Q&A: Sunil Pokharel: Spearheading Kachahari
SUNIL POKHAREL, Nepal's theatre guru, explains the practice of "Kachahari" theatre, as well as discusses the role of performing artists in social and political transformation.
One of the few leading theatre groups in Nepal, Aarohan, marked its sliver jubilee earlier this year. Sunil Pokharel, along with a group of theatre artists who today include several of the nation's luminaries in the field, launched Aarohan in 1982. Blending traditional concepts of performing arts with emerging ones, the group emphasizes a holistic role for an artist. Recently, Pokharel, the artistic director and Kul Guru (principal teacher) of Aarohan, sat for an extended interview with Nepal Monitor's Haris Adhikari. He discusses the growth of his organization, the different forms of theatre they perform, and his views on the role of performing artists in the social and political transformation of the country.
Photo by Nepal Monitor
What does it mean to celebrate the 25th year anniversary of Aarohan Theatre?
Well, a very few theatre groups, especially non-governmental ones have reached that milestone. One is Sarbanaam, the pioneer theatre group started by Ashesh Malla, Bishnu Bibhu Ghimire and others. Another is our Aarohan (the ascent). We thought it should be an important matter. That's all.
How did the idea of Aarohan originate? And what is Gurukul?
Gurukul is mainly a school of theatre and a cultural center. It's the country's first school of theatre, founded in 2002. Aarohan is a theatrical group which was established in 2038 B. S. Aaorhan runs Gurukul. There are 2 theatres under Gurukul. Badri Adhikari coined the term Aarohan.
Can you describe your facilities?
It's meager. Half of the audience members sit on cushioned floor, cross-legged. The other half sit on chairs. We give 50 percent discount to students. We are hospitable and sometimes even treat our audience with tea, etc. We have the parking facility. You can book your ticket via phone. Depending on the situation, we are also flexible about show times and audience needs. We have definitely increased facilities as compared to the past. But still, they aren't enough.
Earlier, we did not even have an office; we met in friends' homes. Many Nepali theatre groups are like that, even now. After a year of the start of Gurukul, we have gained some institutional form. Since Gurukul was established, we have official auditing of our incomes and expenditures. But the institution is financially at a loss. It's impossible to survive only by our income. We spend at least Rs.25 to 30 thousands only for electricity. Our total monthly expenditure exceeds 2 lakhs, including salaries and tax. We get support from outside. For example, a Norwegian government and Theatre has been assisting us financially and in other ways. Sometimes we do NGO works and somehow manage to survive. I believe, based on our present progress, in a year, we can be self-sufficient if we will have our own land.
Currently, there are 25 to 30 professional theatre artists here with us at Aarohan. And we also are starting our work in Biratnagar. There, we will have 12 people. We will begin construction work for the eastern regional center of Gurukul in Biratnager this September. I believe that with good marketing, Kathmandu could absorb at least three more centers like that.
What were your obstacles on the way? How did you meet those challenges?
There was the problem of identity, in the beginning. Our traditional society does not look at rangkarmi, theatre professionals, in a positive light. This sector was considered unproductive and un-intellectual and it was difficult to convince or explain to people that this was a good profession. Years ago, when I visited my home in the village, people would ask me: "What do you do?" I would reply: "I do natak" [drama]. They would retort: "But what work do you do?" Of course, financially, too, theatre was not an attractive option. This is not a sector that is recognized by our society or by the government. So my first struggle was to explain that this sector does require intellect.
Another challenge was that people would say the days of theatre had come to an end because there were no theatre goers in this age of films and DVDs. But we started in spite of our meager budget. Comparatively, we lack the resources more than sports sector in the country. The government has invested in sports and arts /literature or culture, for example, at in the Academy, and in the Nach Ghar. But I don't know about their productivity. Our first thing, and the most important one, was the struggle to establish the fact that this is a respectable work.
What do you say about the professional relationship among various theatre groups in the country?
There are many. We have 24 sajhedars [partners] outside the Kathamndu Valley. These friends speak different languages and live in different geographical regions. We provide them with training on Kachahari. We also invite them when we conduct new trainings. Sometimes we help out our friends outside the valley by identifying projects and by sending money for the demonstration of the plays and for rehearsals. Right now, we are helping 5 to 8 groups in that way. Without help, it is very difficult for them in the districts.
