Performing Criticism. Nepalese Theatre between Art, Development and Politics

Start date: 9 December, 2012 End date: 21 March, 2013 Project type: Master's Thesis (prior to 2018) Project code: A19309 Countries: Nepal Institutions: University of Copenhagen (UCPH), Denmark Grant recipient: Asger Martiny-Bruun and Jane Bruslund Jensen Total grant: 20,000 DKK



Nepal has experienced fundamental societal changes during the last 30 years following popular protests that in 1990 lead to the replacement of a repressive autocratic government with a parliamentary democracy. The new political system has since been in a process of democratization, and theatre has been a part of the recent social and political transformations.

While political parties have applied theatre as a method for mobilisation, most established theatre groups have remained independent and participated in public protests and popular movements. The independent theatres have performed criticisms of oppressive social norms, traditional practices and the political system in alignment with an ideal for developing a “New Nepal” – a prosperous and democratic country with equal rights for all citizens.

Our thesis examines how independent Nepalese theatres especially in Kathmandu today engage in the public space in Nepal. We ask how the theatre groups and the criticism they perform are shaped by conceptions of art, by ideals of development and cooperation with development organisations, as well as contemporary political protests and popular notions of the political system. The thesis is based on four months fieldwork in Kathmandu, primarily following Shilpee Theatre Group but also including other theatre groups.

Independent theatres strive to combine artistic ambitions and activist objectives of social change in their work, and they share an understanding of art as a non-cohesive method of promoting social norms. Our analysis suggests that in Shilpee the theatre praxis is shaped by a development ideology that aims at changing social norms and behaviour according to a developed, modern ideal. Within this development ideology traditional norms are conceived as backward, prejudiced and oppressive, and as the cause of social problems. The theatre performances aim at creating awareness as a self-reflexive need to change oneself according to a developed and correct way.

Shilpee and other independent theatre cooperate with I/NGOs to produce these performances. Both theatres and I/NGOs share an understanding of street theatres’ potential to work with social problems and influence micro-social processes in the Nepalese society. Street theatre and forum theatre is often prioritised as methods to influence the audience within the frames of the development ideology. Further the cooperation supports the theatres’ financially in their work to establish themselves as independent institutions with their own theatre facilities.

Theatres also continue to be engaged in criticism of the political system and the state according to their ideals for a New Nepal. In contexts where criticism is directed at state officials or political issues such as corruption it is performed in indirect manners through symbolism, satire and irony in public spaces that are clearly defined as not supporting any political parties.