Interview with Sunil Pokharel

Questioning Caste: Performance, Parody, and the Political Economy of a Hindu State

by Mark West


During a recent talk in his of?ce at the Gurukul School of Theatre, a rustic performing arts center on a wooded hilltop overlooking Kathmandu, Sunil Pokharel’s words mixed with the morning calls of crows just outside his window. Normally a theatrical device of fateful foreshadowing, in this case the crows brushed too close to reality. Pokharel, as Artistic Director of Nepal’s renowned Aarohan Theatre Company, already juggles so much creative work that his balance is regularly endangered. A playwright, director, teacher, and actor, and an administrator of both a theatre school and a coalition of ? fteen rural partner groups, Pokharel is at once a wonder to his guests, and a friend to his students. He is also a husband, a father, and a citizen. It is the last incarnation—as citizen—that gives the constant cries of the visiting crows that extra edge. One recent February morning, when Pokharel and I sat down to discuss the role of religious satire in Nepali theatre, the nation was still emerging from the shock of its new dictatorship. With the Royal Palace coup on February 1st of this year came the elimination of civil liberties, the shooting of student demonstrators, a shutdown of all telecommunications, and the preventive detentions of thousands of lawyers, journalists, and political leaders. Everyone involved in civil society work was on edge. For Sunil Pokharel, responsible for a network of hundreds of social action theatre artists all across civil war-torn Nepal, the pressure should have been especially intense. Yet his focused calm remained.

Kachari Forum Theatre

While discussion of Pokharel’s street theatre work could ?ll volumes, and forum theatre itself many volumes more,1 the conversation that follows focuses only on one particular, and timely, aspect of these now-banned street artists: their critical parody of the Hindu social order. Political and religious structures are fused into one in Nepal, and in turn many of the challenges in this self-avowed Hindu state, and throughout South Asia, stem from the constraints of the culture of caste.2 The debilitating corruption that robs the resources of this poorest of nations is a symptom of the caste system, one that rewards clan af?liation over due process. The gender discrimination that imprisons so many rural Nepalese women is also deeply embedded in traditional Hindu practices.3 And the dehumanization of South Asia’s Dalits (untouchables), who make up nearly twenty percent of the population in Nepal and India, lies at the very heart of the caste question. Although untouchability has been legally abolished, it remains entrenched in the political economy of the region. Declared by the Vedic scriptures to be achuta—not human, or not of origin—Dalits continue to face violence and discrimination today as they have for some two thousand years.4 The practice of untouchablity leaves millions landless, extremely poor, politically disenfranchised, and without access to education, health care, and the legal system. It is these many legacies of the caste system that forum theatre doggedly confronts in the streets and trails of this struggling, landlocked nation.Sunil Pokharel’s kachahari forum theatre seeks to unearth the political economy of caste, and replace silence with critical dialogue.

Named kachahari after the traditional Nepali village forum, the street deliberations inspired by the Aarohan Theatre Company address many entrenched social problems ignored by the government and bungled by social organizations. In the past decade, as the social fabric of Nepal has become increasingly strained, Aarohan’s forum theatre work has become more dif?cult and more necessary. The escalating civil war between the government and Maoist rebels is now in its ninth year, has taken some 11,000 lives, and has sent local governance deep into a downward spiral. Despite this environment, the kachahari work of Aarohan has never let up—indeed, it has formed an essential chapter in the development of this struggling young republic. Performing ?ve to ten times a month in Kathmandu alone, to crowds of several hundred passersby, these clinics in deliberative democracy have “graduated” tens of thousands of citizens a year on topics from government corruption, to girls’ education, to the rights of Dalits. In a country recently described by the United Nations Human Rights Commission as possessing “zero rule of law”(2), sometimes the kachahari forum theatre seems about the only thing working in this Himalayan kingdom of 25 million people.  Now, however, with the suspension of speech, press, and assembly rights, the kachahari street actors and their proli? c work is banned. Nonetheless, Aarohan continues its regular proscenium shows, and its training of scores of visiting partners from remote mountainous regions. Inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, these artists work with love, intelligence, and humor. The conversation that follows explores, in particular, the critical use of that third element—humor—as it seems to grow in importance with each increasingly severe gesture of the government. Acting as a creative force to clear away fears and generate hope, and as a shield from state censorship and upper caste reprisal, humor is essential to the social action arts of Aarohan. According to Pokharel, the hard work needed to heal a young republic can begin in a space opened by laughter.