We have plans to increase the number of our partners. For example, NGOs and INGOs come to us and try to recruit us to do their works outside the valley. We recommend them to our partners. If multiple groups are involved and if they seek our coordination, we get involve. We hope to increase the number of our partners by at least 3 to 4 every year. We are also working to establish 5 Gurukul centers outside the Kathmandu Valley. Works for the Biratnagar center has already started. One of those centers will become our headquarters. Also, we may begin work on accrediting this school with one of the universities. Right now it is only a professional training institute.
How do you look at the profile of Nepali theatre in the regional and international context?
In totality, we are not much ahead in the regional context. I am saying this in the sense that India, Bangladesh, and even Pakistan, notwithstanding the latter's military government in recent years, have invested in theatres. Both the private or corporate sectors as well as the governments in the region have invested in this sector. We are lagging behind them because of the lack of a culture that promotes theatre. The quality of our work is good, though.
What about the profile of our theatre artists? Is theatre a viable profession for them?
There are a few people who are fully involved in theatre. Some work for the television, too. Some, who worked in the theatre in the past, left this sector for good to join television. The artists who have regularly worked in this area and have professionally updated themselves are good. Some in the younger generation have ventured abroad. For example, Saugat Malla has lately been to Korea and he did a very good job there in monodrama and earned a good name. Subarna Thapa has settled down in Paris. He is doing excellent theatre work there. Anup Baral and Birendra Hamal are doing great work.
But in general, the profile of Nepali theatre artists is not uniform. It's not enough to take it only as a pesa, a vocation. One must upgrade himself or herself as well, to gain artistic mastery and professionalism. Those who have involved themselves in this sector not only as a vocation but also with the sense of improving their craft are doing very good. Some artists in some places, after they have embraced acting/theatre, stop learning. That means they stop to grow and mature.
What do you think is the purpose of theatre? Do you believe in "arts for arts shake" or something else?
I don't believe in 'arts for arts sake'. It may have different purposes. Some people have the goal of making money by stepping into this profession and they can have that goal. It's a matter of degree. The question is: To what extent? It depends on circumstances. But at the end, arts are for human beings. Arts must reflect the society and its issues. In other words, human beings must benefit from arts in some ways.
You worked with Sarbanaam also?
Yes, I worked when the group began. I played the first Nepali street play: "Hami Basanta Khojirahechaun" (We are searching for the spring). At that time, during 1983, Sarbanaam was very active. For many people, "Basanta " meant democracy at that time of suppression under the Panchayati system. The word was a metaphor for democracy. The street theatre of that time was totally mission-oriented and of political nature. Later, the nature of Nepali street theatre changed slightly. It has become development-oriented and has raised development issues among the public, in villages. Actually, it has assumed the form of NGO theatre.
Is it a kind of theatre activism?
We began with street theatres but later many groups worked for NGOs and we also did, because NGOs provide money and it's been very helpful for us. We have to survive. But, as long as possible, NGOs want to include their messages within a play. So we may have to compromise our craft and style in such contexts. We did 2 to 4 plays like that. And sometimes we felt guilty about the messages we gave through the plays because we thought it was a kind of propaganda. In the play we urged others not to drink and smoke but in the evenings, after we finished the plays, we ourselves drank and smoked. It was a contradiction. We could not do such plays any longer.
Luckily, we later found a technique of drama in which plays can be performed in the open as well as in theatres. We call it "Kachahari" drama in Nepali. This is one of the techniques of the theatre of the oppressed. They call it "Forum Theatre" in English. You raise an issue. There is your intention (niyat) in your selection of that issue. And you stop the drama just when you raise the problem, and ask your audience members about how the play should be continued. This is how the audience members direct the rest of the play: "Oh, let's do it in this way. Does this solution work in life? If it works, then OK. If not, what can be the alternatives?" The audience does the thinking and suggesting. Actually, we have been working on this type of drama for the last 4-5 years.
Propaganda theatre is a kind of formal oppression. It's because you blame your audience through this. For instance, in a drama concerning preservation of forests or improvement of environment, you may indirectly tell the audience, "You cut down trees and that's why this natural disaster occurred. Now plant more trees." Who gave you the right to say that? Who are you to preach that way in the name of making them aware?
In the "Forum Theatre" the artists don't prescribe solutions. They show whatever the audience members say and end with that. Apart from selecting the issue, an artist doesn't have any viewpoint. This does not mean that we don't need street theater any more. There is the need of street theatre when you have to make the public understand about, say, "nun chini and pani" [an oral dehydration solution]. Instead of directly urging the public with "the dos or the don'ts," you can tell them that it would be better if they did something else. For example, you can say that it works well if one takes nun chini pani when one is suffering from diarrhea. I am telling you this on the basis of my experience.
