Nepali Theater: Past and Present

Bagh Bhairav, enacting deity on stage
Bagh Bhairav, enacting deity on stage

History of Nepal Theater

Festivals signify Nepali identity. Nepali festivals set off everything – rituals, culture, history, politics, even theater. Without close reading of Nepali festivals, history of Nepali theater is incomplete. Rulers of Nepal have always been patron of arts. They were not only the spectators but also the playwrights. Most of the dance-dramas performed during Nepali festivals were composed by the Kings in different times of history.The roots of performative culture in Nepal lie in folk tales, myths, legends and rituals.

A comprehensive history of Nepali theater is yet to be written; however, theater and art historians say, it is at least 2000 years old. According to Harsiddhi Purana, the tradition of dance-drama began in 154 BC under the name Harsiddhi, and was set up by King Bikramsen. Harishiddhi Dance-Drama is still performed in Nepal. Nepali theater lives in folk as well as classical foundations, in written, visual and oral forms.

Muna Madan by Laxmi Prasad Devkota, directed by Sunil Pokharel, produced by Aarohan-Gurukul
Muna Madan by Laxmi Prasad Devkota, directed by Sunil Pokharel, produced by Aarohan-Gurukul

Modern Nepali Theater

In the history of Nepal, 1950’s has a great significance. Nepal not only opened up for the Westerners, but also entered into the modern era by embracing democracy. Nepali theater left commercialism in search of aesthetic taste. Writers and artistes like Balkrishna Sama, Prachanda Malla, Gopal Prasad Rimal not only wrote and produced original plays, but also took theater to the doorsteps of commoners. The 1950’s became the foundation of modern Nepali theater and literature by embracing realism and naturalism. Writers not only wrote plays but also performed and produced plays.

During the height of monarchial rule (1960-1990), Nepali theater workers used theater as a political medium. They voiced concern for freedom and democracy. Streets became the center stage for Nepali theater artists. Street theater emerged in Nepal in the 1980s, during the height of monarchial rule. Ashesh Malla, Artistic Director of Sarvanam, a theater group in Nepal, is credited for the street theater in Nepal.

After the end of monarchial rule in 1991, freedom of speech was guaranteed by the new government. Political change of 1991 paved a way for everything, including Nepali theater. Nepali theater flourished during the late 90s and early years of the new millennium. The people’s movement of 2006 heightened it further. Nepali theater is now outgrowing, theater workers are beginning to see stage as a career. There are hundreds of theater groups active on stage, they perform and produce regular shows. Nepali theater groups like Aarohan-Gurukul Mandala, Shilpe have organized national and international theater festivals, to place Nepal on the international theater map.

At present, Nepali theater use folk tradition such as rituals, oral tales, festivals, theologies, and blend with modern dramatic form. Nepali theater is experimenting with form and content. Today, Nepal Government not only sponsors and supports theater but also has established National Cultural Corporation and Academy of Dance and Drama.

Early Nepali Theater

The substantial theater culture dates back to the Licchavi dynasty (4th – 10th century). Nepali theater flourished during the Malla dynasty (10th – 18th century AD). Even the Shah Dynasty (Ghurkha Kings), the last ruling dynasty of Nepal (1769 – 2006) contributed considerably to Nepali theater.

The Licchavi dynasty is very important historical era, not only because it was a golden period that gave birth to the present day cultural set-up of Nepal, but also because history began to record itself formally. Plays belonging to Licchavi dynasty are still performed in Nepal. Hand written manuscripts of plays like Sundar Chrit by Chabilal Sharma (8th or 9th century) and Dushyantupokhan (10th century) are still preserved at the National Library, which shows popularity of theatre culture during the Licchavi period.

Nepali theater culture grew further during Malla dynasty. Malla Kings were writers, dancers, musicians, and accomplished actors. Pratap Malla ruled Nepal for 50 years (1639 – 1689). During his reign, Pratap Malla introduced many theatrical performances, which still are part of Nepali festivals. The Malla Kings were theater-lovers and practitioners, and drama was performed in open-air stages during festivals. Plays composed by Pratap Malla and Jayaprakash Malla are much loved even today.

Malla dynasty was toppled by the Shah dynasty, nevertheless, Ghurkha Kings became patron of everything initiated by the Mallas. The early Shah Kings were poets, theater lovers, music composers, and playwrights. Prithvi Narayan Shah (1723 – 1775), the founder of modern Nepal, had organized literary festival, which was attended by Nepali and Indian artists. His son Pratap Singh Shah composed musicals.

Ranas were the regents of Nepal from 1846 to 1951. Rana dynasty introduced commercial and professional theater in Nepal. Commercial theater known as Parsi theater in Nepal was a direct influence of Persian theatrical style, copied from Indian productions. Ranas introduced professionalism in Nepali Theater by remunerating theater artistes and technicians. Nevertheless, Nepali theater in the time of Ranas was restricted to royal courts. Commoners did not have access, either as actor or audience.

Dr. Knock by Jules, Romains, directed by Sunil Pokharel, produced by Aarohan-Gurukul

Dr. Knock by Jules, Romains, directed by Sunil Pokharel, produced by Aarohan-Gurukul

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