Drama through the ages

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  • Published 6.04.12

Book title: Theatre in Tripura

Author: Subhash Das

Publisher: Uttaran and Theatre Academy

Pages: 218

Price: Rs 150

Drama, as a form of art and entertainment, has had an indelible impact on societies across the world since the days of Greek open-air theatre. But what seems fascinating is the socio-political evolution that drama can mirror.

Theatre in Tripura, authored by former bureaucrat-cum- drama activist Subhas Das, illustrates this succinctly.

This 218-page book published jointly by Uttaran and Theatre Academy traces the evolution of theatre and life in Tripura since the days of the monarchy.

Early Sanskritisation and close proximity to Indian mainstream, especially eastern Bengal, had led to early growth of political institutions such as monarchy, a distinctive indigenous culture, folklore and mythology centred on the primitive agricultural economy of jhum.

As in all other civilisations, the kings and the royal court had been the major sponsor of cultural activities, which was reflected in the composition and performance of drama.

According to Das’s well-researched book, King Birendra Kishore Manikya first launched a drama group, Ujjayanta Natya Samaj, in 1892, during the rule of his grandfather, Bir Chandra Manikya.

This group thrived on royal patronage and staged dramas such as Kalyani based on the life of the mythological Sati Savitri. The drama was staged within the palace and royal personages, leading noblemen and their families formed the audience.

Birendra Kishore, in fact, had played the role of Satyaban in the play.

All these plays had been staged in Bengali, as Tripura’s indigenous language, Kokborok, neither had a script, nor much acceptability in the royal family and administration.

The most significant event in the progress of theatre in Tripura was a visit by Calcutta’s celebrated Star Theatre to Agartala in 1897 on the invitation of King Radha Kishore Manikya.

Even though royal Ujjayantta Natya Samaj continued to produce dramas based on historical and mythological themes, a number of small drama groups under the banners of Natya Tirtha, Tripura Gaurav, Manchayan sprouted in Agartala, then a small township of 800 families, and annual visits by jatra groups continued.

A major transformation took place in the turbulent forties with the launch of a mass literacy movement by the Communist Party under the banner of Jana Shiksha Samity. As part of the literacy movement, the samity began staging one-act plays in Kokborok.

This initiative of staging dramas based on socio-poltical and ecnomic issues gained rapid acceptability.

However, no record of the dramas staged and performed by leaders and activists of Jana Shiksha Samity exists for posterity.

Princely Tripura’s merger with the Indian union in 1949 and massive influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan ushered in a change in the cultural contours of Tripura. Drama was gradually infused with Marxist ideas by groups like Rupam, Rangam, Ruparop, Little Theatre Group, inspired by Calcutta. However, local themes, such as the killing of two indigenous girls by the army, were also staged in the early fifties.

But the most remarkable stride was the emergence of a vibrant and rich Kokborok theatre. Leading indigenous playwrights and directors, Madhusudan Debbarma, Ruhi Debbarma and Shyamlal Debbarma captured the imagination of connoisseurs of drama.