18 MIN READ
On June 3, 2021, after the virtual screening of Anupasthit Teen, a Nepali rendition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Shilpee Theater released a statement, addressing and assessing the debilitating condition of present-day Nepali theater. The statement also accentuated the difficulties theater houses have faced while creating, producing, and sustaining the dramatic arts amid a lockdown and a pandemic. While Shilpee duly acknowledged the complexities surrounding Covid-19, it did not hesitate to lambast the state for its parochial mindset and indifference towards Nepali theater — an attitude that has been exhibited by almost all of Nepal’s contemporary rulers.
Shilpee Theater even pointed a finger at politicians who, while in opposition, champion the theater arts but once coming to power, completely desert the art. The ignorance of the government is blatant, manifested through a tenuous cultural policy and partisan politics in key institutional appointments.
If read perfunctorily, Shilpee’s post can simply seem like the usual carping of any independent theater group, but if we try to connect the dots and the dates, and trace the history of Nepali theater through different epochs, we can embark on an interesting voyage. The socio-cultural and political history of Nepali theater stands as testament to the capricious relationship between the arts and the state. It chronicles the love-hate relationship between thespians and the regime. It supplies anecdotes on how rulers and regimes have used theater as a tool for their comfort and in doing so, it also exposes the many machinations used by the establishment to preclude the rise of theater.
Malla dynasty as patrons
The performative culture (theater falls under the broad category of performing arts) in Nepal goes back to medieval times. Historians like Satya Mohan Joshi state that the tradition of performance, represented by dance, drama and musicals, might have been put into practice by the Lichhavis (c. 450–c. 750 CE). Although evidence is scant, it is generally believed that several pieces of architecture that facilitated performances were built during the Lichhavi period, or even before. Courtyards, extended parapets, and dabu (raised platforms also known as dabali) are believed to have facilitated performance and played a major role in the evolution of the arts in Nepal.
But given the rich tradition and history of Nepal’s folk culture, the demarcation between folk festivity and artistic performance has never been quite so clear, raising questions regarding the origin of the dramatic arts. But according to Dr Mohan Himanshu Thapa, writing in the article ‘Rangamanch ra parampara’ it is generally safe to say that Nepali theater gained momentum during the Malla period (1200-1769). A plethora of scripted performances was orchestrated under the tutelage of several Malla kings, with performances gaining structure and garnering popularity.
Plays performed at that time mirrored mythological and religious rituals as a central conceit. While Sanskrit and Maithili dominated the linguistic token of these performances, a few plays penned by the then-kings were also written and performed in Nepal Bhasa, as enumerated by Abhi Subedi in the book Nepali Theater As I See It. After stage preparations and rehearsals, the plays were usually exhibited on the dabus, open to the public audience.
Thus, given the frequency of stagings and accessibility to the masses, it is fair to infer that theater in Nepal was formalized and flourished under the Malla dynasty. Most of the literature we have on theater history portrays the erstwhile rulers as benevolent patrons of the arts. Some even idolize the kings and their vision towards curating the performative culture and being custodians of the art form. These descriptive manuscripts are inundated mostly by the grandeur of the beginning of artistic theater that they fail to explore the politics behind the performances.
Back then, the performative culture was not only initiated by the dynasts but also supervised by them. A majority of scripted plays had a key role for the kings, either offstage or onstage. There are numerous anecdotes that provide a glimpse into the intervening roles of the ruling regime. For instance, King Pratap Malla’s (1641-1674) performance as Vishnu, the god of preservation, in the story of Hiranyakashipu is one noteworthy instance in this regard. King Bhupatindra Malla (1697-1722) and Jagat Jyotir Malla (1613-1637), too, drafted commandments about the stage design and movements, according to academic Prachanda Malla in the book Nepali Rangamancha. These rules dictated that theater, to capture the inherent divine spirit, needed to follow a triangular stage layout, a design that imitates the contours of a vagina.
Another king, Jayajita Mitra Malla (1673-1696), wrote and staged the first play solely in Nepal Bhasa. In his article ‘Mallakaalin naatak manchanko kalaakar ra nirdeshakko khoji’, (In search of the artists and directors of Malla-era theater) academic Malla has listed 15 Malla kings from Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur who, during their reign, were accredited as playwrights. He further notes that these plays were often performed to mark significant occasions for the rulers. From birthdays, consecrations, weddings to coronations, plays were generally celebratory.
