The Play’s the Thing

The last day we were there we went to Mt. Merappe and rambled on the slopes of the still active volcano. My sister used to tell me, “You’ll go where water won’t.” I don’t know why but it was those very words that kept moving around in my head.

Nov. 17, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol 10. No.7, November 18, (Mangsir. 03,2073)

Many years ago, when I was still in ‘the exploring the earth’ stage, I went to Yogyakarta in Indonesia. To our surprise, those of us who knew Indonesia was the most populous Moslem country in the world, we met many people with Hindu names and saw their beautiful dance drama version of the Ramayana.  It was an awe-inspiring sight.

The last day we were there we went to Mt. Merappe and rambled on the slopes of the still active volcano. My sister used to tell me, “You’ll go where water won’t.” I don’t know why but it was those very words that kept moving around in my head. The volume of internal noise increased when we were shown the seismic counter that supposedly would go berserk when the volcano was about to erupt. It looked berserk enough to me then and I must admit I was relieved to leave Mt.Merappe and get back to the city.

The next day we left early in the a.m. for Jakarta and then Bangkok. We were shocked to learn, before leaving Bangkok for Kathmandu, that Mt.Merappe had erupted and carried out quite a load of destruction with its molten lava.

The experience stayed with me and I remembered being told by the long-term inhabitants of Yogyakarta that the only way they knew of the record of Mt.Merappe was through local dramas, the origins of which reached back through the centuries.

Since I had started to examine alternative media in South and South East Asia, I began to realise that what was true in this region was true elsewhere. The drama and the poetry of human groups were ever the means of recording human history and human emotions.

Art forms, such as the novel, were latecomers to the human scene: pictures, poetry and drama and music were the forms that kept our cultures alive.

Acts of worship are acts of sympathetic magic, the re-enactment on regular or movable feasts of that which is desired—or even feared. It is acting at its most profound, adapted through the ages into full religious pageants and later ‘everyman’ plays about heroes and villains, lovers and adventurers, kings and queens.

In Dolakha there is still a platform where plays were performed as long ago as the 7th century when Songsten Gampo ruled in Tibet. There are nooks and crannies in Patan where the Kartik dances are performed or, as in Yogyakarta shadow stories in shadow play.

Before the age of television, radio and cinema, theatre and dance ruled supreme art belonged to the people. In Elizabethan England, theatre was not only for the elite but also for everyone else. Shakespeare’s plays were as much for the hoi polloi as they were for the gentry. And these audiences listened astutely and enthusiastically.  Not all the dialogue was written in iambic pentameter, and sometimes the clown characters spoke pure gibberish, but they could act and so were understood.  Hence we can adapt them and still watch them today, not as tedious academic exercises but as entertainment. So, in every society, even the most primitive, drama preceded the ‘sophisticated’ forms of entertainment.  

Here genuine actors have a hard time. Theatre group after theatre group goes broke for lack of support. I am saddened time and again to hear of theatre groups folding up and actors finding it hard to make ends meet or support their families. We have an Academy, but frankly how supportive is it of the dramatic arts, how many plays have they sent to festivals such as those in Bombay, Rajasthan, Edinburgh and Stratford, Ontario?

Naturally, you will argue, as will many, that there are so many priorities for the government to attend to rather than nurturing Nepal’s dramatic legacy. Of course you will be correct, but let’s list ways in which money is spent on ‘priorities’. For one example, let’s look at trips – the free travel that our politicians always seem to crave. The costs are enormous. One government trip with the plethora of attendants and press to an attractive destination would underwrite a small theatre or commune that would, if staffed by competent actors, earn its own way.

How about patronage? Banks and established organisations could be patrons of actors’ and musical groups in much the same way as happened in other lands in the middle ages and later. They patronise so much else, beauty pageants for one, but perhaps it is in such a disorganised manner that they haven’t reaped the full value of patronage. There’s a whole world of cultural value waiting to be tapped, which was almost lost to us through the years of censorship and ‘write to order’.

In the not so far distant past, playwrights from Nepal have been lauded in other countries. I remember Basu Shashi as one fine playwright who was awarded by the Russians. Do we remember that or his plays? Nowadays of course, poetry and drama have given way to novels, and music to heavy metal and those loud noises that pass off as music. I wonder how many fine young guitarists despair of ever making a living from their cherished strings?

Perhaps the creative and performing artists of Nepal are not to blame. As someone who has observed the scene for 45 years now, I interpret the period now as a coming out of the void of State control and directed creativity into a new blossoming. Nevertheless I lament the lack of encouragement, encouragement of creativity that is not flattery as was the case in the past. Will it ever happen? Nepal has much to offer and has a great many young, talented artists deserving of support. As I age, I wait to see whom will be the persona stepping forward to give that support.


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