When the annual Natak Mahotsav (theatre festival) organized by Nepal Academy came to a close at the end of the millennium, a group that had stayed faithful to theatre despite the domineering rise of television and films were left disheartened.
The Aarohan Gurukul theatre group stepped up right around that moment and gave a new life to the Nepali theatre scene before they too came to a pause a few months ago amid the mourning of a whole new generation of theatre lovers.
However, true believers of Nepali theatre – the history of which can be traced back to medieval periods vibrant in forms of folk theatre and dances such as Kartik Naach – understood that Nepali theatre would persist and every such hiatus was just an indication of yet another beginning.
Earlier this month, the Sarwanam theatre group officially inaugurated their art center at Kalikasthan with the staging of the play “Sakuni Pasaharu” in its 175-seat black-box hall.
“After 31 years of my theatre career, all this feels like a dream to me,” says Ashesh Malla, Director at Sarwanam, as he shows around the newly built art center with not just a theatre hall but also a small cafeteria, a library, an art gallery and a space for rehearsals and workshops.
The veteran playwright, theatre artist and director, credited by many as a pioneer of street theatre in Nepal, shares how in search of a space to perform, he sometimes ended up on a stage, sometimes in streets and sometimes even in fields.
When Malla first participated in the Natak Mahotsav, heading his team from Dhankuta, he was overwhelmed to see hordes of people queuing up just to watch a play. He also immediately fell in love with the stage and stuck around in Kathmandu to further study Nepali literature and pursues his theatre dreams.
Having started his career in theatre during the Panchayat regime – an age of censorship – he recalls how play scripts had to be submitted to the government a month prior to its staging.
A rebel, Malla however wrote and performed highly political plays. From “Murdabaadma Utheka Haatharu” that was disrupted after just two performances at Tribhuvan University to “Haami Basanta Khoji Rahechhaun” that heralded street theatre in Nepal, his theatre group was active in performing plays during political unrests and rebellious situations.
In the following years, the group continued touring the country with plays that raised political and social issues along with several I/NGO-funded awareness-oriented plays.
“Pursuing theatre is madness, really,” says Malla. “Sustaining oneself with theatre alone is still very hard. We’re all volunteers here and the initial years will be rough money-wise. But we’re prepared for it.”
Malla who believes Nepali literature has enough contents for plays, plans to have at least four Sarwanam productions every year without any foreign adaptation, and give space out to other aspiring theatre groups as well – Bijay Bisfot’s Rangasaarthi, Khagendra Lamichhane’s Shatkon, Ghimire Yuwaraj’s Shilpee theatre are some already in plan.
In Anam Nagar, another theatre group, Mandala, is also building its own theatre hall that will be completed in two months. Rajan Khatiwada, creative head at Mandala, shares that the infrastructure is being built with joint investment of its members, so that it won’t be led by a single person, but a team.
“Space is important. But the actual reason we’re building this is to see that we don’t wander off from theatre and remain focused in our profession,” says Khatiwada.
While theatre as a career option is still unsustainable in Nepal, he says many theatre artists are often tempted and even forced to abandon the sector for a secure future in other professions or leave for greener pastures.
Besides infrastructural constraints, another major challenge he points out is to come up with quality plays – in terms of content, its relevance and presentation.
Historically, Khatiwada says that Nepali theatre has seen its golden age where the Malla kings themselves wrote plays and performed in them.
During the Rana regime, many plays were imported but they served the sole purpose of entertaining only them and adding to their indulgence.
With Bal Krishna Sama, Gopal Prasad Rimal, Bhim Nidhi Tiwari and Bijaya Malla, Nepali theatre saw modern daylight and it brought forth many social issues along, playing important roles in socio-political movements as playwrights such as Ashesh Malla and Abhi Subedi came into the scene after them.
“In the contemporary scene, however, the tastes and expectations of the audience and theatre artists alike have advanced to a greater degree. They won’t tolerate clichés anymore,” says Khatiwada.
“To captivate such critical audience and at the same time provide a challenge and a certain working thrill for us theatre actors alike, the need is to transcend from plays with direct social messages to plays that deal with different dimensions of human feelings and in-depth psyche.”
These are the things that make plays hard-hitting and give a more universal appeal, he says but is sad that there aren’t many Nepali plays written yet that posses all these qualities. In such circumstances, many theatre directors often resort to either foreign adaptations or writing scripts for plays themselves; which he says is never the same as when a skilled writer pens it.
“Moreover, as the state fails to provide financial security to actors and playwrights, many creative talents in the field are either bought off by I/NGOs or universities abroad, hiring them as lecturers,” says he. “On the other hand, young writers aren’t actually willing to write plays.”
Khagendra Lamichhane, one of the young playwrights, admits there is less perks to writing plays than other genres of literature.
“It isn’t feasible for any writer to just write plays. Theatre directors still can’t afford to fund playwrights in Nepal or anywhere abroad, either, nor are publishers ready to print plays,” says Lamichhame. “Also, at the same time when I write a play, I can write a novel that will have more readership and publishers will be ready to promote it.”
Economic drawbacks alone are a strong factor, adding to the fact that plays are more complex and difficult to write. “Personally, I write and perform in plays because I get a sense of satisfaction. Not everyone can afford to do it, though.”
Contents-wise, Lamichhane believes that though western plays written centuries before still feel relevant and thus are powerful even when performed now, there aren’t many such plays in Nepali literature.