Beginning Again with the Drum

Despite seemingly insurmountable conditions, day after day Aarohan crafts civic inspiration and builds social health. In addition to their work in urban and rural Nepal, Pokharel leads his players on performing tours of India and Russia, Norway and Denmark, and plans further work in Japan and the United States. The theatre company’s work is widely recognized by the international community, including collaborations with visiting director Julian Boal (son of Augusto Boal), and a research partnership with the London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies. Pokharel was elected as a Fellow by the Ashoka foundation, which has honored leading social entrepreneurs around the world for a quarter century. The theatre company’s primary objective, though, is not a globalized presence but quite the contrary. Aarohan seeks to develop its own indigenous theatre language, one that can combat the globalizing influence of mass media, and build an alternative art form. Explained by Pokharel, the mission is to make something from Nepal’s own soil. Or as company actor Rajan tells it: his interest in another European tour isn’t very strong because, simply put, last time he was homesick. He missed the traditional Nepali meal of dal bhat—eaten by hand, twice a day, everyday, and grown from Nepal’s Himalayan soil. Other accomplished performers might ? nd an international tour a stepping-stone to emigration from their impoverished, war-torn country. But for Rajan, the nostalgia for dal bhat was emblematic of a broader professional commitment. His preference is for the rigors of forum theatre in the streets of Kathmandu over the modern comforts of Oslo and Copenhagen. His focus is on the curative force of kachahari today, and on crafting and sustaining a local Nepali theatre language for generations to come.

Rajan is one of Aarohan’s great actors, and as such he embodies one of their essential skills: the making of laughter. This interview seeks to glimpse the creative process of crafting humor in forum theatre. The discussion explores how, in a broken-down nation, humor eases the pain just long enough for people to hope again. And then, in this place of hope, how the theatre artists can build a deliberative forum, one where citizens can remake their own republic from the ashes of civil war, despite regular rebel blockades of the city, and in the shadow of a newly imposed dictatorship. The interview asks how satire acts as a shield for the brave, and how it can build a clinic for humorists to dispense their medicine.

As our conversation began, I noted that Pokharel’s demeanor—now a month after the coup—was the same as during the weeks before the clampdown. He remained a tireless inspiration to his students and colleagues, seemingly concerned only with memorizing his lines for the new play going up the day after our talk. Later, during our last evening together, sitting around the campus ?re pit, he was more interested in teasing his wife (famous Nepali actress Nisha Sharma Pokharel), than fretting about the very real risk of being called to the local army barracks for interrogation.

We agreed to steer clear of “the situation” during our tape recorded interview,5 as any criticism of the King’s power grab is illegal and thousands of journalists and activists had been arrested. Yet the topic was ever-present as the crows, and seemed to appear around each corner.  Midway through our morning conversation, the sounds of drumming began. It was the performers from the remote Sindupolchowk District in the east who had arrived a week earlier for kachahari training. They had come despite the rebel blockade of the Kathmandu Valley, and the ban on all highway travel in and out of the city. These dedicated artists had walked all day from their Maoist-occupied villages to the nearest road inside the valley, crossing the blockade on foot. They eventually boarded a bus to pass through the winding Himalayan foothills, ?nally bringing them here to Gurukul. As the sound of their drums began to ?ll our room, and the beats were soon joined by song, the calls of the crows slowly disappeared.

The Conversation

Gurukul School of Theatre, Kathmandu, Nepal, February 2005

Mark West: You had your partners meeting recently, and you did a kachahari forum theatre performance. So, how were the laughs?

Sunil Pokharel: That was very good actually. We were worried about laughter, because previously when we performed there people used to laugh a lot. This time the topic was so serious because the con?ict that they gave to us—the issue, the main issue—the Nepal government and the rebellion’s government. Somehow the civil society and the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who are working in rural areas, they are in between. So the government, of course there is a law to register in the government, and many formalities according to the laws, and recently the other government they are asking to register their NGOs in their government. It’s a big problem, and then there are some other problems too, like because of this emergency situation. More than ?ve people cannot gather together so most of the NGOs—it affects their work. So there is this issue, and we did a kachahari on this issue. It’s a bit serious problem, and it was very hard to ?nd a place where people can laugh. And they were expecting a lot of laughing things from us, actually, at least in the beginning. So, somehow we were able to manage it. What we did actually, we made some laugh about ourselves—I mean the partner [the representative of the Danish aid agency] and the DW [development worker, also from Denmark] relationship. Every DW and every partner, they recognize the situation and, it was a lot of laughing.