Apart from these examples, there are a few more instances that reiterate the active influence of the kings on the performing arts. King Srinivasa Malla staged the first comical playlet Batha: Pyaankha in Lalitpur. Out of the three characters in the playlet, the character Batha: Kijaa had to be played by a member of the Malla or Thakuri dynasty. It is, therefore, clear that rulers of that time took keen interest in the performing arts. Whether their penchant for theater was engendered simply by their admiration of the art form or whether it was simply a tool to legitimize and canonize their imagery is still debatable.
Theater behind the palace walls
The performative tradition in Nepal continued to expand and flourish throughout the succeeding generation of rulers. Even after the unification of Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah (1742-1774), the culture continued in a similar celebratory fashion, most of it in the garb of folk rituals and festivities. The custodians did their best to keep the tradition alive and advancing. Perhaps due to the geopolitical turmoil after unification, the art and craft of theater as a whole didn’t evolve much during this period. To witness a distinct transformation, the theater had to wait for quite a long time. It was only after the beginning of the Rana oligarchy (1847-1951) that Nepali theater faced a tectonic shift in its modus operandi.
With the beginning of the Rana rule, Nepal entered into autocratic governance. Everything important was centralized within the perimeter of the palaces. The Ranas enjoyed absolute authority in governing all quotidian matters of the state and the citizens. The thought of democracy was nigh impossible. In fact, the aristocracy was so elitist and exclusive that plebeians were unable to even imagine the lives inside the palaces. Whatever stories came out came through clerks of the Rana courts. To free themselves from their tyrannical facades, Ranas needed an escape, which they found in the dramatic arts. For them, theater was a prominent source of recreation and entertainment, as per Shiva Rijal in the article Journey to the Marketplace.
In India, Parsi theater was on the rise in the early years of the 20th century. As an ornate dramatic form, it easily impressed viewers with its grandiose appearance. During their travels to India and elsewhere, the Ranas were mesmerized by the flamboyance and richness of the theater, so they decided to import the form. With all the nation’s wealth, policies, and politics under their control, there was no problem for the palaces to house performers (ustaads) from foreign lands. Initially, Parsi plays were performed in Hindi or Urdu, and it took a while before performers were allowed to prepare renditions in Nepali. The oligarchs were so engrossed by these performances that they invested in auditoriums, stage machinery, and regal attire.
For the commoners, however, such luxury was simply inconceivable. There were instances where plays were performed for public viewing but only after stringent checks and censorship by the authorities. For the Ranas, allowing the public to frequent the theater could have invited great danger as it would’ve made the people more literate and aware of their own predicaments.
The Rana regime also held a firm grip on the thespians of that time. Artists were summoned to perform at the palace. Refusing to follow such edicts was too dangerous. Although the performers were remunerated, they had to be subservient to the palace bearers. There was no artistic liberty and performers had to adhere to strict palace protocols and etiquette. Aberrations were castigated.
The testimony of Master Ratnadas Prakash, a celebrated artist from the Rana era, as retold by Gobardhan Lal Maskey, shows how stifling the atmosphere was. Ratnadas was a prodigy who excelled in various forms of performance, including singing, dancing, and acting, making him an ideal prospect for theater directors and organizers. The Ranas, too, admired his talent and gave him space. His charismatic histrionics won many hearts, especially among the ladies in the palace. But it didn’t last long. Because Ratnadas belonged to a so-called lower caste, people were baffled to see him ascend so quickly. Many envied his success. Thus, someone floated the rumor that he was having an affair with one of the Rana mistresses. Ratnadas was instantly incarcerated. In prison, he was chained and kept under continuous surveillance.
After the actor had languished for months in jail, prime minister Juddha Shumsher took pity on him and decided to set him free. But that too came at a cost -- Ratnadas was humiliated in front of all palace members by being ordered to sign a declaration that marked his lifetime retirement from all forms of dance and drama. Only then was he released. Post-retirement, Ratnadas started a roadside shop at Juddha Sadak.
