On the road: with Sarwanam

Features Issue 68 Jul, 2010

Sarwanam has not only traveled to more than seventy districts of Nepal to perform
plays, it has also represented Nepali theater in different parts of the world.

It is a very hot afternoon in Dhangadi. The streets appear
empty and silent. Most of the shops have closed down for the owners to take a short cool nap, while a line of rickshaws wait in the scorching heat for their drivers who perhaps are resting in the comfort of their homes.

Amid such a lazy and humid atmosphere, Om Palace, a small auditorium  seems far removed from the outside world and is full of life. The reason; The production team of Sarwanam Theater Group is extremely busy with their drama rehearsals inside. Their new play “The Remaining Pages of History” that will artistically depict the present issues of peace, democracy and caste conflicts arising in Nepal will be staged in this hall in the same evening. Like every year, Sarwanam, a leading theater group of the country is on a nationwide tour. This year, they have chosen Dhangadi, a district in far western Nepal, to begin their theatrical journey.

As the director, playwright and founder of Sarwanam, Ashesh Malla continues instructing his actors; a pool of bicycles suddenly rushes inside the theater ground. Around a hundred young boys and girls march inside the hall and warmly introduce themselves to the theater team. They are the free Kamaiya people who have come here to support and thank Sarwanam for representing their voice and raising their suppressed issues. Shortly after hanging a banner that they had especially made for Sarwanam, which in bold letters says, “We heartily support the movement of Sarwanam Theater Group”, they silently take their seats among the audience.

Overwhelmed by such response, Malla’s eyes fill with tears of satisfaction. Smudging them away, he shares with me, “This is our biggest achievement. For twenty-six years, Sarwanam has been continuously performing plays all over Nepal, and the love we receive from the people has been tremendous. In fact, they always give us a moral boost and we feel more enthusiastic to perform for them.” Twenty-six years may not be a long time in the history of the country, but for an individual theater group that has survived against all odds; maintained its level of dignity and successfully created a niche in the history of Nepali theater, those years bring back plenty of good memories to cherish.

For Malla, the birth of Sarwanam seems like yesterday. Born in an intellectual family in Dhankuta (far eastern Nepal), as a child, he dreamt of becoming a successful playwright of Nepal. He was introduced to the world of art through influencial people like Tulasi Diwas, Kaliprasad Rijal and Dayaram Sambav who, today, are renowned in the field of Nepali literature. “During my younger days, Dhankuta was a booming place for art and literature. We had plays, poetry reading programs and art exhibitions almost every week. People would wait for hours to buy tickets for our play, which would sell out most of the time” he reminisces. Ashesh Malla’s life took a turn when he received an opportunity to stage his play, “Tuwalole Dhaakeko Basti” (The valley covered with fog) at the Royal Nepal Academy of Kathmandu. For a person from a small undeveloped village that had neither transportation nor electricity, this was a golden opportunity. Facing all the hurdles, he and his team arrived in the capital. “ It was a time when there were no television and FM stations. Since theater was the only major source of entertainment, people would wait enthusiastically to watch it. It was fascinating for me to see hundreds of people lined up to buy tickets for my play.” Ashesh recalls. The play became so popular that even King Birendra and his family along with Balkrishna Sama, the father of modern Nepali theater  came to watch it.

After that, there was no turning back. While all his actors returned to Dhankuta, Malla stayed on, joined the Master’s level at Tribhuwan University and continued staging plays in the TU Auditorium. Since theater is about team work, he felt the need for a group and with the help of some committed artists, he started the Sarwanam theater group in 1982. It was a time when Nepal was reeling under the repressive Panchayati system. People were totally suppressed and scared of voicing their rights.

As a group of young committed activists, Sarwanam started performing a genre of drama that revolted against the system and raised issues of democracy and freedom. Subsequently, their plays like “Hands Raised in Protest” where the artists depicted the grave realities of political upheaval in the country, were banned by the ruling political elite. “Almost all our plays suffered much censorship in the cruel hands of censors, but we did not lose hope. We were determined to contribute in bringing democracy through our plays,” remarks Harischandra K.C, Sarwanam’s Assistant Director.

