Mahanayak Brajanath Sarma and the Female Artists of Kohinoor Opera
"At the peak of their popularity in 1933, the Assam Kohinoor Party (as it came to be known) decided on what would be a path-breaking initiative of 20th century Assam."
A young Brajanath Sarma with a fellow actor from Assam Kohinoor Party, Binodini Gogoi
By Avinibesh Sharma
It was the summer of 1921 and Brajanath Sarma had just returned to his native village, Sila (Barpeta) after serving as a Military clerk at Baghdad in erstwhile Mesopotamia, during the Great War. During his stay there, he became a prominent member of a cultural organization named “West Bengali Democratic Club” and also imbibed the basics of Western Classical music from a gentleman named Mr. George. After he came back and settled in his native village, Sila (Barpeta), he contemplated forming a ‘Jatra Party’ and communicated the same to some of his fellow villagers. Among the enthusiastic ones were his two brothers Krishnakanta and Uday. They together formed the ‘Sila Kalika Opera Party’. Some of the Bengali plays performed by the group like ‘Rana Pratap’ and ‘Bajirao’ was well received and Brajanath Sarma’s enactment of the lead roles garnered him wide-scale popularity. Brajanath translated the plays, ‘Kalapahad’ and ‘Ranjit Singh’ into Assamese and performed the latter for the first time at Guwahati Hari Sabha in 1925. But the honeymoon period was short-lived and in the same year, due to a conflict between the members, the group broke away. Braja Sarma then joined the ‘Sarbhog Dakhin Ganakgari Party’ as its master and directed a number of popular plays like ‘Dhatri Panna’, ‘Basaspati’, ‘Shanti’, ‘Kalapahad’, ‘Ranjit Singh’ etc. But soon in 1929, the group had a similar fate as its predecessor and Brajanath had to search for other avenues.
Sometime in the year 1928, Sarma met the head clerk of Paneri Tea Estate, Bipin Chandra Barua who asked him to organize a professional mobile theatre group and agreed to be a financier after it takes shape. Accordingly, Braja Sarma trained a group of young actors, including a twenty- one year old Phani Sarma from Tezpur and a fifteen-year-old Chandra Choudhury from Barpeta. When the group was ready to perform, Sarma sent a letter to Bipin Barua and asked him for five thousand rupees. On receiving the letter, Barua travelled to Sarbhog, carrying with him the necessary amount. He stayed at Braja Sarma’s house and paid the actors advance remuneration. Hence, began the first professional Mobile Theatre group of Assam – the ‘Kohinoor Opera’, formed in the year 1930. The team under the direction of ‘Mahanayak’ Brajanath Sarma travelled across undivided Assam, from Cooch Bihar to Sadiya, and gave birth to a theatre movement of sorts. The success of the party astounded many and as a mark of acknowledgment, they were presented a shield by the theatre loving audience of Jorhat in 1933. Engraved in it was the name - ‘The Assam Union Kohinoor Party’.
At the peak of their popularity, the Assam Kohinoor Party (as it came to be known) decided on what
would be a path-breaking initiative of 20th century Assam. During their performance at Jorhat Theatre,
a Parsi 1870s when the female actors like Kadambini, Khetramani, Jadumoni and Binodini Dasi
performed on stage. Their acting prowess was in full display in the later plays which revolutionized
Bengali theatre. On the contrary, the Assamese Jatra scene had never seen women’s participation, except
for a group named ‘Notoror Gaan’, in which the Devadasis (temple dancers) played their role as dance
artists. There were fewer complaints from the people, as they had earlier witnessed the Devadasis perform
during auspicious occasions. Otherwise, co-acting was unfathomable in the society of early 20th century
Assam. However, Barua was determined to give a platform to female artists, knowing well that this would
give a rude shock to the conservative section of the Assamese society. He communicated his thoughts to
Brajanath. Sarma was initially reluctant and he feared facing ostracisation. But, he went ahead and
planned to stage a play involving female actors. Barbs followed and people threatened him of dire
consequences if he goes on to stage a play where men and women act together.theatre group visited
the town and staged a play in the Bengali Theatre Hall (present day Lakshmi Union Hall). People
thronged to the hall to see the group perform. Bipin Barua, the managing proprietor of Kohinoor
noticed that crowd gathered in such large numbers due to the appeal of the female actors who enacted their roles to perfection along with their male counterparts. It must be mentioned here that the theatre movement in neighboring Bengal gained pace long before in the 1870s after female actors like Kadambini, Khetramani, Jadumoni and Binodini Dasi began performing on stage. Their acting prowess was on full display in the later plays which revolutionized Bengali theatre. On the contrary, the Assamese Jatra scene had never seen women’s participation, except for a group named ‘Notoror Gaan’, in which the Devadasis (temple dancers) played their role as dance artists. There were fewer complaints from the people, as they had earlier witnessed the Devadasis perform during auspicious occasions. Otherwise, co-acting was unfathomable in the society of early 20th century Assam. However, Barua was determined to give a platform to female artists, knowing well that this would give a rude shock to the conservative section of the Assamese society. He communicated his thoughts to Brajanath. Sarma was initially reluctant and he feared facing ostracisation. But, he went ahead and planned to stage a play involving female actors. Barbs followed and people threatened him of dire consequences if he goes on to stage a play where men and women act together.
However, there were a few encouraging words from progressive intellectuals like Chandradhar Barua and Pandit Hemchandra Goswami, the noted antiquarian, who wrote a letter to Brajanath congratulating him on his brave endeavour to use theatre as a medium for social reform. Encouraged by Goswami’s words, Brajanath began the search for female artists.