MW: They’re expecting laughter, they’re expecting comedy. Why? Why is that important to theatre, or to kachahari, or to what they expect?

SP: Well, you know, life is hard here. Life is easy too, but people—even the hardness—people somehow are able to laugh. Maybe it’s because of cultural influence of the people, but they like to have some laughter, and particularly in this kind of environment.

MW: What does it do for them, what does it do for you

SP: Somehow it works as therapy, somehow it relieves your tensions and pains, and hard thinking. You feel a little lighter, easy, and somehow lifts the pressure of a hard life.

MW: You did a training with Augusto Boal, do you remember him talking about this—the use of comedy, or parody?

SP: Not actually, because it was a workshop about this legislative theatre, and he was more concentrating on this technique about the legislative theatre. But he himself, he laughs a lot. He laughs a lot, and he makes people laugh. He creates the moments where people can laugh.

MW: Legislative theatre, and what I was seeing in kachahari before February 1st [the day constitutional rights, including assembly, were suspended], was very political.

SP: …Yes, that’s right…

MW: It was the anti-corruption kachaharis. There was a bit of a controversy in some of our ?ring sessions [post-performance talkbacks] because some of the people thought there should be less comedy. Some of these kachaharis would be very, very funny, and your performers—a couple of them in particular—are very talented comedians. The comic actor can take on so much energy, and the audience feeds off of it and there is more and more as they improvise. But there was a bit of backlash by some of the other performers that maybe there was too much comedy for a political issue. Is it as simple as that, or is the comedy an important vehicle for the politics?

SP: I think if you go on the street comedy is a powerful vehicle, that’s true. Because the issue itself—corruption—is a serious issue, of course. By the law, by the moral, by any means. On the street, if you really want to play, do something, and want to create some discussion, if you start very seriously nobody will be there at the end. Because in kachahari, you see, the issue comes out and then when people start to discuss then there will be no comedy at all. It is more near to the life and it will be more…more…it could be more chaos, or serious. So from the beginning part I personally think you have to tackle, in such a way, that the issue should not go under the comedy, but comedy could be a very powerful weapon to build the situation, and put the issue in front of the people. I think that somehow it is necessary, but when the kachahari—the real kachahari—starts afterwards, there is no comedy. There will be no comedy.

MW: I want to ask about this as an example of general social problems in Nepal, and what kachahari addresses. The problem of corruption is a problem of people helping each other, their friends. Now in Nepal that usually is caste, helping, frequently. And because Nepal is a Hindu state by definition—in the constitution—is there a difference between political satire and religious satire, or are they kind of one and the same?

SP: In the old political system, panchayat, we used to have a lot of political satire. Sometimes even they used to say “social satire.” But somehow, in all forms of the art—like painting, poetry, theatre, comedy especially—they build some type of language where people could understand what they are trying to say, but the censor cannot. I mean logically of course, yes, also they understand the meaning, but literally there is nothing. It’s nothing against the law or against the system, the political system, so that was very popular at that time. Religious satire, we haven’t such categories like religious satire, social satire, political satire, because everything somehow comes related to the politics. You know, we have a special day called Gaijatra here in Kathmandu. In the Ranas period, long ago, that was the day—for seven days—you could have satire to anyone. People needed it because they needed to release their hard political opinions, maybe, political opinions against the system, against the bureaucracy, against the…sometimes, maybe, state. Now it is reduced to one day. Still, that is the tradition here. Say, Pij, that’s the woman’s day here traditionally, culturally. That day the women are free to do anything. There is another ritual for women because they are the ones who are more oppressed in our society. So when a boy goes to marry a girl, that night when the boy—when all the boys—goes to the procession, then the women, they stay at home and then they have a sort of ritual where they can do anything. They might make fun about their husbands, they do the role of their husbands, the male, and try to tease the girls—these sort of things—and it could be very vulgar, they use a lot of vulgar words sometimes. They have some songs, and all sort of things, and they don’t allow a single man to enter, even the children, the male children. So these are the things somehow we need to balance the whole society, the state of mind. Normally we have political satire and social satire, not religious satire as such, but religion is also a part of satire, of course. But religion in Nepal is not that much hard that you have to make…it’s more open than India. Of course there are some fundamentalists but nobody cares about that. Well, about the caste system, of course, there are some things—but, in general, religion…it’s not very much, uh, stronger, or fundamentalist here in Nepal.

