It was a dark cloudy afternoon. Light rain fell upon a large group of theater enthusiasts including Nepal’s veteran theater artists who had gathered in front of a four storey private building in Teku, Kathmandu. The menacing clouds gave the impression that it might rain heavily anytime. The loud bursts of thunder seemed to have no effect on the excited theater lovers who were patiently waiting for the opening of a new theater in town, the 'Kausi Theatre', the first of its kind on the terrace of a private home.
Prominent artist Salil Subedi started playing the didgeridoo. After a long wait, the restless crowd was ushered up the stairs towards the theater hall where they would soon witness a powerful Nepali play, "Dayalu Rukh", directed by Akanshya Karki, the owner of Kausi Theatre.
"It was a surreal day for me. I was very emotional as I observed the terrace of my home where I had worked hard for years to transform into a theater. I was also nervously praying for the rain to stop. And when it magically went away, I knew in my heart that nothing could deter my passionate dream of opening a public theater hall become a reality," reminisces Karki. 'Dayalu Rukh', the first production at Kausi Theatre, went on to witness houseful shows running for more than three weeks. The play's success has encouraged Karki immensely, who is now busy with her forthcoming theater production.
Apart from Kausi Theatre, other private theaters in Kathmandu include Sarwanam Theatre in Kalikasthan, Shilpi Theatre in Battisputali and Mandala Theatre in Anamnagar, all run by renowned persons of Nepali theater With regular Nepali and international plays running almost every day, they are not only challenging Nach Ghar in Jamal and Royal Academy of Performing Arts in Kamaladi, the government theater halls that are almost dormant, but have also been playing a vital role in keeping the theater culture alive in the city. Outside Kathmandu, many private theater groups have opened their own halls in cities like Pokhara, Kakadbhitta and Biratnagar where regular plays are shown. “In western countries, the government values theater as their artistic heritage and therefore every year, huge artistic grants are given to theater groups. But in Nepal, despite the lack of government support, it is amazing to witness the immense passion of Nepali theater artistes; especially the talented younger generations. Instead of complaining about the facilities that they do not have, they have been working hard in creating brilliant plays with very limited resources. They are the flag bearers of Nepali theater and when I look at them, I am convinced that the future of Nepali theater is very bright,” says Ashesh Malla, renowned Nepali theater personality and Director of Sarwanam Theatre.
Among those talented flag bearers is Namrata KC who recently directed a powerful Nepali historical play 'Rajendra Laxmi', based on the courageous Queen Rajendra Laxmi and her struggle for power. This critically successful play ran houseful shows in the Mandala Theatre for more than a month. “I experimented with the fusion of the aesthetics of dance and drama in Rajendra Laxmi, trying out various dance movements to portray the courageous tale of one of the most powerful women of Nepali history. This play also made me realize that our audiences are open to new tastes, provided we give them quality plays.” Raj Shah, another talented emerging theater director associated with Sarwanam Theatre adds, 'Since we do not have much money to spend on marketing our plays, word of mouth plays an important role in the success of any play. Also, what is amazing about our field is the close knit relation between the younger generation and the older ones. The Guru Shishya culture still exists in our field and the veterans are very encouraging to the new ones.' Shah who has directed two successful Nepali plays, Jimda Sapna and Bukhyacha Man and also bagged the prestigious Kamana Theatre Critics Award is currently working on his new play, Janyuddha Jari Cha which will be shown in the Sarwanam Theatre.
Kedar Shrestha, a prominent theater artist, who is currently representing Nepal and showcasing his plays in the 'Asian Artist Residence' says, “Though the history of theater in Nepal is very old, we are still struggling to make it a profession. All the theater artistes who have devoted their life to theater are still unable to survive solely through it. But every artiste will vouch that once you get bitten by the theater bug, it becomes an integral part of your life. For me, theater is as important as breathing for survival.” Shrestha is also the man behind the popular theater hall, Theatre Mall, in Kathmandu Mall, which closed down recently, unable to compete with other business houses in the Mall. Shrestha reminisces, “It was a dark day for us. We theater artistes have passion and mad love for theater. But that was the moment I realized that passion alone cannot grow and promote theater towards the masses. We need to develop it as an art business with proper marketing plans and strategies, and that's what I am focused on right now.”
The history of Nepali theater dates back to the Malla era when Malla Kings used to relish watching plays in the dabalis especially constructed for that purpose. The Nepali plays which were exclusively shown to the Royal Family were brought to the masses by Bal Krishna Sama, the Nepali theater legend. His play, Mukunda Indira, written and directed by him was shown to the general public at the open space of Durbar High School in Ratna Park, Kathmandu. “Nepali plays were the only source of entertainment for the people, and they would run houseful shows for months, some even years. I still remember seeing people waiting in a long line from Kamladi going all the way to New Road, only to buy tickets for my play, Tuwalole Dhakeko Basti. But suddenly, with the advent of Nepal Television, Nepali theater saw a big down turn. Today, though we do not have the same audience quantity and craze, we do own a limited faithful theater audience, and it is growing each day, which makes me hopeful,” says Ashesh Malla.
Interview with Ashesh Malla
Ashesh Malla is a renowned playwright and theater director. An honorary member of the Nepal Academy, he is also a prolific Nepali writer and poet. He is the Director of Sarwanam Theatre, the leading theater group in Nepal.
After contributing to Nepali theater for more than three decades, how do you analyze the current theater scene of Nepal?
It is a golden time for Nepali theater right now. In our time, we did not have the luxury of formal theater education. But presently, there are many good theater courses conducted by experienced artistes all around the country. Many young Nepali theater artistes who have gained formal theater education from abroad have returned to their country and are working hard to bring new styles in theater. Today, there is also an enormous growth of exchange between theater groups of various countries, which has helped Nepali theater reach the global arena. Along with regularly inviting various theater groups from all around the world, Sarwanam conducts International Solo Theatre Festival every year where groups from many countries participate.
The Nepali film industry is presently dominated by the theatre actors. Is this a good sign for Nepali theatre?
Absolutely. Brilliant theater actors like Saugat Malla and Dayahang Rai have brought a new wave of 'natural acting' to Nepali films that has never been seen before. They have opened a doorway to many theater artistes who are doing great work in Nepali films. It’s a bitter truth that theater in Nepal still does not fill the pockets of theater artistes. So Nepali films have become a prospective career option for theater artistes. So it is benefitting both.
What is your advice to aspiring theatre artists or youngsters who want to join theatre.
I come across youngsters every day who want to get into theater only because they want instant fame. I advise them to pursue theater only if they are really passionate about it and they are willing to sweat to learn the craft. Unlike our times, today's youngsters are blessed with the facility to grab so much knowledge from all around the world through the internet. Even I am learning every day as I watch various international plays on youtube. In our times, I struggled for space to perform theater. The government halls were unaffordable for novice theater directors like me. But today, there are so many theaters in Kathmandu that offer their space and welcome young talented theater workers to collaborate. So work hard and make the best use of it.