19 MIN READ
A growing diasporic community of Nepali theater artists is developing their artistic practice cross-culturally while maintaining very strong bonds and exchanges with Nepal. Over the past year, I set out to understand what drove their decision to abandon an often well-established career in their country of origin to settle abroad and how they see the theater scene in Nepal from a distance.
Some explained that it is still very difficult to make a living doing theater in Nepal and migrated to look for opportunities in the cultural industries or to simply explore new worlds abroad; others moved mainly because of a sense of disillusionment about the power of theater to transform society, coupled with the risks, insecurity, and instability of the profession and a concern about not being able to guarantee their children a secure future. Some are still involved in the production of films and cultural programs for Nepali communities abroad while others have embarked on alternative or parallel enterprises.
For this article, I will draw on online ethnographic interviews with three artists in particular – Ram Hari Dhakal, Durga Bishwokarma, and RK Mehta Roshan – all of whom moved out of Nepal to pursue higher education in theater. I will also explore how they transpose Nepali stories for global and Nepali audiences alike.
The cost of theater education
In Nepal public, government-funded theater training and education are delivered by the Sanskritik Sansthan or Cultural Corporation, which offers students year-long acting classes, two hours a day. This training was the entry point for many established actors in Nepal and remains a valuable source of contacts and networks for future work.
However, artists who attended the classes remarked that the course was far too short. Durga Bishwokarma pointed out that during her studies in Norway she studied seven to eight hours a day continuously for five years. “Who has the time for that in Nepal? How do they survive?” she asked, in particular, if students have to rely on side jobs to compensate for the lack of scholarships.
At Tribhuvan University, students can study drama as part of Nepali and English literature courses but there is no theater practice course. The efforts of government organizations dealing with the performing arts and theater often center around their own salaried artists and the performances and programs that they organize. Over the past decade, short three- to six-month courses have been offered by stable independent theater companies. However, such training, mostly focusing on acting skills, is often quite expensive, costing up to Rs 50,000 or more and therefore limiting access to students who can afford to pay the fees. Occasionally, theater groups organize longer training, depending on funding, but still, to get an academic qualification or do research, artists need to enroll in other types of courses and there is no connection between academia and independent theater groups.
International development organizations usually fund community theater projects, which often include short training delivered by artists from independent theater groups aimed at building skills among community members for time-limited projects. These are extraordinary first ports of access to theater, in particular for artists coming from rural areas. Their length may vary from three to 14 days. However, they obviously do not provide participants with the skills to turn acting into a profession.
It appears that independent theater groups shoulder most of the practical responsibility for training theater artists due to the vacuum left by the state and the lack of academic, research-based theater education. But, they are only able to train artists up to a certain level, which does not allow advanced students to develop individual research and talents further.
Theater education abroad
Dhakal moved to Oslo in 2012, soon after Gurukul closed down, to study scenography through a BA at the Norwegian Theater Academy and an MA at the Oslo National Academy for the Arts. Bishwokarma moved first to Denmark to study at The Commedia School in Copenhagen (2013-2015), then to Norway where she completed both a BA in Acting and an MA in Performance from the Norwegian Theater Academy. Roshan moved to Italy to study Physical Theater at the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, a one-year diploma course in 2015. All three were looking for specializations that they could not find in Nepal – scenography for Dhakal, academically informed performance practice for Bishwokarma, and physical theater for RK Mehta.
Against the advice of friends, Dhakal took a Rs 500,000 loan to attend a five-day audition for a BA in Scenography in Norway. “My gut feeling said at least I have to try,” he remembered. Out of 67 applicants, he was among the eight students selected for the course and the only one from outside Europe. Despite seven years of experience at Gurukul, Dhakal’s expectations were immediately put to the test.
“I had a lot of theater production experience, as an actor, designer, and stage manager. I thought I had a lot of knowledge,” he said. “But a month after joining the class, I realized I didn’t know anything.”
