Arun Sarma: The literary genius of Assam

[ Dr Krishna Kumar Dev ]
Late Arun Sarma was one of Assam’s contemporary playwrights and is particularly known for his unconventional plays.
It can easily be said that he was, before his demise last year in March, regarded as the most noted and distinguished Assamese dramatist. Besides drama, he also authored over six novels.
His sensitivity towards life and people, combined with his artistic capabilities has earned him many laurels through his numerous plays and works of fiction. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010 in recognition of his contributions to Assamese literature. He was also awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1998 for the novel Ashirbadar Rong (The Hues of Blessing). He won the Assam Sahitya Sabha’s Best Playwright Award for two consecutive years and also has the rare distinction of having won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2003 for his contributions to drama.
Incidentally, Sarma is the third Indian and the first Assamese to be honoured with both the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi. He was also the recipient of the Assam Valley Literary Award in 2005. He had a very long and graceful writing career. Though Sarma was equally proficient as a poet, his first identity, which is more celebrated, is that of a dramatist in the Assamese literary circle, that too of a very unique status.
Arun Sarma’s birthplace was Dibrugarh, where Tilak Chandra Sarma, his father worked as the Editor of The Times of Assam. The family, however, very soon migrated near the tea hamlet of Halem, where his father got inspired by Gandhian ideals and got involved in social work and farming.
Arun Sarma then completed his school from Tezpur High School and matriculation in the year 1948. He started writing drama and poetry during the days of his graduation from Cotton College, which he completed in 1954 with honours in Education.
Sarma started his career in Guwahati in the editorial staff of The Assam Tribune in 1954. In 1955, he moved to his native village in Halem and joined as an assistant headmaster in the MCD High School. In 1960, he came back to Guwahati to join All India Radio. From then till 1986, Sarma was associated with the Guwahati station of All India Radio, working first as a producer and later as a senior producer. He headed the Educational Broadcasting Section, and did pioneering work in using radio as a potent medium for supplementing classroom education. He had a six-month training stint on radio programme production in the BBC, London, in 1969.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, Sarma was instrumental in shaping the drama section of the Guwahati station. During this period he wrote and directed 47 plays and a good number of radio documentaries for the station as well as for All India Radio’s national programme, and received three international best awards for his documentaries. He served as station director of the Dibrugarh station of the All India Radio (1986-89) and retired from government service as director, AIR, North East Service from Shillong in 1990.
Post retirement, he became the founder editor (1990-92) of the weekly Assamese newspaper Purbachal and served from 1992 to 1997 as the director of the Tea Centre of the Indian Tea Association. This was a period of strife in Assam and Sarma was called in to design and execute a set of projects to bridge the local tea industry and the Assamese people.
In 2005, Sarma designed, scripted and executed a sound-and-light show describing the history of Assam, which is played daily at the Sankardeva Kalakshetra in Guwahati every evening.
Sarma shot into fame with his first play Urukha Poja (The Dripping Hut) in 1952. From then, there was no looking back. Till date, he has to his credit more than 20 popular stage plays and a double of equally successful radio plays. Arun Sarma had set a definite standard for drama in Assam, unparalleled till today, apart from elevating radio plays to a never-before height.
His twelve full-length and three one act plays differ from each other and are best in their individual ways. Of his plays, Sri Nibaran Bhattacharyya (1967),  Purush (Man) in 1972, Kukurnechia Manuh  and Ahar (Food) are landmarks in modem Assamese literature. His plays depict traces of mental and physical violence. He also wrote plays based on politics and having terrorism undertones. Plays like Buranjipath (History Lessons) in 1980, Baghjal (Tiger Trap) and Chinyor (The Cry) in 1984 follow the Marxist path whereas Anya Ek Adhyay (Another Chapter) of 1995 is a criticism of terrorism.
Burunjipath is a satire on the emergency period during former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s regime, and also Anya Ek Adhyay  is drawn, as Sarma put it, from a “universal context.”
Arun Sarma has more than 20 published plays and five published novels to his credit, besides editing several volumes of plays, written scripts for telefilms and radio documentaries. He has also written twenty major documentaries which attracted national and international recognitions. His translation of Sudraka’s Sanskrit Mricchakatika, which was staged by a Bhramyaman Mancha troupe in the year 1983, was a remarkable event for its kind of mobile commercial theatre. It was through Arun Sarma’s drama that Assamese theatre attained variety with world trends in the 1960s.
