Why we playAs the play Laati ko Chhoro progresses, Kishan Shrestha can be seen constantly changing tunes—and beats—as he switches between instruments. In one scene, he is singing along with one of the play’s characters;
As the play Laati ko Chhoro progresses, Kishan Shrestha can be seen constantly changing tunes—and beats—as he switches between instruments. In one scene, he is singing along with one of the play’s characters; an up-beat number. In another, he beats on the dhime, the frequency of the drumming gradually rising as the antagonist enters the scene. All the while—as an audience—one cannot make out much of him. He sits on the right-hand corner of the theatre, in front of the gathered crowd, with his various instruments surrounding him. When the spotlights in the hall intensify for certain scenes, you can make out his face, intently looking at the characters on stage, waiting for his cue—a mouth piece clutched between his lips—ready to trigger another incidental piece of music with his pianica.
While most theatre groups rely on recorded audio as sound scores for a play, Shrestha is among the few musicians in Nepal who create live music, and sound effects, for plays. In a barely existent scene that is Nepali theatre, it is actually surprising to find musicians to be spending time and effort on creating live audio for plays—a career out of theatre sound design does seem impossible considering the struggling state of Nepali theatre. But a number of music artists have been working regularly with local theatre groups to create music, which is born out of, more than anything else, sheer passion and the love for the performing arts.
“The first play I watched was Dhon Cholecha. I never knew such a form of art existed until then,” says Shrestha. He wouldn’t miss any drama being staged in Kathmandu for a long time after that. “I really started enjoying the intimacy of a theatre hall and how my emotions, as a viewer, fluctuated along with actors’. It still feels as real. These days, I am aware that there is a green room behind the stage and that people are acting, but I end up getting swept away with the story, every single time.”
A few months after watching Dhon Cholecha, Shrestha got the opportunity to play live music for Sunil Pokharel’s A Mid-summer Night’s Sapana. He has since been involved with six other plays—collaborating with long-time collaborator and fellow band member Ashesh Kulung Rai, and several other musicians—and has no intentions of looking back. These days the artist regularly collaborates with Shilpee Theatre, Battisputali, and Mandala Theatre, Anamnagar, designing and performing music for plays.
Shrestha puts to advantage his inclusive taste in music when scoring for a play. “I listen to a lot of music and I think that helps me when coming up with songs for plays. And, I usually take a lot of instruments with me to rehearsals. I start playing as the actors start acting, and constantly switching between instruments breaks the monotony, too,” says Shrestha. The musician doodles and eventually builds up a collection of musical pieces that he then arranges—replaces and shuffles—pieces into the different scenes of the play. “It’s mostly repetition. I keep playing the tunes in every other rehearsal and sooner or later have a structured collection of music pieces for the entirety of the play,” he says.
And all this he does through acoustic instruments alone.
“The theatres in Nepal are quite small; you are basically right next to the stage,” says Shrestha, explaining why he refrains from using amplification. “I feel, using a microphone does not sound organic and disconnects the viewers from the play.” Through instruments like dhime, mandolin, guitar, pianica, flute, violin and percussion like shakers, ocean drum and thunder, Shrestha creates the various sound effects and scores required for each scene. The sounds these instruments resonate inside the confines of the theatre walls making the audience feel like they are a part of the setting itself. In turn, these sounds also work as cues for the actors or supplement to the mood of a scene. That is why Shrestha prefers being present during most practice session of a play as it gives him a “better idea of the overall feel of the play and can craft the musical pieces to suit the scenes being acted out.”
But the way he goes about making music for plays also depends on how directors like to work—some prefer making music as the rehearsal progresses while others want to do it after all the acting bits are sorted out. In the beginning, directors usually acquaint sound artists with the script and the play’s design and ask them whether they would like be a part of the rehearsals.
Shrestha was creating music alongside the rehearsing actors each day of Laati Ko Chhoro’s pre-production. “Before we started, the director [Sulakchhyan Bharati] told us to go about making music in whatever way we felt fit and that he would let us know if he felt as if the sound was affecting his directorial vision in any way,” says Shrestha. The volume of his voice reaches a new peak: “This gave us the rare freedom to experiment and expand.”