MW: But in rural areas it is…

SP: …it is…

MW: …and you know that, so have you seen some examples of Dalit satire, or plays that deal with Dalit issues? I know your current play is making fun of a janjati [ethnic minorities] guy that is trying to “go up”—we say an “Uncle Tom.” So can you think of some examples of Dalit?

SP: Dalits also, when they do kachahari, or the street play, they use it. The satire about the Hinduism, how do you say, some sort of fundamentalism. But how I do see, actually: Hinduism is not a religion, as such. That was the…way of thinking. In the Middle Age somehow some Brahmins, the clever Brahmins, they were able to put a system within the Hinduism that divided the caste. Dalit, and, uh, Brahmin, Chetri, Vaisya, and Sudra. That was not the original Hindu idea, actually, so when I say Hinduism it doesn’t mean what currently exists here in our society.  I mean Hinduism as a way of thinking, as a way of life. More a philosophy than the usual practice, actually. So in the practice, of course, yes, in the rural areas, even in the cities. But you see there are always the castes, even in the cities now, there are castes, but these are the economic castes not the caste by the surname. If you have money, you belong to the upper caste, if you have no money you belong to the lower caste, whether you are Brahmin or Dalit—it doesn’t matter. So the society creates some sort of caste, it always happened. But in rural areas that’s true, the Dalit they also use this kind of satire sometimes in the street play and sometimes even in the stage play. But those satires are more, are not subtle. They are more aggressive sort of…revolution things than the satire. Yes, the elements of satire are there, but very little satire they use. They use more of a rebellious attitude. I saw less satire actually.

MW: Do they use comedy?

SP: I didn’t see a lot of comedy, actually, it was very serious.

MW: Can you tell me about one of them? Have you witnessed a proscenium or a street theatre, or a village…?

SP: I saw one or two prosceniums, and I saw some forum when we worked with some Dalit friends. Some of them, they use a little satire but in a small situation, not as a main part of the play. At they end somehow they…“Yes, we have to revolt!  We have to…” That sort of pressure they have, more than satire actually. But some clever actors, I saw some. Like Prem in Bardia [rural, remote western district]. He’s so clever about it.
MW: Tell me about him.

SP: Well, he’s a Dalit, he worked for Dalit Welfare Organization, he’s a very good singer and very good actor—sometimes a bit lazy, but a very good actor. He uses these satirical elements very cleverly. Most of the time he does the Brahmin’s role. [Laughter.] That role gives him the space to clear some satire, you know, comedy. He is very clever. I only see him using it in Dalit plays.

MW: Can you remember something in particular? One of his roles, or one of the actions, what was the plot…

SP: …yeah, in the kachahari play we did a Brahmin’s role, that was so funny. He put some funny things in the mantra, you know, what Brahmins used to tell “Uh-uh-uh-uh…” in the morning. And he used some funny words. In the evening also some funny words. So it creates: “This is rubbish. What this Brahmin is doing is totally rubbish.” Somehow he was able to create that impression. And it, course, gave a lot of laughs to the people. He would always portray these things comically so the people—it’s very hard to get angry about him, you know? Even the Brahmins. It’s so comical, and satirical, so the Brahmin people—they have to laugh. You can’t be angry with him, maybe inside, but you cannot express about it. So, somehow he creates that.

MW: What is this ritual that you’re talking about, the mantras? When would someone use that mantra, in that play for example?

SP: Well, in the morning, if you light a candle, or some doha [song]…there are a lot of mantras.  It comes from Veda, or some other rituals, they have a lot of books about it. If you do a particular ritual then you have to recite some particular mantras, some sloka [religious proverb]…but some sloka, and mantra—they are the prayer of some gods—you can do anywhere. Initially there are some restrictions, like if you worship a particular god then they have a particular mantra, if you do something else they have a particular mantra, if you worship sun, the sun has a particular prayer. All these prayers became mantra now, in Hinduism. But in Tantra [Buddhism] it’s completely different again. So you can ? nd some mantra which are very common and you can use anywhere.

