I was casually walking inside the premises of Sarwanam Theater in Kalika Marg, Kalikastan—waiting for a rendezvous with Ashesh Malla—when I saw a picture of him on the wall. His dream was written on the side: ‘As the dust of centuries pass over my country, let this theater heritage continue to remain a creative platform to talents who will contribute to build a society where art and theater will flourish with rich human values’. I could barely make out the meaning at first but after a brief meeting with Malla, his vision became clearer. Malla, the pioneer of street theater in Nepal, is the founder and director of Sarwanam Theater. A multitalented artist, he is renowned for his poems, fiction and acting. Malla has won many prestigious awards like Sajha Puraskar, Musyachu Puraskar, Moti awards, etc. for his contribution to Nepali theater and arts.
Born in the eastern hilly town of Dhankuta in 1954, Malla spent his childhood in a rich cultural environment. In those days, every day in Dhankuta bazaar was like a festival with people performing dramas, reciting poetries and displaying various skills via arts and dance. Malla believes that his ancestors not only migrated to Dhankuta from Bhaktapur, they also brought along their culture.
“I never liked going to school. All I wanted to do was perform in plays and write poems,” says Malla, reminiscing about his early days. When he was eight, Malla wanted to perform a play but his desire was thwarted as he was denied a chance to work with the town’s senior actors. So he took matters into his own hands; he assembled some friends and started doing impromptu performances around the town. His acts earned him praise and helped him land a role with the local performers. And thus began Malla’s career.
After graduating from college in 1974-1975, Malla became an active member of Dhankuta theater scene. By that time, he had many short stories and poems published in local newspapers. Encouraged by his friends, Malla then wrote his first play ‘Tuwalo le dhakeko basti,’ which he completed in seven days. It was based on the story of two brothers who always fought with their father for property. The brothers were caretakers of Malla’s family farm.
The play, one of the first for which people had to buy tickets, remained houseful for 8 days, a record at that time. The popularity of the play boosted Malla’s ambitions and, with a troupe of 50, he came to Kathmandu, where the play was staged at the then Royal Nepal Academy and was received with equal excitement by the audience.
“I had never seen such a big stage; it was bigger than the entire hall we had in Dhankuta,” recollects Malla. The audience included playwright Balkrishna Sama and members of the royal family, all of whom were moved by his performance. “I felt like I became a huge theater star overnight,” says Malla. The play ran for a month. It was a huge achievement at that time when most productions ran at most for a week.
It was not all praise for Malla though. Famous author Bijaya Malla accused him of pushing the Nepali theater scene back by 50 years and suggested him to perform modern plays rather than traditional ones. “I had no idea about modern plays and the critique inspired me to learn more about theater,” says Malla.
Malla decided to stay back in Kathmandu and enrolled in Nepali literature department at the Tribhuvan University. During his stay in Kathmandu, he read many books on theater, which deepened his understanding of modern plays.
Malla began writing plays at a time when political parties were fighting the Panchayat regime. “I recall our country facing shortages and black-marketeering being rampant,” says Malla. “So we wrote a satirical play, whose staging was obstructed and the troupe was accused of ‘anti-government’ activities.
“I realized that autocracy restricted our freedom,” says Malla. “So I decided to raise voice against it through my plays.” The execution of his neighbor from Dhankuta for speaking against the government served as a catalyst for Malla’s revolutionary plays.
Many of his plays were obstructed by the police; some were banned or heavily censored. A 40-page play was trimmed to 10 pages. The administration had a close eye on him all the time because he was deemed a revolutionary. Renting a hall was no longer financially viable.
“It was then that an inner voice told me that I didn’t need a stage to perform and that a play should itself create a stage for the audience,” he recalls. He stood up on his chair and said, “A moment ago, this was a chair, but now that I am standing on it, it has become my stage.”
He realized that he could perform anywhere, and ‘Hamile basanta khojirako chhaun’ became the first play performed on the Kirtipur ground. It was the start of a new movement in Nepal.
It was 36 years ago that he founded Sarwanam Theater, which continues to perform plays on the streets. He had the passion and dedication to continue even when faced with formidable obstacles. Looking back, Malla smiles and says “Sarwanam is a symbol of the past, the voice of our struggles and the passion we felt.”