Studying theater academically was different from learning practically, and one complemented the other. With humility, Dhakal set out to learn from anyone, both colleagues and professors, who mostly used examples of theater from the US and Europe. It was a huge cultural challenge. After completing his BA, he worked for a year as a freelance scenographer and then applied for a Master’s degree. Another five-day-long audition and he was among the 10 students selected out of 65. The academic experience provided Dhakal with opportunities to work with different theater groups, hone his own skills, and find his individual voice through a type of sensory art that he calls “the art of self-realization”.
Originally from Dharan, Bishwokarma joined Shilpee Theatre while studying Arts and Sociology at Padma Kanya College. She performed in proscenium and street plays, movies, and radio dramas, and acquired a wealth of practical experience for six years.
“If I could have studied acting as an academic subject while performing, I would not have struggled so much doing both at the same time,” she said, pointing out that she had to quit her studies to travel for a month to perform Nari. She missed her exams but could not miss such an important professional opportunity. Bishwokarma’s desire to delve more into the theoretical aspects of the performing arts brought her first to Denmark (2013-15) and then to Norway, becoming the first woman in Nepal to graduate in the performing arts with a Master's degree.
Like Dhakal, Bishwokarma too faced massive competition. Only eight students were admitted out of approximately 140 BA applications through 15 days of entrance exams. The MA selection process was equally tough, with only six students making it to the course from around 80. But she found studying in a culturally diverse institution extremely rewarding.
Once Bishwokarma moved to Norway, she was joined by her husband, senior theater artist and founding member of Shilpee Theatre Bikash Tiwari. Theirs is a story of crossing multiple boundaries, including those of caste, through their marriage, mutual support, and artistic collaboration. Tiwari, who also studied at The Commedia School in Copenhagen (2011-13), collaborates with Bishwokarma in holding workshops and performing at festivals across Europe and the US. But the personal and the professional cannot be separated. For Bishwokarma and Tiwari, the primary motivation to leave the country was to be able to live their inter-caste relationship safely outside the social and familial constrictions and oppressions that they would have faced in Nepal.
As artists, theater education became a means of achieving independence and not having to rely on relatives and cultural institutions in Nepal.
“In order to be strong on your feet you have to study,” Bishwokarma explained. She uses performance, including acting, dance, physical theater, and storytelling, to explore and challenge various borders stemming from her own identity as well as wider national, cultural, and social borders. In fact, she describes herself as an interdisciplinary and nomadic artist.
Roshan’s trajectory is similar. Coming from a martial arts background, Roshan got first involved in the theater in 2012 in Biratnagar, through the Birat Maithil Natya Kala Parishad. After attending various workshops in Dharan and Kathmandu, he joined Shilpee Theater where he worked for two years. There, he developed his physical theater skills thanks to the lead of Ghimire Yubaraj, who also studied at The Commedia School in Copenhagen.
Yet, Roshan started to look for ways to develop his skills further. He initially applied to The Commedia dell’Arte School in the US but the $30,000 fee was a massive barrier. He then applied to the Norwegian Theater Academy but having to travel to Norway for the audition and being able to stay only if he passed was too much of a gamble for Roshan and his middle-class family. He, therefore, applied to Arezzo, Italy. The fee was 15,000 euros.
“I told them that I don’t have the money but I am interested,” said RK Mehta.
After attending an online interview, he managed to get a fee waiver and a 5,000 euro scholarship for living expenses. Living in Italy, however, required further costs. Roshan’s desire to look for a job was turned down by the principal of the Accademia. Working would have prevented him from focusing on his studies. But a further audition that he attended and aced at the Accademia dell’Arte granted him an extra 10,000 euros. Roshan also stayed on to teach physical theater for two seasons. He then returned to Nepal to finish his Bachelor's degree and give workshops in physical theater before flying back to Italy again to work in a gold factory and save money that he will invest in his own theater productions once back in Nepal.
