Tide Of Times Stages Of Nepali Drama
Stage plays are literature performed live. They are performed also under an open sky or, since the 1920s, adapted to and presented on radio and television. Since the remotest era of the Himawatkhand region that covered much of South Asia and its periphery, many learned people termed life as but a drama in a dream. Nepal was the ambience for which great epics were composed in the hoary past. Scholars and men of wisdom arrived here to compose their ideas and feelings in verses. Scholars trekked to the “North”, i.e., the Himalayan laps for inspiration and soothing ambience in other parts of Nepal as well. And stage plays proved to one of the ideal avenues for performing arts, which attracted large audiences.
Staging plays at the precincts of palaces, public squares and town halls was a feature several millennia ago in South Asia, whose tradition was maintained with great enthusiasm till the earlier part of the 20th century. The people on and behind the stage were amateurs or professionals. Bharat Muni’s voluminous Natyasastra describes and details what stage performance entails. The meticulous manner in which the great author of the 3rd century B.C. records the various aspects involved in preparing for, producing and presenting a play is breathtaking in both scope and dimension.
With the advent of cinema and other new avenues of entertainment, the attention of the State and potential patrons began shifting in terms of priorities given. Patronage, sponsorship and donations were, as a result, adversely affected, which might explain why there is so little new literature on this branch of arts in Nepal. There are a few who struggle to uphold the banner of the stage in its varied aspects. Krishna Shah Yatri is easily one of those names to render so much to this form of literature and performance in Nepal.
Already armed with over seven dozen drama directions under his belt, Yatri has come up with what is the most comprehensive work on Nepali stage. His Nepalko Rangamanch: Bigat Ra Aagat is a commendable contribution to a sector where such material is scant and scarce. It is an outcome of nearly three decades in the field. Constant study, active participation and, most importantly, relentless passion for writing means research and more research. The 500-plus pages spread over seven chapters, with also over 150 portrait-photos along with a 16-page “Photo Gallery”, carry a stamp of authority and recognition highlighted by the fact that the Nepal Academy of Music and Drama decided to publish it. Four of the chapters deal exclusively with some of the stalwarts among stage directors, and male and female stage artists.
Yatri divides the modern evolution of stage play in Nepal into three periods covering nearly eight decades: 1938-1972, 1974-1990 and 1991-2015. In the process, he has overlooked the year 1973, i.e. technically. For, there was hardly any significant development in the state of the Nepali stage that year when compared with 1972 or 1974.
Bharat Muni’s Natyasatsra, of the third century BC, is described as the Fifth Veda with 6,000 slokas, after Rig, Sama, Yajur and Arathva Vedas. Bharat Muni’s theory of navaras is revolutionary with vast relevance even today, applicable to other forms of mass media in many respects. The theory of rasas is breathtaking and overpowering -- and positively unique, though underplayed by the West for some inexplicable reasons. Stage play characters emote one or the other rasa.
As Yatri notes, Rig Veda inspired dialogue, Sama Ved invoked song/music, Yajur Ved upheld performance and Atahrva Ved provided for the rasa elements. By the fifth century BC, Greek playwrights contributed, especially in tragedy form, to a golden age. Down the ancient centuries, Greeks and Romans encouraged stage performances for the public. In Nepal, the Lichchhavi period saw it develop to a high point. Folk drama in the terai, valleys and hill regions were not new since the early times. Yatri cites the 884 “Harisiddhi” as Nepal’s first stage play to be written and staged. Historians consider the Malla period as the golden age in art and architecture. Rulers wrote and even performed in plays. Jayasthiti Malla’s rule was marked by significant progress in dance, music and stage shows. Rulers in Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu -- Bhupatindra Malla, Ranjit Malla, Siddinarsingh Malla and Pratap Malla -- wrote plays, and some of them performed on stage as well.
Prithivi Narayan Shah encouraged local culture and art, including the stage. Yatri recalls that Prithvinarayan advised his officials to promote Newari plays instead of encouraging foreign ones. Rajendra Bikram wrote Namobuddha Mahasatwopyakhan. Soon after becoming prime minister, Chandra Shumsher in 1901 ordered the construction of full-fledged stage hall at Singha Durbar. Since the 1930s, Nepali plays gradually gained ground, though foreign influence was still heavy. Lekh Nath Poudyal’s Laxmi Puja was staged at Thamel in Kathmandu by students in aid of quake victims in 1934. Bal Krishna Sama’s grandfather Damber Shumshere, on his return from Calcutta in 1893, constructed a stage hall at his palace and, later, helped construct the “Royal Imperial Opera House” at Narayanhity Palace. Plays were staged at local dabalis [public squares] like Jaisi Deval, Nara Devi, Bangemudha and Indra Chowk.
Parade in print
Playwright Bal Krishna Sama, who first performed at the age of 12, wrote and directed plays. His directorial debut was made with Mukunda Indira at Durbar High School in 1938. Two years later, Bhim Nidhi Tiwari directed and performed in his own Sahanshila Sushila, which, later on, was also staged at several districts outside the capital. A new turn was made on stage when Buddhi Devi Maharjan became the first female artist on the Nepali stage in the 1940s.
Yatri terms the second phase of Nepali stage (1951-1972) as marking a new era in terms of activity. Sama established Nepali Kala Mandal in 1954.The Royal Nepal Academy in 1966 began offering training classes on different aspects of stage affairs, including performance. By 1976, Shakuntala Sharma and Harihar Sharma were among the academy’s instructors. Modnath Prashit’s Aamako Kakhma was staged in various districts from the 1970 to 1990s. The performance of street plays also began to increase. Plays in not only Nepali but also Maithali, Newari, Bhojpuri, Tamang and Tharu, among other languages, were staged. They recorded different degrees of success.
Yatri is immersed in the world of drama both on and off stage -- an unflagging devotion to his field of interest. This stage devotee, with Nepalko Rangamanch: Bigat Ra Aagat, has come out with flying colours. The book carries an assembly of facts, figures, names and a cascade of performers, directors and plays -- in other words, what’s what and who’s who of the Nepali stage in general. Included are also representative stage directors and plays originating in 22 districts outside Kathmandu Valley. This in itself makes a landmark assembly. Also are portrayed 24 directors, 22 male artists and 15 female artists who made special contributions to the Nepali stage.
Additional efforts could be made in mentioning, in all photo captions, the specific occasion, date and related names for adding more meaning to them. A deeper analysis would add to the content. Given his passion for anything to do with the stage, Yatri might in future revisit the key characters, places and narratives in a revised version or Volume II of the subject for yet richer contributions to this field of study.
One would also point out that, the culture of the well-lined pockets and well-heeled people patronising and actively promoting the stage in different languages in Nepal is yet to grow richly, expand and refine for continuity and ever satisfying success. As with the case with other branches and aspects of mass communication, a stage play’s ultimate success is in connecting with the audiences.