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Dreams in concrete

Arundhati Nag seems to be working with 10 heads and 20 hands as the Ranga Shankara theatre festival rolls on, writes DEV S. SUKUMAR

Arundhati Nag hasn't seen the world beyond Ranga Shankara over the last few years. — Photo: G.R.N. Somashekhar

ANU COMES up to Arundhati with a harried face and a cellphone. "Here, I can't handle this, you take it," she says.

Arundhati Nag, heart and soul of Ranga Shankara, is in an animated conversation with a mediaperson, and switches over to a calm mode as she takes the phone.

It's a week after the festival opened at Ranga Shankara, the latest theatre space in town. A bunch of young theatre kids hangs around — guys looking carefully scruffy, the girls radically chic. Anu has been hollering into her phone for the last 10 minutes.

Hands full

And Arundhati has her hands full. Her phone rings constantly: well-wishers, friends, someone wanting to know about the props... Right now she's giving an interview, but people stop by, requiring her attention — and here comes a phone from somebody who's yelling her head off, demanding tickets... Anu was handling her so far, but even Anu — good old Anu, who's Arundhati's "left hand-right hand" — throws up her hands and looks skywards.

Anyway, Arundhati dramatically lowers her voice, now all sugar and honey. Yes, yes, she says, I understand. Our fault, really. But you should have... After five minutes, the matter is settled, and then she calls someone and asks him to set aside two tickets for whoever called.

There! She breaks into a slightly tremulous laugh, as if to say: Wow! What I didn't bargain for!

She says she is in a daze now. "I really am. I dreamt of this many times before ki khul gaya. But it didn't look like this. I don't know what it looked like."

But she is used to pressure. When the accident happened, for instance. "I think it's the mind which has a tremendous capacity of blocking things out if you are going to get killed. I know — I've been through an accident where I've broken every bone in my body, and my brain was working."

She mulls it over. "It was working only enough for me to give the telephone number of my house to people, and handing over my daughter to them. My child — is in your custody. My brain did not have the capacity to take anything else. I think I'm going through something now that's not too different."

"I have just this bandwidth," she outlines a narrow figure with her fingers. "And I'm just taking in from there whatever's going on. There are friends who are holding everything else behind me. If that does not happen, maybe I'll die of a cerebral haemorrhage or a heart attack or something of that sort."

For most theatre people, the Nineties was a depressing decade, characterised by the absence of any mass social movement and the increasing influence of television. Indeed, the social movements that had been so alive in the Sixties and Seventies had almost died out. For Arundhati, the Nineties... she lost Shankar in 1990, and it's taken her 14 years to move on, get her life together — although she still doesn't know if she's gotten her life together yet. And the last four years... four years of fund-raising, three years of construction...

"I have not seen the world," she ruminates. "I haven't seen a movie, I haven't gone on a holiday, I have not done a play. So the world has passed me by. I open my eyes and I say, okay now, today who's going to give me money, whom should I contact. Who might give, who might know someone who'll give. And I go to sleep saying, okay, today maybe I made a call that's going to be effective... Nothing. I have not had people coming home for dinner, I have gone out only if there's a chance of meeting someone who'll give something to the theatre. Only with that purpose. If a college called me, I'd go only because I can talk to 500 children and tell them what's happening."

And she had to change. She wasn't a fundraiser, for God's sake, she was an actress. "It's been a sea of change. I mean... to become a person who's constantly looking like... a hunter, for money. That was not the bottom line of my life at all."

Social concerns

That's why it's remarkable that she still nurses social concerns: on Iraq, Kashmir, Manipur... on education, on the call-centre kids "who keep floating around", and even language and food. ("Language is the repository of old knowledge... language and food are the two main connectors to local culture.")

What is Ranga Shankara going to be? This is what she's asking herself. "After the marriage and reception are over, how do two people cohabit? What's a normal day at Ranga Shankara going to be? How is it going to touch your life?"

The mediaperson she is talking to is so impressed, she can't stop remarking what a wonderful place this is, wonderful people, and so forth. Lunch has been arranged in a corridor close to the office. Rice, sambar, rasam and potato chips (not Freedom Fries). Anu gets this wholesale at Rs. 30 a kilo.

And back at office. A volunteer comes asking for Rs. 400. Arundhati offers to pay, but Anu cuts her off: "Don't! Someone's gone to the bank."

Arundhati fishes out a cigarette.

What was that about Arundhati and a cigarette... when David Lean was making Passage To India, he'd advertised for actors, and Arundhati was shortlisted out of the 300 applicants. Richard Goodwin was interviewing her. She lit a cigarette.

Goodwin said: "Do you know David hates anyone smoking around him?"

"What's that got to do with me?" Arundhati retorted. "When I get the job, I'm not signing in all my time; lunch and tea time are my own and I will smoke then. I don't smoke on the job."

Goodwin returned and told David he'd met a "woman with balls". Arundhati got the job.

That was 22 years ago. Arundhati opens the window and directs the smoke out. It's a large window, Bangalore torpid under the afternoon sun.

In a few hours, it will be dark... and people will come trooping in... and Arundhati will warn the audience to switch off their mobiles...

And then she'll sit in the back row, and enjoy the show.

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