MW: Do you remember his particular jokes that he made, does one come to mind?
SP: [Laughter.]

MW: Were they vulgar, or were they just little puns?

SP: That’s the danger with the comedy, sometimes the actor’s tendency is to play the gallery: if people laugh, then they go one step further. If again they laugh, then the actor’s tendency is to go one step further. And that’s the place where the vulgarity…you cannot separate. It’s so dangerous, it’s so easy in the comedy to go to the vulgarity. If you remember this play [Aarohan’s current proscenium show Ask the Caste of the Yogi, by Indian playwright Vijay Ten Dulka], there are some sort of big vulgar situations. Prem also has this tendency, of course, as a comedy actor. Sometimes he crosses that very thin line, and goes to the vulgar area, but normally this particular role—what I saw many times—no. In that case it was more of a punning.

MW: Are there other examples beside the mantra, like clothing, or…

SP: …of course yes.

MW: Can you think of others?

SP: Like if he is wearing a dhoti [men’s formal pants] he pulls it up…

MW: …because it’s falling down, he keeps pulling it up, or he pulls it too high?

SP: No, it goes to here [shows the low crotch of the dhoti], so he feels it difficult to walk, so if he’s angry—beating the Dalit—then he needs to pull it up. These sort of things he played. Then what he did, the movement, and the sound too, sometimes he makes some fun about it. The comical The caste strictures dominant movement, movement that goes too fast: “tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk.”

MW: Why isn’t that just making fun of a man walking, why is it making fun of a Brahmin walking? The dhoti, I understand that, because a Dalit farmer would not be wearing a dhoti…

SP: …yeah…

MW: …this is upper caste…

SP: …yeah…

MW: …so what about the movement, how is that uniquely Brahminic?

SP: Well, because, you know, how he played it. There are some girls in that teashop—he is a teashop owner—and some other things are there. And they don’t allow a Dalit to come inside and have the tea, or whatever. They can buy, but they are outside and they have to wash their own glass. So, how he creates the situation, he has a lot of things to do: to shout on the Dalit, and to make the tea, and to satisfy other customers, so somehow the situation was that he has to be [snaps fingers twice] quick. Because of that, he makes a “tuk, tuk, tuk…tuk, tuk, tuk…tuk, tuk, tuk” in the movement. Talk here, go somewhere else, do something else.

MW: I see. For me that’s funny because the dehumanization of someone who is taking tea outside, and has to wash their own cup, is a pretty serious act. And yet he’s treating it as just one more business decision…

SP: …yeah…

MW: …he’s hurrying here, and then he’s hurrying back to the cashbox, and then he’s hurrying to these other customers.

SP: So from his side it’s not so serious a thing.

MW: And it makes him look like a fool, because he’s ignorant of what he’s doing. You tell these stories about Prem, this is very powerful and lively.

SP: No, he is very good, actually. But these days he’s much lazy now. [Laughter.]

MW: So how do you place this amongst all the things that Aarohan does? There’s so much work, so much proscenium work, your travels, your anti-corruption work, upcoming there was a plan for some child labor stuff [past tense because of the new ban on street gatherings]. So this question of Dalits: is that just one of the many in Nepali village life are fodder for Aarohan parodists on the proscenium stage.  issues you are doing, or do you feel that this is something especially important in South Asia?

SP: Some issues we consider…it’s not because of Dalit we are doing. We believe in equality, in the sense of political equality. People who live in Nepal, there are a lot of communities, a lot of ethnic groups—it’s a very small country with a lot of diversity. The plain land, to high Himalaya, to east to west. Different languages and lots of things. So we really believe in plurality. In the political system, if it is democracy, every group should have the right to express themselves. That’s how it was started, of course, in our democracy after 1990. A lot of good things happened, of course. But somehow all of the communities were not able to participate in the mainstream politics, for a lot of reasons, things behind… But what we do believe, if we really want to save this country as one country, for long, then there should be a space for every community and every ethnic group and every caste, or whatever, to participate in the mainstream politics. There is another belief. If you think about Nepali theatre—something different than others—you see, India and Nepal, we are neighboring countries. And the Indian influence on the culture is so strong in Nepal. If you go somewhere and perform an Indian play and a Nepali play it’s almost the same, you can’t see much differences. So our realization about Nepali theatre: if we really want to have our own language, based on our soil, here, then you have to go to the ethnic groups. You have to, there are no other choices. Because the Brahmin-Chetri [two dominant castes] culture and the Indian culture is the same. There is nothing much different—maybe there are some differences because of the geographical situation, there are some little differences. So when we realized these two facts, then these sort of things we started. There are two reasons, one is a bit political, the other is a totally theoretical reason.