Street theaters are effective in disseminating new information. But before we teach, we ourselves have to be well-informed. And there is also the need for follow-ups. For example, you go to the public to say that they should drink boiled water. How practical is it for people who have to fetch water from miles away, spending 2-3 hours? How practical is it for them to eat only after washing hands? So you can tell them what to do only if they have the means to do so.
How do you look at the concept of theatre activism?
I think theatre activism is connected with society. Sometimes we unconsciously use hurtful words such as ' hya, ke kami ko jasto jat dekhayeko?' [Yuck, why are you behaving like a blacksmith?] But when you work and deal with dalits you respect their feelings and you become careful and avoid using such expressions. You won't say, for example, 'mare pachi doomai raja!' [Even a Doom, a low caste person, becomes a king after death!] You can't say so even in plays. In my opinion, the effort toward this awareness is also a kind of activism.
In the first batch of Gurukul, there were more students from the Brahmin and Chhetri ethnicities. But it was not deliberate. In its second batch, we recruited students from Bardiya, Janakpur, Dharan, etc. and tried to get almost equal numbers of people from different communities and cultural backgrounds. That helped improve diversity of in our student body. So, the first thing is the awareness and the next is its application in our lives.
As a whole, all our friends are theatre activists. They are using theatre in their lives' struggles. For example, the dalits are using theatre in their political and social struggles. Their goal is not the drama, their goal is to end the culture of untouchability via drama. Drama is only the means, one among many means.
How popular is street theatre in Nepal? What's been its impact?
It's popular in rural areas of the country. But it's very difficult to evaluate the impact of street theatre, or of any other theatre. One needs to evaluate the change in peoples' behavior to see the impact. And I think nobody has done any study on this. After the drama ends, people generally say (if asked): "Oh, the play was fantastic!" They can even recall all the messages of the drama. There are very few people in the country who don't get the intended message. The problem is that they don't bring changes in their behavior based on that message. And our concern is: To what extent we can change them?
It works well in some places where there is a good follow-up. For example, a leprosy hospital in Lalgad in the Terai used to remain open only 2 days a week, I think. A few years ago, they started a massive awareness campaign by means of a street drama on leprosy. Residents in the region were told that leprosy was a curable disease and there was the hospital near them to heal them. People started coming to the hospital and now it opens seven days a week.
Talking about our students, they play different roles just as in every-day life. They have to act, deal with people and go to schools to play kachahari about domestic servants. We give many and different responsibilities to a student. It's because we have seen that artists usually forget who they actually are, as human beings. They forget their roots. They become egoistic. They keep living in a separate world - an artistic world where they have no contact with people. And gradually their ego grows and grows. For example, some cinema artists always sound egoistic in their interviews. We don't want our students to be like that. We are looking for a different kind of impact. Another is social impact. We work with our many partners.
Has the concept of street theatre come totally from outside?
Drama is a kind of form which is supported by the community. It was shown in the dabalis and in the open. And that was the ancient form. Different cultural groups speaking different languages have their own traditions. Many of these indigenous communities perform in the open. Later such performances took the form of street dramas. Street theatre was already born in India when we started it in Nepal in the early 1980s.There they called it "Nukkad Natak." Nukkad means "a corner of the street" and "natak" means drama. Safdar Hashmi in India initiated the tradition of putting the audience in a circle. He was murdered in 1989 while he was performing in a street play.
Evidence suggests street dramas were performed in Nepal as early as 2036 BS. Such dramas, translated into Nepali from Hindi, were performed by visiting pravashi [expatriate] Nepalis from India. And it has been acknowledged that Sarbanaam performed the first original Nepali street theatre in 1983. Today, there are many groups outside Kathmandu Valley that perform street dramas. The concept is not our own, though we might have later developed original style.
Have you been influenced by Augusto Boal 's concept?
Boal has acknowledged in his later books that he began Kachahari or Forum (Theatre of the Oppressed) to teach the oppressed people-- how they could make strategies to free themselves from oppressions. Later, we in Nepal also realized that Kachahari can be used in three ways. First, it is helpful to the oppressed to make strategies, to come out of the oppression. Second, Kachahari can, by promoting logic and understanding, help mediate two sides in a conflict. We have experimented this in some places. Third, we can use Kachahari sometimes for therapy. Boal's book "Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy" also relates to this concept.
