A messy affairBecause much of Nepali history remains obscure and largely anecdotal, any extrapolation tends to invite genuine curiousity.
Because much of Nepali history remains obscure and largely anecdotal, any extrapolation tends to invite genuine curiousity.
Which is why when I learned that director Aashant Sharma is bringing to stage an episode from king Ram Shah’s reign, I couldn’t wait to see it, even if the makers cautioned that Daraundi ko Paani is not a thorough examination of the socio-political underpinnings, but an episode from a tragic affair between a queen and her helper. “There is a dearth of plays based on history in Nepali theatre,” Sharma had said, ”So why not give it a shot?”
Daraundi ko Paani tells the story of the doomed love between queen Lila Wati, king Ram Shah’s second wife (played by Namita Ghishing), and Siddha Lakhan Thapa Magar, a helper at the royal palace. There’s an interesting back story between the two: Lakhan and Lila Wati were in love growing up, when she was only Lile (as Lakhan endearingly calls her). But as life goes, Lila Wati is married to the king, while Lakhan is conscripted into the royal entourage. Once king Ram Shah dies, Lila Wati is expected to climb onto her husband’s funeral pyre with him (Sati). Lakhan implores her not to, but Lila doesn’t listen, thus sealing once and for all the fate of their unrequited affair.
This could have been enough material for a compelling play, but director Sharma goes a mile further. He tries to infuse the script with some extra details about the fragments of events that could have transpired in the Gorkha Kingdom. But that is where the play loses its focus—with episodic details that are oftentimes irrelevant, the entire plot veers inexplicably away at times, and, in effect, comes off as a draining experience. The play fuses material that is ample for some three or four plays into one, and in doing so, fails to do complete justice to the single play at hand. For instance, in one scene, a bhardar serves a glass of juice for the king to drink. When Lakhan, the helper, who also is a seer or sorts, warns the king of a premonition of him being poisoned, the bhardar drinks it himself. “See, nothing happened to me,” claims he, at one moment; the next, he falls to the ground. Dead. Why the conspiracy was hatched or by whom is not of any concern to king Shah or to director. The narration quickly hops to another episode, forgetting the incident all together, while also missing out on an opportunity to develop Lakhan’s character further.
Instead, the episode comes off as one that could have been omitted completely without hurting the narrative. It is one of several such instances throughout the length of the play.
Ram Shah, we have learned through history books, was an exemplarily just ruler, a land reformer and the man who institutionalised the maana pathi metric system. The name itself invokes an image of a fair, patient and sagacious ruler. Ajashra Dhungana’s portrayal of Ram Shah in the play, however, comes off as rather flat and disinterested. He is inattentive to his delivery—a sign that the actor hasn’t invested much energy in getting under the character’s skin. The play, for instance, has a brief episode where the king proclaims a set of rules about metric system and land reform. If you’d been curious to see how he might have made such a decree, you will be disappointed. Dhungana hastily completes the sequence as if regurgitating a page from a history book. If personality is a set of gestures and speech carefully rendered, Ram Shah might have had his own idiosyncrasies; but director Sharma approximates Shah’s personality only in a well-crafted moustache and groomed hair. One is reminded of, and misses, Bijay Baral’s regal portrayal of King Creone in Mandala Theatre’s adaptation of Antigone recently.
In comparison, even his helper Lakhan (played by Prayas Bantawa Rai) comes off as a stronger character than Shah. While Namita Ghising as queen renders a slightly better performance, even if is still largely underwhelming.
Daraundi ko Paani, nevertheless, brings two new experimentations to Nepali theatre. The first being: There is no backstage. Once actors are done with their part, they sit on a parapet behind the centrestage and look on, while other actors are in action. But the audience can’t help notice the actors who have just completed their roles, now out of character, which robs the play of its sense of realism, and even distracts from what is transpiring on stage.
The second experiment is that the actors themselves sing on the stage as a chorus. The sequences where the actors dance and sing have an evocatively folksy resonance but due to the lack of context, they don’t contribute to the narrative either.
The subject of the hour-and-half-long play is itself welcome—historical drama is a genre seldom explored in modern-day theatre—suggesting that Nepali history, if explored, can be a veritable mine of subjects for plays. But in the end, Daraundi ko Paani only ends up coming off as a play that could’ve been. It plays a host of games at once and scores dismally in all. It throws several different balls in the air and fails to catch any. The play might have been, by the makers’ own admission, an “experiment”, but you can’t help walk away with the feeling that it was a messy one at that.