MW: You said you have to go to these ethnic groups, but also, maybe, the ideas should come from them, not just going to them.

SP: Yeah, yeah, yeah…

MW: Like, for example, the film director who I met here at Aarohan, the Limbu [ethnic minority] film director…

SP: Nabin.

MW: Yeah, Nabin. He is very knowledgeable about Nepal…

SP: …Yes…

MW: …and about the history of this country, I was very impressed. What is this unique Nepali theatre that comes from your soil, because it’s multi-ethnic, or pan-ethnic? For example, this gentleman—the Limbu ?lm director—as just an example, or I’ve seen some, I think, Tamang [different ethnic minority] students from Sindupolchowk that are here. What are they bringing to Aarohan?  How are they enriching the soil?

SP: The scene is not very much clear yet, but ?rst of all I think it’s not to…sort of to cut and paste things. If you are working in theatre and then try to look at a language based on your soil then, perhaps, many things are coming from Tamang, from Limbu, from Gurung. There are a lot of things there. The only thing is to know them properly, and then try to create based on those what we have. Just to put a folk dance on the stage is not a totally new language. But to create something based on those elements, those rituals, or whatever they have, it is something we are looking for now.

MW: Back to Prem and his satire again. Would you call that—those series of examples that you gave me—would you call that religious satire, political, or social?

SP: I consider it as a political satire, than the religious satire.

MW: And yet they’re connected…

SP: Of course…

MW: …because you cannot separate them in Nepal. You’re talking about this desire for a pan-ethnic, multi-ethnic approach, and that implies progress, and at the same time I see this regress also in terms of Chetri-Bahn [the slang grouping of the two Hindu upper castes].

SP: Yes.

MW: I’m reading this book called A Kingdom Under Siege by Deepak Thapa right now, and it gave some statistics about the civil service exam. In order to participate in the bureaucracy, to be a government employee, you have to pass the civil service exam.

SP: Yes, yes.

MW: The numbers were shocking about how many who pass are Chetri-Bahn. Several years ago it was 60%, then 70%, and it’s actually increasing, not decreasing, and the last statistic he had—from two years ago—was 98%

SP: Are Brahmins?

MW: Are Chetri-Bahn, who passed the civil service exam. Which means the government is, essentially, Chetri-Bahn. Since these are inherently connected [political and religious], how do you see that as progress?

SP: It’s something very amazing, because after the democracy of 1990 somehow the issue of the ethnic rights, Dalit rights, and women rights, they were more stronger and powerful. Somehow they were able to open themselves very publicly. Democracy created that room, that’s true.  Before it was less, and sometimes even not allowed. But on the other hand it’s very interesting to see how that happened because after democracy there were a lot of possibilities of education, a lot of room to improve the skills. But if you see carefully, most of the ethnic groups—the geographical areas where particular ethnic groups lives—Brahmin-Chetris came as parliamentarians.

MW: The point, I think, is that the political structure is just not working…

SP: Yes.

MW: …it’s just not happening.

SP: That’s what I mean.

MW: Which brings us back to the original question I asked you, which is: what is the purpose of laughter, in these shows? If social change is not coming through politics, if it’s not coming through law, maybe it has to come from just the inside. Your own individual spirit needs to be relieved, because your government won’t do it for you, and your society won’t do it for you. So is that one of the functions of laughter, or is the function to mobilize social change?

