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Theater’s Moment of Glory in Kathmandu

Whatever they may pretend or advertize, the modern cities around the world have one common predicament: they are just overcrowded. While some have managed the phenomenal rush of people from the countryside to the cities relatively well, many others have miserably failed. Particularly in the developing countries, the urban life could well look like an ordeal when compared with that in the advanced countries where it is more orderly and manageable. The main reason for this is that while the people are forced out of their rural habitats in a massive scale by economic factors, cities are woefully ill-equipped and unprepared to accommodate all of them. And hence, while a degree of disorder tends to remain there even in the lives of people who do reasonably well in the cities, a degree of alienation nearly always characterizes the lives of those who struggle to make their way up the prosperity ladder.

theaterWell, this assessment applies perfectly to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. While many entrants from outside the valley are likely to feel alien and inferior in face of the urban extravaganza in the capital, foreigners traveling to Kathmandu for the first time are more likely to be struck by the mismanagement visible everywhere earlier than be awed by the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the valley and the country. When this is seen in the context of a decade long armed conflict that only ended years back and the failed attempt to promulgate new constitution over the period of more than four years since, an ominous overall picture of Nepal as a state materializes.

That is, however, only one side of the coin. Amid the chaos at the political stage in Nepal and the striking degree of disorder and anarchy that flares in the streets of Kathmandu every few months or years amid the lingering transition period, some fields of arts and culture have made enormous strides. Significant numbers of people, fed up of the endless wrangling among the politicians and the ominous difficulties that have to be faced in everyday life, have sought solace in theaters where they seek a wide variety of themes ranging from the reflections of their own lives to the rediscovery of history to a window to culture of the other people. And frequently the scope of the theater has been stretched to raise voice about the most burning political and social issues of the particular moment in history.

And unlike the movie industry, where concerns of the investors and the commercial viability of the product have to be considered before delving into the narrative or the message of the story, there exists a relative freedom in making and performing small scale plays in theaters, nearly always enabling them to raise the voice for the oppressed or the dispossessed. Theater can thus perform several functions at once: entertaining and informing people, helping them understand cultures of other people inside and outside the country, and most importantly, raising the voice of the voiceless and helping the ordinary people to cope with the stress of daily life by providing a pleasurable distraction from the ordeals.

And on some special occasions, this accomplishment of theater becomes extraordinary. One such instance is the recently concluded Kathmandu International Theater Festival. In the climax of the festival, from December 4 to 6, three outstanding plays from abroad were performed, each with its own theme. On nostalgia was 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.

On the theme of social lethargy and onslaught on dissent by ruling class was the extraordinary performance by the Indian theater activist Pranab Mukharjee in ‘Museum of million hamlets’. Tersely satirical and extremely ingenious, Mukharjee’s solo performance is the moving story of how the ruling class really rules the present world; how it manufactures consent, destroys dissent and in general why people abstain from a meaningful protest. Aided by the video clips portraying the inhumane dimension of Indian state’s presence in Kashmir valley and dozens of poignant photographs of victims of wars and violence all over the world, the play builds so moving a narrative against the prevalent order of things that it is hard not to be annoyed by our own inaction and passivity in the face of ludicrous acts of the rulers that shape our lives in ugly and despicable ways in their mad rush to accumulate wealth and power.

And on the issue of freedoms of many kinds, and particularly in freedom of expression, Mukharjee builds a very convincing case of why exactly the so called liberal capitalist states in the world are not a model for real freedom. Starting from the profession of a hyphen-maker and progressing through a professional pebble-thrower and owner of a machine-gun hospital, he ends up as a profession-less man, an artist. His hyphen-making is labeled illegal for adulterating the unadulterated English language and he is forbidden from it. Pebble-throwing is banned because he doesn’t do so to break the windows of people but to open their mind. There could be no other thing more heretic than opening up people’s minds. And finally, his machine-gun hospital is bulldozed because his attempt to deconstruct the prevalent notion of history that has been written through wars is simply unacceptable because state is the only authority to devise the curricula for the kids and see to it that they are taught nothing else.

And finally, the other tragic drama ‘Bhopal’ was on the theme of justice denied and it 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.

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.

The festival concluded on December 7, but the legacy of the eye-opening plays performed during the festival endures. Meanwhile, the culture of going to theater instead of or in addition to movie halls is slowly catching up in Kathmandu. While two theater groups are already performing on a daily basis, the most well-known group, which organized the festival, is bracing for a big reincarnation after a year-long hiatus. While ugly drama of power games goes on in political headquarters in Kathmandu prolonging the stalemate and roiling people, the theater is bringing cheers to people from many walks of life who are aware not to miss any new play of these hardworking artists. When a tearful Sunil Pokharel, chief of the Aarohan Gurukul (the organizers of the Kathmandu International Theater Festival) invited everyone for next episode of the festival in 2014, all of us had similar feelings: the event should get bigger and better next time around; regardless of whether the political scenario in the country changes or not, our lives change for better or the worse and even if all of us can make it to that time or not. To be honest, with so many hard working and diligent people around there in many fields, Kathmandu is not all about depressing stories. And theater is definitely a bright spot in overcrowded and mismanaged city of Kathmandu.


About the Author

Jiwan Kshetry

Jiwan Kshetry is a Kathmandu-based freelance writer dealing with wide range of social and political issues in Nepal and beyond, particularly South Asia. Corruption, violence and political instability have been his recurrent themes. His articles have been published in Asia Times Online, Third Report, and Nepali language dailies from Kathmandu. He regularly writes for his blog 'South Asia and Beyond', both in English and Nepali and can be followed in twitter @jkshetry. The author can also be mailed for feedback at jiwan.kshetri@gmail.com.