“Maybe it’s because we’re now going through the same changes that western societies have been through already,” Lamichhane reasons. “But with more trained people who’ve studied theatre and Nepal being blessed with great cultural diversity, there’s definitely plenty to write about.”
Young theatre artist Ghimire Yuwaraj, having returned five months ago from Denmark after studying theatre there, says that though the number of newly written Nepali plays could be considered nil, there’s plenty of scope to develop and improvise plays from contemporary Nepali short stories and fiction.
Busy reviving Shilpee, the troupe has been touring Nepal with “Naari” – a women issue-based play funded by UKAID, but then toiling without any payment to produce artistic plays.
On the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the theatre group, they also staged Naari and “Prawaas,” both improvised play directed by Ghimire at the Nepal Tourism Board.
“We have three productions in line – Nayan Raj Pandey’s Prawaas that’s already complete, Khagendra Sangraula’s “Tarajuma Babu Chhora,” and the late Ramesh Bikal’s “Naya Sadakko Geet,” informs Lamichhane. “All these material weren’t initially written as plays but improvising them work out well as plays and also gives you more liberty to experiment.”
Ghimire additionally agrees that if these writers themselves wrote plays providing the theatre artists images to work on, the product would be great.
“We invited the author of Prawaas to come and see his story being staged as a play. It’s important that writers see the style of plays evolving so that it gives them an idea on what theatre at present requires, and how playwrights also have to evolve.”
Working with stage actors from outside Kathmandu, Ghimire says, the focus also should be on developing proscenium theatre outside the capital and tap into their artistic potential as well.
Anoop Baral, a well known name in Nepali theatre and cinema, also started his journey in theatre in his hometown of Pokhara with the Aarambha theatre group.
Entranced as a child by the culture of Baaloo theatre where performers went around showing plays from door to door, he break-danced his way into acting for plays in Pokhara during his teens.
“At the time, the theatre scene there was too filmy, with the hero and heroine falling in love, singing, dancing and fighting to conquer all odds,” shares Baral “But there also were people like Saru Bhakta Shrestha who were producing great literary plays, and it was by working with him that I got into more artistic side of theatre.”
Participating in the Natak Mahotsav that lasted more than a week, Baral often drenched himself in the passion and fervor of theatre groups that came together at the capital from all over Nepal. Later, he went to the National School of Drama in Delhi where he says he became polished as a theatre actor.
“When you think of the plays we did during the Natak Mahotsav back then, it seemed great at that time,” says Baral. “But the subjects and characters of those plays feel too made-up now. Mythical and historical characters aren’t relatable anymore. Theatre now requires characters whom we would meet in buses, characters who are more flesh and blood, and stories that would actually be cathartic for the audience.”
The need, according to him, is not just of playwrights who can provide audience such stories and characters but actors and directors who can present them well on the stage.
“I think Kathmandu actually has many theatre groups. But how many skilled directors do we have? How many of these artists understand the importance of stage setting and proper improvisation? In lack of good understanding of the different aspects of theatre, many plays that are staged don’t come off as strongly as their actual contents.”
Having emphasized on the need of a theatre school, he has been teaching different aspects of theatre at Actor’s Studio.
“Theatre is an amalgamation of all forms of art. It’s not just literature. You need to understand painting to make good use of the setting, colors, lights and shade, and music is as important,” he says. “It’s a vast field, and understanding these elements is important to produce a quality play.”
And the level of perception that the theatre audience now have, Nepali theatre still has a lot to improve on in terms of content, presentation and styles.
“Moreover, we need to understand that theatre can’t come from this Valley alone,” he adds. “Though we have youths in Kathmandu experimenting with different styles of theatre, writing and performing modern plays is almost non-existent out of the Valley. When most of our local stories and talents are out there, still unexplored, how do we expect to have competitive content?”
As it is, many theatre groups in Kathmandu still run under the mercy of I/NGOs. Many theatre workers say such self-sustenance is only a preparation for a future where they can have artistic freedom without having to succumb to financial constraints and lack of space.
Gurukul Theatre which people had assumed had overcome such financial constraints also is still at a standstill and without space. While some Gurkul actors are busy in different projects, some are still undecided as to what direction they must take or how long they have to wait.
Sarita Giri from Gurukul, who has been busy with conducting workshops, says the break has given her time work on her own.
“I’ve been conceptualizing a play about the culture of the Kumari and working with Samuna KC on it,” says Giri. “Nepali theatre has matured over time and there’s a need to change stylistically. But the element that can give Nepali theatre its own identity is its rich cultural roots. The presentation and content, however, can’t be clichéd, and newer dimensions have to be explored.”
Kamal Mani Nepal, who made an appearance with Shilpee again, also says, “For more than a decade, Gurukul had been our only working space. Now working independently after such a long time makes me feel this is the time to start something of our own to get our artistic inputs recognized.”
Gurukul’s Kul Guru, Sunil Pokharel, on the other hand, is still on lookout for a space to start anew and planning another Kathmandu International Theatre Festival this November/December.
If they don’t have a space even by that time, like Pokharel mentioned before, the plan is to erect tents on Tundikhel, if they have to, and go forth with the festival.
Moreover, by the time Gurukul gears up again, it won’t anymore be the solo theatre group performing regular plays. Even despite the lack of support from the government, and as more theatre groups step into the competition, it will be crucial for the evolution of Nepali theatre.
And competition is always good. Better yet if the government could actually promote art instead of politicizing it, and if the authorities and academics concerned show more interest, theatre talents from outside the Valley would notch up the competition as well.