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Theatrical movement in Assam
— Babul Tamuli
The theatrical movement in Assam had a glorious past. It was initiated by the great Vaishnavite saint Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva in the early part of the 15th century with his maiden drama called Sihnayatra. The drama though still remains untraced captivated the people with brilliant performance of Sankardeva as described in a number of autobiographies. Later, he wrote six dramas viz. Patni Prasad, Kali Daman, Keli Gopal, Rukmini Haran, Parijat Haran and Ram Vijoy. The dramas wrote by Sankardeva are popularly called Ankiya Nat and their performance is known as Ankiya Bhaona. With dance and music Sankardeva followed the style of Sanskrit dramas in performing his Ankiya Nat Like Purbaranga of Sanskrit dramas, Sankardeva also introduced Dhemaliat the beginning of Bhaona. He also introduced a character called Sutradhar to explain the sequences of a drama to the audience.

Following Sankardeva, his chief disciple Madhabdeva wrote a number of dramas and enriched the Assamese dramatical literature. So far, five dramas of Madhabdeva had been discovered. They are Arjun Bhanjan, Chordhara Pimpara Guchowa, Bhumi Letoya and Bhojan Bihar. Except Arjun Bhanjan, all other dramas of Madhabdeva are popularly called as Jhumura. In Maithali, Magadhi, Bhojpuri and Avadhi dialects of northern India, a folk-dance called “Jhumuris still found to be very popular among different ethnic groups. As the dramas ofMadhabdeva are mainly based on dance and music, so it is believed that they are called as Jhumur.

After Sankardeva and Madhabdeva, a number of Vaishnavite saints like Gopal Ata, Ramcharan Thakur, Daityari Thakur etc also wrote many Ankiya Nats and enriched the Assamese Vaishnavite literature. But except Gopal Ata, other playwrights could not attain maturity in their writings. Other than historical importance their dramas have no literary value.

In 1857, Gunabhiram Barua laid the foundation of modern Assamese drama by writing the first socio-tragic play called Ram-Navami Influenced by the social reformative movement initiated by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar in Bengal he had written it to propagate widow marriage in Assam. The drama published serially in the first Assamese news-magazine Orunudoi was later published in the form of book in 1870. To free the society from the clutches of opium, Hemchandra Barua, the doyen of Assamese language also wrote a socio-comic play called Kaniyar-Kirtan

It is pertinent to mention here that neither Gunabhiram nor Hemchandra wrote dramas for stage performance. They used drama only as a tool for reforming the society. Their dramas carried a message to the society. While Ram-Navami carried a message in favour of widow marriage, Kaniyar-Kirtan sarcastically warned the society against opium.

In 1888, a group of Assamese students studying at Kolkata set up a socioliterary organization called Asomiya Bhasar Unnati Sadhini Sabha’ for the upliftmant of the Assamese language and literature. The Sabha also brought out a monthly magazine called Jonaki. By incorporating western thoughts and ideas Jonaki heralded the dawn of romanticism in Assamese literature. Lakhsminath Bezborna , one of the pioneers of modern Assamese literature emerged as the most successful playwright in the pages of Jonaki with his satirical dramaLitikai, Ratnadhar Barua, Ramakanta Barkakati, GunananBarua and Ghanashyam Baruatranslated Shakespeay Cominedy of Errors into Assamese as Bhramaranga and laid another milestone in Assamese theatre. It brought the Shakespean– style of writing into the Assamese drama. Bhramaranga also known as the first Assamese drama successfully performed on the stages of Assam.

The last part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century is regarded as the ‘golden age’ in Assamese theatre. Many theatre halls established during this time in different parts of the State helped in accelerating the theatrical movement in Assam. The temporary stage of Kamrup Natya Samity was upgraded to a full-fledged stage at Guwahati in 1923 with a new name Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir. In 1907, a number of stalwarts in Assamese theatre set up Ban Stage at Tezpur. Similarly, Sivasagar Natya Mandir at Sivasagar, Amolapatty Natya Mandir at Dibrugarh , Jorhat Theatre at Jorhat, Nagaon Natya Samaj at Nagaon set up during this time also created a congenial atmosphere for regular performance of Assamese drama. Apart from producing many reputed actors they gave birth to a number of Assamese playwrights. Padmanath Gohainborua, Indreswar Borthakur, Saradakanta Bordoloi, Atul Chandra Hazarika, Jugal Das etc emerged as the most successful playwrights in Assamese theatrical world. Most of the dramas written during this period were based on historic events or pertaining to mythologies and legends. The only exception is Jyotiprasad Agarwala who paid equal emphasis to acting and literature, incorporated both romanticism and realism reflecting the ideals of both Shakespeare and Ibsen.

For the upliftment of Assamese drama and theatre, a group of theatre loving people gave birth to an organization as Asam Akanka Natya Sanmilan in 1959 at Dibrugarh. While Bishnu Prasad Rabha was the founder president of the Sanmilan, Tafazul Ali was selected as its general secretary. Later, expanding its branches all over Assam, it was reconstituted as Asam Natya Sanmilan. Apart from creating a congenial atmosphere for the growth of Assamese drama and theatre, the Sanmilan during last the 50 years of its glorious existence has been relentlessly fighting for the rights of actors, playwrights and theatre loving people of the State.