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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Beauty and nostalgia: Five memorable moments in Kathmandu's theaters

(First published by Setopati)
There are countless things that make Kathmandu an overcrowded city emanating ugliness. But there are some things in Kathmandu that emanate beauty. And there are very few that make one nostalgic about the city. Theaters, on average, make Kathmandu a beautiful city with help of performances that give a much needed distraction to the monotonous lives of the crowd-wary Kathmanduites. On some occasions, however, only nostalgia as a term can capture the essence of the emotion that is brought about by `these performances. Here I revisit five such plays from three different theaters in Kathmandu. Two of the plays from abroad were the part of the 2012 version of Kathmandu International Theater festival performed at Mandala Theater. The other three are from the Nepali theater artists from three different theater groups performed in three different theaters. 
Snapshot from Court Martial (Photo: Nepali Times): Captain Bikash Pokharel, the defense attorney grills one army Havaldar for his lapse in the whole saga.

#5. Banki Pristha (The remainder of the page) by Ashesh Malla, Sarwanam Theater

Theme: Melancholy

Set in the background of the decade-long armed conflict in the country, the play ingenuously knits a story of a family that gets annihilated in the conflict. It starts with the portrayal of an ordinary working class family in the village, as in the pre-conflict days in Nepal. Slowly, however the conflict drags one member after another of the family into its fold. Each new loss comes as a heavy blow to the traumatized family until the last remaining member can no longer bear the trauma and chooses to surrender her life altogether. 
Snapshot from Banki Pristha

More than the loss of life itself, the play tries to explore the psycholo-social aspects of the way in which the remaining members of the family cope with each new loss of life. As much as the tragic fallout of the conflict, the play also depicts the resilience of human bonds displayed at the moments of distress. 

With frugal use of the dialogues compensated by a generous use of symbolism, Malla's play measures the depth of human misery and suffering with the armed conflict as the pretext. It is a sort of cathartic tale of the lost decade in Nepali history told artistically to the society in the post-conflict era.

#4. Degree Maila by Dayahang Rai, Mandala Theater

Theme: Mundanity of daily life

A curious package of humor and wisdom, this play explores the mundanity of life in general with help of the lives of nearly a dozen characters in a village in Eastern Nepal. The protagonsit, Degree Maila, is the only man with an academic degree in the village and is the source of endless wit and inspiration in the village. His broken affair with a village girl and his excessive indulgence in alcoholism, however, take a toll over time and he is starkly unable to live  up to his potential. The villagers, on the other hand have been stuck in the life of petty indulgence in playing cards and drinking country-liqueur. Most they can do is to disagree and argue on any topic imaginable: how can somebody travel in an automobile in the road they helped construct without asking them for permission? 
Degree Maila mesmerizes the villagers (Sunir Pandey, Nepali Times)

With help of the particular setting, the play written by Sayaad Asok, delves liberally into the theme of why we live and how we should live; how we strive to live and how we are forced to live in reality. This also contrasts the endlessly stagnant country life with the relatively dynamic city life. Degree Maila's notion of transforming the village by hard work and entrepreneurship attracts people like a light bulb does to the moths but at the end, neither the inspirer nor the inspired do anything with their hands to change anything. All they can do is dream big while inebriated but once sobriety challenges them, all they can do is seek recourse in another binge of drinking, only to discuss another set of dreams over cards. 

All in all, this play is the entertaining tale of lost human potential: how we fail to live up to our potentials and how our dreams merely remain dreams in the absence of willpower to pursue them through hard work: Degree Maila is eventually found dead after one of his especially severe binges of drinking. At the end of the play, the villagers are similarly playing cards and drinking liqueur after the tragic incident, the way we are living our mundane lives. 

#3. Off for some days, by Seyed Hodjat Tabatabai, Iran

Theme: Torn nature of human lives

This is the Persian adaptation of the legendary play ‘The lady from the sea’ written originally in Norwegian by Henrik Ibsen. Rewritten by Raoof Dashti and named ‘Off for some days’, this play was performed by Iranian artists in Kathmandu, transcending many geographical boundaries and cultures.

There could be many interpretations of the play and the message underlying it. But one thing is for sure: it (to be precise, the Persian adaptation) tries to explore an extremely common dilemma in the lives of ordinary people. And that dilemma is at the heart of melancholy of a large number of people who aspire to be something in life and end up becoming something else. Because of various events in various circumstances, they just end up leading a life devoid of satisfaction and full of apathy, regret and constant yearning for something that is hard to achieve or materialize. The mental illness of the main character in the play comes to symbolize the ill effects of this torn nature of lives of people; and of course the number of frankly mentally ill people only forms the tip of an iceberg made by the large number of people who fail to cross the socially accepted threshold of illness.

And significantly, the Persian adaptation was brilliantly capable of carrying over that message, although we had to understand it through the English subtitles. Moreover, the essentially Iranian flavor given to the acts through meticulously designed costumes and stage decoration was able to give a strongly natural undertone to the performance. Faced with the choice between the husband--the real, ordinary and usual partner in life--and the huntsman from the sea who arrives first in the dreams and then in reality, the main character chooses the latter in a symbolic choice where predictability, security and stability is dumped off in favor of adventurism and risk-taking in search of happiness in life (apparently it is otherwise in the original play by Ibsen). And the symbolism of roaring sea waves and the howling of the wolves is striking as they come to represent the unrealized dynamism and lingering factor of unease and dysphoria in ordinary lives of people.