The Ranas were bothered not only by incidents that came home. Any form of communication that encouraged or advocated social reform and/or justice was shut down immediately. The same happened to translator Ram Babu. When the regime got to know about his translated work Chandidash, a play that tackled casteism and untouchability, the Ranas intervened and destroyed all manuscripts of the play.
To bring theater out of the tyrannical walls of the Rana place and make it accessible to commoners, Nepali theater needed a visionary, someone who could match the stature of the regime. It found such a leveler in Bal Krishna Sama, who came from among the rulers’ own blood. Sama was a heretic; a naysayer to his lineage’s privilege. He forswore his Rana title and endorsed the surname Sama, which meant ‘equal among all.’
Growing up in the palaces, Sama was influenced by the composition and presentations of Parsi theater. Although he learned a lot from it, which was later reflected in his works like Prem Pinda, Amar Singh, and Shree Paanch Rayja Laxmi, he never encouraged the Hindi/Urdu-dominated drama scene. He wanted to develop a tradition for Nepali theater, one that could encompass the ordinary people and their stories. He believed theater was key to understanding a nation’s socio-politics and its culture.
Sama’s vision faced tremendous backlash from the regime, as Malla outlines. The Ranas took offense at his growing interest in the public sphere and started surveilling him more. When Sama was about to stage Bhakta Prahlad, the system clamped down on him. Those at the helm perceived the play as a polemic against politics and saw the Hindu mythology reference as just a cover-up. Since it also coincided with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, many saw parallels between the play and fascism.
No one knew what Sama’s true intentions were, but it got him barred from performing for the next five years. But the restriction only fueled him even more. He consciously tried to reach out to the public. Against the regime’s will, he wrote plays like Mutuko Byatha, which spoke about people’s hardships and tragedies. In 1937, Sama demonstrated an inventive disobedience. While staging Mukunda Indira, he introduced a new sartorial sense to the play. He replaced all opulent attires, those worn by performers in the palace, with rustic outfits that reflected the ordinary citizens. The act of rebellion, although subtle, marked the dawn of contemporary theater in Nepal.
Panchayat pushes theater into the open
When the Rana regime ended in 1951, many yearned for a democratic, inclusive, and just society that would’ve been an ideal foundation for theater to expand its reach and remit. But the nascent democracy in Nepal could not survive a decade. King Mahendra imposed the partyless Panchayat system in 1960 and the nation slid back into a totalitarian regime. Under the dictum of Ek Raja, Ek Bhesh, Ek Bhasa (One king, one dress and one language), all affairs were centralized, making the king the ultimate authority. Political, press, and performative freedoms were curbed.
Meanwhile, the spectrum of Nepali theater had already shifted from the Parsi genre to social realism. Playwrights like Govinda Bahadur Malla ‘Gothale’, Vijay Malla, Dhruba Chandra Gautam, Ashesh Malla, and a few more wrote plays that captured social pathos. Many of those playwrights, however, faced extreme difficulties to stage their writings.
First, the economy of the theater enervated all. Auditoriums in city centers were too expensive to rent and government institutions like the Nepal Academy, which housed the biggest auditorium, were out of reach due to political reasons. Costs incurred in stagecraft, costumes, rehearsals, and logistics usually came out of the artists’ already shallow pockets. The financial return was negligible.
Second, the hurdles set by the government were frustrating all kinds of creators. They were required to speak a singular narrative, and it was mostly paeans to the existing system and its activities.
Finally, the tedious and unjustified process of censorship taxed performers. People who scrutinized and censored those creative works had no knowledge of art and literature; they were administrative clerks working in the district offices. Such practices created a distinct divide in the dramatic arts. Those who abided by the system’s regulations and propagated its ideas had a clear pass. They were even facilitated and entrusted by the government. But for those who expressed dissent, the circumstances were crippling.
The proscription on dissent was taking a toll on performers. Many segued from social realism to political premises. The use of metaphors and subliminal messaging came to the fore, primarily to dodge the austere regime. Collective desperation compelled thespians to find a way to make theater more liberal and pragmatic. They wanted to free themselves from financial and political pressures. Thus, the concept of performing in the open air appealed to them.
