Friday, 10 October 2014

Ranga Shankara: A decade of precious moments

Boy with a Suitcase

I LOVE THEATRE. As much as I love writing, reading, travelling  ~ or even breathing, I guess.

At school in Jaipur, I loved being on stage. Transforming into an 8-year-old boy in shorts at 15, playing Red Indians and cowboys, Minnie Mouse voice, silken ponytail, and all. Or being an ancient crone in a ghost story, with my hair powdered and streaked, my brow artfully etched with eye pencil.

But what I loved just as much was watching scenes come alive once the curtains went up.  Especially when Geoffrey and Laura Kendall’s Shakespearana troupe visited us at Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School annually. Their dramatic opening line still lingers in my memory, words I took with me to Stratford-on-Avon and the recreated Globe theatre in London, ‘When Shakespeare played, the stage was bare, the throne of England was a chair in Shakespeare’s time…’

I felt so at ease while reviewing English theatre in Madras (not yet Chennai) during my first decade at Indian Express, especially brilliant productions at the Museum Theatre by directors and players like Vimal Bhagat, Ammu Matthew, Mithran Devanesan, and Nirupama Nityanandan.

When I relocated to Bangalore in May 1992, I went into mourning. As a viewer, I felt theatre during the Deccan Herald festival fell flat at Chowdiah Memorial Hall, so large, so impersonal, with acoustics more suited to music than theatre. Even Ravindra Kalakshetra, where I watched my first magical Ratan Thiyam play, seemed cold when compared to the Museum Theatre.

As if in answer to my prayers, Ranga Shankara was inaugurated in J.P. Nagar in October 2004. I have been in celebration mode ever since. The intimate space is perfect and heart-warming. So is the endearing warmth of its founder Arundhati Nag.

Now that Ranga Shankara turns ten in October 2014, I look back with wonder ~ and tenderness and incandescent joy. As a theatre buff, I would like to offer a personal tribute by sharing ten random, unforgettable moments through which I celebrate the first decade of Ranga Shankara. Here goes:

Arundhati Nag

~                ~  Listening to Arundhati Nag share the theatre’s raison d’etre in 2004, during an interview I did for The Hindu Sunday Magazine: “This theatre will strive to bring Karnataka to the centre stage of world theatre, as well as to bring world-class theatre to the common man in Karnataka.”   A dream achieved, quite irrefutably.

~              ~  The dazzling 35-day global inaugural festival from October- December 2004. It included Mysore-based Rangayana’s Kudiyattam-influenced Maya Sita Prasanga. And Habib Tanvir and his Naya Theatre’s spectacular Charan Das Chor in Chattisgarhi. And Imphal-based Chorus Repertory Theatre’s stunning presentation of Ratam Thiyam’s visually poetic Ritusamharam. I was enthused enough to attend 27 of the shows!

                 ~   November 2004. Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre’s Ek Thi Nani, in which theatre veterans Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt played out a plotline parallel to their own lives as sisters. Sehgal, then 92, had a fever when she stepped off her flight. But her never-say-die spirit saw her through to a standing ovation, bypassing coughs, pills and improvisations. I salute them both, onstage and off it. 

Measure for Measure

·                           ~ November 2005. Director Simon McBurney and his Euro-British Complicite theatre set the stage on fire with his interpretation of Measure for Measure as a take on the Bard for our time.  Electrifying both as drama and social commentary. I even interviewed McBurney between two back-to-back performances, the chai he requested brought to us by young playwright Swar Thounaojam. More recently, Swar’s plays have come to life at Ranga Shankara.   

·                          ~ June 2006. Germany-based Gracias Devaraj and Uwe Topmann in Nino D’Introna and Giocomo Raviccio’s ‘Robinson and Crusoe,’ a rollicking tale of two warring soldiers marooned together. Enacted in English and (yes!) gibberish, it had an audience of mainly schoolchildren rocking with laughter in their seats. As adults, hugging our knees on the steps and in the aisles, we joined in.   

·                        ~ April 2008. Under the Mangosteen Tree, directed by Rajiv Krishnan of Perch from Chennai. That was in its initial avatar as Sangathi Arinhya, a celebration of Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s life, personality and brilliant stories through a tight-knit, evocative production. In tandem with black-and-white images of Basheer’s life by Punaloor Rajan and a Moplah food festival at Anju’s in-house café.

·                    ~ June 2011. The stellar Indo-German premiere of Boy with a Suitcase, which I found rivetting enough to revisit thrice with different friends in tow. A Ranga Shankara collaboration with Mannheim’s Schnawwl Theatre, it captured dilemmas about culture, continents and identity brilliantly, especially through outstanding performances by M.D. Pallavi and Shrunga B.V.

·                  ~ March 2012: Director Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song, his tribute to music as theatre (in collaboration with Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan). Spanning seven theatrical anecdotes  (some apocryphal?), it encompassed notes from Sufi geet to Kajri, brilliantly held together by seasoned performers

·                  ~ October 2012: An outstanding global Shakespeare festival. Still luminous in memory thanks to plays like Atul Kumar’s Piya Bahurupiya (Twelfth Night) in nautanki style, the Tblisi-based Marjanishvili Theatre’s Rogort’s Genebot  (As You Like It) in Georgian (a play within a play, with backstage onstage and exquisite costumes), and even a Kiswahili rendition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, notable for its impeccable comic timing.

The Kitchen

·                 ~ August 2013. Roysten Abel’s totally experiential theatre in The Kitchen, inspired by Rumi’s kitchen at Konya in Turkey. Its highlights included a 22.5 ft. high set, 12 mizhavu drummers from Kerala live, and two actors cooking payasam from scratch onstage for the audience to taste when the last notes died down. Calling sight, sound, taste, smell and touch into play, we experienced theatre as a microcosm of life.

      *       *      *

          Thank you, Ranga Shankara for bringing the best of local and global theatre to me. For energizing me to dash from Cooke Town to J.P. Nagar every time you bring a good play to Bangalore. For tempting me with sabudana vada and akki rotti at Anju’s Café, so I am never late for a show.

         I had not imagined such a dream run when I first watched the staircase, the toilets, the café, the box-office and more fall into place over slow months in 2003- 2004.

          What can I wish you now, dear Arundhati and Team Ranga Shankara? Cheers to the next brilliant decade! And perhaps the next hundred years? 

          Bangalore loves you. So do I.

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