Theatre in the Underground in Nepal's war for democracy – Arjun Ghosh
(This article is a result of interviews with Sushil Kumar Singh of the Jan Sanskriti Sangh and Mani Thapa of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Nepal)
In the middle of a peaceful and scenic valley thousands of people have gathered from neighbouring villages and districts to witness and participate in a cultural programme. The performers include both people from among them as well as trained artists from other areas. Little would you think that the sound of drums, the musical notes of a song or the utterances of actors are fit to be mixed with the sound of guns and bombs and combat helicopters. But this is not any ordinary arena of performance. This is a scene from the middle of a battlefield in the Himalayan state of Nepal at the height of the civil war which divided the country during the reign of King Gyanendra It is set in the battle between the Maoist forces and the army commanded by the King. It was in this manner that the Nepalese military descended with its combat helicopters to intimidate a gathering of freedom loving people in the middle of a cultural festival. They did drop a few bombs that afternoon with an aim to disperse the cultural gathering. The aim was also to combat, capture or kill the Maoists who had organised this event.
The combatants on both sides were aware of the power of theatre and performance in mobilising popular support for political change. The anti-monarchy forces in Nepal first learnt of the potential of theatre and performance in invigorating and mobilising the people during the pro-democracy movement in the late 1940s. The yields of that movement were short lived and so was importance imparted by political parties to theatre. The connection between theatre and political movements was renewed during the popular uprising in 1989 which forced the monarchy to replace the pliant Panchayat System with a Constitutional Monarchy. In the Jan Andolan (People's Movement) theatre artists took to the streets with impromptu performances and lampoons. The spontaneity of these performances was channelised by various political formations, particularly those on the Left by the creation of cultural mass fronts. The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) put in place an organisation called the Jan Sanskriti Manch; while the cultural army of the CPN(Maoist) was named the Jan Sankriti Sangh. Each of these formations, particularly that affiliated to the Maoists, made use of the vast cultural diversity in the various regions of Nepal and gave expression to a culturally starved population which suffered the cultural dictates of the Narayanhity Place.
A split in the communist movement in Nepal gave rise to the two main communist parties of the country. Both the CPN(UML) and the CPN(Maoist) continued to give importance to the work on the cultural front. It was with the launch of the “People's War” that the debate on the role of theatre and art in political mobilisation took a serious turn. The party called all theatre activists and cultural workers to joined the armed movement. Following the call the artists went underground under assumed names. But soon, after three years of the “People's Movement” which faced major repression from the King's forces resulting in large scale loss of lives and a demoralisation among their supporters, the Maoists undertook an internal analysis of their achievements and failures. It was then that they decided to renew their attention to cultural propaganda. But three years of inactivity had caused the cultural organisation to dissipate and new artists had to be trained. But the uncertain conditions of guerilla warfare, where every unit of the Maoist forces had to be constantly on the move, did not provide for an atmosphere where artists could be trained for any length of time. So it was decided to sneak in the entire team of trainers and trainees clandestinely into India. The entire team assembled at a secret location in Punjab where they received requisite training. The trained artists were constituted into three teams, one each for the Western, Middle and Eastern regions of Nepal.
These teams prepared a slew of song and dance performances and plays with which to campaign among the people of the Nepali hinterland. Most of these artists belonged to farming families or the lower middle classes from different districts of Nepal. They carried with them the knowledge of local performance forms and tunes. Thus, each team was equipped with a repertoire of local forms in which to communicate the ideological message of the Maoists.
The strategy of the Maoist cultural troupes was to strengthen their support in areas which were directly under their control, primarily in the district of Rolpa and adjoining areas of western Nepal. And thereafter, try to increase their influence in areas where the party sought to expand its base. While working in the areas under expansion, the cultural squads had to tread carefully. They had to watch out for possible ambush by the Nepalese military or the police. Since, the artists had been culled out of the Maoist armed squads, they were trained in warfare. They carried with them adequate arms and ammunitions with which they could confront the enemy forces. The cultural squads kept themselves constantly on the move in order to out wit the police. They never stopped at a place for long. Once they arrived in a village, they would perform there at night and disappear though the forest or the mountainous terrains to their next undisclosed location.
In what is known as the Anekot Massacre, the Eastern cultural squad was ambushed. Possibly tipped off by a pro-monarchy informer, the police attacked the particular village where the squad was performing that evening. They waited till the performance was over and the squad members lodged themselves in a hutment for rest. They police surrounded the hutment from all sides. The artists tried to fight back by lobbing grenades at the enemy. But the police set fire to the hutment burning to death all the artists. Needless to say, this incident was a major setback to the cultural army of the “People's War”. Numerous theatre artists lost their lives in similar incidents.
