WHEN THE WORLD WAS A STAGE

The Arya Natya Samaj hall in Guwahati has been blessed by the august presence of some of the greatest sons of India. It is in this hall that both Jyotiprasad Agarwalla and Bishnu Rabha performed their arts and Gopinath Bardoloi shared common platform with other nationalist leaders to give a clarion call to the youth of Assam to respond to the national movement. Again, it is on the Samaj stage that co-acting “involving ladies and gentlemen from respectable families” was first seen in town.

Therefore, the resolution of the general body meeting of the Arya Natya Samaj, adopted as early as in 1948, that “for long 52 years the Arya Natya Samaj Guwahati has been serving… as the biggest institution of culture and center of union” (resolution No 8 dated April 25, 1948) is absolutely justified.

Going by records and recollection of the town’s senior citizens, the first theatre hall of Guwahati was established in the 1880s in the residence of the Buzarbaruah’s near present Lamb Road, and was known as the Natya Mandir. However, it was completely ruined in the devastating earthquake of 1897. The second theatre hall of the town, the Arya Natya Samaj, was established near the Sukreswar temple in Panbazar in 1898. Leading citizens of the town like Manick Chandra Baruah, Rai Bahadur Kalicharan Sen, Rai Saheb Chidananda Chowdhury, Mahendra Mohan Lahiri, Satyendra Mohan Lahiri and Kunja Behari Banerjee (Kunja Thakur) took initiative to construct the hall. It first came up as an Assam-type structure that was in 1930 substituted by a bigger reinforced concrete-cum-brick structure. The auditorium had a seating capacity of 400 persons and the complex also had a library.

Since its inception the Arya Natya Samaj, or Arya Natya Mandir as the hall was popularly known, drew some of the brightest jewels of the socio-cultural, political and literary life of India. Luminaries like Ashutosh Mukherjee, Jatindra Mohan Chatterjee, C F Andrews, Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Dr Meghnad Saha, Nabin Chandra Bordoloi, Tarun Ram Phookun, Gopinath Bardoloi, Kshiti Mohan Sen, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, satradhikar of Garmur Satra Pitambar Dev Goswami, Dr Surya Kumar Bhuyan, Raghunath Chowdhury and Prof Humayun Kabir stood on its stage to enlighten and entertain the people.

Bengali programs as well as various Assamese drama and cultural activities were staged at the Arya Natya Samaj. Kalaguru Bishnu Rabha along with Bhupen Hazarika, then a young lad, once also composed a number of melodious songs titled Mukti Deul in a spontaneous gesture -- for staging at the Arya Natya Samaj. Some time later, Rabha’s books -- Mukti Deul and Asamiya Kristi -- were published by Nirendra Mohan Lahiri who was then the secretary of the Samaj.

The Samaj stage was also first witness to male and female artistes acting together when Braja Nath Sarma (Shastri) staged Kohinoor Opera Party’s drama Kalapahar. However, it was only in 1949-50, when Guwahati Silpi Samaj staged the play Shah Jahan directed by Girish Chowdhury, that the town’s residents first watched co-acting by artists who belonged to the town and “involving ladies and gentlemen from respectable families”.

This created a sensation in town and a new vibrant cultural phase started. The women who first co-acted in the drama staged at Arya Natya Mandir were Urbashi Das, Kamala Sarmah, Renu Das and Jaya Das. Girish Choudhury’s next drama Pratibad, which incidentally was the second drama in which both male and female artistes performed in Guwahati, was staged for two nights in 1950. The cast then included Baruna Mukherjee, Ashiya Khatun, Reba Das, Minu Patra, Girija Hazarika, Kaushalaya Das, Urbashi Das, Gunada Das, Jamini Gogoi, Reba Dutta and Mira Dutta.

Many of the early programs of All India Radio (AIR), that included a sitar recital by Pandit Ravi Sankar, were recorded at the Arya Natya Samaj auditorium since the AIR did not have a fully-equipped recording studio then.

In November 1961, at the time of the Chinese aggression, the land and hall of the Arya Natya Samaj were requisitioned by the government and converted into a blood bank. Sadly, however, it sounded the death knell of a great cultural center. The building has since then been used for purposes in no way connected with culture. Today it houses the Assam Medical Service Association and has been renamed AMSA House.