Life and theatre during hard timesThe continuum of life and human cultural achievements cannot be halted or deranged by any circumstance.
This article is half memoir and half analysis of the subject of theatre. The reasons are two. First, it is to share some experiences on the occasion of the anniversary of the International Theatre Institute, famously known as ITI, whose sessions I attended virtually last week; it has evoked my memories. Second, through the visceral narrative, I want to show the intimate nature of the power of theatre and our own connection with it. The struggle that the theatre groups in Nepal are facing to survive in this time of crisis has moved me deeply. This becomes all the more important because the government does not have any plan, or rescue budget however minimum, that may be to keep the theatres going. A state that functions with a paradox—visible everywhere but invisible in time of need—has made the life of cultural organisations like the theatre difficult and challenging.
The history of theatre shows it has always functioned in crisis. In some sense, theatre evolved out of crisis. The famous critical term about the component of theatre is conflict. Life is dramatic; by the same token, its emulation in drama is conflict savvy. Whether it is performed at the proscenium or in the open it always performs life. Now, the world is undergoing a process of change due to the impact of Covid-19, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the normal functioning of life come to a point of no return. The answer that we can give from the point of theatre is—no, it's not. The continuum of life and human cultural achievements cannot be halted or deranged by any circumstance. I want to explain this point by citing one important example of the largest international theatre organisation in the following lines and its reverberations experienced around the world, including our own.
The ITI organised its virtual General Assembly in the second week of December. As it is a widely known, and the biggest, global theatre organisation with its UNESCO association, the significance of the general assembly was undoubtedly great. It came at a time when the world is fighting with the pandemic, especially the cultural organisations. And the ITI, too, is facing great challenges.
The Institute was organised right after the Second World War in 1948. Then, a Cold War started between the communist world and the so-called 'free world'. But the problems were there in all forms. And the purpose of the ITI was to heal the wounds of the Great War and restore people's faith in life and keep up the creative energy of the people all over the world. The cultural organisation whose function is to restore life and ensure people that nothing is lost made some important impact. It has become very important in today's world assailed by the pandemic to harp on that spirit with greater faith in art and life. Though it is very difficult for the theatre organisations to survive, as we can see how our theatres are facing the most serious Hamletian dilemma of to be or not to be, they have not accepted defeat. We can see or read about the activities of the theatre in Nepal, out in the open and in virtual presentations. The ITI heralded that spirit worldwide.
The ITI has wide membership in the world. We also became its member in 2000. I became the founding president and Sunil Pokharel the founding general secretary. We organised ITI activities here and participated in several events outside in the world despite hardships. That was followed by various openings. Gurukul Theatre was established in 2003 and closed in 2012. Gurukul ushered in a new era in the world of theatre in Nepal. I wrote in the Post, back in 2012 in a column titled ‘The curtain falls’, ‘Gurukul was not the only centre of theatre; but judging by the hundreds of thousands of people who went to see plays there, we would call it a meaningful troupe at a time when history’s drama is taking confusing turns. We do not know the nature of the denouement’. That is certainly true. We do not know the last achievement because there is not a conspicuous one. After the Gurukul closed, theatres rose like the phoenix in different forms. The erstwhile Gurukul artists and others created new theatres and gave it a new lease of life.
The important feature of the ITI is the longevity and tenacity of the theatre people. I was moved to see the senior theatre people I had met and known, in course of my years of activity and participation, at the 70th anniversary of the ITI in Haikou, China, November 2018. I had been invited to receive honorary membership of the Institute at an award ceremony. Receiving the membership was a great experience. This conference saw UNESCO participation, whose representative Himalchuli Gurung (daughter of the late scholar Harka Gurung), had addressed the historic global meet. My faith in this organisation was doubled when I saw numerous theatre people, whose age ranged from 19 to 90, attending the celebration. I am not in touch with them, but saw several of them at the virtual meetings last week.
I want to recall a poem that a famous English poet WH Auden wrote on the death of another British poet WB Yeats in 1939 when the terrible Second World War was raging in Europe. The poet evokes the dismal picture of the time when the individual became just an entity of the moment of history. What strikes me most about this poem is that it evokes the condition of the individuals in a difficult time. The poet says, ‘But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, / An afternoon of nurses and rumours; / The provinces of his body revolted, / The squares of his mind were empty, / Silence invaded the suburbs’.
My conviction is that theatre can instil hope and courage in those people who are seeing many afternoons of nurses and rumours today, and where silence invades the suburbs. Theatre precisely does that. On the occasion of the ITI anniversary, I want to repeat our conviction that we go on performing. I was moved to see the pro-life performance of the Shilpee Theatre directed by Yubaraj Ghimire at the ancient site of the eternal Patan Durbar Square open theatre during the pandemic.
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