Hard work, courage, and passion that sustains commitment through adversity are what characterize the experience of Nepali artists working in Nepal and also that of artists migrating out of Nepal to develop their artistic careers through academic education.
An untapped goldmine: cross-cultural experimentations
What follows is not meant to be a comparison between the artistic productions of Dhakal, Bishwokarma, and Mehta. They are at different career stages and each of them was asked to choose a performance that characterizes their artistic research. However, there are similarities in their narratives: grounded on the skills acquired in their country of origin, all believe they could not have developed their performance style if they had remained in Nepal. None of them is severing bonds with Nepal but instead want to continue to work across borders, bringing Nepali stories abroad to global audiences, but also engaging with artists and audiences in Nepal.
RK Mehta Roshan - ‘Jiundo Aakash’ (2016)
Jiundo Aakash (Living Sky) is a solo performance first staged at a theater festival organized by the Nepal Academy in Charikot, Dolakha, in 2016. Roshan collaborated with a fellow artist from Shilpee Theater, Chandra Pandey, who wrote the text. The play brings to the fore the challenges that the transgender community faces in Nepal – stigmatization within the family, discrimination at work, and a general lack of rights.
At first, Roshan performed and directed the play himself, assisted by Renuka Karki Dholi, his partner who has been supporting him through his career. But he was not satisfied with the outcome. After getting some advice in Italy, the play was successfully staged at the 2018 Theater Olympics in India where it was praised by both students and teachers.
Later on, the play was staged in more than 80 locations outside Kathmandu, in a tour that was self-funded through the collections that the artists received for the performance. While performing Commedia dell’Arte lazzi in Arezzo, Roshan did not have the opportunity to stage a Nepali-themed performance in Italy. However, he believes that it was thanks to his studies at the Commedia dell’Arte School that he managed to develop the skills and confidence that he used in the production of Jiundo Aakash.
For the performance, Roshan employed elements of physical theater, mime, and Lecoq movements. He also explained that in Italy, he worked a lot on voice and speech, and on how to convert and weave gymnastics movements into the play which greatly improved the way he could engage with the audience.
Durga Bishwokarma - ‘Borderline’ (2019)
Borderline was an installation initially staged in 2019 in Fredrikstad, Norway. Inspired by Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (1966), the performance reworks ideas of purity and pollution and the contested boundaries between the two: “the social dirt and the real dirt, and how can I wash it, it’s all about washing, cleansing,” said Bishwokarma. For the duration of the performance, Bishwokarma is completely covered by a white veil and for three hours, she keeps erasing, washing, and cleansing white flour on the floor with her bare arms. The flour becomes a metaphor.
“It can be borders, it can be memories, it can be anything that needs washing,” she said. “It’s an action that repeats itself through the body, I am washing, and washing and washing”. Poetry recited in slow-motion creates a background soundscape while the audience keeps coming and going from the empty white room:
In the end, it is hope
It is my hope
it is my hope we may walk together for a little while
Perhaps I should join with you
Perhaps you should wait for me
In the end away from the last thing
Now I remember in my life
Me and my neighborhood
We may want to walk together with you
It is my hope you will wait for us
We should join you.
We shall find things together
You, me and my neighborhood... Together
Beginning with her own experience of caste ‘borders’ and how she perceives her ‘Dalit body’ from under the veil/inside her own culture. “It’s silenced because it’s hidden, suppressed, oppressed,” she said. The idea of borders and bordering become universal. Everyone at some point in their life may feel limited by certain borders; they may be socially or culturally different; they may be visible or invisible, like when standing at the immigration desk of an airport. In this way, Bishwokarma shares feelings of caste discrimination in Hindu culture with audiences in Norway that may not be familiar with the issue but through her performance can identify in subjective and open ways.
