Friday, 9 March 2012

Theatre: Ranga Shankara ~ Dream of a theatre

Arundhati Nag: she brought her dream to life

THERE's a hush in the auditorium. A theatre buff shivers with anticipation. His neighbour settles into her amply cushioned seat, and then examines the coir matting under her toes, and the overhead ventilator pipes, the thrust stage for superior audience-actor interaction. They soon study the minimal settings, made of bamboo and board. 

Four musicians take their places onstage. Two actors enter, holding a banner with a picture of a golden deer on it. The stage is set. The play begins.

Can this Ramayana-based, Kudiyattam-adapted performance of "Maya Sita Prasanga" by Mysore's lauded Rangayana repertory company set the right mood for the opening of `Ranga Shankara', Bangalore's first state-of-the-art dedicated theatre? Will its exploration of illusion and reality prove potent? What will this new 300-seat theatre at J.P. Nagar mean to the city's cultural life? These questions buzz silently around the hall with its perfect acoustics, its latecomers' gallery, its brilliant lighting system, its revolving stage with a trapdoor for experiments as the invisible curtain went up on a 35-day theatre festival from October 28 to December 1, 2004. 

The event marks the culmination of a dream. The realisation of a four-year-long search for funds, for materials, for enthusiasts to build a 12,500 sq. ft., three-storey theatre complex. At the heart of this unusual theatre, built at a cost of Rs. 4 crore by the Sanket Trust chaired by Jnanpith awardee Girish Karnad, lies the story of an indomitable spirit named Arundhati Nag. Even the other trustees — including Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT) founder-member Vijay Padaki, National School of Drama graduate S. Surendranath, and theatre enthusiast S. Parameshwarappa — concede that. Similar accolades come from the project's consultant, president of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) M.S. Sathyu. 

Twenty-five years ago, when this multilingual stage and screen actress relocated to Bangalore from Mumbai after marrying Kannada thespian Shankar Nag, she carried within her a deep longing. To build a space with a voice similar to Mumbai's popular Prithvi Theatre in Karnataka's capital. As her dream found resonance in like-minded individuals, their first wish was granted with the laying of a foundation stone at a government-donated site on November 9, 2000, by former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and an initial corpus of Rs. 20 lakhs. 

Since then, Arundhati's inner fire has melded together a crew of theatre buffs. A software specialist put her job on hold to assist with the nitty-gritty of `Ranga Shankara'. A journalist chose to coordinate the festival's variegated seminars and allied screenings. Mumbai's Atul Kumar, who directed "The Blue Mug", volunteered to work at the theatre till February 2005. Granite for the flooring and the dramatic staircase were donated by a quarry, while another concern cut it for free. Manufacturers of sanitary ware and bathroom fittings donated their mite. A woman labourer from rural Karnataka gave Arundhati Rs. 5, while industries like Mysore Sales International Limited (MSIL), Biocon, L&T, Himatsingka Seide Ltd., and Volkart contributed to the corpus. Oddly enough, not a single IT major chose to be part of the big picture.

Looking back, Arundhati recalls her experiences leading up to October 28: "All of Bangalore knew I was building this theatre. There's was only one song I'd been singing for four years. For someone who was doing 42 shows a month 25 years ago, that's been the journey. But it's been worth it."
Worth it? Of course. Because this intimate theatre is dedicated to the late visionary Shankar Nag. (Its name stems from ranga, which is Sanskrit for theatre, and the art's presiding deity, Shankara). Because the theatre has a unique computer-based script, sound, costume bank and video archive to enrich research. Because its inaugural festival celebrates Indian legends like Habib Tanvir from Chattisgarh and Ratan Thiyam from Manipur, while initiating an exchange with the inspiring Prithvi Theatre annual festival. (As part of this, Tanvir's Naya Theatre presents "Agra Bazar" and "Charan Das Chor", followed by Ajoka's "Aik Thi Nani" (with Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt), and Italy's Luoghi Delle Arte in "Commedia Delle Arte Galore". 

"Let `Ranga Shankara' speak for itself," declares Arundhati. "We know we want to showcase theatre, maybe music and dance once a year. We are committed to staging 300 shows every year. Today, theatre seems to have lost the capacity to address issues close to the hearts of the people, such as the environment or human rights. I hope Ranga Shankara will become a nerve centre to address community issues."
She stresses, "This theatre will strive to bring Karnataka to the centre-stage of world theatre, as well as bring world-class theatre to the common man in Karnataka." By her side, Sanjana Kapoor of Prithvi seconds every word. Towards this end, assisted by a generous subsidy from a major cell phone operator, ticket rates have been kept at a uniform, class-free Rs. 49, while the theatre facilities can be hired at approximately Rs. 5,000 per day, including lights and sophisticated equipment.

The hope is that `Ranga Shankara' will become a nerve centre to address community issues.

As crowds gather to watch a platform performance based on the recent incidents in Manipur in the ground floor foyer, as a prelude to the Rangayana show, theatre is being discussed threadbare in the candlelit café. Other buffs browse through cultural fare at the in-house bookstore. To every participant, it's heady to breathe deeply of the theatre of life.

What does it all portend? Sathyu, a celebrated theatre veteran, says, "It's the only theatre built entirely by theatre people. It's the best in India today, completely responsive to our needs."

Padaki, who's responsible for creating a new generation of enthusiasts with his annual summer workshops, adds, "Only through collaboration can theatre touch the community. We'd be keen to build `Ranga Shankara' into a viable institution."
`Ranga Shankara's' future plans include initiating German GRIPS-style theatre workshops for over 20,000 city students between ages seven and 12 round the year. And bridging the divide between Kannada theatre at H.N. Kalakshetra and English plays at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, and luring talented actors back from TV and films. "Theatre people now have no excuse. They have to win the audiences back," smiles Arundhati. 

Arundhati recalls that Shankar Nag saw theatre as "a unifying language, a forum for creating sensitive experiences". Within the `Ranga Shankara' vision, there is no place for parochialism, class or linguistic politics. Now that `Ranga Shankara' is dramatically real in brick-and-concrete, how does the dynamic woman at its very heart feel?

"I can't believe this is true," Arundhati whispers. "I feel I'm living a dream." But, of course, it took blood, sweat and tears to create this dream of a theatre. 

Is this the cue for a pan-Indian theatre renaissance? 

(Originally in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2004)

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