Print Edition - 2014-08-31  |  Free the Words

Class and the mass

  • Despite its past linkages to high-society, Nepali theatre is primarily a middle-class persuasion
- Deepesh Paudel
Class and the mass

Aug 30, 2014-

A close look at the historical evolution of theatre can provide a glimpse into how it has been practiced and expressed in parallel approaches across the world. From being a sophisticated and luxurious mode of entertainment for aristocrats to sparking multiple social revolutions and providing a voice for the voiceless, theatre has profoundly defined its diverse yet significant role in the lives of both the ‘class and the mass’. However, with changes in social landscapes and literary developments, modern day theatre has tended towards artistic entertainment and social critique, away from the domain of aristocrats.

The class audience

Today in Nepal, theatre has been able to strike a balance between both the class and the mass. Despite the frequent emergence of new theatre houses in the Valley concentrating in richly varied performance art, theatre’s offerings have seldom lured aristocrats and ‘high society’. Unlike Europe, where theatre is presumed to serve the affluent population, Nepali theatrical works are followed majorly by the middle class.

Therefore, in our context, the audience sitting before the well-choreographed proscenium of theatre performances in the Valley can be judged to be the ‘class’ audience of theatre. This has less to do with the social critique aspect of theatre as these plays are often developed by prioritising artistic and technical aspects, like the play’s script, the artists’ performance, stage, sound and light design. Creative plays like Swopnamahal, Hetchakuppa, Rashomon and Coma—A political sex, among others, having transcendent presentations and are deeply rooted and relevant.    

Two tiers of theatre

Similar to mainstream cinema, theatrical endeavours gaining wide exposures/coverage in the media can be introduced as mainstream theatre. Concerns for commercial returns also play an integral role in the context of mainstream theatre. Comparing modern day entertainment and the business scope of theatre and films in Nepal, celluloid works are definitely far ahead in terms of the box office business they do. However, with the shifting focus of the audience towards the theatre, this art form is also gradually growing as an independent industry under the performing arts category.

But, it is important to note the presence of two tiers of mainstream theatre. Under the first category, we can find various theatre houses like Gurukul, Sarwanam, Mandala and Shilpee, which are constantly involved in delivering proscenium-based plays to the audiences. Regular schedulings of multi-faceted plays in these theatre houses underlie the fact that these institutions have prioritised and promoted theatre art as their primary objective.

On the other hand, a bunch of people performing theatre works without regular connections with the theatre also come under the category of mainstream theatre. Television artists occasionally performing on stage to portray ongoing social issues has been a common scene in Nepal. For example, popular television figures from teleserials like Tito Satya, Jire Khursani and Meri Bassai often jointly produce and perform theatrical shows filled with satire and comedy. Besides them, the renowned and immensely respected theatre artists-turned-television-personalities Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya have been promoting live stage performances through their mega events across the country.

Similarly, veteran Bollywood actor and an alumni of the National School of Drama (NSD), Anupam Kher, also staged his solo play, Kuch bhi ho sakta hai, on August 22 at the Army Officers’ Club. Although the show was focused on generating funds to educate slum children, many Nepali theatre artists were present to witness Kher’s onstage brilliance. However, with the ticket pricing ranging from Rs 1,500- Rs 8,000, very few people from the theatre fraternity could actually attend this highly anticipated show.

The objective behind explaining the concept and status of mainstream theatre and segregating it into sub categories is simply to assess the support that different theatrical forms have been receiving. Be it media promotions or financial/sponsorship, the latter form of mainstream performances seem to have better access to these facilities than regular proscenium theatre groups. Apart from Charumati (aided by the Indian Embassy) and Court Martial (sponsored by Dabur Nepal), very few theatrical plays have been promoted by such noted institutions. And, if it hadn’t been for former Kathmandu mayor Keshab Sthapit and Kollywood superstar Rajesh Hamal, the nature and magnitude of support and interest from these institutions for Charumati and Court Martial might have been very different.

Coming of age

Nepali theatre, once considered a niche segment away from the commercial limelight, has been experiencing rapid changes. Effective catalysts of revolt in the past, theatres of unconventional forms have been embraced as theatres for the mass. Street dramas, reaching remote and least developed areas of the country in order to spread awareness and induce actions, have been welcomed and adopted. Boycotting almost all norms laid down by the conventional structure of theatre, these plays went viral in a bizarre manner. Back then, theatre artists encapsulating social messages in their performances reached remote districts like Jumla, Jajarkot and Solukhumbu. Under open skies and without any technology, these artists consistently delivered performances in proximity with the audience.

However, things have changed quite a bit since then. Nowadays, theatre artists are attracted to city-centric proscenium halls. Rising media attention and easy access to the film industry have had vital roles to play in shaping the current mentality of artists. Whereas, unconventional forms of theatres are being used by theatrically unrelated institutions. The active involvement of NGOs in street theatres and corporate houses using the same for advertising reflects how theatre has now crossed the periphery of concentrated art. And with five proscenium theatres clustered in the Capital city and few more rumored to be in the pipeline, it looks as if people outside the Valley will still need to wait a while to witness regular theatrical productions at their convenience.

Paudel is a theatre artist at Sarwanam Theatre

Published: 31-08-2014 09:28

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