He first approached two devadasis - Savitri and Sajani who had acted in ‘Notoror Gaan’. They, however, declined the offer as they were not ready to leave the temple where they performed – the Pariheshwar Devalaya at Dubi. Brajanath was dismayed because not a single woman came forward to be a part of what was held to be a precursor to the movement that would liberate them by weakening the shackles of patriarchy and conservatism.
It was during this time of disenchantment that Bipin Barua found two girls named Lereli and Dinmai at Barua Chuk in Puranigudam, Nagaon. Their father Rohai Koch gave his consent after much persuasion. Both the girls were taken to Sarbhog and renamed as Sarbeshwari and Golapi respectively. Bipin Barua found another girl at Samoguri. Her name was Phuleshwari. She was the youngest among the three; aged twelve. Phani Sarma and Chandra Choudhury were assigned the task of training them in dancing, acting and dialogue delivery. The fact that they were illiterate made the task extremely difficult for the trainers. It was almost decided that the girls would be sent back and the male actors would continue enacting female roles. To make the matter worse, the three foremost actors of Kohinoor Opera, namely - Krishna Sarma, Uday Sarma and Haren Sarma came out of the group in protest. Undeterred, Brajanath went ahead with his trip.
They first travelled to Goalpara and then performed in Guwahati and Nagaon en route to Jorhat. In these places, the female artists were utilized only as dancers. However, the news of female artists acting in the plays of Kohinoor Opera had reached Jorhat and it provoked adverse reactions; the same audience which had earlier presented a shield were now up in arms. The team of Kohinoor Opera came to Jorhat and the crowd started pouring in to see their performance. It was all good, until they saw a girl appearing on stage. The protest now became vocal and there were shouts for ending the performance. It was viewed as a disrespect to the community; allowing girls to act on stage. A furious Braja Sarma came forward to face the frenzied crowd and declared that the actor enacting the female role was in fact a boy named Chandra. The latter was even undressed to prove the point. As soon as the audience heard this, the balloon of frenzy burst into bubbles and the performance continued for two more days. In the meantime, Phani Sarma brought along a child widow named Sailabala Devi. She had passed her M.V. and, therefore, it was much easier to train her compared to the other three.
The group travelled upstream and reached the tea town of Doomdooma in October, 1933 where the training of the young girls continued. Just then, the tragic news of the death of Brajanath’s second son reached him. His eldest son had earlier died of tuberculosis at the age of five. Shattered, Brajanath handed over the charge to Phani Sarma and headed back to Sarbhog; to be with his grieving wife Gunavati. In the month of November, he rejoined the group and staged the play, “Moran Jiyori” (written by Kamalananda Bhattacharya) at the Doomdooma Natya Mandir with two female artists playing the roles of Padmini and Lakshmi, thus creating history. It caused a great social upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil Disobedience Movement. Encouraged by Brajanath Sarma’s revolutionary initiative, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla began the search for female artists to portray the role of Joymoti in the first Assamese talkie of the same name. However, Brajanath’s initiative was panned by critics and the leading newspapers carried several hate letters. The only newspaper that published a constructive review was Xadiniya Axomiya. The weekly also wrote that the staging of ‘Moran Jiyori’ marks the beginning of a new era.
The negative reactions turned Brajanath into a despondent and frustrated man. He said to Phani Sarma, “You know well how with all my courage, I have dared to provide a platform to a few women who are illiterate; helping them in my humble capacity to abandon purdah and break away from the shackles of patriarchy. I have borne all the barbs, criticism and disrespectful behaviour aimed at me. Even my own brother and nephew has left my company. The newspapers are carrying criticisms that are directed at me and has written that I have led the society to hell by initiating co-acting and spreading obscenity! They haven’t understood me well Phani but they will, in a decade or so. I have never tried to spell doom for our society. On the contrary, I have taken the theatre movement fifty years forward.”
The lack of financial resources compelled the first mobile theatre group to shut down in 1939. Thereafter, Brajanath became involved in the Quit India Movement as an underground leader and led the destruction of the Barnagar Airfield that shook the soldiers employed in the China-India-Burma theatre. Spending the rest of his days in utter poverty, he breathed his last on September 12th, 1960 at Guwahati. His dead body was lying abandoned on the verandah of the hospital for more than eight hours until a group of students from Cotton College came forward to take it to the funeral pyre.
Not much is known regarding what happened to the female artists of Assam Kohinoor Party. Sanjib Borthakur in his article, “Brajanath Sarmar Ovodan, Monchot Xoho Abhinay” writes that Golapi got married to an actor named Kamini Das. She later worked as a nurse at Goalpara Civil Hospital and passed away while serving there. As a Brahmin child widow working for a mobile theatre group, Sailabala Devi faced ostracisation by the members of her community. She later became mentally ill and passed away at a relatively young age. Another artist, Bimola Gogoi gave voice over to the radio play ‘Manumati’ recorded by the Megaphone Company and also gained renown as a singer. She got married to a fellow actor from Kohinoor – Natya Samrat Chandra Choudhury and died at a young age after giving birth to a girl child.
If the mobile theatre is an industry now, it was due to the vision and pioneering efforts of the late Brajanath Sarma which was later to be revolutionized by his protégé, the late Achyut Lahkar. As regards, the first female artists, they are the forgotten heroes who showed us the way.
Brajanath Sarmar Ovodan, Monchot Xoho Abhinay by Sanjib Borthakur
Obhineta Brajanath Sarma by Nanda Talukdar
Letter to Atul Chandra Hazarika dated 31/10/1957
Rong-birongor Pora by Phani Sarma
Jayatu Braja Sarma by Parag Chaliha
For more vignettes on Brajanth Sarma refer to the compilation edited by Sanjib Borthakur, entitled - 'Mahanayak Brajanath Sarma - Emuthi Xeuj Leseri' (First published, September 12th, 2012)