In search of political imaginationAndheri Nagari Chaupat Raja, a play currently on stage at Kunja Theatre, brings forth a lucid adaptation of a popular Indian play. The fluidity of the musical comedy, achieved through a lyrical translation and live music meticulously synchronised with the action on stage, shows the creative strides made in adapting a play. Yet the play shows a narrow political imagination in its presentation.
Andheri Nagari Chaupat Raja, a play currently on stage at Kunja Theatre, brings forth a lucid adaptation of a popular Indian play. The fluidity of the musical comedy, achieved through a lyrical translation and live music meticulously synchronised with the action on stage, shows the creative strides made in adapting a play. Yet the play shows a narrow political imagination in its presentation. The play, a political humor, set in a fictitious Kingdom of Andheri Nagari, shows how a loony-brained ruler disservices his citizens, and ultimately himself. In adapting this classical Indian drama––written in 1880 by Bharatendu Harischandra—the translator and director duo Ashish Ghimire and Sangeet Sapkota (who had previously collaborated on adapting Anton Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal) have played on the popular ‘Char Jaat Chatis Barna’ adage to contextualise the story for the Nepali audience.
A Hindu sage arrives at the kingdom to discover that a decree from the King has made the price of every commodity and service, whether it be food or jewelry, a staggeringly low, one mana (mana being the currency of the kingdom). In the market place, as the vendors try to peddle their goods, the audience discovers that they are stereotypical representatives of different ethnic groups in Nepal thus implying that the play is a satire of present affairs. Carrying their eccentricity as their crown, vendors and swindlers arrive one after another at the market place to sell their goods and services. In the mannerisms of the vendors–they speak mostly in verse and move to the beat of live music that are set to popular Nepali folk tunes–the audience finds plenty to laugh about. But they serve as mere character sketches of this enigmatic kingdom.
The story of the play only really begins halfway through when the king, appropriately named Chaupat Raja arrives on stage. A villager has come to him seeking justice. When the man accused by the villager comes to the royal court and accuses somebody else for the mishap, a spiraling blame-game ensues. The series of accusations continues and in the end the king himself falls victim to a trap of his own making.
The message of the play—that an incapable ruler (and regime) does not serve itself or its citizens comes out poignantly. When the Chaupat Raja meets his end, another ruler replaces him and the cycle of entrapment continues. Instead of one mana everything costs two manas now.
The heart of the play was true 138 years ago when Harischandra scribed the story and it rings true even today. The fact that the title has become a well used idiom in Hindi speaks volumes about the significance of the play. Given the present political climate, the play is likely to remain relevant for a long time to come. It remains for us to examine how closely the play relates to politics and governance in our country.
To an extent, federalism has brought marginalised voices closer to the fore. With it has come the realisation that for the longest time, non–Khas Arya communities have been sidelined in the national consciousness and are often reduced to degrading stereotypes. Sadly, the play perpetuates these stereotypes. A Newah is always carrying a Kharpan, and a Madhesi Bahun is only ever seen by the Mithai Pasal. Similarly, other characters are also stereotypical depictions of the ethnic community they belong to.
Somewhere out there, there might still be a Newah man carrying a Kharpan and a far-westerner picking Yarsagumba, but such essentialised identity markers attached to ethnicities are fast fading. Nepal is modernising and so are its people, yet the diversity remains. Hence the challenge those theatre artists must confront: how to portray a multitude of voices and identities without succumbing to generic categories? There is a certain discomfort in experiencing such generalised rendition, but it did make me wonder if the choices were intentional to fit the satirical format of the play. However, is it necessary that satires rely on well-intentioned but potentially stigmatising representation?
The need of the hour is to offer a nuanced portrayal of the social condition in Nepal. Especially of those who have suffered from marginalisation or of those who have been historically pigeonholed into being perceived as caricatures of themselves. To address that need, what the play needed political imagination where a dichotomy is presented between the caricature and the person being portrayed. For instance, there could been interludes in the play where the audience could see the vendors as not just as ethicised peddlers of goods but also see them as individuals representing complex communities. Given the fact that theatre culture in Kathmandu started and flourished as street theater, it seems important that theatre productions continue the tradition of being an educational tool. Nurturing the audience into becoming a more aware part of the world is a necessary function of theatre—and of the arts. At a time when there has been a prominent increase in the theatre going audience, such bland practices makes theatre, as writer Suraj Subedi pointed out, a space for a kind of ‘clickbait’ competition. Audience will come in droves into the theatre and for once or twice they may also enjoy the surfacial jokes but eventually they will peter out.
Despite its flaw, Andheri Nagari because of its lyrical translation and the synchronicity in the play between performance and music, has to it some outstanding qualities. The verbosity of the play is properly countered and balanced by the sheer physicality of the acting. The set is minimal and the cast makes full use of the stage to keep the audience engaged—you will remember the great acting, even if you forget the rest.
The play ends today after a matinee show at 1pm and an evening show at 5:30pm at Kunja Theatre, Thapagaun.