After some years of proscenium theater, Sarwanam pioneered the modern street theater in Nepal by staging a drama, “We are searching for spring” under the open sky at the TU ground.

“While performing proscenium theater, we felt we were being limited to a small group of people who could afford to pay for the tickets. Moreover, many of the districts in Nepal lack well equipped theaters. We wanted to reach out to the common people. Today, street theater has popularized theater culture as it can be performed anywhere. It is due to this that today plays are constantly being performed even in the most remote parts of Nepal.” Ashesh explains. Till date, through the effective medium of street theater, Sarwanam has worked with many NGO’s and INGO’s like ICIMOD, UNDP, Action Aid, Save the Children, FPAN and UNICEF to create awareness amongst the people.

“More than a need to experiment, street theater was born out of compulsion because conventional proscenium theater is an expensive art. We, as young students wanted to do drama, but could not afford the costly halls, props and settings. In this process, we also decided to introduce the concept of low cost theater which requires little or no artificial props on the stage,” clarifies Om Mani Sharma, Sarwanam’s founder member and actor.. The idea that grew out of an urge has today become Sarwanam’s distinctive identity. Their plays emphasize mime and symbolic body movements to express heart rending stories.

The literal meaning of Sarwanam is ‘pronoun’ in Nepali. It means that this theater group is not about an individual; rather it is a platform for all committed artists and art lovers who want to bring positive changes in the nation through the medium of theater. Sarwanam is not just limited to performing proscenium and street plays. Along with providing scholarships for theater researchers every two years known as “Sarwanam Atma briti”, it also regularly publishes in various theater related books and magazines. It has instituted an annual Sarwanam award since its inception to honor deserving contributors to Nepali theater. Many renowned theater personalities like Prachanda Malla, Harihar Sharma, Neer Shah and Sunil Pokharel have already been awarded  the prestigious award. Theater training and workshops are held regularly to build up theater groups that will perform for social benefits all over the nation. Theater personalities from different parts of the world are regularly invited by Sarwanam to conduct training for local people. “This year, we will be hosting two theater groups from Australia and Holland to perform theater workshops and plays,” informs Indra Ratna Bajracharya, Sarwanam’s founder member and treasurer.

Sarwanam has not only traveled to more than seventy districts of Nepal to perform plays, but it has also represented Nepali theater in different parts of the world. Talking about an interesting collaboration theater, Ashesh says, “It was in the year 1994, when a group of seven theater directors, each representing seven different countries like India, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Pakistan and Thailand came together to produce a play named, “The Big Wind”. I was representing Nepal. All of us spent a month in Hong Kong preparing the script. Then, Sarwanam hosted the team for another month in Nepal where directions and rehearsals took place. In this way, the drama was finalized and performed in many countries including Nepal, Korea, Hong Kong, China and the US.” Sarwanam also organized a South Asian Theater Festival for the first time in Nepal. The program was inaugurated by renowned Indian theater personality Baadal Sarkar. Until today, Sarwanam has been regularly hosting many foreign drama groups to perform in Nepal. Its endeavors were deservedly recognized as NHK television of Japan came to Kathmandu especially to shoot a documentary on Sarwanam and aired it in a show named, “Who’s Who”. Sarwanam has also received many national and international awards.

Although the history of Nepali theater is long and commendable, theater groups are far from self-sustaining. It is almost impossible to survive through theater alone and therefore, Sarwanam is still a voluntary organization. Its members come from various walks of life and many different countries. They come together and perform to fulfill their artistic urge and contribute something for their respective countries. However, Indra’s eyes twinkle as he says, “We have recently started building an art auditorium in Kathmandu, where different forms of art can be performed simultaneously. There will be different halls for art exhibitions, drama performances and various other art related programs. We are also starting a theater research library.”

The clock strikes five in the evening. We quickly wrap up the interview as the hall starts to fill up with people waiting for the play to begin. As we get up, Malla concludes, “We aim to develop theater culture in Nepal.”