Although Laati ko Chhoro is a tragedy, the artist did not want the mood of the music to be too heavy from the start. In the play, the musicians start with instruments that give off a more airy vibe, like the mandolin. An assertively beaten dhime comes in during more intense—or fast paced—parts of the play. Also, the sound was designed ssuch that each primary character in the play had her or his specific music that identified them. For the performance, Shrestha collaborated with musician Samyak Maharjan.
But not all projects provide the same level of freedom or satisfaction to audio artists. Some directors demand for a very specific kind of sound that restricts artistic freedom altogether. This is not the most pressing issue that sound design for theatre deals with, though. There are a number of factors that limit sound design to being subpar—or not existent, altogether. For example, Man Bahadur Mukhiya’s musical Ani Deurali Runcha, which was staged in Shilpee in June, had to make do without live musical score for a number of reasons: the first one being the budget. This was the play’s second theatrical run; the first was in the 1970s. During its first run, the play saw the involvement of popular contemporary music artists like Narayan Gopal and Amber Gurung, who were performing live during every staging. The 2017 version of the play saw some songs being sung by the actors themselves, while others were played recordings of the original play.
“We decided to play the original recorded versions as a tribute to the old songs,” says play director Jeevan Baral, who had initially wanted to bring in original artists to perform the scores. “But unfortunately there were copyright issues that we wouldn’t have been able to work around. And then the matter of budget constraints is always there.”
Baral, who is also an actor, admits that there is nothing like the feeling of performing to live audio, though. “Playing recorded music is a cheaper alternative, but it never matches the dynamic quality and grandeur of live, performed music. Also, live musicians create room for improvisation for actors. And in theatre, improvisation and change is an important constant,” he says. “If I had it my way and if money was never an issue, I’d always like the dramas that I direct to have audio artists collaborating live on stage.”
And as theatre groups are rarely able to create music specifically for plays, the overall quality of the show, too, dwindles.
Shrestha states that plays are unable to maintain quality, in respect to sound design, because the theatre groups lack sound departments. “Sound is only regarded as a decorative element. But if theatres had audio departments of their own, they could create sound effects as well as scores more effectively.” Unfortunately, there are no musicians who are involved with theatre fulltime, save for Aadhasur, who is a music producer as well as a theatre artist involved with Mandala.
“Ideally, a theatre company would like to have its own sound department, but in Nepal, a group will never be able to hire someone to be there all the time. Theatres only have money—albeit little—when the production of a play is on,” says Baral. “When we are lucky enough, we can spare some money to hire freelance sound professionals.” For Ani Deurali Runcha, Baral took help—in terms of sound and music—from Anil Subba, KC Raja, Suresh GC and Jhaken BC, all of whom were already part of the drama crew, fulfilling primary duties as actors. Other areas lack the involvement of expertise, too; Baral had to design sets for the play himself as a set designer would mean added cost.
Having a sound department seems farfetched when one considers the meager income a project-based musician makes from creating music for a drama—all theatre professionals in Nepal get very little, monetarily, despite the hard work, energy and time they put in. Recent estimates suggest that it cost north of Rs 200,000 on average in production costs to bring a play to the stage. That sum is only just recuperated through the box office. According to Ashesh Kulung Rai, musicians make more money doing one live musical gig than by spending more than a month’s time involved in a play, making not more than Rs 10,000.
“There isn’t a possibility of making a living by working on plays alone,” says Rai. “But we do it for the sheer fun it provides. There is a certain ‘life’ experience that you get out of it. The dynamics cannot be replicated through a recording.”
Both Rai and Shrestha say that the fact that theatre directors have started to become more conscious about sound adds to them wanting to continue being involved. Music now has started to lead scenes in a play too: A scene from Ani Deurali Runcha, for example, where actor/musician KC Raja passes through the audience and enters the stage dictates the progression of the scene. In the play, Raja plays the part of a gandarva and has a few minutes long musical solo where he sings along to the melody of the sarangi he is playing.
Shrestha also admits of indulging for the respect that the theatre crew shows musicians. “There is a lot of admiration from the crew,” says Shrestha. He remembers a practice session where an actor had thanked his music for helping him cry better. The actor had later told him how the music was helping the actors be more expressive while on stage. “Nepali theatre is still evolving. It might even seem primitive, but that is what makes it so charming. In regards to budget, technicality and innovative ideas, Nepali theatre has a lot to gain, still, but that doesn’t supersede the fact that it’s something honest and humane. There is this certain undeniable purity about it.”