Sunil Pokharel: The Guru of TheatreThis is the third of the four profiles of the winners of Kantipur Icon 2018, awarded by Kantipur Foundation, the non-profit philanthropic arm of Kantipur Media Group. Sunil Pokharel, a Kathmandu-based theatre artist, is the winner in the Arts & Literature category.
This is the third of the four profiles of the winners of Kantipur Icon 2018, awarded by Kantipur Foundation, the non-profit philanthropic arm of Kantipur Media Group. Sunil Pokharel, a Kathmandu-based theatre artist, is the winner in the Arts & Literature category.
On a recent morning, Rajan Khatiwada, the artistic director of the Anamnagar-based Mandala Theatre, arrived at the nearby Gyan hall, opened three years ago by his Guru, Sunil Pokharel. Khatiwada wanted to meet Pokharel to ask him to run a session during a week-long drama festival slated to kick off on February 25.
“You know that I don’t speak much,” Pokharel told him.
Khatiwada was quick to respond. “Yes, but whatever you say has a profound meaning,” he told Pokharel. “Please come, the students would learn a great deal from you.”
A veteran of Nepal’s theatre scene, Pokharel has been starting a new chapter of his life from this corner—a new theatre named after the last letter of the Nepali alphabet. With a silvery ponytail, the 55-year-old veteran has a pointed vision, and his every response sounds like a dialogue from a play.
Together with his colleagues and students, Pokharel opened a theatre on a hilltop of Purano Baneshwor that ran for nine years. The theatre set a new standard in staging and training in Nepali theatre. It served as a pilgrimage for the artists and drama enthusiasts. The Pokharel-led team transformed the hangout place of junkies into a theatre.
Unfortunately, the drama centre died an untimely death—just like many other good things after the owner asked to vacate the land. When no one showed their readiness to dismantle the structure, Pokharel himself carried the mallet in his hand. However, he doesn’t want to recall the sad day of his life. It was January 14, 2012.
The incident had such a devastating impact on him that he gave up theatre for the next few years. He lived in isolation and didn’t come out of his house for two to three years. “That was the zero-hour of my life. I used to stay home all day, read. Drank alcohol from the morning,” he reminisces. Though Gurukul barely scraped by in its initial years, it was able to keep itself afloat after it started receiving financial aid from the Norwegian Culture Foundation.
Ironically, Gurukul was terminated at a time when Pokharel and his playhouse reached the height of their popularity. It took years for him to get over the depression. Pokharel says, “We had planned to open a Gurukul in Butwal too, and had even found the land for it. But we had to shut it down and we were not prepared for that.”
After the hiatus of a few years, Pokharel has been continuing his campaign through “Gyan” theatre for the past three years. Young men and women enrolled in the three-month course at the Anamnagar-based theatre with the aim of becoming theatre artists or for their personality development. As we converse with him, we can notice the students’ respect for him. One of his hands constantly remains busy to give blessings to the students who greet him by bowing their heads.
One of the founders of Mandala Theater, Khatiwada says that Pokharel brought ‘New Renaissance’ to the Nepali theatre scene. “Many theatre artists were born from Arohan Gurukul and it was only possible due to Pokharel’s leadership and inspiration,” says Khatiwada, who worked with Pokharel for nine years.
According to Khatiwada, a lot of his well-wishers had lent their support to fulfilling Pokharel’s dreams when Gurukul was in operation and Pokharel nods in approval. “Our viewers were mainly comprised of students from Tribhuvan University and various colleges. Later, school children also started coming,” Pokharel said. “Students and teachers at TU had even formed a group called ‘Friends of Gurukul’.”
Like many families who migrated from the hills to the Tarai, Pokharel’s family too moved down to Biratnagar from Khotang while he was an eighth grader. “I had no friends in the hills as the houses were far from one another,” says Pokharel.
His family’s migration to the plains brought about two changes in Pokharel’s life: He met friends who showed interest in acting and started developing a fondness for drama. An introvert, Pokharel used to read Hindi newspapers with rapt attention. By reading detective novels by Kamleshwor and Bed Prakash Sharma, he became well versed in Hindi.
It won’t be wrong to say that Pokharel’s acting career began after the establishment of Aarohan Gurukul in 1982. Along with Pokharel, Badri Adhikari, Samanta Kanshakar, Chandramala Sharma, and Pradeep Shrestha founded the theatre. In the same surrounding, Sarwanam Theatre was established under the leadership of Ashesh Malla. Even though some people said that Aarohan was left-leaning and Sarwanam was democratic during the Panchayat era, there is no doubt about their instrumental role in raising awareness among people against the Panchayat rule.
Pokharel received a scholarship to study at the New Delhi-based National School of Drama (NSD) after a serendipitous meeting while working at the then Royal Nepal Academy. That proved to be a milestone in his theatre career. One day Tirtha Sherchan showed up at the academy for make-up. A graduate of NSD, Sherchan advised Pokharel to apply for a scholarship at the drama school. The form had to be filled out by pasting a postal ticket worth Rs2. He didn’t get any response in his first attempt.
But he was invited to Delhi for an interview after his second application. It wasn’t a problem for him to speak fluently in Hindi. He completed his study from the biggest institution of South Asia with a residential facility. After him, only two Nepali actors—Anup Baral and Bimal Subedi—have got the opportunity. It takes a combination of dedication, hard work and talent to stand out in any field. And Pokharel has those qualities. But there is the need for an institution like NSD in Nepal to give birth to “other Sunil Pokharels”. Pokharel’s Gurukul was striving for that but the journey ended halfway. He says the government should invest in establishing an institution like the NSD.
Famous English poet and playwright William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.” Acknowledging Shakespeare’s famous quote, Pokharel says he will continue his journey of theatre. Asked how he plays the role of different characters while acting, he says, “I also have the meanness present in a human being. I vent that through a character’s play. I blend my life experience in my acting. And I feel blissful after the drama ends.” Perhaps he experiences purgation through drama.
The other winners of Kantipur Icon are:
— Mukunda Ranjit, the winner of Kantipur Icon in the Science & Technology category
— Dhurmus-Suntali, the winners of Kantipur Icon in the Socio-Political category
— Kulman Ghising, the winner of Kantipur Icon in Business and Economy Category