The theatre is booming in Nepal and many people associated with it seem rather bemused.
Mahesh Shakya, 22, can't believe his luck. When he first auditioned at Gurukul for a small supporting role, he didn't expect that just two years later, he'd be starring in Aarohan's acclaimed production of Abhi Subedi's Mayadebi ko Sapana.
Then there's Gurukul itself. Twenty-five years ago, the theatre, established by a group of Kathmandu theatre artists, didn't expect it would ever attract audiences of over 100, or host a month-long theatre festival. The ongoing Aarohan National Theatre Festival is showcasing productions by 27 groups from all over the country, from Bhojpur to Parbat, Ilam to Surkhet, Panchtar to Morang to Dang.
Many plays draw upon the decade-long insurgency and last year's Jana Andolan, while others are rooted entirely in their specific local ethnic and cultural milieu. The themes of the plays and motivations behind the productions are as diverse as the country itself-and more than alarmist proponents of the homogenisation bogeyman would have you believe.
Raute, by the Miteree Kala Kendra from Nepalganj, is about the life and times of a group of Raute people. Kishor Anurag's Kathaa: Sanaika Dhunharuko, is about a Damai family caught in the Jana Andolan and the struggle for democracy. Gangalal ko Chitaa, performed by Morang's Letang Natya Samuha, is about the 'martyr' Gangalal and the aftermath of his death. Hetauda's Taranga is presenting Anikaalko Yatra about the survival of Chepang culture.
"Theatre in Nepal is more vibrant than in many other places," argues Pushpa Acharya, writer-director of Samayantar. "There's more life here, more energy, because we have all of our rich, varied culture to draw upon." Acharya, who leads the Chitwan-based Narayani Kala Mandir, believes that Nepal needs "cultural theatre", and his own Samayantar epitomes this belief. The play is about the life of a Magar family, punctuated by joy and sadness. There's pathos and moments of reckoning as well as vibrant colours, folk songs and dances, witty repartee, and laugh-out-loud moments.
Theatre seems to be booming outside Kathmandu. "We perform regularly for big audiences of over 200 in our hometowns and villages," says Prakash Angdembe, director of Cho:Lung, a play based on a Limbu myth performed by Jhapa's Shriantu Pictures. In Chitwan, Acharya says, there are regularly audiences of four to five hundred.
Many actors and directors we spoke to who had travelled in from outside the Valley say this is because the theatre and acting have maintained their connection with traditional values in most places, and so seen as a way of preserving cultural mores and perspective on life. "Our large audiences may not be very well-informed or sophisticated, but they have an instinctive joy in our plays, and they attend to show their support for us," explains Anurag of Bhojpur's Matribhumi Theare.
Sunil Pokhrel, artistic-director of Gurukul and one of the most energetic members of the theatre community says things will only get better for actors and audiences. "Our core audience is mainly students," he explains. But events like this Festival attract attention, and our audience is diversifying to include people of all backgrounds and all age groups."
Plays communicate directly with the audience, and are the original interactive art form. "Theatre has all the elements that people respond to-music, dialogue, actions-and so has the power to touch everyone," says Angdembe. In melas and haats around Nepal plays have traditionally been the glittering centrepiece of the festivities, as much part of Nepali culture as lok dohori. Because the theatre has traditionally been accessible and non-elitist, drama often is social commentary, a mirror that shows society for what it actually is.
"Our plays usually deal with history and culture," says Ghanshyam Khatiwada, director of Gangalal ko Chitaa. In Morang plays about history and patriotism are popular, says Angdembe, but his company performs its Limbu-influenced plays outside the hometowns of the actors to give other communities a taste of Limbu culture.
Theatre is what it always was," argues Birendra Hamal, veteran actor and director of more than 30 plays. "Even 20 years ago, we had abstract drama, socio-political plays, and even solo performances, the difference now is the attention from the media." Hamal is directing Abhi Subedi's one-man play Samaya Sisir Yatra.
And, contrary to all the starving artist jokes, in a few places in Nepal you can make a highly respectable and more-than-adequate living as an actor. Angdembe says: "Back home in Jhapa, our families encourage acting and parents push their children to pursue the theatre. It's definitely possible to live comfortably as a theatre artist."
This isn't the national norm yet, unfortunately, but there are enough young actors and directors, like Khagendra Lamichhane, who has contributed Peeda Geet to the festival. "Where there's a will there's a way. There are struggles, but if you want to be an actor badly enough, you can do it. Acting as a profession is possible."
The Aarohan National Theatre Festival 2007 runs until 11 May at the Gurukul Theatre, Old Baneswor. There is a new production everyday, and two performances of each, at noon and 5.30 PM.
27 April : Anikaalko Yatra, Taranga, Hetauda
28 April : Kamlari by Kamlari Samuha, Deukhuri, Dang
29 April : Ek Raat, by Shristi Natya Samuha, Dharan
30 April : Deshle Gumaaekaharu by Natyagriha Nepal, Udaypur
1 May : Buddhimati Dhwonchwalecha by Shreekala Natya Samuha, Lalitpur
2 May : Parinaam by Kshitiz Natya Samuha, Panchthar
3 May : Sahid Number 206 by Renew Art Theatre, Sarlahi
4 May : Kathaa: Sanaika Dhunharuko by Matribhumi Theatre, Bhojpur
5 May : Bisthapan by Jyotipunj Sign Theatre, Kathmandu
6 May : Andhako Hatti by Anam, Dharan
7 May : Ganthaigantha by SEED Nepal, Parbat
8 May : Sati Kalasa by Bageena Samuha, Surkhet
9 May : Arichali by Marangburu Santali Kalakar Parisad, Morang
10 May : Aahal by Sanskritik Sansthan, Kathmandu
11 May : Burki by Ranga Sarathi, Kathmandu