In 1982, a promising theater group called Sarwanam staged a play Hami Basanta khojirahechhaun (We are searching for spring) at Tribhuvan University’s Coronation garden, which marked the advent of street theater in Nepal. Inspired by the popularity of Badal Sarkar’s nukkad theater (alley theater) in India, theater practitioners in Nepal used the open air to voice issues about socio-cultural reforms, political oppression, and other humanitarian crises. Like Hami Basanta khoirahechhaun, Sarwanam’s other plays amplified dissent on corruption, feudalism, and social discrimination — camouflaging the message with artistic tropes and gestures. Alongside street poetry, street theater too played a catalytic role in stirring the first Jana Andolan in 1990.
Forty years after its inception, street theater is still widely practiced in Nepal. Development agencies, donors, and public institutions have embraced it as an integral device for awareness-related communication. Apart from the financial leverage it provides to artists, street theater has also enabled them to speak truth to power. In the past year-and-a-half, theater houses like Shilpee and Katha Ghera have employed street performances to demand responsiveness and accountability from the government when it comes to issues like the Covid-19 crisis, unlawful dissolution of the Parliament, and poor governance.
An indifferent government
In 2002, when Gurukul was launched, Nepali theater entered into a more market-oriented landscape. Prosceniums started to adopt ticket sales, promotions, and brand sponsorships. The theater succeeded in tapping a niche of university students and art enthusiasts. It also bridged the local theater with the global form by conducting international plays and festivals consistently.
Between 2002 and 2009, Nepali theater reached new heights in areas of performance standards, global exposure, technology, and artistic growth. It paved the way for several prosceniums that have emerged in the space vacated by Gurukul after it ceased operations due to land issues. The growth in the number of theater houses since then alludes to a salutary situation. But from a financial and sustainable viewpoint, the theater has always struggled to keep itself afloat. The pandemic and its economic fallout have further undermined the already vulnerable health of Nepali theater.
In all these years, the dynamics between modern Nepali theater and the state have remained stagnant. Unlike in the preceding eras, people in power no longer perceive theater as a chief threat. They no longer impose clampdowns and censorship on theater as regularly as in the past. Although, there are exceptions, as in the recent case of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervening in the staging of Kora, a play about Tibetan refugees.
The way the government treats theater today isn’t radical; it is rather insidious. It bears a completely indifferent attitude towards theater, which is reflected in its actions, or inaction. It has failed to acknowledge the existence and influence of Nepali theater as a cultural heritage. The achievement in variety, inclusion, and technicality in Nepali theater is the result of the relentless efforts of independent practitioners and groups. The role of the state in uplifting Nepali theater has been negligible.
When the government brought the Nepal Academy of Music and Drama (NAMUDA) into existence in 2010, Nepali artists had a lot of expectations. Many hoped that the academy would work to develop a robust arts and culture policy. As the official authority, the academy had abundant opportunities and resources to consolidate the theater scene. It could’ve used its strength to leverage independent theater, initiate theater academia, and safeguard artists and practitioners.
But 10 years since its inception, NAMUDA hasn’t been able to make any strategic or policy-level impacts that could’ve helped bolster Nepali theater. Last year, over 50 theater groups signed a nine-point petition and submitted it to NAMUDA. Out of the issues listed, the petition demanded the government’s attention to areas like Covid-19 relief packages for artists, documentation of theater statistics, and concrete policy developments. After submitting the petition, the theater fraternity conducted a couple of follow-ups but the academy did not appear interested. The same year, NAMUDA was allocated a fiscal budget amounting to Rs 60 million, but nothing substantial trickled down to the actual custodians of Nepali theater.
Nepali theater today is in dire straits. Thespians have been consistently cautioning the government about their predicament. Some have even stated that theaters are on the verge of closure. A few of them, out of desperation, are experimenting with forms like virtual theater and digital broadcasting. But these artists know that these experiments are just a stopgap to the ache that theater has been constantly feeling.
The theater groups that survive the current plight will resume their operations. Anupasthit Teen, after a virtual performance, is already being staged in person at Shilpee Theater. But for others, this pandemic could very well signal the end of their journey. Unless there is an immediate stimulus intervention from the state, and a dedicated effort to strengthen its art and cultural policy, the status of Nepali theater will deteriorate further and it will be extremely difficult to retain the socio-cultural, artistic, and political heritage of Nepali theater.
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