We took this concept and technique but Kachahari theatre is more Nepali one.
How does street theatre in Nepal and in India or Europe differ?
It is not called 'street theatre' because it is shown in the streets. Here, the word 'street' does not mean a place. It actually means a kind of style. The main thing is, artists go to the people directly, to address some of the issues that matter to them. Audience do not come to watch the show, the show itself goes to the people. The intention is more people could watch it. The audience is placed in a circle. And gradually it became the style of street theatre. In western countries, they don't have this kind of form. Here, in Nepal, street theatre is connected with some mission. For example, we don't have street theatre for entertainment. Here, it goes with some issues - current issues or political issues.
In Africa, they have a lot of street theatres. They arrange tall wooden frames of beds together and make a stage-like structure on top of where they perform. Africa's street theatre is concerned with awareness. In America, "performance artists" raise the issues of public concerns from time to time, and mostly personal concerns, through street theatre. But unlike in Asia or Africa, there is no issue-oriented street theatre in the West. We borrowed Kachahari from Latin America, particularly from Brazil. But we started without receiving any formal training on this. We made a lot of mistakes. Unknowingly, we mixed Augusto Boal's two techniques— "simultaneous dramaturgy" and "forum." In the first, drama is shown by going directly to a short scene of oppression. Then the audience gives suggestions to change the outcome. In "forum," the protagonist oppresses someone. The play is repeated. The audience is then asked to act out a role to create a different ending.
We in Nepal mix up both: We stop the play in crisis and we first take suggestions from the audiences. Then we repeat the play.
What's been your role in the open theatre movement? Any plans for future?
At one time, I did it with my heart and soul. Later, I felt bored doing "the propaganda street theatre" - not the street theatre, per se. Now we are doing the forum (Kachahari). We do it in schools as well as in streets. So it is not that it must be done in streets only. We also organize programs and workshops on Kachahari.
We don't have many plans. We don't go outside the Kathmandu Valley to show Kachahari in streets. Our assumption is that local people can do better than us, in their own local linguistic and cultural settings. But we don't object to going outside the valley to perform such dramas which we show here in theatres.
What do you say about the young generation's interest in theatrical performances?
It is wonderful to see that young people have started to come to theatrical performances. Actually, we find more youths (more than 50 percent) than others in our audience. Many return if they liked their first try. But it might be that our performances around schools may have helped market the concept of theatre. If people watch dramas during their childhood, they develop a love for the arts. That, in turn, helps create a loyal audience. We have been focusing on this aspect.
As far as movies affecting young theatre audience, not many people go out to watch Nepali movies. Many people may watch Hindi movies than Nepali. We cannot say people who watch movies don't come to see our shows. It depends on personal taste. What is important is the quality of the product. We maintain contacts with schools and Plus 2s [Higher Secondary Schools] and encourage the young to watch plays. We advertise by word-of-mouth, and it perhaps helps if the play also addresses their age group and taste.
How do you see the future of your profession?
Even now there isn't financial stability. One cannot get the financial guarantee that one gets in doing films. I don't know if the future is bright. I mean there is no guarantee of anything at all. And you can't be as popular as in television or films. And also you can't earn money.
These may be a limitation of theatre, but I am optimistic.
What about you? Haven't you earned a good name and fame?
You may see that way, but I am not as popular as the artists of television or films. This is true. I accept it. I chose drama. Whatever you do, it's your choice. So, I think you are responsible for the consequences of your choice.
What can the government and the artists themselves do to uplift the present state of theatre?
The artists are doing more than they could. The state's job is not to provide jagir (vocation) to artists. But the government can create an environment in which theatre can flourish, such as constructing blackboxes and other forums. The state has, of course, invested in the Rastriya Nach Ghar. It has invested in the Academy. There are some people in those institutions and the government provides them salaries. However, in totality, what is the picture in the country? Has the government invested anything for artists in the private sector?
What are the themes that you emphasize in your productions, direction or acting?
We have done 25 to 30 plays, excluding sadak natak, street plays. The fact is even if we perform once there will be at least 60 to 70 shows for each performance. For example, we have performed "A Doll's House" for 148 times. We have tackled different subjects, including the effects of conflict on women, the destruction and burning down of ancient manuscripts in some libraries during the conflict, etc. Many of our plays in recent years at Gurukul relate to issues of women and gender.
