Snow’s journey on Earth (Hiun ko Prithivi Yatra)
What if a river were a character in a play? What would the river say if it could speak? How would it roar in anger? How would a river express happiness when it was free to move and flow? How would it show agony when its flow was constrained?
I have had these questions in mind for over a year. In my play, I wanted to experiment by giving space and a voice to the river as a living entity. Before telling the river’s story, I had to listen to its stories. I had to learn about rivers.
I invited water specialist Ajaya Dixit to interact with our team at Shilpee Theater. He explained the basics of water science, the hydrological cycle, the role of aquatic life and how rivers helped shape civilization. He also talked about floods. He mentioned that pollution is killing rivers and that in many countries the construction of dams had diverted rivers and turned their downstream stretches dry. We watched Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra, a river scholar of India, explain the complexities of rivers on YouTube. While we continued our research, we conceptualized the first scene of a play; the freezing of a lake, the melting of glaciers, and the beginning of a river.
Birds in the plains: Photo Min Bajracharya
Our team interacted with Kashmira Kakati, a water specialist from Assam. She explained to us about the ways biodiversity and rivers sustain each other. Healthy aquatic biodiversity makes rivers healthy and vice versa. For more clarity, we invited Nepali journalist and writer Ramesh Bhusal for an interactive session with our team. Ramesh shared his experience of a 2000 km long journey from the source of the Karnali River in Tibet to its confluence with the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh. He explained how the Karnali River changed form as it hurtled towards the Ganga. In the mountains, the river flows through gorges, dances between banks and meanders across plains. A river, he reminded us, is a living entity. All the discussions helped us understand that a river is a combination of water flow, sediments, and aquatic biodiversity. Clean water may flow in an artificially built open channel but without aquatic biodiversity, sediment and connection to flood plains along its banks, such a channel cannot be a river.
A river is a living entity.
On the boat: Photo Ghimire Yuba Raj
We decided to portray a river as a living and thriving entity in our play. However, I could not do it alone, so I invited Amjad Parwej, who has more than a decade of experience in theater, to co-write and co-direct the play. Together, we began to write the script of “Hiun ko Prithivi Yatra” (“Snow Travels on Earth”). Immediately, a new question confronted us. “Does a river have a gender? In South Asia, most rivers, our research revealed, are revered as mothers and have feminine names: Ganga, Gandaki, Karnali, and Bagmati. However, Brahmaputra is considered male. We wanted to avoid gender bias, so we created two female and one male character to represent a river in our play.
However, we were not sure about how to portray a river on stage. All rivers begin in hills and flow down onto plains and then to an ocean. Across the landscape, rivers are intricately linked with their banks, ecologies, communities, economies and livelihoods. In Nepal, rivers begin in the hills and flow across the Terai plains before crossing into India. In the play, we would include the lives of people living on riverbanks. To better express this relationship in the script, we included communities along rivers flowing through Nepal’s Madhesh Pradesh. We discussed using lots of colors and light in our play. However, our first draft using these elements did not capture the essense and merely crumbled like a sandcastle. Our subsequent scripts also failed to capture the essense of what we wanted to show. For a better perspective, we decided to visit people along the banks of the Koshi River in the Nepal Tarai.
Local Communities on the Banks
On the bank of the Koshi, photographer Chakra Timilsina told us about migrating birds from around the world that came to Koshi Tappu, the wetland alongside the river. In the wetland, we saw a few birds, wild buffaloes and elephants. We watched the sunset. All was beautiful.
The next day, along with Bhola Paswan, a resident and social activist, we visited a nearby village and met a few families. They told us about the damage floods and droughts had done to crops, and how they struggled with wild animals that damage farms. We also met fishermen and boatmen who struggled to make a living. We had read similar stories but directly meeting the affected helped us understand the lived social reality.
Dipicting elephants; Photo Ghimire Yuba Raj
These stories were different from the colorful world of migrating birds and a gorgeous sunset we had seen a day earlier. We decided that our play would also include these stories along with those of elephants, fishes and dolphins. We revised our script. We invited experts for feedback. Friends and well-wishers provided useful suggestions. After a few rehearsals, we further refined the script.
With nine actors[i], the final script of a play 1 hour and 10 minutes in duration was ready. The play would show rivers, banks, seas, seashells, people, dolphins, fish and elephants. Immediately we faced a challenge. How do we prepare the stage for presenting scenes of flooding, drought and other non-human actors?
We arranged for a snow machine to show the Himalayas and a cloth to depict the river and the expanse of the sea. Bamboo would function as a screen on the stage. To create a riverbank, we used a truckload of sand. The play would use various light colors, including green to show the river flowing towards the sea and red to show an elephant killing a girl. Visual literature and props would depict the river, its relation with communities on the riverbanks and non-human lives such as freshwater dolphins and elephants. In the Koshi River, freshwater dolphins are extinct and in other rivers they face threats. Wild elephants and communities have conflictual relations. The play highlights the need for conserving freshwater dolphins and minimizing human-elephant conflict.
In the first stage the river is carefree and curious like a child.
The play aimed to capture the journey of a river from its beginning to its end in four stages. In the beginning, the river is shown as carefree and curious like a child. In the second phase, with a stronger flow, the river matures. Choked with wastes and fragmented, the river struggles to flow freely in the next phase. Its identity comes into question. In the fourth stage, the river is dry. It does not reach the sea. Meanwhile, the sea waits for the river to join, evaporate as vapour into clouds and move rains to the land.
Connecting with Audiences
To add vigor and life to the play, we included fish, a mouse and boats. Blending with its purpose, we used music as a bridge between the dialogues and the visual performances. Of the five songs, I wrote three and Amjad Parwej wrote two. We performed 21 shows in Kathmandu, in 15 schools and across Nepal. When we performed on the Koshi Tappu riverbank, the residents were overwhelmed to see their own stories recited in the play. We were intrigued by their emotions. We also performed the play in festivals in India.
The Team: Photo Shilpee Theater
Using the medium of creative art, without bias, we have told a story of a river and the problems people on the banks face. River conservation, disputes and justice were our key themes. Presenting the complex and basic aspects of rivers, their use and interdependence with nature and community was indeed a challenge and an ambitious endeavor. By portraying rivers as living entities through the medium of theater, we believed we were able to communicate the threats rivers face. We hope that we have highlighted a less dispute-ridden and nature-friendly path to adopt to steward rivers.
How did we perform? Our audiences are but best evaluators. We will listen to them and continue to use theater as a medium to tell the stories of rivers, people and nature.
 Other members are Pabitra Khadka, Sangeeta Kumari Uranw, Jhakendra BC, Jyoti Pokharel, Rabin Pariyar, Govind Oli, Himal Bhujel, Sushila Luhar and Yogendra Baral (Jack Seventeen Baral).