For renowned theatre practitioners K.G. Krishnamurthy and Susheela Kelamane life’s major ingredient is art

“Madam, I need one more coffee.” His wish is a command for staff and officials at Le Meridien’s The One. But before one more cappuccino can be rushed to the table, he explains himself: From this sentence an audience should get to know why he needs the coffee…is it because he has a headache, because he has a sore throat, is tired? K.G. Krishnamurthy, theatre director and actor and one of the illustrious alumni of the National School of Drama, is sharing his views on the stage arts. Sharing the table with him is his wife, actor Susheela Kelamane. How can conversation over evening coffee with these two stage stalwarts be anything but dramatic?

The evening before, Susheela’s twinkling eyes held a small group of NSD students and theatre lovers through a one-hour solo Kannada play adapted from the autobiography of Kannada author Saraswati Bai Rajwade. Even though the majority of spectators knew no Kannada, no one could say her performance was unintelligible. Susheela, like her husband, trained at Ninasam Theatre Institute in Karnataka, but unlike Krishnamurthy, she did not enrol at NSD. The twinkle in the unassuming Susheela’s eyes is intact as she listens to her husband tell the story of how that happened.

“I was doing the role of Dushyanta and she was Shakuntala,” he begins. Substitute, if you like, Romeo and Juliet, Nala and Damayanti, Ram and Sita, or the names of any famous couple in history, but that time-honoured opening sentence is enough to tell us what was bound to happen. However, in theatre, it doesn’t matter if you know what is going to happen — it is how it happens that is important. Otherwise why would we still be watching Shakespeare, Tagore and Kalidasa? So we listen on as our hero describes his dilemma. Shakuntala — sorry — Susheela had appeared for the interview to be admitted to NSD. Krishnamurthy was afraid that once she left a small place like Heggodu for the national theatre institute in the Capital city, she would not return to marry him.

They took their problem to their mentor K.V. Subbanna, the guiding light of Ninasam. He told them to take the problem on a long walk. Sure enough, by the time they returned, they had made their decision. They got married and Susheela did not leave for Delhi. Did she ever have occasion to regret missing out on NSD? “During that time I didn’t think I missed anything, (especially) since I didn’t know the language,” admits Susheela. “But now I do feel it would have been a good thing. Because nowadays the diploma holders get a lot more opportunities.”

That has not stopped her from working under some eminent directors of the country though, including B.V. Karanth, Subbanna, Samkutty Pattomkary and others.

Over a platter of cookies and pastries, all made with sugar-free sweeteners, the theatre practitioners recount the intriguing schedule of their group Kinnara Mela, based in Tumari, a backwater area in Shimoga district of Karnataka. Started in 1990, the institute has a repertory of adults performing for children. “We do two plays a year to be performed for children during the daytime. We go all over the state. We do one play in the morning and one in the afternoon in a five-ten kilometre radius.”

The Kinnara Mela van is loaded with everything including bedding. All the group asks from the schools is rooms and the facility of washrooms with running water. The charge is Rs.2500 per show for schools, and for colleges, Rs.3,500. The higher rate, notes Susheela, has been introduced only recently.

In the early days, the response from educational institutes was not very encouraging but now there are nearly 100 where Kinnara Mela shows are a yearly fixture. “In July-August we rehearse two plays, and from September to February we tour,” explains Krishnamurthy. “The tour is now going on. They can manage without us,” he adds, explaining that his occasional preoccupation with the phone stems from the long distance guidance he is dispensing. Once the tour is over, the repertory spreads out to conduct workshops in schools.

Besides productions for children, both the artistes work on new productions for grown-ups too, often with guest directors. It sounds like an idyllic life. As Susheela recommends the sugar-free pastries to her husband, she remarks, “In this field you can’t really say there is satisfaction, because there is always more that you would like to do, and better.”

Krishnamurthy adds, “But it is not frustrating. When you finish a production, you may feel it is over, but after a week you feel like getting to work again.” And, he points out, “Because we are a family, in that sense it is satisfying. (Their daughter is a student of theatre while their son is heading for film technology.) Man alag alag nahin hain (our interests are not divergent).”

That is what theatre means, he states. “Understanding each other. There may be misunderstandings, but there is no dwesha (enmity).”

Offered a cup of jasmine tea, he accepts, savouring its fragrant lightness. Susheela tries just a spoonful and rejects it with the surprising verdict that it tastes of whiskey. No offence taken though…in the theatre of life, opinions and moods vary like the shades of the day.