11 October, 2008

The beauty of Karnali

The Kathmandu Post
Sushma Joshi

Why did it take us so long to get here? I think, as I watch an actor cross the entire theatre of Gurukul on a rope suspended diagonally above our heads. Simultaneously, a screen in front of us displays a video projection of the raging Karnali river. The actor in question is in the play The Karnali Moves Southward (Karnali Dakshin Bagdo Chha), and as the audience looks up and watches him cross the rope bridge over a virtual river, he plunges to the ground to his death. The shock that follows in the theatre is visceral. We are watching a moment of performance, and yet the lament that follows from the death is so real it shocks the audience to a funerary silence. The video footage of the woman with a basketful of grass crossing the same river in the same manner, when it appears on the video screen, appears banal. The audience is sure to check its momentary knowledge of the “real” with the “virtual”, and wonder how many times it has watched a television screen and not really understood the visceral reality of life in western Nepal.
Why did theatre take so long to tap into the immense drama of life in all corners of Nepal? How come these rich stories, waiting to be explored from each corner of Nepal, never appeared in the same corporeal manner, with the same intensity, before Kathmandu? I have watched a lot of good plays everywhere from London to New York, but Karnali still touches me in a way Broadway doesn't. With Karnali, regional theatre has arrived in Nepal. And I have no doubt, the stories we will come to hear from outside Kathmandu will be richer, more powerful and more intense than anything the capital can ever produce.

Among the many plays I've seen at Gurukul, one of the ones I will never forget was one titled “Tara Baji Lai Lai.” “Tara Baji Lai Lai” is a chant used by Nepali children when they play. The play follows the group of Arohan actors through their formative years, from kindergarten moments to high school, with all the attendent joys and tribulations in between. Directed by a Norwegian, Morten Krogh, the play's actors lived inside their roles so fully it wasn't hard to imagine them as three year olds all the way to high school students, even though all were adults. What made the stories so believable (and laugh-out-loud funny) was the fact that they had been drawn from the actors themselves. The director had worked with the actors to come up with the script. They had improvised the entire play over a few weeks of rehearsal. At the expense of Ibsen and other classic playwrights, I have to say that the story spun collaboratively by a few dozen creative, bright Nepali actors trumped all other scripts I have seen on the Nepali stage.

Director Sunil Pokhrel seems to have listened to the rave reviews. In Karnali Moves Southward, the actors from Mugu came up with the script in the same improvisational manner. And the results show. “We have never had a showing like this for any other play,” says an Aarohan actor, who says they've had to turn away more than fifty people every evening. The play has been extended and is now in its third week.

The mass response is not just to the story, which are simple vignettes of everyday life in Karnali, but also to the powerful performance from the actors. “We've had people break out in tears and walk out,” said one of the Arohan troupe members. The performers live so fully in their roles it is hard to imagine them as anything other than their characters-indeed, at the end of the play, which ends in a sorrowful note, the actors appear as moved by the end as the rest of the audience. What touches us about the play is also the inequalities it displays, and the appalling obstacles people in Karnali have to face everyday. An element of propoganda appears through the narration at the end, and could have been left out-although of course if the aim is to change policy, then didactic commentary becomes necessary.

As an observer who has actively seen the power of theatre to change society, I hope the Karnali theatre group of Mugu will receive the support it deserves for building not just a new theatre but also for the solar power system and the audio-visual equipment it so desperately needs. When faced with food shortage, corrupt bureaucrats, the cruelty of a natural landscape without respite, empty health posts, and overcrowded planes, the least people can expect is good theatre. And who knows-perhaps-the art of theatre will be the catalyst needed for people to act, perform and together rewrite a new script for the system.

Posted on: 2008-10-03 20:45:27 (Server Time)

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