The festival is proof that Nepali theatre has come of age. The drama scene is booming with new theatres coming up every year, plenty of media attention and a growing number of viewers. Theatre is the basis for learning all other art forms since it includes storytelling, painting, set design, costumes, visual arts, sound, performance.
Across the world, actors start from theatre because it is the place to hone their stagecraft. Nepali actors from Saroj Khanal in the past to Dayahang Rai today made it big in movies after starting out in theatre. Most artists credit Sunil Pokharel who established Gurukul Theatre in the 1990s with pioneering modern theatre in Nepal.
Theatre is also popular because it is telling stories that Nepali cinema usually does not. “Our theatre is very different from the formulaic storytelling of cinemas,” explains festival adviser Anup Baral. “We try to look for and tell stories that reflect our current society, which audience do not get anywhere else.”
Read also: Children on stage, Sewa Bhattarai
Theatre therefore attracts a select class of audience that wants to go beyond masala entertainment. “The audience of theatres and cinemas are very different,” says actor Dayahang Rai. “While cinema is created for a mass audience, theatre is created for more thoughtful viewers who appreciate nuanced storytelling. Our crowd is mostly young students with intellectual curiosity.”
The vibrancy in Nepal’s theatre scene also reflects a society in ferment, coming out of a brutal war, a decade of instability and hopes of a revolution dashed. Visual and performance artist Ashmita Ranjit believes there is a burst of creativity in the theatre scene in Kathmandu. “There is a lot of experimentation going on and this festival has also shown remarkable solidarity among the theatres who have come together to organise it.”
Indeed, Ranjit herself is one of the experimenters in performance art where artists perform as themselves rather than characters. Along with musician Salil Subedi, she performed at the opening of the festival. While Subedi lay buried in the ground and slowly made music with a singing bowl, Ranjit brought him out of the earth, and together they took a fishbowl full of water and sprayed it at the audience.
Real life drama, Abha Eli Phobo
The theatre of life, CK Lal
Explains Subedi: “The performance symbolised the fact that we all come from the earth. Inflicting physical pain on myself was very different from simply acting it out in a drama. It underlined the importance of nature, and especially of water to us. This is environmental activism on stage.”
Despite the boom, Nepali theatre still suffers from a limited audience, lack of funds, shortage of theatres, and playwrights. Prime Minster KP Oli himself inaugurated the festival, and promised to change things: “Theatre is not just entertainment, it is also a means of social change,” Oli said at the event. “It is the government’s duty to also protect and help it thrive.”
The theatre community hopes he wasn’t just mouthing those lines.