Road actStreet theatre, an art form with great merits in this country, faces the risk of disappearance
“A play cannot be restricted by the boundaries of the stage. Each theatrical presentation creates its own time and space.”
These words hanging on the walls of Sarwanam Theatre in Kathmandu define the birth of street theatre in Nepal. Lack of sufficient and convenient spaces to perform consistently made the artists tell their stories in open spaces. Although institutions like the Nepal Academy, City Hall and Naach Ghar were equipped with large auditoriums and moderate facilities, the rents were too high for independent or budding theatre performers. On the other hand, shows held in these halls were also priced expensively, targeting affluent city dwellers exclusively. So, Malla’s long grown desire to stage plays on open dabalis, backed up by the ambition to bring theatre closer to the audience, led to the rise of modern street theatre.
Hami Basanta Khojirahechhhau (‘In search of spring’), the first modern street play performed in Nepal, was able to get people’s appreciation for a new craft. As a matter of fact, the wait for the season, spring, was so subtly presented as the search for freedom that the censoring authorities of the Panchayat rule did not get a clue about its underlying meaning.
At that time, street theatre was not entirely new to South Asian communities. Nookad Nataks (Alley dramas) in India were gaining popularity. Inclined towards promoting political changes, these plays were generally motivated by communist philosophies and agendas. In Nepal too, street dramas were oriented towards raising voices against the political injustice of the Panchayat system, but, compared with the Nookad Nataks, there were differences in presentation and aesthetics. Later, several other theatre groups started to get involved in street dramas for different purposes across the country.
Simple, flexible, and powerful
The monumental achievement of street theatre in Nepal throughout these 32 years comprises facets like frugality, effectiveness and a range of influence. Rooted in the principle of simplicity in designing plays because of the performers’ constrained budgets, street theatres were far more economical compared to hall-based plays. Likewise, due to the absence of heavy stage settings and props, street theatre was getting flexible and mobile by nature. The extended autonomy to adjust scripts to the target audience’s language, culture and social context, also allowed the artists
to deliver customised performances. Furthermore, the effectiveness of street plays can be seen through its range of influence. Provocative political and social messages sugar-coated with an artistic flavour were received by thousands of people at once, making street drama one of the most powerful tools of communication.
Having to face large audiences in broad daylight stirred a peculiar feeling in the
artists, as well. To perform in such a lively and interactive atmosphere was equally
challenging and exciting. In fact, street theatres have helped many artists in developing their skills, mainly through improved presence of mind and concentration.
The exponentially growing popularity of street theatre later induced transformed forms of theatre like kachari natak (forum theatre), environmental theatre and ad-plays. All in all, street theatre subliminally yet significantly contributed to the socio-political and cultural change in the country.
The development of street theatre in Nepal has seen its peaks and troughs. Periodically, some have been critical, raising questions on its objective. Some of them have tagged street drama as a mere developmental play (bikase natak), ‘farming dollars’, while others have sternly criticised it for an absence of aesthetics. Non-governmental organisations’ and other social institutions’ direct or indirect involvement in street theatres has drawn both positive and negative remarks from stakeholders. The lack of transparency in fund allocation and management has frequently put theatre groups under scrutiny, often exposing their dependency on donors and foreign aids. Additionally, the progress of cyber entertainment and communication has widely overshadowed the essence of street theatre.
Even the interest of the pioneers and of those who had been actively performing in street dramas in the past has significantly dropped. Under these circumstances, the sustainability and even the survival of street theatre are increasingly in a vulnerable state. All theatre aficionados need to quickly apprehend that appreciating the contributions of street theatre just as well as that of the commercial theatre will help save this form of art from extinction.
Paudel is a theatre artist at Sarwanam Theatre