Pah-Lak is a pamphlet for non-violence in the world, says co-director Harry Fuhrmann
One of Abhishek Majumdar’s most talked about plays, Lhakpa Tsering-directed ‘Pah-Lak’ is set to take the stage at Prithvi Theatre Festival 2022
By Reema Gowalla
We may have heard of or read about the 1959 Tibetan uprising, but very few of us have cared to find out what’s been going on with the people of the ‘the highest region on earth’ ever since. The very purpose of award-winning playwright Abhishek Majumdar’s masterpiece Pah-Lak is to give an insight into the hopes and longings of Tibetan people, and understand why they have embraced the path of nonviolent resistance. Known for his plays that are so daring and discomforting that they often make headlines more for being banned or engulfed in controversies than running shows, Abhiskek came up with this script after years of research, patience and persistence.
The first edition of the play, titled Pah-la, premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in April 2019. This was staged with support from Reimagine India, Arts Council England. The show earned a four-star rating from celebrated British theatre critic, Michael Billington, who wrote in The Guardian, “In the play’s superior first half, Majumdar raises fascinating ethical questions and avoids a too obvious confrontation of good and evil”. This version of the play, however, mostly featured non-Tibetan actors.
Cut to the present, the new version of the play is translated and directed by the Head of Tibet Theatre, Lhakpa Tsering, along with German theatre director Harry Fuhrmann. This is a new production, the script for which has been rewritten in parts by Abhishek. Titled Pah-Lak (that translates to ‘father’), the project includes an all-Tibetan cast, and is created in collaboration with the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA). As part of his research, Abhishek had also met with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who has supported the project with a grant from the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of HH The Dalai Lama.
Pah-Lak examines the future of non-violence, as the plot focuses on the role of Buddhism in the lives of Tibetans as well as the dichotomy of the resistance movement that has emerged from decades of oppression, discrimination and marginalisation. The narrative follows the life of Deshar, a young woman who disowns her father and runs away from her remote village to become a Buddhist nun.
After opening in McLeod Ganj some time ago, Pah-Lak has been touring. The two-phase India tour, which began in October 2022 will end in August 2023. It covers Tibetan settlements and a few cities across the country — including Dharamshala, Bir, Dehradun, Delhi, Bylakuppe, Mundgod, Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru. This is said to be the largest ever Tibetan theatre tour. Plans are afoot to take the play to Europe as well.
On November 9, the play (that runs for 2 hours and 10 minutes) is taking the stage at the ongoing Prithvi Theatre Festival. Ahead of the show, Harry talks about the making of Pah-Lak and why it’s such an important play in this day and age. Excerpts from the exclusive interview with TheatreRoom:
Q. What makes Pah-Lak such an important piece of dramatic work in today’s world?
A. This is the first time that a Tibetan drama company is touring India through the settlements and the country’s theatres, as well as going abroad. Next year, the play will be performed in Germany and Switzerland. It’s important that the Tibetans tell their story to the world, because they are getting more and more forgotten.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the refugee crisis and the war in Ukraine, we are forgetting the situation in Tibet, which is becoming worse. I think, if you try to understand what’s going on in Tibet, you can comprehend what’s going on globally, because the whole world is making business with China. But the Chinese government is violating human rights so strongly inside the country. Despite all that, many countries are still continuing trade and business with China. This implies that the world is more in favour of capitalism than they support human rights and democratic ideas. Hence, I think it’s very important that we tell the world what’s going on at the moment inside Tibet.
Tibetan people are now travelling the world and telling their story. This is the first time that Tibetan theatre practitioners are travelling so far and wide. TIPA, which was founded by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1959, is collaborating with us on this play. The Dalai Lama has always said that “we have to do drama”. Theatre, according to him, is one of the strongest ways to convey the message to people. And so, he always wanted Tibetans to tell their stories to the world. But it took 63 years for that to happen.
In the past, there were Tibetan artistes performing as part of productions, but it has never happened that an entire Tibetan drama company is performing in Tibetan language, telling their story. And that’s why, we are trying our best to make this come true. Lhakpa Tsering and I have directed the play together. I feel that people across the world need to understand what’s happening inside Tibet and how the Chinese government is oppressing the Tibetans and destroying their culture.
Q. Tell us about your journey with the play…
A. My journey with the play began some time toward the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. It all started when I was working at TIPA, helping the Tibetan community with some acting workshops. The purpose was to underpin the community’s trust in the art of theatre, as well as help strengthen their personality through acting. During my early days in Tibet, I was mainly working with youngsters (teaching them theatre pedagogy and such), and then I joined the institute and volunteered to do acting workshops for them every year. I’m a theatre director and acting teacher, working and teaching in many schools around the world. Since the time I came in contact with the people of the region, there was a dream to one day make a play with them. While I conducted acting classes, I tried to gather knowledge about Tibetan culture. In 2018, I met Lhakpa Tsering, who is regarded as the ‘head of Tibetan theatre’. I invited him to be part of my workshop, and also work with me on the first play that I directed in Tibet — titled The Valley of the Black Foxes. Over time, we became really close friends. In fact, I would say that he is my Tibetan brother.
