The play Garbha Chhita staged by Karnali Arts Centre at the Nepal International Theatre Festival 2019 starts with young, unmarried women in white blouse and skirts singing bhaili songs. Unlike rest of Nepal when bhaili is sung during the Tihar festival, in Karnali it is sung about a month later in November-December.
The Festival concluded last week, but some performances have been extended for ten more days at Mandala Theater in Kathmandu. The play written, directed and acted by theatre artists from the Karnali is a rare opportunity for Kathmandu residents to become familiar with the culture of this remote mountain district.
The title ‘Garbha Chhita’ refers to the practice of arranging the marriage of children even before they are born. Pampha is one such woman, whose marriage had been fixed by her father when she was still in her mother’s womb. Her father cannot back out from the marriage later, even after he finds out that the groom has a speech defect. The focus of the play is how Pampha’s life is going to waste between her husband and her Dalit lover Chauro Damai who is unable to act on his love.
The play starts when Pampha comes back to visit her parents for the first time after her marriage, and goes bhaili singing with friends when young unmarried girls stay out of their homes together for several days, singing and having fun together. They go around to their neighbours, collect rice, beat the rice, and ask male friends to join them. They then make plans to meet and sing deuda together at nights when they express their attraction towards each other. Even a married Pampha joins them, wearing white clothes like everyone else, and not the black and red clothes of married women like her mother.
Hira Bijuli Nepali explains: “Traditionally, unmarried women wore white, and so did women who did not want to appear married. Since Pampha is not happy in her marriage, she too wears white.”
Single-at-heart, Pampha receives a lot of proposals, but she deflects them all because she is in love with Chauro, her father’s slave. But Chauro cannot marry her even after she is pregnant. He looks at the cowshed he sleeps in, and knows he cannot bring Pampha there. And even if he did, society would not accept it. The dialogue between Pampha and Chauro is some of the powerful in the play which portrays not just the restrictions placed on free love, but also on caste system. The place of a slave in the social hierarchy becomes clear when one dies, and his owner says: “Go throw away his corpse. I can neither eat his flesh nor grind his bones. What use is he to me now?”
Garbha Chhita brings the Karnali to the Kathmandu stage a full decade after Karnali Dakkhin Bagdo Chha made waves in the Nepali theatre scene. Hira Bijuli Nepali was among the actors then, and as a youngster from Mugu was fascinated by modern theatre while in Sunil Pokharel’s Aarohan Gurukul.
Nepali saw modern theatre as a medium to preserve and pass on Karnali’s traditional culture. He uses local stories, costumes, and jewelry for the play, and the plot is based on a local folk tale.
“Even though the medium is modern theatre, our real concern is Karnali’s rich cultural heritage that is fast disappearing,” says Nepali. “We want to preserve and pass it on to the next generation, and we found that theater is a very powerful way to do so.”
5:00 PM, Mandala Theatre
Until 17 March