Bageshree S visits Ninasam, the unique theatre and cultural centre that doesn’t just stage plays but also sets the agenda for intellectual debates in the politics of Karnataka.

The undulating road to the village of Heggodu, 350 km from Bangalore, is a steady stream of deep red slush. Monsoon has arrived late this year in the hilly Malnad region of Karnataka — where rain rarely plays truant — and women farm workers are bent over in paddy fields, planting saplings in the incessant rain.

People are equally busy at Heggodu’s Nilakanteshwara Natyaseva Samgha, the unique theatre and culture centre better known by the acronym Ninasam. Students, faculty and villagers who have just dropped in to lend a helping hand, without a care for the pouring rain, flit across from the rehearsal venues to the library to the canteen at the centre of the Ninasam campus, from where you can hear snatches of dialogue and music from at least three ongoing rehearsals.

The steep incline behind the canteen takes you to an enclosure used for making masks and props, where Ram Bhat, from Perla near Kasargod, is training children from nearby villages for a Yakshagana performance. In the intimate space a few yards away, students of Ninasam’s 10-month theatre course are rehearsing for their first production under the watchful eye of Manjunath Badiger, a Bangalore-based alumnus of the institute. At the theatre named after Kannada’s literary great Shivarama Karanth, members of Ninasam’s itinerant theatre troupe, Tirugata, are getting ready for their annual production, which will travel the length and breadth of Karnataka starting October.

Tremendous growth

The range of theatre activities on an average day at Ninasam gives an idea of how much the institution has grown since it was set up in 1949 by local theatre enthusiasts, under the initiative of the late K.V. Subbanna. (It was named after the local deity Nilakanteshwara.) Over four decades later, in 1991, he was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “enriching rural Karnataka with the world’s best films and the delight and wonder of the living stage.”

As K.V. Akshara (renowned theatre person and son of Subbanna, and currently an office bearer of the Ninasam Society) puts it, the late 1960s and early 70s saw Ninasam forging a new identity in keeping with the spirit of the times, attempting to “creatively blend the traditional and the modern, to meaningfully negotiate between the sacred and the secular.” The troupe’s plays began travelling beyond the village. Ninasam started holding film appreciation workshops and screenings, the first effort of its kind in rural Karnataka. The world sat up and took notice.

A significant addition in 1980 was the Ninasam Theatre Institute, which offers a rigorous training on all aspects of the theory and practice of stagecraft. Five years later, Ninasam inaugurated Tirugata, described by theatre and culture critic Rustom Bharucha as “one of the most dynamic ventures in the contemporary Indian theatre.” Comprising mostly former students of the institute, Tirugata sees a steady flow of new artistes and stages new plays every year, the number touching touching 90 now. Some of the biggest names in theatre, from B.V. Karanth to Fritz Bennewitz, have directed Ninasam productions.

In the 1980s, Ninasam took the much-debated decision to accept support from foreign agencies. It was first funded by Ford Foundation and later by Hivos, but even its bitter critics concede that this decision did not kill the spirit of volunteerism and community participation that marks all of Ninasam’s efforts.

This is most evident during Ninasam’s seven-day culture camp, started in 2000, where people of Heggodu are hosts to eminent scholars and young culture enthusiasts who descend in large numbers. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, a regular to the annual mela, once said that the unpretentious and lively atmosphere here “beats the Jaipur festival hands down.” It is hard to get a slot in the annual camp, held every October, unless booking is done early. This year’s camp, on the theme “Crossing the Borders”, starts October 7.

Cultural role

What makes Ninasam even larger than the sum of all these activities, ranging from publishing to theatre outreach programmes, is the role it has played since the 1970s in setting the agenda for several important intellectual debates in the cultural politics of Karnataka. The vast body of Subbanna’s writings bear testimony to his participation in heated arguments on art, literature, politics of caste and the Panchayat Raj system. A believer in Lohiaite Socialism, he writes in one of the articles that two important barometers to measure the health of a society are its political system and theatre, since they both interact closely with the community.

Ninasam has not only played a big role in inculcating “cultural literacy” in three generations of Kannadigas, says Sudhanva Deshpande of the Delhi-based theatre group Jana Natya Manch, but also in inspiring those outside the State by illustrating the multiple uses of theatre.

The biggest strength of Ninasam over its 60 years of work, according to Akshara, has been a willingness to constantly “evolve contextually” rather than set out with a singular grand vision. This, he argues, allows for greater acceptance of difference and plurality.

An important marker of the plurality at Ninasam is the caste, class and gender composition of the students of the institute and the Tirugata artistes. They come from every corner of Karnataka — occasionally from outside too — and what they seek to learn here is equally varied.

This year’s student Chandrashekhar Hadimani, from Ranebennur in the dry northern district of Karnataka, is the son of a professional theatre actor. “He wanted me nowhere near a stage!” laughs the young man who looks barely out of his teens. At his grandfather’s insistence, he took an exam to enter the police service. He passed, but Chandrashekhar’s family couldn’t afford the Rs.2 lakh bribe that landing the job would cost.

