Majuli Theatre Festival 2022: Shilppika Bordoloi on her play A Human Endeavour
The multidisciplinary artiste talks about the latest edition of the theatre festival on the river island in Assam, and gives an insight into the making of her own dance-theatre piece
By Reema Gowalla
A picturesque watery idyll perched on the Brahmaputra river in Assam, Majuli nurtures a distinctive meld of indigenous people and a natural ecosystem. Yet every monsoon, it manages to grab a little attention only as a ‘disappearing island’. Home to about 1,26,025 people, the Majuli district is a melting pot of cultural relics — particularly, in terms of performing and movement arts. Although sparsely observed by the mainstream, the island is a hub of neo-Vaishnavite culture, with Bhaona (a traditional form theatrical performance based on mythological stories), Mukha Bhaona (mask theatre), Onkiya Naat (one-act drama) and Putola Nas (puppet theatre) being some of the land’s mainstays for longer than you can imagine.
Thus, when you hear of a theatre festival happening in Majuli, the experience is bound to pique your curiosity. Performances and masterclasses galore as a host of artistes take centre stage at the Do:Nyi Po:Lo Majuli Theatre Festival 2022, which is unfolding on the island this weekend (pre-festival workshops are already going on in full-swing at the venue). The terms ‘do:nyi’ and ‘po:lo’ translate to ‘sun’ and ‘moon’. It’s a thoughtfully curated festival that narrates stories of human psyche and the natural environment through the arts.
“The idea is to decentralise urban sites, and make theatre festivals more participatory, collaborative, sustainable and community-based. There have been times when I myself have performed at fests, but haven’t been able to watch any other show from the line-up. As artistes, we do travel to far off places to perform at festivals and other such events, but most often don’t really get the opportunity to be a part of them in the true sense. The Majuli Theatre Festival is a residential initiative, where artistes will come and stay at the venue through the course of the event. They’ll get to meet other artistes, engage in conversations and foster a sort of cultural exchange. Along the way, they can also explore the indigenous art forms of this part of India,” says festival director Shilppika Bordoloi, renowned multi-disciplinary artiste from the northeastern state, who over the past decade has worked extensively crafting and curating artistic works with Majuli’s local communities.
The festival is an experiment for site-specific performances that intend to encourage performers and members of the audience to look beyond the proscenium and amphitheatre. The theme for this year’s festival is Body Wisdom — with clowning, installation performance, dance, performance art, folk theatre, physical theatre, mask performances and local dances and rituals being the focal points. The central idea is to serve as a platform for discourse.
Shilppika — who works at the intersection of dance, movement, theatre and yoga — is interested in the ‘wisdom of the body’. “Working on just one layer of theatre is not enough. There are several branches of it that are important for us to comprehend and reflect on. As a theme, ‘body wisdom’ is intriguing both in the case of performing and movement arts. In my own practice, I have always focussed on works that carry traces of my own identity, roots and cultural leanings — be it the meandering nature of the Brahmaputra or the discernment of Xattriya Nritya,” she elaborates.
A Brahmaputra Cultural Foundation presentation, Majuli Theatre Festival is taking place at Ayang Okum, Borun Chitadar Chuk, in Majuli on November 19 and 20. There will be an array of performances, masterclasses, workshops and discussions — featuring Dr Hem Chandra Goswami (from Sukumar Kala Peeth, Majuli); Surjit Singh Nongmeikapam (from Nachom Arts Foundation, Manipur), Andres Fagiolino and Betina Dominguez (from Amares Teatro, Uruguay), Yuki Ellias (from Dur Se Brothers, Mumbai), Anupam Saikia (from Assam), BA Theatre Group (from Assam) and Shilppika, among others. The event is Supported by the Assam Tourism and Mising Autonomous Council.
Speaking about her own dance-theatre piece, titled A Human Endeavour, which will also be staged at the festival on November 19 (at 5.30pm), Shilppika says, “The play draws inspiration from British author Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which I had read as a student of English literature in college. I have adapted the 1831 prose piece into a drama script for performance. The original story had references to ghost stories, scientific transgression and the need to take ownership of our actions. The narrative of A Human Endeavour is about any woman who has lived a nightmare. This play is not just an embodiment of the original text, but a piece of art presented as a response to the world’s current socio-political environment. Here the physicality of the body serves as a medium — in motion and stillness — to shed light on the natural connection between our emotion and action.”
Looking back at the events of recent times — be it demonetisation, the plight of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic or the callous destruction of our own ecosystem — Shilppika reflects on the “overreaching innovator, who fails to think through the consequences of his creation”. A Human Endeavour is about the fact that humanity is plunging deeper and deeper into crisis. While in the book, the character of the researcher-doctor-scientist Victor Frankenstein fails to see the bigger picture, in the play it is any politician, businessman or spiritual leader, who chooses not to bear the consequences of his own actions. It’s a performance that unfolds in the different layers of a night — where dreams and imagination, wisdom and strength jostle for space. A spectacle of sound, visual and movement, this dance-theatre piece amplifies the power of transformation and reminds that it is not the end of life yet. All we need is to make an effort.
What started off as a solo performance a few years ago has now emerged as a group production. The 60-minute show includes actors Alonkrita Priyadarshini, Vanshita Somani, Ahiran Lahon, Aditya Kumar Borah, Abhigyan Kalita, Mayukh Jyoti Saikia and Shilppika. Light design for the show is done by Ronal Hussain, Paramananda Kakoty Borbayan is in charge of the traditional music and Xattriya dance, while music is designed by Arnab Bashistha and operated by Tonmoy Bhattacharya. Promud Baruah has done the Assamese translation of the prose piece. Apart from writing and directing the play, Shilppika is also the brains behind its choreography and costume. A Human Endeavour is mostly a non-verbal piece, with a bit of Assamese and English. A NOI production, the play was created with support from the Sangeet Natak Akademi.