Bidyawati Phukan’s earliest memories of Bihu, in her village in the Tinsukia district of Upper Assam, are of waking up to the sound of the dhol, and rushing out on to the streets to dance. “Your flesh sings,” says Phukan. “You cannot understand Assam without first understanding Bihu.”
Beyond language: (top) A still from Guti Phulor Gamusa; and Phukan at the Meta awards with the best director trophy. Photographs Courtesy Meta
The three Bihus, performed in different parts of the year, herald new seasons and farming cycles. The dance brings together Assam’s varied tribes—the Ahoms, Bodos, Sutiyas and others—and is integral to Assamese society. Phukan, who hails from the Ahom tribe, conveys these nuances in her Assamese play, Guti Phulor Gamusa, in which she also acts.
Based on a short story by Assamese writer Leela Gogoi, the play brings to stage the traditional song and dance of Bihu. The villagers are battling a drought and dance, it seems, is the only way to appease the skies. The play is vibrant and visceral; an almost 2-hour treatise on Assamese village life enmeshed with sensuality and gaiety.
The play is 35-year-old Phukan’s third directorial venture and was shortlisted from among 233 entries for the fifth Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (Meta) that were held in Delhi earlier this month. It was nominated in eight out of the 13 award categories, including best direction, best choreography and best stage design for Phukan herself. She won the best direction award, sharing the honours with Deepan Sivaraman for his Malayalam play, Spinal Cord. Two other members of her troupe, UTSA, also won for best costume design.
For UTSA members, getting to Delhi to attend the awards night meant undertaking a long journey—a 14-hour bus ride, followed by a train journey and a flight to Delhi. Phukan’s own journey—from a farmer’s daughter to an award-winning theatre director—is no less inspiring.
A born danseuse, she was sent to boarding school at the age of 13 so that she could focus on her studies. When she finally moved to the big city, Guwahati, for her postgraduate degree in math, she was able to get back to dance and theatre. Her elder brother, Bipul, a rising theatre actor in the field of theatre, introduced her to his friends—the graduates and faculty of the National School of Drama (NSD). It was through these interactions that she made up her mind to apply to NSD. When she moved to Delhi to start her acting programme, her parents were under the impression that she was doing a doctorate in math. “They were simple farmers and this would have been too much of a shock. They know now, and they’re proud of me,” says the 2004 NSD graduate.
Phukan teaches acting at her alma mater, and has just finished work on her fourth play, Bol Senai Taaloike. It is based on the Assamese novel Anya Jug Anya Purush and presents a nostalgic view of Assamese village life—a theme close to Phukan’s heart. She has also acted in a couple of art house films and is currently on a shooting schedule for an untitled production by the US-based Sundance Institute.
Apart from travelling across Assam, Phukan and her troupe have performed Guti Phulor Gamusa at theatre festivals in Hampi and Chitradurga, both in Karnataka. Ticketed performances in other parts of the country have been scarce because of the language barrier, even though a screen showing subtitles accompanies the performance.
But Phukan is hopeful as she explores international opportunities. “I see theatre and acting beyond language,” she says. She recalls how members of the audience had come and hugged her after her performance at Chitradurga in 2007. “They said they’d understood everything,” recalls Phukan, who feels that a good performance doesn’t necessarily require literal comprehension.
Anyone who watches her emote to the dhol and buffalo-horn pepa in Guti Phulor Gamusa will find it hard to disagree.