His bright-eyed batchmate Lily is part of the Nagercoil-based theatre troupe Murasu. She dropped out of college to be a full-time theatre activist, much to the mortification of her mother, who wanted her married and “settled” like her other daughters. Lily has been part of street plays on Dalit atrocities, exploitation of women garment workers and as part of the anti-Kundankulum campaign, often braving violent opposition from those opposed to her radical ideas.

The medium of instruction is Kannada for most part and the institute has consciously steered clear of pan-Indian ambitions. But Lily says it is not an insurmountable barrier. She plays the demoness Tataka in the first student production being rehearsed, and her Tamil-accented Kannada adds flavour to the role. “I want to learn the academics of theatre here and enrich what I have learnt through practice on the streets,” she says.

Not that all the young students necessarily continue in theatre once they finish the course, given the compulsions of a livelihood. The television channel boom has provided jobs to many old students, and some have even moved on to films.

The arrival of satellite television in the 1990s has, indeed, meant much more than some of Ninasam’s students finding a livelihood there. It has meant a re-negotiation of the very idea of theatre. “Television has turned audience into spectators,” says Akshara. This is not a simple question of a shrinking audience for theatre, but of television being “the software through which all applications of globalisation have come to us.”

A place for theatre

People at Ninasam are trying to face this challenge in many ways. Manju Kodagu, director on the faculty of Ninasam, is exploring if the “spectacle” of television can be countered by theatre with minimalism. “In my plays I am trying to shed all ostentation and concentrate on the core of text and acting.”

At the level of community, Ninasam has tried to revitalise theatre culture through initiatives like Ooru Mane Utsava, a festival featuring a medley of plays and other cultural activities. This annual event, involving villagers from all around Heggodu, is a big hit.

Even Gururaj, who runs a small shop in the village and is generally too busy with business during show times in the evenings, speaks enthusiastically about it and says that he liked a play called “Emmane Kathe” (the story of our home) staged last year at the Utsava. This play seems to have struck a chord with many who see one of their biggest anxieties reflected in its theme of large-scale migration from villages to cities.

“In Heggodu we have a good school, a pre-university college where the pass percentage is 97 per cent this year. Ironically, educated people move out because they want good jobs and those who are not educated leave in search of small jobs,” says Sriharsha Halemane, an old associate of Ninasam.

Sweeping changes

This goes hand-in-hand with a flagging interest in agriculture. The labour-intensive paddy cultivation has reduced significantly over the past decade and areca farmers live in the constant fear of prices fluctuating in an unpredictable market. Delayed rains have only added to their worries this year. Local Gram Panchayat officials say that response to the government-sponsored employment guarantee scheme too is poor.

What are the implications of these changes on Ninasam, considering that Heggodu is not just a scenic location for the grand institution? It is part of Subbanna’s politics of perceiving the universal with a ear to the ground. Akshara does not want to play down these concerns. “Yes, changes always affect culture and agriculture first,” he says, but cautions against mistaking rootedness for frozenness. Ninasam has always responded to challenges “practically and every day” and will continue to do so as and when they arrive at the doorstep.

“Whatever happens, villages will always survive as a physical reality and as imagination,” says Akshara. “At the end of the day, we can’t stop eating.”

Differently modern

Interview with K.V. Akshara, well-known theatreperson and Treasurer of Ninasam Society.

Besides being an important centre of theatre, Ninasam has also been the space for many cultural and political debates. Has this role of Ninasam become less pronounced now?

Debates have not taken a back seat, but the mode of debate has changed as times have. Rather than oppositional activism, we are doing positive activism through interventions. Activism very often tends to proclaim politically correct positions but unconsciously take on the metaphors and methods of those it opposes.

Is the notion of a native of “desi” culture problematic since the line between conservatism and “desi”ness tend to be blurred? How does Ninasam guard against this?

I would rather define “desi” as differently modern, in our context and on our terms. The problem is in defining everything in terms of binary concepts, either right of left, either local or global and so on. We then miss out on a lot of things in between.

How have you tried to keep Ninasam’s activities such the annual culture camp from becoming predictable and repetitive?

Anything done over a period of time tends to acquire the quality of a ritual, but the challenge is in keeping the ritual meaningful, which we have tried to do in many ways. For example, considering that many young people participate in the culture camp, we have tried to make it more interactive and performance-based.

There have been occasional dissenting voices on the foreign funding of some of Ninasam’s projects. How do you respond to it?

Ninasam has always been open, honest and transparent on its funding sources. We have even published the entire funding details in our magazine Maatukate. The more important thing is to be cautious about over-spending on any project or becoming dependent on it. There have been times when funds have not come and we have not stopped a project for that reason