As a female Dalit performer, Bishwokarma felt like an “outsider” in her own culture and has turned her vulnerability into an exploratory artistic journey. She feels that no matter what she does, society tends to see her work through pre-established and often oppressive social categories that she wants to question. “If I do something, they would say ‘oh, she’s doing that, she’s from the Dalit community’. And if I work in the arts, my community would say, ‘You’re doing something crazy, we don’t trust you’,” she said.
Bishwokarma chooses to be upfront about caste discrimination, representing her caste “very proudly, happily and politically” but also moving beyond caste issues by exploring artistic forms and themes that appeal more widely to non-Nepali audiences.
Ram Hari Dhakal - ‘Inside/Outside (Series of Untold War Stories)’ (2018-21)
Between 2018 and 2021, Dhakal produced a series of four performances centered around the lived experience of the civil war in Nepal (1996-2006). In particular, he used sensory inputs to help the audience themselves become actors and explore the psychological effects and the mental turmoil induced by the war. The Inside/Outside series part I to III were produced during Dhakal’s Master’s studies. The production of the first part was one of the toughest times in his artistic career, he said. It was a kind of test itself because it was not a regular performance and definitely not the kind of performance that he was used to.
For part I, Dhakal drew on his own experience of the civil war. He was not directly involved but as a student, he was a witness, as were his relatives in his native village. For the second production, he spent 10 days in Thabang in Rolpa district, interviewing locals about their lives before, during, and after the war. He recorded almost 40 hours’ worth of stories and then interpreted them through the senses. Inside/Outside Part II was presented at the Nepal International Theater Festival in 2019.
The third performance centers around the experience of a female Maoist combatant who runs for her life through the forest amid bullets to avoid being captured by the army and hides in a rhododendron bush.
Funded by a Norwegian Arts Council grant, the fourth performance – Inside/Outside part IV – debuted on October 14, 2021. It deals with the transformations that took place in Nepali society after the war. Dhakal feels the war was obviously a time of grief and anguish but the post-war period too was characterized by instability, suspicion, confusion, and uncertainty for the future. The present for Dhakal is a time of frustration. He explains that he could have produced a text-based theatrical performance but he wanted to avoid that because in any war people die and lose their houses and properties. For him “telling a story” is very different from “sharing an emotion” which is what he does.
“I just give a small summary to the audience,” he said. “And then, it’s up to them to receive the story. I don’t need to tell them what exactly happens.”
Unlike other sensory-based performances that often center around one of the senses, Dhakal offers the audience an all-encompassing experience. For example, in his last performance, he created different floors/landscapes where the audience encountered a variety of smells, textures, sounds, tastes, emotions, and feelings such as hunger and thirst. There were objects that reacted through motion or pressure sensors when the spectators got close to them. But it was up to the spectator to approach the objects and engage with them or simply move forward. Through such interaction, audience members connected to their own memories, leading to an independent understanding that varied from person to person.
Distinct yet similar
Bishwokarma, Mehta, and Dhakal are all developing distinct theatrical practices but they share commonalities. First, Nepal is very much present in their artistic productions but none of them wants to be limited by their country of origin. Bishwokarma talks about the responsibility that artists have towards the countries in which they live and to audiences globally. She explains that audiences that attend her performances come with expectations arising from what they know about Nepal. She wants to be seen as an artist of Nepali origin but not only as a “Nepali artist” to avoid being framed by stereotypes and expectations. She wants to be a global artist.
Second, all three artists are developing practices that move beyond the text-centered and acting-focused theater that has become mainstream in Nepal.
Dhakal recalled that when he staged Inside/Outside Part II in Nepal, audience members who were studying theater asked him what the style of his work was as they were not able to categorize it. Dhakal replied: “I haven’t figured out what style this is, it’s just my feelings. I tried to express my feelings through the senses. That’s it. You can say it’s experimental.”
Bishwokarma also blends performance into her theater practice, noticing that in Nepal, there are few performance artists and their practice is usually separated from the theater, unlike in Norway.
