About a decade or so ago, Bengaluru-based playwright Abhishek Majumdar decided to explore the future of non-violence in the world we live in. “Our country resorted to non-violence during our freedom movement. It was seen as an active form of revolt which could achieve political goals. Many countries in Africa and Asia went through the process of decolonization through non-violence,” he says. Over the years, he observes, it is the very opposite that has taken precedence in most freedom movements around the world.
In his research about the future of non-violence, Majumdar was intrigued by the Tibetan movement. “What is it that makes them non-violent in a world that is increasingly becoming violent? Why is it that an act of terror such as 9/11 makes such big news but multiple self-immolations in Tibet don’t?” he asks. These questions resulted in Pah-Lak, a play which was first presented at the Royal Court in London in 2019 in English by UK-based director Debbie Hannan.
The play has since been translated into Tibetan by theatre director Lhakpa Tsering of Tibet Theatre Group, with subtitles in English. Tsering, along with German theatre director Harry Fuhrmann, has co-directed the Tibetan play with a cast full of Tibetan actors. Tsering believes this has added value to the experience of watching this play on stage. “Tibetans understand the reality of what is happening back home. They don’t have to act, just show their own feelings and suffering to the audience,” says the director, who fled to India from Tibet sometime in the 1990s to escape an abusive father.
There is another reason for translating the play into the language spoken by the people of Tibet, Majumdar adds. “Tibetan language has a very rich history that includes major philosophical works of the world which have been written over centuries. There is a whole way of thinking which developed within the language, which is under threat because the Chinese government has placed a lot of restrictions on the use of the language. Therefore, the language becomes even more intrinsic to the Tibetan struggle.”
Pah-Lak ('father' in Tibetan) tells the story of a young Buddhist nun, Deshar, who self-immolates after her monastery is destroyed and her master is killed by the Chinese government. She survives the act and lets go of her anger after realizing the true meaning of humanity. Based on real events, the play is a reminder of how difficult it is for those living in Tibet to keep choosing non-violence in the face of atrocities.
In the last one-and-a-half months, the play has been performed in front of at least 5,000 people in Delhi and Dharamshala. It is now making its way to Mumbai as part of the Prithvi Festival. “A very big step for the play is to be embraced by the Tibetan community itself, because it is their story and in their language,” says Majumdar, adding that in many of the Tibetan settlements where it was staged, people came with their own chairs to sit and watch the performance. “That was really heartwarming for us.”
Fuhrmann, who has been taking acting workshops at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) since 2015 and is very much influenced by Bertolt Brecht, believes he has a responsibility as an artist to observe reality and then bring that reality on to the stage. “Working with Tibetan actors for the play, I was often very touched listening to their stories about their life in exile and missing their homes and families. The Tibetan struggle is becoming worse by the day and it is up to us to tell the world the truth about what is going on there and to provoke thinking,” he says.
The play might be set in Tibet and depict its struggle for independence from the People’s Republic of China, but any movement for freedom from an oppressive regime cannot exist in a vacuum. Majumdar believes that as a society, we have unfortunately reached a point where we have dismissed non-violence and accepted violence as a way of life. “Tibet’s problems are not Tibet’s alone. It is a bit like the environmental crisis. Suppose you lose a complete forest or a species, it is a sign for what is to come for the world. If Tibet loses its struggle for independence, then the great idea that non-violence can be more powerful than violence will be lost for a very long time.”
Pah-Lak is at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu on 9 November, 6pm and 9 pm.