The cultural army of the CPN(M) played a major role in generating support for the party among the people and also in bringing about ideological clarity among cadre. In fact, in what is considered to be a watershed event in the history of the CPN(M) and the “People's War” a performance organised by the cultural squad helped resolve the ideological differences between the various factions of the CPN(M). Leaders of all the three factions attended a musical play “Yudh Maidvat Fakirda” [The Minstrel of Battle]. The play, which consisted of the enactment of songs and music was wrapped around the pathos and sacrifice of those engaged in the battle for a democratic Nepal. Video recordings of the event show the Maoist leadership sobbing by the end of the performance. According to so
me members of the Maoist cadre it was after this that the CPN(M) presented a united front and the “People's War” caught momentum.
In the latter stages of the “People's War” the invited people from outside the fold of the Maoist organisation to participate in the cultural performances and theatre events organised by the cultural squads. There was a tremendous response to this and people found an outlet for their repressed performative energies. The performance would generally have three parts. First, was a show of military exercises often accompanied by which were designed to instil confidence in the people they intend to liberate. Second, were series of performances from among the local population. Finally, there would be performances by the Maoist cultural squads. These events were organised in a much larger scale than in the earlier phase of the “People's War”. A performance would be organised for an entire district, or sometimes for several districts. The audience would number up to several thousand. The entire area would be cordoned by the Maoist army. It was one of these performances which were attacked by the combat helicopters. But the presence of the large number of people in the audience and the fact that the audience was intrinsically involved in the performance, prevented the Nepalese military from attacking the participants full on.
After the anti-monarchy movement of 2006 and subsequent ascension of the CPN(M) to parliamentary politics – these cultural squads have once again entered a phase of dormancy. But the artists continue to be ready to respond to any call for campaign. The CPN(M) is an organisation which seems to encourage internal debate on the various strategies available before them. It is a pressure from the ordinary cadre that made the CPN(M) tread cautiously in the task of integrating its army with the Nepalese army. Even today the cultural brigade of the party continues to bring ideological issues to the fore – sometimes lampooning even the top party leaders in open performances.
(Dr. Arjun Ghosh teaches Language at IIT Delhi)
1. Gursharan Singh passes away
GURSHARAN SINGH, Director, playwright and legendary stalwart of modern Punjabi Theatre, born in Multan, Punjab, on September 16, 1929, passed away in Chandigarh, on Tuesday, September 27, 2011.
2. Shyamanand Jalan National Youth Theatre Award 2012.Padatik, Kolkata announces the Shyamanand Jalan National Youth Theatre Award 2012. The SJNYTA scheme is an Annual Award to be presented every year on the 13th of January The 2012 Award is for original scripts from Indian playwrights between 18 to 35 years of age Submissions open from the 30th of July 2011 to 30th October 2011
The scheme is open to Indian playwrights between 18 to 35 years of age
Selected playwright will be awarded Rs.25.000/- and invited for the presentation
Plays must be full length (estimated playing time not less than 75 minutes and not more than 120 minutes).They must not have been produced earlier
Play scripts may be submitted in Hindi, Bengali or English along with a synopsis of not more than 300 words in English
Original plays in any Indian language may be submitted in translation (Hindi, Bengali or English)
Scripts must be clearly typed, double spaced with wide margins. Pages must be numbered and the text securely bound. The author’s name must be mentioned only on the title page. The title of the play must be mentioned on each page of the text
Authors must guarantee that they have sole rights to all matter contained within the play. Any play accepted for production elsewhere before the award is announced will be disqualified
Winning entry will be selected by an independent panel of 3 judges
Work which expands or challenges existing theatre paradigms in any way will be especially encouraged
Padatik will, at its option, retain exclusive rights to produce and stage the play for a period of two years from the presentation of the award. No further royalty or any other fee will be paid for this period
The play may be produced in any or all the three languages mentioned
The judges’ decision will be final and no correspondence concerning the results can be entered into
Padatik does not hold any responsibility for the loss or damage of the submitted scripts. Scripts entered are not returnable
The winner will be notified by post/e-mail, within 31st Dec, 2011 and the result will be announced on the Padatik website
Scripts submitted online via e-mails, will not be accepted
Applications to include :
Entry form as per format
Biography of applicant in not more than 200 words
Self-addressed, stamped envelope in case applicant desires acknowledgement of receipt
SEND ENTRIES MARKED SJNYTA TO:
6/7A, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road
Issue 30: 1 October 2011: a fortnightly theatre e-journal from the India Theatre Forum
Co-Editors: Vikram Iyengar, Joyoti Roy
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