The power of a play, like other forms of visual art, lies in its ability to have multifaceted impacts. It can be a source of entertainment, a celebration of culture and traditions, a clever portrayal of social issues, or an escape from reality. Every once in a while a piece is produced that does all of these things on its own.
‘Chor ko Swor’play presented by Artmandu Nepal and staged at the Mandala Theatre, Thapagaun, is an example of such a play. The original story was written by Nabin Chauhan, while Anil Subba and Anwesh Thulung Rai adapted and co-directed the play.
For a play to walk the fine line between captivating entertainment and subtle social representation, a lot of things have to come together. From the artists’ acting prowess to creative set design and captivating sound design, a play needs to encompass all of these things to keep the audience entertained while also provoking them to think. ‘Chor ko Swor’ achieves this feat thanks to the passion and hard work of all the theater artists, the creative team and the management team.
The main theme of ‘Chor ko Swor’ revolves around marriage, particularly flight in the Limbu communities of Nepal. Its namesake refers to a tradition in Limbu communities where relatives of the prospective groom visit the bride’s parental home to inform them of the runaway and seek their consent for the marriage.
Bhimhang (played by Prabin Magar) ran away with Seema (played by Nusa Lingden), and this triggers the start of the play. Bhimhang is from Chemjong village, while Seema is from Sherma village. These two villages are connected by a fragile but solid bridge, built of wood and bamboo. Bhimhang’s parents cross this bridge to reach Sherma village to fulfill their duty of chor ko swear. As Seema’s family members and Sherma village elders reluctantly agree to the union, the wedding ceremony proceeds in all its extravagance.
There is a saying that circulates in the houses where people reach the conventional age of marriage: you do not marry a person, but you marry his whole family. In this play, however, one person does not marry a family but the whole village. Geographically separated by a gorge, the villages of Chemjong and Sherma have significant differences, even though they are both settlements of Limbu communities. Also in terms of development, these two villages differ: the benefits of electricity and road have reached Chemjong village, while Sherma village still lags behind. While people from both villages had planned to build and connect infrastructure together, in the end, only Chemjong village prospered with power poles and roads.
Like the fragile but strong bridge that connects the two villages, the marriage between the members of the two villages is the bond that strengthens the relationship between the two similar but different villages and buries the old resentments of the inhabitants.
The play’s ingenious scenography adds to its authenticity and transports the audience through time and space to a rural setting in 2000s Nepal. A two-storey house belonging to Seema’s parents stands on the left side of the stage, while the bridge that connects the two villages is located in the center of the stage. The hard work and dedication of Hom BC and Surya KC, the duo who created the set, and the two directors who helped design the set shines throughout the play. The second floor of Seema’s parental home is fully functional and is used creatively in the story, while the bridge itself is crossed by many people throughout the play. Even a water tap next to the house is flowing with real water, and a red light under a cauldron fades and glows to closely mimic real wood fire. The effort of the coin makers to go the extra mile to add authenticity wherever possible is what makes this good coin great.
But the real beauty of this piece is in the things left unsaid and the things hidden in plain sight. As the wedding ceremonies begin, there is excitement and fury in the air. Pigs are slaughtered, traditional musicians are invited and homemade alcohol is prepared. The women wash the dishes, prepare the liquor, feed the guests and mop the floors while the men savor the festivities. The wedding ceremony ends with the bride paying homage to the groom by touching his feet, but the groom is restrained by relatives when he tries to do the same. When a playful tease enters soltis and Soltinis takes center stage, the bride and her sister-in-law converse together on the second floor of the house in the corner with serious faces, inaudible to the audience.
This format of multiple actions occurring simultaneously is followed throughout the play. There’s so much going on simultaneously that audiences can quickly get confused on where to focus. On one side of the stage, there is a budding romance; on the other side, there is heartbreak when a bride leaves her parents’ house. But the confusion in these scenes adds to the nuances of reality and history. Our lives are often interspersed with happy, sad, frustrating and encouraging times, and are rarely sequential.
The play is also longer than usual, but its subject – the beginning of traditional marriage in a Limbu community until its end – deserves a two-hour runtime. Scenes in the play that delve into human emotions have time to develop properly. When a sister and brother, who have avoided each other for years after the sister’s marriage, talk to each other again, an uncomfortable tension hangs in the air. Like the snow and frost that settle deep as winter progresses, there is a rigid coldness between the two siblings. It takes time for the snow to melt and for old family relationships to melt. The piece allows enough time for such interactions to properly flourish, which extends the duration of the piece. It’s a small inconvenience to pay to see a nuanced portrayal of family relationships.
The end of the play is complete. The play, which started with Bhimhang and Seema running away, ends with Sesehang (played by Anil Subba) and Fungma (played by Bedana Rai) running away. Now the inhabitants of the village of Sherma are making their way as chor ko swear in the village of Chemjong. While the play certainly shows the power imbalance between men and women in domestic life and marriage culture, it refrains from enforcing suggestions or making judgments. It presents the rural life of the Limbu community in the 2000s in Nepal. No more no less. Sometimes plays don’t need to make deep statements. Sometimes plays are only about weddings.
‘Chor ko Swor’ runs at the Mandala Theatre, Thapagaun until June 29.