Despite hurdles, modern theatre in Kathmandu is expanding. Credits for this must be given to several forces, ranging from donor agencies to individual theatre artistes and directors. But the changes that the productions of western plays are bringing to modern theatre in Kathmandu are seen as a recent phenomenon by theatre critics and historians.
Anglo theatre in Kathmandu has been playing an important role in expanding and strengthening the sphere of modern stagecraft in the Nepali language itself. That is an interesting phenomenon. Several important movers and organizations have put their energy in this direction.
First and foremost, one should recognize the contributions the Studio 7 of Hotel Vajra has made in this regard. Studio7 has been producing plays in English every year for nearly three decades.
Its director Sabine Lehman, and her team members, Ludmila Hungerhubber, Rajendra Shrestha, and Shambhu Lama, have been not only preserving the culture of performing plays in English for Kathmandu-based audiences comprising both expatriates and natives but also providing important forums for theatre actors and technicians to acquire dramatic art and skills of modern stagecraft. In this, Studio 7 has directly helped the Nepali theatre to retain its creative spirit. Those who have worked for Studio 7’s English productions have become leading actors of modern theatre in Nepali language now.
In the past, this group of actors who worked in theatre in both linguistic mediums was small, though creative. Now their numbers as well as the force they have generated have gained strength. For many players of the mainstream theatre in Nepali, Sabine Lehman and her teammates are very familiar, dear and inspiring names. I believe that Lehman is as much an important guru figure as Sunlil Pokharel, Harihar Sharma, and Birendra Hamalare to stage artists working in modern theatre in Nepali of our times.
Anup Baral, himself a guru to a great many stage actors of the younger generation, has worked with Lehman and Studio 7. His appearance in “Waiting for Godot,” a Studio 7 production, was as impressive as his leading role as a Lama in “Agniko Katha” that he played for Aarohan at Gurukul and at a theatre festival in Delhi.
The emerging trend is that many artistes from mainstream theatre in Nepali are showing their talents in the production of English-language plays. Moreover, several new talents have made their debut performances in western production of Studio 7 and other troupes this year alone. One feels that they are going to create fresh waves in mainstream modern theatre in Nepal, provided they are given forums and support.
Similarly, the Fulbright Exchange Program has also been playing an important role in bridging the gap between the native and western theatres in Kathmandu.
Deborah Merola, a Fulbright Scholar in Kathmandu, has been doing her role for the last eight or nine years. Many theatre artists she has worked with for her productions are former students of Gurukul and Sunil Pokharel. Her production of the South African playwright Athol Fugard’s play “Master Harold and the Boys,” performed recently at Moksh in Jhamshikel cast the very well-known Gurukul actors Rajkumar Pudasaini, Ashant Sharma, and Alan Gurung.
Pudasaini and Sharma are regarded as very dynamic and powerful artists of contemporary theatre in Nepali and are often taken as the most brilliant students of Pokharel and Baral respectively. Watching Pudasaini and Sharma performing in this play together looked to me as if the director was encouraging them to play western theatre by making them realize that acting in both languages is the same experience for consummate theatre artists. This will encourage them to play roles both in Nepali and English dramas in the days to come. Such performances will bring theatre in both mediums closer.
Young actor Alan Gurung made his debut as a leading character in Merola’s production.
Similarly, Studio 7’s recent production of “Metamorphosis” also cast several fresh talents. Their performances, including that of Gurung’s, have made theatre critics and artists believe that English-language theatre can become a good medium to attract new drama actors in Nepali cities.
I’m not fully familiar with the occasional productions mounted by organizations and colleges from Kathmandu so far. But mention should be made of the efforts put in by Lincoln School, Kathmandu College of Management, Rato Bangla School, and Nepal Shakespeare Society, among others, to initiate a culture of western theatre production in Kathmandu. Students and teachers of the Central Department of English and other colleges from TU also are coming with productions of English plays at different times.
Eelum Dixit, a graduate in theatre studies from the USA, has worked for Studio 7 and has also been directing plays in English as well as in Nepali languages. Dixit, who also inherits a space called Kamal Mani Theatre, represents a force that holds potential to create greater connectivity between these two forms of theatre on a bigger scale in the days to come.
Salil Subedi ‘Kanika,’ Mahesh Shrestha ‘Karma,’ Samuna KC, and Loonibha Tuladhar have also proven that this border-crossing between English and Nepali theatres, performance arts and cinema can be a very productive adventure for theatre artists in Nepal.
My impression is that artists working in the productions of English plays in Kathmandu are no longer lonely figures, and their works are no longer exercises taking place in marginal spaces of the modern performance cultures of this city. Nor are the artists of the modern theatre in Nepali mere watchers of the performances of western plays anymore.
I have experiences to share. When I directed “Dreams of Peach Blossoms,” written by Abhi Subedi, in 2000, I had no option other than working with the students and lecturers of English literature from TU. This was the very play which was later translated as “Aaruka Fulaka Sapana” into Nepali by the playwright himself upon the request of Sunil Pokharel on behalf of the Aarohan Theatre Group. Critics of contemporary theatre in Nepali believe that it was the very performance in which Sunil Pokharel and his team imbibed fresh energy and brought new waves of creativity in modern theatre of Nepal.
There are several other forces that have been bringing theatre of both linguistic mediums together. College and university students have become the regular or targeted audiences of the productions in both genres. Thus, they have become the bridging points between these schools.
One should also mention the Kathmandu International Theatre Festivals that Aarohan organized every two years until the recent past. These “natak mela” brought thousands of play watchers and varieties of plays, including those in English, for the duration of one month on each occasion.
It is time historians and critics as well as artists, therefore, realized that the theatre culture in Nepal, especially in Kathmandu, is moving ahead with newer creative energy. The history of theatre culture in Nepal cannot or should not miss the important links taking place between theatres in Nepali with other languages, especially English. In this, I believe stage actors crossing the linguistic borders will also acquire greater confidence and create wider audiences. Equally importantly, they are realizing a common karma that they have got to share and celebrate here in the city. Together, they are going to bring changes, or are already doing so, in the modern performance cultures of the Kathmandu Valley. Let’s recognize the welcome changes and move with the spirit of the time.
Shiva Rijal, with a PhD on cross-cultural theatre, teaches Drama at the Central Department of English, TU, and has been conducting research on the public open spaces of Kathmandu Valley.