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11/11/2006

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The Kathmandu Post

4 EXPRESSION

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Nepali theatre and performance culture

Nepali Theatre as a see it - By Dr Abhi Subedi Publishers - Arrohan, Gurukul Price - NRS 225, Edition - First, Pages- 237 ISBN: 99946-998-9-x ll the world's a stage; And all the men and women merely players", said William Shakespeare in the pastoral comedy As You Like It. This cannot be less true in case of Dr Abhi Subedi, except that he loves to play different roles in life with a same sense of mastery and perfection. With the publication of Nepali Theatre as I See It, the poet-cum-artcritic-cumplaywright has added a new perspective to the study of Nepali theatrical heritage. The book, says Dr Subedi, is an outcome of his personal efforts to perceive the structural forms of the performative culture of Nepal and its influence on Nepali theatre. Neatly divided into nine sections, the book commences with an overview of the

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performance culture. The history of performance culture in Nepal dates back to time immemorial, to the time of the Lichavvi and Malla kings when the Kathmandu city was largely inhabited by the Newars. There is no term to describe the tradition of performance culture, even though it was manifest in both tangible -- and intangible -- artistic and cultural forms. These forms changed into newer forms as they passed from one generation to another. Dr Subedi's quest as an artist was to study the different forms of performance tradition and the way they were metamorphosed into newer forms. Although a narrative of Dr Subedi's own journey as a playwright, the book combines historical narratives with autobiographical elements. Chapter- Two, Three, Four and Five deals more with history of Nepali theatre while Chapter6 onward is autobiographical. Dr Subedi begins with a general overview of the heritage of Nepali theatre that has been largely shaped by performance tradition. He makes extensive use of the term Nepal Mandala, which incorporates the art, architecture, dramaturgy, music, dance and performance culture of the historic cities of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. For Dr Subedi, one unique feature of the Nepal Mandala is that all forms of art that exist here project a strong sense of performance. The playwright sees dynamism not only in the songs and dances accompanying street festivals, but also in the stone sculptures surrounding the ancient Chagunarayan temple, paintings, murals and many such architectural designs. Dr Subedi's approach to the history of Nepali theatre is scientific and systematic - he first states his hypothesis, then goes on assimilating facts and data, tracks down his-

The street marches in ancient Newari festivals such as Gaijatra and Indrajatra were designed to pass "in front of houses that had windows open to streets." Here, the open windows served as a stage from where the spectators could view the street performance.

torical narratives, incorporates findings of foreign and domestic scholars, and finally sets his conclusion. He begins his theatrical journey right from the medieval ages; studies the influence of Parsi theatre and theatricians such as Keshar Man

Thinking new By GHANSHYAM SHARMA uring this Dashain and Tihar, I got dozens of emails sprinkled with the blessings of goddess Durga. I usually thank the sender, but with some of the more intimate friends I couldn't help grumbling about issues of culture, change and individual responsibility. My conversation centered on our love of repeating dead habits and failure to influence the younger generation with new perspectives. The first thing we don't do is think 'otherwise.' Sel-roti is our metaphor; we love to go round and round in our thinking. We let biology and Darwinism gather dust at home, and go to a temple to ask for a grandson. Nepalis become progressive only to turn into a bhakta of some kind of irrationality as we turn forty. Sel roti. Our democracy is also like sel-roti, and so are our many social, cultural, political predicaments. And we love it that way. We don't bother to tell a bitter truth to a friend, and we bother not to tell the truth to ourselves. When the festivals come, we must rethink how much of the dead old habits we are repeating. Many things we do in Dashain/Tihar are just dead habits, odious if not rotten. Sons-in-law receive thick envelopes that the old father-in-law has to fill through hard work every year, but they never rethink about it. We practise dead habits, and we don't talk about the ugliness involved in the socio-economic dynamism that Dashain brings about. We make our wives play the 'buhari' role and remind us of the eternal oppression of women. Just that we don't mind, as we men sit doing whole lots of nothing for the whole vacation. We don't notice how poor Thute Sarki fails to complete a smile at us when we meet him on his way to the landlord, we know the rate of interest for the money he borrows, and so do the Maoist cadres. I remember asking a priest in a temple in Tamil Nadu why they differed from other Hindus in the way they didn't offer milk and laddu, ghee and acchyata to the gods. He smiled and said, "You'd better give those things to