I wanted to work on a powerful script that really brings out the plight of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese government, and I wanted that play to tour the world. That’s when Lhakpa told me that he was helping an Indian playwright, named Abhishek Majumdar, to develop such a play, and that it was premiering in 2019 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. This was, however, an English language play with no Tibetan actors. So, after we all met together, we decided to do the play in India, in Tibetan language with Tibetan actors. Because only then the true essence of it can be realised. And that’s how we began work on the new version of the play. We also had to raise money for the play to be able to tour.
After the first phase of the India tour, we have 22 shows lined up in Germany, Switzerland and France, between May and June 2023. This is being financed by a support organisation in Germany. In India, we have a team of production managers and producers, apart from the Tibetan cast. So, you can say that everything is built from scratch. Meanwhile, TIPA has also continued to help us through the journey. Shows have already been conducted in Mussoorie, Dehradun, Dharamshala and Delhi. The next leg of the India tour will include places like Goa, Bengaluru, Mundgod and Bylakuppe.
Q. What were the challenges you faced while directing this piece? Tell us about your experience of working with Tibetan artistes…
A. More than two years ago, Lhakpa, Abhishek and I started discussing the old version of the play. Suggestions were made to make it stronger and shorter with a few changes to the script. We even decided to remove one character from the play. And Abhishek was very open to all these changes. He, in fact, rewrote the play in parts, especially the second act. Some strong suggestions made by him were also incorporated in the revised script. And that’s how, we finally closed the drafting process for this version of the play.
Then, we started making the play. I may have the experience of being a theatre director and how to stage a strong play, but Lhakpa knows Tibetan culture way better than me. He has more knowledge and understanding of what’s going on inside Tibet. I learned a lot from him in terms of understanding the character and psyche of one of the principal characters of the play — Deshar, a young Tibetan woman, who disowns her father and runs away from home to become a Buddhist nun. Even the minute details like how a Tibetan feels, thinks and prays were given attention to. We sat down with members of the cast to discuss their and their families’ life stories and experiences as Tibetans. For me, this was much more than just directing a play.
Knowing my Tibetan actors and their life stories, and understanding their views on what’s happening inside and outside Tibet formed an integral part of creating this play. The insights that you get when you talk to people are more valuable than the information you gather by reading and researching things. In a way, this was also a very emotional process for them because it’s a very sad story. Although it’s a fictional piece, it’s about something that is happening every day. When we make plays, we often think of ways to adapt them to today’s world. But this is a play that is so contemporary, and it’s sad that something like this is happening right now. There is not much hope for them. And that’s why, it’s so important that we create awareness about the Tibetan issue and let people around the world know what is going on there. In this case, through a piece of drama.
During the rehearsal process, we also had volunteers from Europe joining the project (mostly, my former acting students from Belgium and Germany). Then, we had people from India working on the administrative and organisational part of things. So, it was a wonderful mixture of cultures that came together, and exchanged and learned from each other. We became a very strong family during this time, opening up to each other, sharing stories with one another and building trust, which I think is very important. For me, it was also a big challenge to direct a play in a language that I don’t understand. But theatre is not about words, it’s more about actions.
We have tried to create a performance that even people who don’t follow Tibetan language can understand. There are English subtitles as well. It’s more like a visual performance — you see and understand what is happening between the people on stage. The actions are as important as the texts, in fact, more at times. We also use projections in the play that enrich the story and, perhaps, add a different layer for the audience. The set includes a huge gate (six metres wide and three metres high). It’s symbolic of the Tibetan Gate — a piece of Tibetan culture that is destroyed by China. Traditional Tibetan music is used in the play, thanks to two musicians [Nyima Dhondup and Tenzin Passang] from TIPA, while it also features some elements from Tibetan opera. The attempt is to tell a strong contemporary story, but also give a feeling of the culture that is getting lost.
Q. What is the play trying to convey to the audience?
A. The central message of the play lies in telling the audience about the non-violence resistance of the Tibetans. We are living in a world that is provoking violence every day, creating new violence, hate and pain. And Tibetans inside Tibet are still trying to resist the oppression of the Chinese government in a non-violent way. There’s a lot to learn from the Tibetans. If people become more non-violent, we would have a different world. Tibetans are an example of non-violent resistance.
The main character in the play is a nun called Deshar. Her father was a resistance fighter inside Tibet, who is full of hate against the Chinese government. He’s angry that the resistance fight was stopped in the 1970s. In the beginning of the play, even the daughter seems to be very angry and violent. She lives in a monastery, where the Chinese soldiers are coming to conduct re-education. So, chances are that even the monastery will be closed eventually. Later on, though, she learns more and more that she has to get rid of her hate and create a strong voice without being violent. According to me, this play is like a pamphlet for non-violence in the world from Abhishek.
The play features actors Kalsang Dolma (as Deshar), Tenzin Yonten (as Dorjee), Tenzin Wangchuk (as Tsering), Youngkyar Dolma (as Pema), Lhakpa Tsering (as Deng), Tsering Bawa (as Rinpoche/man with a stick), Tenzin Pema (as Ling) and Tenzin Lhundup (as Gaphel). Saatvika Kantamneni is the producer and production manager, while Yael Crishna is the stage manager and light designer, with Sonam Tsering as stage assistant.
You can book your tickets for the show at Prithvi Theatre Festival here.