Arun Sarma has been an experimental dramatist. He is the one who experimented with the techniques of European ‘Absurd’ drama in Assamese drama literature. Through the medium of the absurd drama Aahar, he showed the emptiness of life, aimlessness, the hypocrisy in human relationships and loneliness. Purus is a social drama which gives a sketch of dread in human life. Napoleon Aru Desirie is a blend of history, imagination and modernity.
In a personal interview he commented that he always tried to project an important statement through his plays. The statement sometimes is a society-centric statement and sometimes it is an investigation of universal human truth. He understood it very well that there is a very intimate relation between drama and real life. So he always tried to establish one or the other serious human conditions through this plays.
This influence can be well seen in the plays of Arun Sarma. They went to become the reflection of the society of that period. In each of his plays a new interpretation can to be seen about the social conditions of man. He deftly laced the weft of individual experiences into the larger social context to spin a tapestry of tales and dramas that speak of man in different life situations. Arshirbadar Rong for example, was drawn from the lingering memories of Sarma’s personal experiences lived in rural Assam in the period between 1935 and 1947. The litterateur’s essentially humanist philosophy, however, has not allowed him to ignore social and political realities.
Apart from these wide arrays of awards and recognitions he had been the recipient of a number of very prestigious international awards for radio broadcasting. These are Japan Prize (1980) International for the radio documentary All Buds to bloom, ABU (Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union) Award (1982) for the radio documentary Caution: Danger Ahead, Prix Futura Berlin Commendation certificate (1983) for the radio documentary All Lips to Smile and Akashvani Award (second best radio play in India) for the play titled Kukumechia Manuh.
His children’s play, The Selfish Prince, was included in the platinum network of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as the model programme being used in staff training courses.
A large part of Arun Sarma’s work remains unavailable to non-Assamese speakers and readers, even though his plays have, over the years, been staged at prestigious venues worldwide. To rectify this, in however small a degree, Robes of Destiny, a volume of three of his translated plays, has been published recently. Before this volume of translation, his play Ahar was translated by his brother late Amulya Kr Sarma and this translated play was included in the volume of Modern Indian Plays published by The National School of Drama, New Delhi.
The three translated plays included in Robes of Destiny are interlinked, each with the other, through the histories of the main characters. Each play was first staged in different decades. A study of these dramatic works, therefore, yields intriguing insights into the social environment of their times. Taken together, the trilogy also maps the playwright’s own creative journey.
The first play of the trilogy, Sri Nibaron Bhattacharyya, written in 1964, was first staged in 1968, and has now attained iconic stature in the treasure trove of Assamese literature and drama. An allegory, this is a work full of symbolism, which delves into the mind of a creative person, Sri Nibaron Bhattacharyya, a dramatist, like the playwright himself.
In the next play of the trilogy, Agnigarh (The Fortress of Fire), written in 1990, is more an exploration of the psychology of the characters. The final play of the trilogy, Aditir Atmakatha (Aditi’s Nursery) was written in 1999. Taken together, the three plays are a kind of journey from symbolism to realism. This perhaps reflects both the spirit of the times, and the playwright’s own mental evolution. Of course, there are strong elements of symbolism in the later plays as well. A recurrent motif is that of the horse, whose beauty the artistes find impossible to resist, even though trying to master that that beauty damages them physically.
It is a sad fact that a literary genius of such repute is very little known in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh. While, the entire state of Assam and the national media also mourned his death last year in March, that news of his passing did not create any stir in this state. He was a great artist, one of the greatest dramatists of modem Indian theatre and more than that he was a gem of a human being. I feel so blessed and honoured that I had known him since my childhood and till the end he was like an elder brother, a bright light of guidance and strength and love for me and my family. He was my teacher in high school when he was working at MCD HS School. Even though we were young, he tried his best to instill in us a spirit of cultural and literary endeavor by organizing drama and other cultural activities at school. Under his able guidance, we brought out the school magazine Mousumi in print and I had the good fortune and pride of being the second editor of the magazine.
Despite his fame, he was a most humble and down-to-earth person who carried his fame very lightly. Being in his presence was always such an inspiring and ennobling experience as he had time for everybody and took keen interest in our humble lives. He motivated me to write and whenever I went to him for guidance, he had given his fullest attention and words of encouragement for me. His death has robbed Assamese literature and its cultural life a great personality. His passing away has left a deep void in our souls which cannot be filled up easily.
I wish people from Arunachal Pradesh will come to know more about this literary genius and will appreciate and relish his works. The literary establishment and budding writers and drama enthusiasts will definitely be benefited if Arun Sarma’s brilliant literary works are studied and enjoyed here. (The writer is a senior surgeon in RKMH, Itanagar, and former student of Arun Sarma)