Samudaya Theatre Group in its journey since 1975 has reached out to the people, using theatre as a tool for social change.

Samudaya, one of Karnataka’s oldest amateur theatre groups, was set up by R.P. Prasanna in 1975. Samudaya, which means ‘community’, brought within its fold prominent personalities, including B.V. Karanth and M.S. Sathyu, as well as the common people to initiate social change.

Looking back on the glorious days of Samudaya, M.G. Venkatesh, Gundanna C.K. and Shashidhar Bharigat, among the oldest members of the group, speak of its journey. “We staged our first play Huttava Badidare in 1975. It is a classical Kannada play which was about a bad king being replaced by a benevolent one. We interpreted the play to show that it is not by changing kings that desirable changes will come about. Real change can only happen when the system is changed.”

The message of their first play is in keeping with the philosophy of Samudaya, which has taken theatre far and wide, across villages and districts in Karnataka, to educate and create awareness about various issues among the common people.

Samudaya is most well-known for its cultural jathas, which Gundanna says was a milestone in Karnataka theatre. “It was Samudaya that started cultural jathas. Through this we reached out to people in villages and help them develop their own ideas.” Venkatesh adds that the jathas were a way to interact and dialogue with the people.

The first jatha was held in 1979, during a one-month programme, from October 15 to November 15, two different groups, one from Bidar and another from Kolar converged at Dharwad.

“We travelled the length and breadth of the State and along the way we produced different street theatre plays and performed them,” Gundanna reminisces.

In 1981, district-wise jathas were conducted in ten districts. “We travelled mostly by bicycle,” remembers Venkatesh.

“I would travel by bicycle, stop in a village and perform a show. We never depended on government sponsorship. We had the freedom to address any issue in our theatre.”

In the initial days, Samudaya groups were prevalent in Bangalore, Mysore, Udupi, Mangalore and Tumkur. Later 35 groups of Samudaya were formed across Karnataka.

“Wherever we went, people were so inspired by our theatre. They started a group on their own, locally.” Venkatesh too recalls how they sowed the seeds and created an interest in theatre. Samudaya raised its voice against against authoritarianism when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and was contesting from Chikmagalur. “More than the Emergency, our protest was against authoritarianism. We had in fact held a poster workshop, organised by R.M. Hadpad, in which thousands of posters were created by the people against authoritarianism,” remembers Gundanna.

Among their most popular street play was Belchi, revolving around a true story of Dalits being burned in Bihar, which had a successful run of thousands of performances, since 1978, when it was first performed. Samudaya faced its share of disagreements about its work, but there were instances when the group was subjected to attacks.

“We performed H.S. Shivaprakash’s Mahachaitra, which was directed by Iqbal Ahmed from Ninasam. We received recognition for it, but when we performed at Hubli-Dharwad, we were attacked by a right-wing grou. They alleged that the play was a misrepresentation of history,” says Ventakesh.

In 1999, Samudaya organised a jatha to commemorate the 200th year birth centenary of Tipu Sultan. This time, the Samudaya group was brutally attacked at Anekal.

Venkatesh observes that in the first phase of Samudaya, even though there were disagreements with their work, the group was never attacked. “It was only in the second phase we noticed that intolerance, to a great extent, began to slowly creep in.”

Shashidhar speaks of his association with Samudaya. “I belonged to the Mysore Samudaya group, which I joined in 1979.

“I came to Bangalore in 1988 and have since been associated with the Bangalore group, working in various capacities. In Samudaya’s journey till now, we have done five state festivals and two national level festivals.”

“We have organised, among others, a festival commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, 100 years of Bertolt Brecht, and 20 years, 25 years and 30 years founding anniversaries of Samudaya,” adds Venkatesh

Among their recent productions are Girish Karnad’s classic Tughlaq and K.Y. Narayana Swamy’s Pampa Bharata, the famous Kannada poet Pampa’s re-interpretation of the Mahabharata.

Over the years, has the intensity of street plays been lost?

Venkatesh says these are changed times and street theatre can never be performed the way they used to be. Yet theatre as a whole continues with the same vigour.

“The notion that television and films are threats to theatre is an argument long past. There are many talented groups emerging,” observes Gundanna.

However, Venkatesh believes that theatre and cultural activities need to be continued.

“Cultural activities are not like a five-year plan. It’s a continuous process. As Samudaya is a people’s movement, it is essential for everyone with a passion for art, theatre and social change to come together and be a part of Samudaya,” he concludes