Power of satire

  • In many ways, the MaHa duo is way ahead of its time in its portrayal of current Nepali society
- Gérard Toffin
Power of satire

Jun 26, 2014-

Thanks to some Nepali friends, I had the opportunity of attending the MaHa Jodi programme at the Academy Hall in Kamaladi some weeks ago. For three hours, Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya, the foremost Nepali comedy duo, together with some other actors, painted a hilarious portrait of Nepali society and the current difficulties of life in the country. Although the two comedians were absent from the stage for seven years, the situation in Nepal has barely improved over that period of time. The double act describes a state where civic feelings are conspicuous by their very absence. Self-interest and egocentric attitudes prevail everywhere. Loadshedding, bribery, corruption, divorce between netas and the people and procrastination in writing the much-awaited constitution are comically denounced in a transparent way. The absence of a worthy leader for the country is sorely deplored.

Laugh it off

The programme unequivocally brought to light various recognised forms of social identity that are at work. During the first sketch, three comics—aside from the MaHa pair—parodied problems concerning India-Nepal border issues. One of them, carrying a basket on his shoulders, wants to send over to India the Nepali Constituent Assembly (CA) members who are fans of that country and over to China all the Nepali CA admirers of the giant communist neighbour.

The second part centres on two ‘Bahadurs’ with Madan Krishna dressed as a Bahun and Hari Bansha as a Newar Maharjan with a red flower behind his right ear and wearing a black topi. This inversion of the roles allows for all sorts of jokes about the various stereotypes usually ascribed to Newars and Bahuns. The common tendency of members of these two communities to see everything through their own eyes and to forever attribute a dominant status to their respective communities is portrayed with great irony. Food habits as well as the flaws of the caste system are criticised in laughable terms. The negative aspects of dividing Nepal into ethnicity-based micro-states are also subjected to sarcastic mockery.

Another skit takes place in a photographer’s studio (Madan dai is depicted as a mafia leader) and satirises the growing trend of providing criminal gangs with political protection. Dons have become all-powerful. A recurrent theme runs through the act: how can people live in a country like Nepal with such constant loadshedding? It’s better to go anywhere else: “First to America, second to the USA and third to the United States!” in order of preference.

The MaHa duo

The show offered a brilliant demonstration of the comic talent of the two actors, a much applauded and renowned talent that has earned them well-deserved celebrity. MaHa complement each other in the best possible way. Hari Bansha’s buffoonery and extraverted game offer a stark and amusing contrast with the more restrained performance by Madan Krishna. But aside from this, Hari Bansha and Madan Krishna break all the rules of the  ‘politically correct’ public discourse. They entertain the audience by lampooning the evils of today’s society and its leaders. They obviously dream of a society where caste and ethnicity have, if not disappeared, at least lost some of their respective influence. The audience, clapping and laughing at the bitter wit of the actors, apparently agree with this vision that transcends caste, ethnicity and creed. Here, humour is used as a weapon to draw attention to the broader issues of society.

In many ways, the MaHa duo is way ahead of its time in its portrayal of current Nepali society. The actors provide keen insight into Nepal’s contemporary social life. Indeed, they have the edge on social scientists who persist in interpreting facts or data in purely ethnic and caste terms regarding a society where considerable mixing, interaction and intermarriage have taken place over the last decades.

In addition, the comedians give a lot of room to agency, to the personal dimension and to a self-critical vision, which is generally totally absent from scholarly work. The faculty of self-mockery is an often underestimated dimension of social life and is not sufficiently taken into account by sociologists, anthropologists and the like. Such a faculty often challenges the relevance of sophisticated abstract theories.

Kings of satire

I met the two actors a couple of years ago in Kupundole while I was working on the Newar khyalah satirical, comic tradition. Madan Shrestha is in fact the inheritor (as well as a reformer) of the much-developed Newar satirical heritage, which is enacted especially during Gai Jatra and Indra Jatra in the Kathmandu Valley. He was, and still is, called khyalah juju, the king of satire, within the Maharjan caste. Interestingly, this ancient oral tradition persisted in Newar towns and villages during the Rana period in spite of strict censorship. It is still very much alive today, even though it has taken a more literary form and makes use of more modern media channels than before.

My Nepali friends were delighted with this early-evening show. One of them joyfully remembered a well-known sketch showcased some years ago in which Madan Krishna and Hari Vamsha impersonated a couple exchanging dohori songs. Using folklore to satirise society and to raise awareness among the people is, after all, just as effective as street theatre, sadak natak, which uses more pedagogic, instrumental devices. For my part, I reflected on the capacity of artists of all genres and of all countries to generally keep ahead of society at large and to express very freely and in a comical way public evils and flaws. To seize upon these evils, to ridicule them and to entertain people in this manner is no doubt a superior form of humour. Satire, let us not forget, is the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Published: 27-06-2014 08:52

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