#2. Bhopal, by Joanna Sherman, USA

Theme: Truth subverted and justice denied

This tragic drama was so close to the real events in Bhopal after the establishment of a pesticide plant there and its subsequent implosion that the audience had to frequently  remind themselves that it was indeed a theater in Kathmandu and not a burnt city in India. Much has been talked and written about the tragedy itself when tonnes of toxic gases leaked out of the plant on 2-3 December 1984, even though justice for the victims is something that has been denied to date. The play, however, goes deeper than the leak itself to explore what exactly the entire pesticide plant in Bhopal was about, from the very beginning.
Snapshot from Bhopal: the bereaved mother with malformed child; the UC chief in India and his living partner.
(Photo by Michael McGuigan, Natya Bharati, an Indian-American theater company based in Montgomery. Published under fair use policy)

The fundamental flaw of the whole project was that a plan to boost the fortunes of Union Carbide by low-cost production in an Indian plant (where authorities could be bribed or hoodwinked and the loopholes in the system used easily) was sold to the people as the magic wand that would wipe out poverty by boosting agricultural production with the use of heavenly pesticides. As the lethal environmental impacts of the pesticides became clearer making people weary and alarmed, a highly organized program of subterfuge was put in place selling the argument that it was poverty and poor hygiene that was really killing livestock and people and not the pesticide. The poignant tale of Zareena, a congenitally malformed child forms the backbone of the narrative of the play. When a Canadian doctor doing research on impacts of the pesticide offers Zareena’s mother to take her to Canada for treatment, the chief of Carbide in India awakes to the dire possibility of letting the world know how disastrous the plant in India has become for the local population. 

He then uses his corporate skill to deal with the situation: he convinces the mother that her baby is being taken to Canada to display her malformations and to bring shame on the mother, not to treat her. The doctor, astounded by the mother’s sudden turnaround and refusal to confide to her, gets the second shock when she is arrested for planning to kidnap two Indian nationals.

At the end of the play, the chief of Carbide in India find himself in real trouble when the unwanted pregnancy of his employee and living partner appears to have a solid possibility of giving birth to a malformed child after the partner has earlier refused his advice to abort it. Blinded during the disaster and likely conceived with a malformed child, a promising employee at Carbide (who had earlier been the part of propaganda campaign to sell the corporate version of what all the pesticide was about) now comes to suffer a fate parallel to that of Zareena’s mother, a victim from the beginning. And the play ends with the poignant union of the two victims.

#1. Court Martial, by Anup Baral, Actors Studio

Theme: (Poetic) justice

This extraordinary play written by Swadesh Deepak is one of the most profound and appealing narrative of all time in theatrical history of Nepal, and probably in the subcontinent through various performances in India. Though intended to explore the depths of human interaction between the unequals with the oppressive hierarchy in the Indian army as the setting, the play was brilliantly adapted for a parallel scenario in Nepal army. 

The play shows a very obvious dichotomy between the truth, the technical version of developments as we understand ordinarily and the 'real' truth that takes into account the background and the circumstances in which the developments take place. The entire play shows a session of a court martial in which a low-rank army soldier from a low/untouchable caste is brought to face the court for having murdered a senior officer. At the outset, all evidence including from some crucial witnesses points to the plain 'truth' that the soldier had shot dead his senior without provocation. The prosecuting attorney thus seems to easily make out her case that this is the instance of an unprovoked and cold-blooded murder.

But the defense attorney, through a meticulous effort to bring together apparently unrelated pieces of evidence, builds a powerful case against the victim as well as his compatriot in the witness-box who was also injured during the incident. Through layer upon layer of arguments reminiscent of brilliant defense attorney Fetyukovich in Fyodor Dostoevsky's masterpiece 'The Brothers Karamazov', Captain Bikas Pokharel vividly illustrates how the oppression of the soldiers by their seniors was incomprehensible by standards of a civilized society.  

Despite the fact that the soldier had shot dead his senior (to which he confesses repeatedly) the defense attorney is able to expose a process in the army through which the high-ranked officers were slowly killing their juniors, socially and psychologically if not physically. The practice is so institutionalized that the victims dare not complain against their seniors for lack of faith in the existing system. When the humiliation becomes unbearable with filthy words hurled at his honored mother, the accused soldier can no longer bear it and shoots at the officer. 

The play ends with the suicide of the injured officer, the accomplice of the deceased victim whose outrageous behavior towards the soldiers is exposed by the defense attorney, after his public humiliation by the presiding officer in an informal setting. By creating two exceptional characters, the presiding officer, an army colonel, and the talented defense attorney, the playwright gives a clear message that it is not impossible to seek justice even in the gloom of the status quo. 

The central theme of the play is that the reality and the apparent reality are two different things, often not be even distantly related. What we take as 'truth' most of the times is the apparent reality that is reinforced by the dominant section of society which has the vested interest in maintaining the status quo. If indeed the situation is to be changed, first we have to learn to see beyond the apparent reality to discover what exactly the reality or the truth is. Troublingly enough, the path to seek the truth is not that easy: a soldier had to shoot his senior and nearly get hanged for that; even then, the truth would have been still under cover if an extraordinary lawyer had not intervened. What are the parallels in real life? There are just too many of them to keep count. 

(The section of this essay about the two plays 'Off for some days' and 'Bhopal' has been adapted from my earlier essay 'Theaters moment of glory in Kathmandu' that was published by Foreign Policy Journal on Dec 12, 2012. The latter contains the review of one more play 'Museum of Million Hamlets' by Pranab Mukherjee.)

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