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human being to make prabhu happy!" It hurts me to remember the image of the priest in Pashupatinath pouring hundreds of liters of milk on the unhappy lord's stone heads every day. And we all know where the money goes. I am also thinking of the Protestant revolution in France in the Medieval times. When are we going to do anything significant about our culture, except the dead habits? Many things we keep repeating in the name of culture are just cats we tie to the pillar because we'd seen our father do the same. I am thinking of the inability of our intellectuals to tell their children that our culture and religion are basically the product and process of social life-so they must change and fit our needs and situations. They were formulated by men living thousands of years ago, with an entirely different understanding and perspective about the universe and life and only certain 'timeless' themes are useful. Many things in our education, administration, politics, and cultural life need just a second thought. Can we do it in a more meaningful way? Stop pouring milk over Pashupatinath. Perhaps, we can learn from the amazing flexibility of our grandparents. Here's an example: when they didn't have seven real 'pundits,' they let six Brahmins made of 'kush' stand on the rice on the 'taparis.' Can't we mix a spoon of milk on a gagrifull of water and bathe Shivajee? Or if we can be as outrageous as the Tamil priests, we could stop it. Seriously. Emails and tea talks are important because you can tell a lot of people about dead habits. And, if most of them can't be interested, they'll at least laugh at you and digest sel roti better. I am thinking of the way a few cranky people's talk has made history in every generation: Rousseau, Gangalal, Russell, BP, Ibsen, Madan Bhandari. And I am sure that rethinking at the level of tea talk contributes to the making of history. If you will tell your friend that he has a shred of spinach sticking between his teeth, why won't you tell her that her thoughts also need cleaning up?

Tuladhar, Master Ratnadas Prakash, Hari Prasad Rimal and Bekh Narayan Maharjan; and then allots a whole chapter for revolutionary dramatist Bal Krishna Sama and his contributions in bringing theatre from the courtyards of the Rana rulers to the public. In Chapter-5, he discusses the influence of naturalism, realism and surrealism in Nepali theatre and experimental plays written by writers such as Bhim Nidhi Tiwari, Satya Mohan

Joshi and Madhav Ghimere. One thing remarkable about Dr Subedi is that he knows how to juxtapose subtle comments while talking about lighter issues in a leisurely mood. For instance, in the sub-unit Street March as Power of

Performance of Chapter-2, he is talking about the heritage of travel and the carnivalesque mode of demonstration during the Newar street performance. Out of blue, he brings in King Prithivi Narayan Shah and explains how things changed after he rode the chariot that was meant for King Jaya Prakash Malla who fled after his kingdom was invaded by a Shah king from the house of Gorkhas. Dr Subedi continues with his subtle comments as he explains how the streets of Kathmandu are being less used for ritualistic celebration and more for broader political demonstrations these days! That is not to say that he is against political demonstrations, however. In the same unit, he nostalgically remembers the 1990 revolution and the way streets became a stage for a political show that heralded democracy. Dr Subedi's description is sure to remind us of the recent April uprising that paved the way for the formation of a new democratic state. Talking of streets, Dr Subedi has devoted an entire chapter to study the relation of theatre and streets. He deals with the theme of travel and street elsewhere as well. In Chapter-2, for instance, there is a separate sub-section called Heritage of Street, where the playwright discusses how the two tropes "jour-

ney" and "street" have shaped the tradition of Nepali theatre. He has elaborately described how people acted dramas on streets, infusing them with dances and songs. Says Dr Subedi, "On streets gods travel in palanquins carried by followers; kings traveled on chariots, first Rolls-Royce cars that came on people's backs to Kathmandu ran on streets here raising clouds of dust‌ the Rana chiefs riding horses and drawing swords stand by the sides of the streets as though they were constantly peering down at the passers by." The playwright has beautifully deciphered the relation of travel and architectural space in the sub-section Rituals of Travel and Architectural Space of Chapter-2. According to Dr Subedi, the street marches in ancient Newari festivals such as Gaijatra and Indrajatra were to pass "in front of houses that had windows open to streets." Here, the open windows served as a stage from where the spectators could view the street performance. At other times, the stage included royal courtyards such as the square at Hanumandhoka designed to accommodate a huge audience, or raised platforms (dabalis) constructed in vast open spaces for public consumption of plays. In a nutshell, Dr Subedi's new book on theatre is a good read for Westerners as well as Easterners and domestic lovers of theatre. When I first got hold of the book, I was highly impressed by the colorful jacket, the smooth foliage, and the beautiful arrangement of photos. However, Dr Subedi needs to devote a few quiet hours to correct some of the minor typos when the next edition of the volume comes out. Reviewed by Monica Regmi monica@kantipur.com.np

