I had heard a lot about Sama Gurukul. It is supposed to be an artistic hub of Kathmandu, like City Lights of San Francisco in the 60s. So when I heard that a play, Jeevan Dekhi Jeevan Samma, was being performed there, I was excited to go see it. It was written by Prof. Abhi Subedi and directed by Sunil Pokhrel, Nepal’s most renowned theatre director. Furthermore, I had read some glowing reviews of the play in Nepali newspapers. As it turned out, it was a disappointing experience.
The play starts with the narrator telling the audience, and he does a lot of telling throughout the play, about a despotic king whose repression has made many girls flee to become nuns. The girls finally find a bhikchu called Utpal, and the story digresses to recounting her woes and sorrows. The story of Utpal is an old Buddhist story about how she became a disciple of the Buddha. After committing some grave sin or the other (I think she kills an infant by inserting a needle in its head), she inflicts a curse upon herself that she will have to endure in the next life. After she is reincarnated, sufferings abound including the loss of husbands and children, having to eat her own child’s flesh, and being buried several times. Finally, she meets the Buddha himself, who silhouetted by dense smoke, imparts his wisdom, and Utpal becomes (I am guessing) enlightened. Again Mr. Abhi Subedi makes his sweeping attempt to tie it to modern politics. Of the girls who hear Utpal’s story, one of them decides that running away from an oppressive king and renouncing the world is not preferable to going back to society and changing it. How the moral of Utpal’s story relates to that I have no idea.
The play suffers from a malaise too often found in writers (especially in the developing countries) who take themselves too seriously, intellectuals more familiar with literary criticism than the aesthetics of theatre itself. At times self-conscious, self-referential and consciously melodramatic, Mr. Abhi Subedi is obviously implementing these tricks to enhance the intellectual appeal of the play. Regardless, the dialogues are so cliché-ridden that barely a line impresses. And about melodrama, the only melodramatic scene is one necessitated by the story (in which Utpal’s children drown amidst colorful sheets), and not the narrator’s forced dramatizations. Plenty of yellow light and yellow robes remind one of the cinematic style only too common in the West whenever Buddhist themes come to mind (Kundun and The Little Budhha, for e.g.). The strength of the play was the performances of the actors, and to a certain extent, the music, choreography and scenography (though I wouldn’t mind cutting on the yellow a little).
I cannot comprehend the praise the play is receiving in the Nepali media. Perhaps because it at least features a cruel king, no matter how far fetched his relation to the whole story is. Or perhaps all plays are novelties here. I have seen performances in Nepali schools that are more impressive.