ThangLa was put up two weeks ago (27 July) as a one-off staging at the Royal Nepal Academy by Pokhara's Pratibimba theatre group, directed by Anup Baral. It was a powerful presentation of the script by well-known playright Sarubhakta, and the story is on the subject of polyandry in Bhotiya society.
The central character if ThangLa (The Himalayan Deity) is Lobsang Dolma, the woman of the house and spouse- theoretically-of Gyalpo and his two brothers, Tashi and Pemba. Gyalpo departs for his annual trade trip to Lhasa, leaving instructions for Pemba to finally 'take' Lobsang for his wife. But Pemba has been reared by Lobsang and regards her as his mother, the maternal bond reciprocated by the older woman. Besides, Pemba has found his own love in Kelsang, the daughter of Gyalpo's meet [a non blood relation taken as a brother].
The play begins with the kinsfolk nervously awaiting Gyalpo's return. Tinkling bells announce the arrival of the yak train off-stage and for a while, the family members are excited and happy. But the drama takes a serious turn as Gyalpo discovers that Pemba has not 'taken' Lobsang. A monk from the gumba, is invited to get rid of the demons that have evidently been diverting Pemba's mind.
Sangey Lama completes his rituals, but his mantras have not done the trick, and Pemba's and Kelsang's love continues to burn strong. They try to make a dash for freedom, and the story ends rather abruptly with a Romeo and Juliet denouement.
Sarubhakta, whose most recetn work is the dark novel Samaya Trasedi, has said that he was always intrigued by the Loba traders he met as a child in Pokhara. He did some research in the upper Kali Gandaki for ThangLa, which makes for a fair degree of authenticity in setting, characters, and the run of the story. Some might have principled differences with aspects of the script, such as the vehemence with which the polyandry tradition is critiqued, which may be seen as a patronising midhill position against a high Himal tradition. But the poduction is nuanced, and the characters have enough depth, that such an accusation will not stand, as far as this reviewer is concerned. In any case, Sarubhakta has taken a stand that is his to take.
Anup Baral is a capable stage director and instructor who must be frustrated at the lack of spaces for theatre in Nepal. The performances are natural and non-histrionic. Veteran actor Prakash Ghimire accurately evokes Gyalpo, the hardworking family elder who can brook no waywardness in his siblings. Lobsang Dolma is carried off with flair by Pramila Tulachan, who acts out well the life of the young village matriarch, having to manage the entire household, but also being required to respond to the emotional demands of kin.
The Mustang landscape is rendered convincingly by was of props-two overlapping dry mountain ridges leading towards the horizon, a chorten on one side and a Loba house-front on the other. The course of the production is regularly punctuated by the stiff breezes of the upper Kali Gandaki, when the protagonists have to turn their bodies against the wind and shield their eyes. This is used as a tool to emphasise effects both comic and tragic. The director's command of the medium is evident in the long silences he is able to inject into play, the confident mix of comedy with tragedy, the under-the-breath utterances of the actors, the subtle use of a cap falling from the head as a motif throughout, and so on. And for once, the fog machine is applied to good effect.
Director Baral writes in the playbill that he had to decide whether the cast would use chaste Nepali or speak Nepali with the heavy Bhotiya cadence of upper Mustang. It would have been safer to go with straight Nepali, but the cast pulls it off, and the result is an authentic flavour of life in Nepal's Tibetan rimland.
Kathmandu's starved drama-goers needs productions like ThangLa, to be entertained and brought closer in touch with the country's cultural specificities. Someone must invite the Pratibimba group back from Pokhara, for a longer run of ThangLa. How can there be empathy when there is only Z Cinema?