What is theatre for?Transformation comes by making people feel that they are free
The week-long Nepal International Theatre Festival (February 25-March 4) is on its penultimate day. Every day two or three plays by Nepali, European and South Asian groups are being performed in four different theatre halls of Kathmandu. Biratnagar, Pokhara and Janakpur are also agog with the festivity. Ghimire Yubaraj introducing the Macedonian play “Private Confessions” on the second day of the festival at Shilpee said, this diversity marks a big transformation in Nepali theatre. Rajan Khatiwada, director of the festival, expressed at the opening ceremony at Mandala Theatre that this effort is historical as well as symbolic inasmuch as it addresses the subject ‘theatre for transformation’, which is believed to mark the mood and need of the times in Nepal and elsewhere. Senior theatre director Anup Baral’s participation in this festival and his play made about the predicament of women at the opening tends to indicate the thrust of the undertaking this time around.
Theatre for transformation
I want to begin my narrative with a play entitled ‘Champabati’ performed by Ritwik Theatre of Berharmopore of West Bengal, India at Shilpee Theatre on 27 February. This play deeply moved me. Memory, message and momentary wisdom struck me all at once. The play directed by Biplev Dev, an old friend, a dedicated director, and musician had a couple of more striking things to offer. The play itself, was written by no other than the eminent Bangladeshi writer and poet Syed Shamsul Huque of Bangladesh. Syed Shamsul Huque was the General Secretary of the International Theatre Institute.
The last time I met Huque was at the SAARC Literary Fest Dhaka in February 2014. His purpose was to visit the old cultural places to get some feel of the intangible cultural heritage of this country and enjoy the beauty of the city. He often said he had written a few poems about the haunting beauty of the Himalayas. He wanted to see them from greater proximity for that purpose, I guess. Sadly, this great poet died in 2016 without ever writing his last poem about the sublime heights of the Himalayas.
The use of a rainstick in Champabati uniquely caught my attention, too. Water sound captures the essence of the human relationship with nature in Bengal. This striking poetic play ‘Champabati’ too combines sound, visuals, dance, music, and art. Rainstick, a hollow bamboo tube produces watery sound when tiny pebbles filled in the tube are upended. Sunil Pokharel, the pioneer of the erstwhile Gurukul theatre, had presented the selfsame rainstick to Ritwik theatre in 2004. I too visited Baharmpore when Sunil performed my play “Fire in the Monastery” at the Ritwik festival in 2002. Memories abound. Dey takes the humble prop, the rainstick, as the sublime symbolism of theatrical bonding.
Rajan Khatiwada, the festival director, paid tribute to Gurukul in his opening remarks as a performative movement that gave a golden touch to the glorious tradition of theatre in Nepal by producing artists among other subjects. Rajan is referring to artists like himself, Ghimire Yubaraj, Aruna Karki, Sarita Giri, Rajkumar Pudasaini, Pashupati Rai, Saraswoti Chaudhari, Kamal Nepal, Bhola Sapkota, Basanta Bhatta, Saugat Malla, Pravin Khatiwada, Suresh Chand, Mani Pokharel, Rabindra, Khagendra Lamichane and others, several of whom have established their own theatres. Rajan himself started Mandala Theatre with Dayahang Rai. Sunil
Pokharel remembers his work in his message like this, “I have an experience of organising two international theatre festivals in Gurukul.” Rajan adds, Aarohan gave Nepali theatre a new dimension by bringing out actors and directors.
I want to write briefly about the concept ‘theatre for transformation’. In theatre this concept is problematic. The semantics of this expression is that theatre should be used for education, to convince the audience to engage in some works that may be developmental in some sense. The extreme form of that could be a propagandist theatre. But in Nepal what kind of transformation are we talking about? As all the plays of this festival have not yet been seen, it is not possible to assess their mission and message. I take examples of Nepali experience.
The greatest theme for theatre for transformation was generated by the April 2015 earthquake. Kathmandu and Pokhara were the most hard-hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The result: the dilapidation and ruination of houses, monuments, and archaeological sites. Their narrative and visual forms were created and disseminated. Naturally, theatre people, poets, and artists employed creative methods to generate awareness, to convince people about the ways of coping with the calamities.
Making people feel free
The theatre performers participated in a number of activities. This is a big subject. I want to mention only the factors that influenced the activities of the theatre artists and others. When the earthquake struck, the country was on the brink of a political transformation. People were engaged in political and constitutional discussions. Theatre did not necessarily address that change. People were in search of idioms to explain the developments like the upheavals, unsettlement, and chaos, as well as hunger for order.
The earthquake created confusions and dramatised the condition of uncertainty. Theatre people who went out to help people were guided by two purposes—to help people come out of a traumatic state of mind and to build confidence in humanitarian efforts and cooperation among themselves. They experienced, however, a clash between power and indifference of the state on the one hand and the limitations and longing for the help of the victims on the other. Several plays were performed on the proscenium theatre as well as in the open. But the results were elusive and challenging.
The final point is, theatre should not limit its goal on certain slogans. A free theatre can generate greater energy than those performed as fixed by development idioms. My confidence is that Nepal International Theatre Festival will address the transformation not by introducing palpable themes but by making people feel that they are wonderfully free by which token, capable of transformation.