Kumari: The arresting goddess O ur Kumari will be going to school like other ordinary girls. Wait, not so soon and of course, not so easily. The 'landmark' Supreme Court order which came on Wednesday, 1 November 2006, to inquire if the tradition of worshipping a "living goddess" has led to the exploitation of girls and the violation of human rights, wouldn't delight most of the people from her own community. The tradition of installing a 'living goddess' had started around 17th century in Nepal. Still, the tradition has a large number of supporters. The people from Newari community greatly admire and worship the 'goddess'. However, the tradition has been a subject of criticism among the feminists and the human rights activists for some time now. The 'transitional-period', as our political leaders put in, has brought so many social, cultural and legal issues at the forefront. All of a sudden, 'old' issues have become 'new' and 'challenging' as never before. Yet, finally the 'bare' verdict has arrived, and what we common Nepali people feel is a sense of triumph over the 'tradition' which has been binding us even though we are heading onto the 21st century. When we divulge into the issue of 'exploitation' of children in the context of Nepal, there is a very disturbing reality that awaits us. Those street-children, those young conductors, those children 'employed' in so many big and small hotels, shops and offices of Kathmandu, those who have been forced to carry arms in the so-called 'liberation army' of the rebels and those who have been a member of our own families- they are constantly exploited, and it rarely makes a newsheadline in our all-powerful and prestigious news-media. It is said that so many NGOs, INGOs, the government and so many other people like the human rights activist and philanthropists have invested so much time and 'money' to help these destitute, helpless and illiterate children, but what you see makes you feel like those were just false rumors. What surprises this author most is the 'bliss of ignorance' our concerned officials do possess. There is a clear 'direction' as not to employ children under a 'pre-defined' agebar on even the KMC-certificates that is hung in almost all the shops and enterprises in the valley. In the so-called 'hearts' of

By SALIK SHAH

the Kathmandu valley, you will find many children, under the age of 10/12, working as 'domestic-assistants' in homes, hotels and vendors. It would be no surprise if we happen to hear a minister or two 'employing' them in their own properties. But the tradition of Kumari is not associated so much with 'exploitation'. It is more associated with the people's 'expec-

tations'. A 'living-goddess' is expected to behave like one. A personal journey 'from goddess to mortal' is not one she is prepared for. Some people might say that we, Bahuns and Chhhetris, Magars or the people belonging to Madhesi community might not be able to apprehend so many things about Newari culture and tradition. These people would say that the 'tradition' can't be 'judged' from an outsider's perspective. However, what everybody should be able to apprehend is the feeling of segregation, of failure to socialize and of the mounting difficultly which every retired Kumaris have gone through. This author has been fortunate to accompany the Kumari to the Taleju temple a few years back on kalratri, the eight day of the Dashain festival. It was then that I had observed the rituals so minutely. In fact, what I found so fascinating have never ceased to bemuse yet. I bow down to the 'goddess' as an ordinary person, and I find myself unable to dismiss her as a human being like all of us. I think that this is the main problem with the tradition in itself. With so many 'hindrances', so many secrets and complexities of the tradition, an outsider like me and so many people from within the Newar community would find it hard to say if the tradition is about 'exploiting the girls' or not. The need for

the reconsideration of few aspects of the tradition is a 'just' call of the hour. What worries most of the people is the negative effects, if there are any, of the 'forced' installation of a child into a 'symbol' of a powerful goddess alongside the violations of her basic or minimum rights as a child and human being. Nobody has said that this tradition should be discontinued, they are willing to see the reforms that would benefit the child and the whole society in itself. A minimum of Rs.6000 pension that a retired Kumari gets after her reversion can't be an adequate 'compensation' of her 'imprisonment' and loss of normal childhood. Of course, there are difficulties and hardships that ex-Kumaris go through in day to day living, but we have for long turned a blind eye to such accounts. There are many beautiful and positive aspects of the Kumari tradition, however, the faithful followers of the 'goddess' should also seriously consider the negative aspects of the tradition. For this, first and foremost, the ex-Kumaris should come out and help to aware people about the different aspects of the tradition themselves. The former Kumaris should tell us, if they really think that they were exploited in the name of a glorious tradition. The exKumaris can only tell us if there is such urgency to reform or 'modernize' the institution or not. They surely know more about the tradition and the whole experience of being transformed from an ordinary child to the post of Kumari and back to being a normal human being. Our retired 'goddesses' must come out, and speak for the cause of the 'divinity' themselves. To sum it up, the Supreme Court order should be taken in a positive light, and those who called it a 'landmark decision' have rightly said so. The Kumari-tradition should never be discontinued, but the institution should possess the courage to move along the redefining times of the twenty-first century. People are in no mood to stop worshipping the 'living-goddess' but there is a need to reform and reconsider the whole custom. We have expressed a desire to benefit the child, for her better future. The 'goddess' will surely bless us for all our concerns and initiatives to ensure the child a normal childhood and a better life. May, Goddess Kumari bless us all, especially the child she has chosen to be.


Kumari The arresting goddess-November 12, 2006