Before Gurukul started, we did different dramas on women's issues, racism, and the unwanted effects of money on people and their relationships. But in street theatre, we raised a lot of issues, whatever issues the sponsoring NGOs would want us to raise. Later, in Kachahari we raised issues of violence against women. So far, we have done Kacharis in perhaps more than 300 schools. We did one Kachahari (repeated performances) about a child servant who doesn't go to school but helps to carry the bag of his master's son. We also did another about democracy and in support of the movement in streets. Our partners did similar shows in the districts.
What is your view about addressing typical culture in the play? How much do you focus on change?
We say that drama should be local. We emphasize not only using local language but also local customs and mannerisms. We encourage local groups to use and adopt folk tales, and their folk music, etc. Regarding change, we say that we should change superstitious practices. We should not believe in untouchability, for example.
Do you see any artistic parallel to the recent or ongoing political upheaval/revolution?
Theatre reflects the situation of the country. And it has been doing that, in Kathmandu and in the districts. However, our society has been unable to make progress because political revolutions are extremely forceful but the social revolutions that are needed to sustain such revolutions are not there.
Just forming the Muluki Ain (Law of the Realm) does not solve the problems of dalits. Unless the other side [oppressor] accepts the fact that the problem of dalit exits, there is no solution. That's why there is need for a social revolution. Political revolution cannot solve that problem. If you look at drama as a form of social revolution, we are not doing as well as we could. And we cannot do that alone. But in terms of political revolution, we are gong hand-in-hand with it. In every political revolution, in 2036 B.S., in 2046 B.S. and now, there have been interventions from the theatre. Even today, drama is playing its part. For example, we have done plays in front of Singha Durbar during the recent protests organized by Nagarik Samaj, a pro-democracy campaign.
India saw some social revolution long ago, during the British rule itself. The Arya Samaj led the revolution, and dismantled superstitious practices such as child marriage, widow marriage, karmakanda (Hindu rituals of life and death). We never saw such a revolution, except for the recent efforts by dalits themselves. And untouchabiliy in our country is still practiced. As far as the role of theatre in this, drama is only a small part of the entire social process of change. It has its limits.
What is your view on theatre education?
In Nepal, our focus is on social role of artists and the country's academia more or less reflects that. For instance, we take our students to political protests because our assumption is that artists should be theatre activists, who are fully aware of the social and political situation of their country, are ready to update their current events knowledge and to even participate in those street protests by shouting slogans.
We are doing fine in theatre education. We constantly update our knowledge of the field, we also regularly interact with outside world, and we are familiar with the different forms of theatre. But we don't have any formal theatre schools. Lacking teachers, we can't teach many different subjects. In that sense, quality is an issue. Established artists can share their experiences to students, but you need academically qualified teachers to teach methods and techniques of acting.
We also lack infrastructure. It is the government's responsibility to establish theatre schools around the country. It is their responsibility to open libraries, set up scholarships and research grants, etc. Since it is clear that the government would not do that—we don't even approach them because they have not responded to our many earlier suggestions—we focus on what we can do on our own.
Who is your source of inspiration in this field? Can you name some of your favorites in theater?
Growing up, I did not have any source of inspiration. I like Ramesh Budhathoki [film actor/director]; I was in school with him. In terms of ideals, I have several. I like Naseeruddin Shah (Bollywood) and Dustin Hoffman (Hollywood) for their acting. I also like Hari Prasad Rimal's realistic acting.
There are several names in drama, and Anup Baral and Birendra Hamal are doing good work. Sarbanaam is doing great in street theater.
Who is your favorite playwright?
I like Chekhov and Shakespeare. Among Nepali playwrights, I highly adore Bal Krishna Sama, but I like Govinda Gothale. He is great. In recent times, I enjoy Abhi Subedi's plays, too. We have a very good understanding between us two.
How would you view the quality of Nepali plays on the world stage?
I cannot say this exactly because most of the Nepali dramas have not been translated. They have not reached the wider audience. A few have been translated, though. Abhi Subedi's three plays have been translated into English and published. I have heard that Dr. Shangeeta Rayamajhi has been translating "Masan." Sama's "Pralladh" is also being translated. So it will take time before we know about their quality compared to plays from other countries.
But my experience is that the audiences outside Nepal love watching Nepali plays.
© Copyright 2007 Nepal Monitor ( nepalmonitor.com)
Posted by Editor on July 2, 2007 12:26 PM