen Hazarika has returned to Tezpur after a long hiatus ' even ignoring doctors' advice to go in for a long rest ' to be part of Ban Theatre's most glorious moment under the sun.

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