SP: It could not be very right to say that the government don’t want to do it actually. The government, and the people, they are always abstract things for me. “Government,” which government? And “the people,” which people really? The two things are considered as very abstract in my mind. But somehow the system isn’t working here, the political system. After 1990 we got a new system, of course, but with the same people. It is very difficult to change, within the new political system, and some people who changed they were the opportunists. Some. So the system, with a very good ideology, and very good thinking and philosophy, that didn’t work here. Our focus to have comedy in a play, there are several reasons. One is…[sigh]…it’s a sort of therapy. In a way. Not very directly, as medicine, but in another way it does work as a therapy. And you can laugh on yourself too. Sometimes you need to be released, and if you can’t share with anyone you can laugh about yourself. You can change somehow, and get some sort of medicine, internal medicine. We also have the pressure: children, they are the first row audience in the street play, you know, if you don’t satisfy them they will spoil your play, that’s sure. So you have to satisfy the children. You have to have some comedy, otherwise they will make noises and nobody is going to listen to you. Then the other thing is, people really like to laugh. It perhaps doesn’t help very directly or very clearly for the social change but in a different way it does support it. It does help. You can say things that are very hard with laughter, particularly in a country where there is censorship. Where the censorship exists, sometimes you fear that this thing will create some controversy, if you perform in public. But if that makes people laugh—of course it pinches you, it hits you, with the laughter—but somehow the people they don’t say “No, you did the wrong, you can’t do this!” It’s difficult to say. Because they also laugh. So it’s a good weapon, actually.

MW: It unifies, the enemies.

SP: Not exactly. Not unify, but you can be able to say what you want to say.

MW: It’s a shield.

SP: It’s a shield, that’s true.

MW: In the past there was very successful satire, during the panchayat system, before democracy. What comes to mind when you think about that—particular people, or particular shows?

SP: It’s obvious why they were more popular. Four or ? ve people always come to my mind, like Hari Bansha Acharaya and Madan Krishna Shrestha. They were very, very, very, very powerful people who made political satires. They were very popular, more than the heroes or the sportsmen or anyone else, even more than the politicians, even the opposition leader at that time. After democracy, they went to the ? lms, they made serials, they did other things with comedy, but the political satire element, it was gone.

MW: Do you think that will be coming back?

SP: It’s a great chance now, it seems so, but I don’t know. Again, to do such political satire you need to have a lot of courage. They are also fed up with the parties, the political parties, so I don’t know what they will do. But in general, it’s the correct situation.

MW: Did it take some courage to make the mask on the editorial page of Backstage [the quarterly magazine of Aarohan]?

SP: A little, yes. Yes, because when I knew afterwards some editors who left their space blank, they were asked [called to the army barracks for interrogation]. But I have some good logic there. I wrote something, and a mask, so it will save me.

MW: And the play you are rehearsing for now, going up on Sunday [the comedy Ask the Caste of the Yogi], what’s the message there?

SP: In this situation, because we did it four or ?ve years ago, then now we want to repeat it because the situation too. It’s good to laugh now in this situation. It’s a time to laugh—it’s not a laughing situation—but you must laugh. You can laugh even with yourself.

MW: It seems like if things are kind of broken, then it’s even more your responsibility to make people laugh, or to give people a safe place where they can go and feel human.

SP: Yes, that’s true. So we are trying to continue the performance every day. Because people really need some space where they feel they are not watched, they are not concerned about someone, a more comfortable space, and they can laugh and think of other things. People need this, otherwise life is very hard. On the surface level it seems, it’s anti-…how do you say? Like two days ago, four political parties were on the street, and we were doing here a theatre festival. Some people they said, “What you are doing?” And we said, “We are doing our movement, our purpose, our things. In our way.” So everyone has different things to do. Some people are activists, party members— activists who belong to a particular party. They should go to the street. And some people, they write poetry. Then write poetry. That’s their way to protest, or support, or whatever. But we go to the street too, when we think that we have to go. We also went to the street. But not always.


1. Much more on the roots and modern expressions of forum theatre can be found in Boal 1979 and Dolan 2001, respectively.

2.  For a de?nitive discussion of caste and the cycles of poverty in Nepal, see Bista 1994. For a broader such analysis on Hindu South Asia as a whole, see Parish 1996, Appadurai 1996, and Dirks 2001.

3.  See Cameron 1998.

4.  A wide-reaching and penetrating study on the current scope of Dalit oppression, and its origins, was produced by Human Rights Watch researcher Smita Narula in 1999. See also Omvedt 1995.

5.  The author has attempted to retain the atmosphere of the interview as it was on the morning of February 2005. To this end, the overlap of sentences is indicated by ellipses, and there are occasional English irregularities. For more context on the February 2005 reversion from democracy to full monarchy by King Gyanendra see West 2005.