A study in the absurdIdamittham reaches out to us through the lens of director Som Nath Khanal and actor Sunil Pokharel, taking us a step back and confronting the absurdity of life itself
Idamittham was recently performed in the city by Sunil Pokharel under the direction of Som Nath Khanal. Enough has already been written about the extraordinary performance that Pokharel belted out during the play’s 10-day stint at Mandala Theatre Hall. Today I would like to focus more on the play’s text itself.
Written about 25 years ago by Sarubhakta, Idamittham reaches us through the lens of director Khanal and actor Pokharel, who both seem to have had a hand in altering the original play to fit the reality of our here and now. So what I discuss today is perhaps more about Khanal’s and Pokharel’s perception of a federal democratic republic of Nepal than Sarubhakta’s kingdom; that the two visions can seamlessly speak volumes about the current state of affairs though.
The play obviously takes forward Aarhohan Gurukul’s 2007 production called Nyaya Premi, which was an adaptation of Camus’ Les Justes (1949). While Nyaya Premi explored the moral implications of murder and terrorism at a time when Nepal was still bleeding from a decade-long civil war, Idamittham takes a step back and acts itself out as a study of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and confronts the absurdity of life itself. However, instead of an adaptation of a foreign play, we have a home-grown text that takes on fundamental philosophical queries from a reality that is deeply rooted in the Nepali political experience. It is an experience that takes into account the Maoist-bred conflict of the recent past and comes down to contemporary geopolitics of South Asia, including the border blockade of last year.
The play is delivered through a series of soliloquies to an absent interlocutor, who is a highly placed political leader on the verge of getting a cabinet ministerial position. He is also a friend of the poet protagonist played by Pokharel. That the friend remains absent and silent is a necessity brought on by the structure of the play itself—he personifies the silence that the world throws up when we come face to face with the contradictions that are embedded in reality. And the inevitable sense of absurdity that overtakes us once we become aware of this.
I will quote Myth of Sisyphus just this once: “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.” And so we end up in a prison from where there is no escape. And Pokharel, the Poet, keeps reiterating this feeling of imprisonment throughout the play, it begins with him claiming to live his life like the political prisoners of the past and goes on to declare that he is in an ‘eternal prison!’. Wounded and disabled in a university campus battle he did not take part in, one in which he was in fact reading out a poem with the message of peace and justice, the Poet was branded and convicted as a terrorist and revolutionary. He physically lost his left leg (and the political allusion here is inescapable!) and physical freedom in the experience of it and later becomes an outcaste and recluse. The crime that he was not guilty of demands a never-ending price of him, while those who were indeed guilty of violence and murder have since risen to power and fame. Faced with the absurdity of the situation, with the lucid despair that comes from the awareness that freedom is only an illusion, the Poet contemplates the possibility of suicide. He is 50 now, branded a failure and escapist even when it came to ‘love’, and yet he stands his ground and chooses despair over escape. He knows that a refusal to respond to the call of ideology is not a weakness, just as he is keenly aware of his bourgeois status that divides him from the lived reality of his manservant Kancha. As keenly as he is aware that taking a stand against violence and self-seeking greed is his only option as an aware being. And he takes an equally ethical stand of facing this irrational reality head on and withstands the desire to take his own life. The absurd does not liberate but binds, it binds one to the futility and inevitability of death. His solace is alcohol of course, a double entendre that no doubt holds an autobiographical resonance for Pokharel. The play makes multiple and often painstaking references to Rousseau, Kazantzki, Disraeli and of course Camus, making sure we are aware of the discourse the Poet is operating within.
Director Khanal has helmed Pokharel’s near flawless performance to perfection. Keeping true to Camus’ inspiration, Sarubhakta’s play does not take recourse to any formal experiments apart from the soliloquy format. The set is intelligently done by Rajan Kathiwada and Khanal, as were the lights by Buddhi Tamangand Umesh Tamang and the sound by Sijan Dahal. I particularly enjoyed the clever usage of the mirror and the smart handling of lights near it. Worldviews and political realities overlap in the play—the positioning of the ‘Brihad Nepali Sabdakosh’ next to a laptop was a perfect example of the finesse with which the play was designed.
Lastly, that the Poet is a poet and also is physically disabled, are in keeping with the necessity of the play’s structure. The poet, like the artist, is an outcaste in society. His disability is a double reminder of his obvious fragility as a member of society and counterpoints his unwavering ethical strength. And here I feel Idamittham not only takes Camus’ argument forward by asking of us where exactly do we, we people who vote democratic governments to power, find space for those who do not conform to the norm? It is here that Idamittham moves from a location that originated in World War II France and synchs in with the 21st century world’s current concerns—concerns that surround the experience of the unheard millions leading precarious lives in demeaning circumstances. It is no longer a question of inner freedom versus the illusory hope of existential freedom, but a demand and right to be heard and be given space to—both for the physically precarious as the ideologically so. Idamittham is a Sanskrit word and apparently means ‘at your own risk’. I hear it can also be translated as ‘idam’ or ‘this’ and ‘ittham’ as ‘that’. And together they can be together taken as ‘in this manner’. I would therefore like to read it not as ‘at your own risk’ but as—‘in this manner’ the responsibility lies with each one of us.
Dasgupta is an artist and a writer based in Kathmandu