Aarohan: A parameter between life and death - a struggle

Features Issue 43 Aug, 2010
Text by Arpan Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

arohan is a borrowed term from Sanskrit, which means to climb. When pronounced in exact phonetics, the aural energy it releases is untold. In everyday Nepali, this term is rather au fait with mountaineering but otherwise a significant override of cliché in Nepali arts and society. Aarohan Theatre Group was founded in 1982 by a group of discontented theatre workers to create a Nepali Theatre movement. Sunil Pokhrel, one of the founding members regards it as a mixed result of discontent, chaos, paranoia, duties, conflict, dream and mostly, a parameter between life and death – a struggle.

Since the late 1970s, Aarohan, Sunil Pokhrel & Nepali Theatre has passed through many phases. Over the years, the quality of Nepali Theatre as a creative medium has scaled new heights. Never heard of before, Aarohan is suddenly making headlines in the art and society columns of newspapers. And the sometimes aggressive   and proud. Sunil Pokhrel stands calm and indomitable. He believes that theatre is a strong means of promoting

human values and should always remain close to the aspirations and experience of human life. He further adds, “A good theatre worker is a fundamentally good human being.”

At their rented nucleus in Purano Baneswhor, the Sama Theatre Hall which is named after Bal Krishna Sama, first modern dramatist of Nepal, creates a space where it is legal to see one’s imagination acted out. Here, they perform proscenium theatre by Nepali playwrights and also adapt foreign plays to the Nepali context. Aarohan’s presentation of an adapted version of ‘A Doll’s House’ by Ibsen was even staged in Norway in the recent Ibsen Festival where they received warm response. Recently, Aarohan has entered into a three-year partnership with the Norway National theatre, under which exchange programs, joint collaborations and productions will get under way.

Aarohan also has 15 years of training experience in theatre carried out in 55 districts throughout the country, helping communities create their own theatre groups. Adapting Forum Theatre, which Aarohan has pioneered in Nepal (as Kachahari Theatre), they train marginalised and oppressed people to use theatre as a weapon to improve their lives. Kachahari (court) Theatre is based on Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal’s theatre of the Oppressed which involves audiences and non-actors in the work on the stage. It is an interactive form of theatre, where the audience actively participates in and shapes what happens on stage. As the audience comes with suggestions, the actors enact them on the spot. Various ideas are tried and the other characters in the play react in whatever manner they would in real life. The stage provides a platform that is somehow safe to try out ideas. As the performance develops, the play and the reality can no longer be separated. People speak freely about their own lives. They watch their struggles acted out before them on stage, and at times join and act themselves. Through the theatre, people both analyze the problems they face and act out –or ‘rehearse’ – possible solutions which they can use in their lives.

The power of Kachahari Theatre is untold; how it affects people. Today these methods are practised with marginalised and oppressed groups in many places in the world as a tool for analysing problems and trying out solutions. As such, Aarohan’s training has helped create general awareness in Rural Nepal. Pokhrel shares with me memories of energetic Kachahari performance in Tawlihawa of Kapilvastu, Lumbini about a young woman who wanted to be educated, and her wish being denied by her father. Another  powerful presentation was in Guleri, where child labour seems to be decreasing as a result of Kachahari performances. An organisation has now been established to eradicate child labour. Theatre was thus used to promote discussions and actions on issues facing Nepal ranging from leprosy to conflict resolution.

Aarohan has also worked with diverse groups in Kathmandu including street sweepers, factory workers, students, child labourers, journalists and nurses. They have also trained and worked with local people’s theatre groups throughout the country as an attempt at peaceful conflict resolution through theatre in a country racked by a bloody civil war. This work has been supported by UNDP’s Peace Fund and MS-Nepal. They have also helped create the Street Theatre movement in Kathmandu on issues of social justice, democracy and pluralism. Outside the valley, Aarohan has made a point to train local activists to do plays, both to involve new people in the theatre movement and to create a drama that is relevant to local circumstances.

Aarohan has also started a youth drama program to support schools that are interested in providing their students creative activities. Theatre allows young people to discover and communicate. It has been part of human life for thousands of years. In the West, drama was considered an essential part of a good upbringing. Princes were tutored in public speaking, posture and drama as well as war and religion. In Nepal, theatre was an integral part of life in most communities. The historical theatre of Kathmandu is an example, but today, children are deprived of such opportunities for creative expression. Slowly, Nepali society is realizing that focusing only on books and exams will not prepare young people fully for their lives. “What good is passing the SLC (School Leaving Certificate), considered Iron Gate for Nepali people if you mumble when speaking to strangers? Or if you only repeat what your teacher has told you? Education is about finding your own voice,” says Pokhrel.

In 2002, Aarohan’s expedition took a bold step in Nepali arts & society. It founded Gurukul, Nepal’s first school of theatre with a belief that an indigenous theatre movement is both an alternative to a global consumer-oriented mass-media and a tool for empowering communities and individuals rendered marginal in modern Nepal. Gurukul is a traditional concept. Prior to the western-style schools providing formal education, Nepal had other centres of learning. Gurukul is among them.

Gurukul is again a borrowed term from Sanskrit. It means an ashram (institution) where a Kul Guru (principal guru or sage) would teach in his own  and mostly, informal  way. Classes did not take place in classrooms, nor did it take place in a formal environment. Students lived and worked at the ashram - cooking meals, serving the guru, and collecting alms. The learning went beyond the boundaries of subjects to educate human beings. In the west, this could come as a great culture shock.

The Aarohan Theatre Group has adapted the concept of Gurukul to modern times. It runs a full-time two-year theatre course (residential), with classes ranging from acting and world theatre to yoga and martial arts but still holds on to the core of the Gurukul concept. Students live at the school and manage the centre themselves, cleaning, supervising various departments, and participating in theatre productions.

In two years, Aarohan will be celebrating its silver jubilee. They have explored and encouraged never heard of stories and traditional performances that exist within the diverse communities of Nepal. “And despite trying times and financial turmoil, we are happy that our struggle that started 23 years back is finally ageing”, says Pokhrel. Today, Nepali theatre has discovered its own language and realized that its power lies in the diversity of Nepali culture.

Today, the word Aarohan has found a new meaning - a creative voice of Nepali theatre with a belief that theatre can promote a democratic culture and be a part of exploring non-violent solutions to the conflict and help conflict resolution in institutions and communities. Through theatre, they are also helping marginalised groups confront their oppression. It  is  sheer coincidence that the latest edition of the Nepali Dictionary also connotes Aarohan as a stage and performing area.

For details: Aarohan Theatre Group, Purano Baneswhor, Phone No. 4466956, www.aarohantheatre.org