Saturday Features

A writer born out of adversity

Jun 2, 2018-

In the early seventies, a group of young Dhankuteli theatre artists arrived in Kathmandu for the first time after undertaking what was at the time a long and arduous journey. This group performed the play ‘Tuwalole Dhakeko Aakash’ at the Academy Hall for a whole month after which the artists returned home—all except for one, Ashesh Malla, the writer of the play and someone who saw a future for himself and for Nepali theatre and literature in Kathmandu. Fourty five years since penning his first play, Malla has become one of the country’s most honoured playwrights, a litterateur, a theatre director and an actor who cites his enduring interest in so many different fields as the reason behind his high blood pressure. Malla is also the founder of Sarwanam, a multipurpose social theatre, the founding of which was once his dream. In this conversation with The Post, Malla talks about his literary career and about playwriting. Excerpts:

Tell us about your journey from Dhankuta to Kathmandu. Can you recall the initial shows and the general response from the audience?

Back in Dhankuta, our play got a lot of accolades and due to this, maybe we overestimated ourselves. As a bunch of young friends, we wanted to travel to Kathmandu—everyone’s dream destination—to perform our play. But without money, or proper roads, this journey was virtually impossible.

As a solution, we decided to stop at various cities like Dharan, Biratnagar, and Birgunj to perform. We collected money this way and arrived in Kathmandu after a week. Looking back, it all feels so crazy!

Once in Kathmandu, we met Satya Mohan Joshi, the then secretary of the Academy Hall, who was more than happy to work with the first-ever theatre group from outside the Valley. I still recall preparing backstage for our first show when a tall figure approached us. He introduced himself as Bal Krishna Sama which made me speechless. He was searching for the ticket booth and when we invited him to watch the play for free, he declined.

Back in Dhankuta, the play was held on a small, rather primitive, stage. But here in Kathmandu, the stage was so grand. So, we knew that our play was a mediocre one despite the positive response we were receiving. But to our surprise, Bijaya Malla, the renowned playwright, approached us and berated our performance. I can still remember him saying that our play undercut half a century of development of theatre in Nepal. Needless to say, I was devastated.

Was that why you decided to stay back in Kathmandu? Who do you regard as your inspiration?

Partly, yes. As someone who came from a remote place like Dhankuta, I had never read a play and was unaware of its technicalities. Playwright Malla’s words, though they hurt me, also inspired me to delve into literature, to study, and to become a writer and a playwright.

But more than this, I would say adversity was my teacher. Though I decided to stay back in Kathmandu, I didn’t have any money to get by. Writing was something I loved, which is why I regularly published poems in the Gorkhapatra and recited some for Radio Nepal. These were my core sources of income. This is how the writer in me evolved, through adversity.

This once adverse scenario has drastically changed today. In your opinion, what can aspiring playwrights learn from your journey?

That was a time when I had no one to turn to and no resources but the situation is exactly the opposite today. Information technology has made everything simpler and there is abundant knowledge available for anyone seeking it.

If I were to give advice to budding playwrights, I would say that they should learn in depth the changing scenario of literature and theatre around the world. One should delve into the theoretical aspects of plays and its evolution. But the main problem with up-and-coming playwrights today is the lack of study, research, and willingness to put in the required hours.

A criticism that Nepali theatre faces often is the lack of originality. Why do you think original scripts are important if Nepali theatre is to continue evolving?

I think uniqueness is at the heart of any theatre or play. Even if playwrights follow the footsteps of modern theatre or perform plays by Shakespeare and Brecht, it is simply meaningless until and unless we succeed in portraying our own culture, society, and folk literature. So the criticism is valid and we definitely need an upsurge in original plays if we are to build on the foundation we have built for Nepali theatre.

If not, does theatre risk becoming irrelevant in this age of multiplexes and YouTube?

Theatre, like movies, is the reflection of society. While entertainment and education are the prominent reasons for opting to watch them, I believe that people go to theatres because they want to see themselves there. I feel the beauty of a play lies in the minimal use of technology, unlike cinema. Theatre revives a history or a character for an hour. And after that hour, this character dies.

So, people come to theatre to watch history come to life. Imagine a play on Jung Bahadur Rana. If you walk into a theatre, you might see Jung Bahadur, alive at present in a play. It is not about technology and fantasy but about reliving history and engaging historical characters. This is what plays should aspire to do if they are to remain relevant in these changing times.

Do the plays you write depend on the physical space available here in Kathmandu—as in what can be brought to life on stage and what cannot?

Absolutely not. There are no limits to a writer’s imagination, especially in theatre. Any scene can be portrayed in theatre, be it realistically or symbolically. Everything comes down to how aesthetic senses can be reflected on stage. It is a form of art that creates an illusion among the audience. So, it is possible to perform any scene aesthetically, be it through pictures or sounds and lights.

What are the creative impulses that drive you to write plays, poetry and prose?

When I sit down to write a poem, or a story, there is a sort of spiritual transition in me. It is as if I am given a new life, and this life’s function is to help me create. Which is why, if you ask me to recreate a poem that I wrote previously, I will not be able to. Because it is somebody else that wrote it.But with playwriting, it is the exact opposite. I have to spend days on end creating and thinking. I have to think about the direction, the crew, and about each character. While a theme or the beginning is not so important, the presentation and conclusion make or break the play. Actually, this is the very first thing any playwright should think of.So, the key to a good play is thinking about it in reverse. You have to get a clear sense of your climax and then you work endlessly to present it in a unique manner.

To sum up, what are the challenges for new artists who want to get into theatre and playwriting?

Well, the very first rule is that you need to be patient. You don’t become a writer or a director overnight. It is the fruit of arduous work of many years. So, one shouldn’t feel dejected in the initial years of their career because of criticism. Second, there is minimal economic return from theatre, especially in our country. Similarly, parental and family support matters a lot. Until and unless you have sufficient moral support, you cannot prosper in this challenging journey. 

Published: 02-06-2018 08:33

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