Theatre at its most powerful'Khat’, an original play based on Nepal's decade-long 'people's war', has an ingenious set design that allows for a powerful theatrical experience.
Twenty-six years after the end of the “people’s war”, there have been countless films, artworks, photographs, and news articles that capture and document the effects, origins, and reality of the war. Recently, the music video ‘Pir’ by Prakash Saput rekindled the memories of the decade-long war and reignited the question: What did the revolution do for the common Nepali people?
That same question lies at the heart of a play happening at Purano Ghar theatre in Sinamangal, Kathmandu. ‘Khat’, an original play written and directed by Sulakshan Bharati, asks uncomfortable questions—Who emerged victorious? What was the effect of all the sacrifices? Will change happen?—at the end of its one hour and 45 minutes run.
Set against the backdrop of an escalating conflict between Maoists and Nepal Police, the play has achieved a rare feat of offering a truly immersive and vicarious theatrical experience, mainly through a clever and frankly ambitious set design. The play’s focal point is its ability to create a physically vivid and emotionally stirring theatrical experience.
The traditional structure of a theatre hall—the stage in one half, while the audience seating in the opposite half with a clear divide in between—has been challenged, questioned, and abandoned. In a typical theatre setting, there is one stage. But here, it's like the whole room is a stage, and the audiences are placed on two opposite edges of the room, the actions occurring all around the audience.
While the stage design was conceptualised by Bharati himself, Hom BC and ‘Khat’ team did the actual stage construction. Jayaram Dhakal did the light design, and Rajkamal Fakir handled the music aspect.
Daya and Fulmati, are two lovers who have run away from their homes, or rather banished from their homes, and live in a humble abode, abutting the only pathway through the forest. Daya is from a so-called higher caste, and Fulmati is from a so-called lower caste. Fulmati is also heavily pregnant and due to deliver any day. Since their lives have been uprooted due to caste discrimination, the couple’s sympathies lie with the Maoist forces that control the forest area, the precious pathway through the forest, and a few adjoining wards.
But when Fulmati goes into labour, it is a lone Nepal Police officer who happens to come across the house that is able to help them reach a nearby settlement and safely deliver the baby.
Noticing the couple's absence in their home, the Maoist militants become suspicious. A new telephone tower has also been built without the knowledge of the Maoists and they are enraged.
Nearby the telephone tower, the Nepal Police have also established a barrack. Their goal is to repel the Maoist militants and make the pathway that cuts across the forest areas into a neutral area. This makes up the central conflict in the play; the Maoists are unwilling to give up “even an inch of the land” whereas the Nepal Police are willing to do whatever is necessary to fend off Maoist control from the pathway.
The unique setup and the intersection of the three factions in the story mimic the actual reality that occurred in Nepal during the decade-long civil war. The Maoist forces and Nepal Police committed irredeemable atrocities while the common people were often caught between a rock and a hard place. And as such, writer and director Bharati has written the three factions in the play with a nuanced approach. But while all the factions are given a depth to their actions and aspirations, not all arouse the same degree of emotions in us. Compared to the Maoists and common people, the portrayal Nepal Police, except for a vengeful soldier, seems overly idealistic, their idealism is a bit too much to swallow.
While the main conflict regarding the pathway moves along, many more subplots either contribute to the main plot or divulge into the history of the Maoist militants and Nepal Police officers. The Maoist members recall their past memories at times—how they were brutally oppressed by their ‘masters’ or by other society members. When a flashback occurs, the actors are blackened out, and another part of the stage lights up, showing us the memory in real-time.
The ingenious design of the theatre stage that encompasses all available space is what allows the play to experiment with unbridled freedom. Typically when a scene ends and a new scene with new props and settings begins, the lights are switched off, and there are a few moments of downtime as stagehands and actors scramble to change the props. But in ‘Khat’, each scene seamlessly transitions into another without any downtimes—when one scene ends, the lights in that stage area are switched off and another area of the stage illuminates to continue the plot.
But the runtime of the play—one hour and 45 minutes—does get exhausting. Though the director has added interesting subplots and used flashback scenes in an innovative way, some scenes—like the one in which the police commander narrates the last letter of a colonel father to his soldier son—stretches the audience’s patience, making us question if the play is overstaying its welcome. Added on top of an abundance of traumatic events that happen one after another, the play can quickly get emotionally draining.
The climax of the play also ends with a literal and metaphorical bang. Director and writer Bharati has made use of all possible resources and props to recreate the chaos of a conflict zone and he has succeeded. As the smell of gunpowder wafts through the air of the theatre, the audience are left dazed, confused, and overwhelmed. The climax, which culminates in an all-out battle between the Maoist and Nepal Police forces, showcases how conflicts and battles during war can be spurred on by unforeseeable factors. The irony of war—violence being used to forge peace—is imbued in the final scenes.
The intention of the play seems to be a realistic portrayal of “people’s war” and it succeeds, albeit a bit too well. There are no black and white distinctions in a war; all the violence and carnage bleeds into a grey area where it gets difficult to assign blame to a particular group. The play forces us to acknowledge this reality of war. In the end, all the ambitious dreams, senseless violence, and unmeasurable sacrifices fizzle into nothing.
On April 2, Paradym TV released a YouTube video titled “देश के हो?” - Young People react to ‘Pir’ by Prakash Saput. In the video, four Nepali youths watched, reacted, and discussed the latest music video about the lives of ex-Maoist militants after the Maoist revolution. The youths were then asked about their knowledge of the decade-long “people’s war”, and they were almost oblivious to it. The video then started a wave of online discourses regarding the need to create awareness of Nepal’s political history.
Spanish philosopher George Santayana in 1905 had written,“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill in 1948 had given a speech to the House of Commons in 1948, paraphrasing Santayana’s quote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The onus is on us now to remember the past and learn from history.
“More than 17,000 people died during the war. What was it all for?” asks Bharati. “We are forgetting our history and this play is my humble attempt to provide a glimpse of our past.”
‘Khat’ is being staged at Purano Ghar theatre, Sinamangal until May 9.