Third, all three see ‘Nepal’s heritage’ as a massive potential to explore through their art. In one of her productions, Bishworkarma has already deformalized a Charya dance, blending it into English poetry and masked dancing. However, she felt quite insecure. “If I do that,” she said, “professional Charya dancers in Nepal would ask ‘why?”
Interestingly, a debate recently emerged on social media. Some Newa activists claimed that the Charya dance should only be performed in ritual contexts once a year and not in hotels or other commercial stages, using slogans such as ‘Save our culture’, ‘Don’t sell our culture’. This raises interesting questions: must Nepali dances be performed only in Nepal, in their full form? Who does Newar heritage belong to? Does it have to be the reservoir of Newa artists or can members of other ethnic communities rework it? Does a ‘Nepali heritage’ exist or is it split across communities? What implications do these boundaries have for contemporary theater artists
What is the value of cultural work?
After the end of the civil war, Nepali theater flourished, particularly in Kathmandu. Over the past decades, the number of independent theater groups has increased and so has the number of theater halls they manage, offering urban audiences a wide range of productions. However, for freelance artists not permanently associated with these groups, feelings of insecurity seem to have increased, in particular for those who cannot benefit from long-term connections with NGOs or capital networks.
The government’s cultural policy is very weak and government institutions continue to exclude independent theater artists and groups alike. Even pressure by the theater owners on the Nepal Academy of Music and Drama for some measures of support during the prolonged lockdown that led to stopping of all theatrical activities for months resulted in nothing.
For NGOs and INGOs that fund theater-related projects, the main aim is usually to raise community awareness on a variety of social issues and not to sustain the performing arts per sé. UNESCO Nepal itself has so far directed its funding to education and heritage projects rather than the cultural and creative industries.
The absence of state-funded scholarships, grants, and accessible performance spaces also complicates the career prospects of freelance theater artists, including those who want to return to Nepal after studying abroad. For example, Roshan explains that when he returned to Nepal in 2018, he had planned to remain there to work as a teacher, giving workshops. That, however, would have meant forgetting his dream of developing his own theater productions. As financial worries would have stifled his creativity, Roshan preferred to return to Italy to work for another two-to-three years, “get good money and then return to Nepal to do theater in a professional way”.
Public funding for the arts has often produced heated debates. It’s perceived as both a necessity and a problem. State funding does not by default guarantee more equality. The prevalence of neoliberal policies has led to a general decrease in state subsidies in various countries, negatively impacting the working conditions of cultural workers. For example, a large-scale study from the UK has shown that cultural work is structurally characterized by inequality, exploitation, and precarity.
While state funding may not be a panacea, the lack of state subsidies and facilities, from academic courses to grants and performance spaces, does not remove the controversies around subsidizing the arts; instead, it creates new ones.
The fact that the young generation still needs to leave Nepal to pursue academic education clearly shows that not much has changed in Nepal’s state education provision and that the government has failed to consider the cultural industries as a sector worth investing in. No matter which political party is in power, they have so far failed to recognize not only the human and cultural but also the economic value and potential of the performing arts. Theater continues to develop at the margins of the state.
But what emerges is also a very dynamic scene, linking Nepal to Europe and North America, full of innovation, experimentation, creativity, and passion. The artists interviewed have moved on too: Bishwokarma is now working on a play on caste violence for her internship at the Ostfold Internasjionale Teater (Norway), Roshan has returned to Nepal to act in a new film, Aankha and Dhakal will stage Inside/Outside Part IV at Mandala Theatre next month.
And artists return with new ways of being an artist, which include the right of pursuing academic studies, getting access to public funding, and receiving a fair wage for their labor. If their stories were heard, together with those of the theater artists who continue working in Nepal, Nepali theater could become more varied, inclusive, and sustainable.
Monica Mottin I am a social anthropologist and Research fellow at Heidelberg University in the project Heritage as Placemaking. I have researched and written on cultural work and theatre, in particular "Rehearsing for Life. Theatre for Social Change in Nepal" (Cambridge University Press, 2018).