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Interview Arundhati Nag talks to P. ANIMA about thwarting challenges to take theatre ahead

Willed to succeed Arundhati Nag in New Delhi photo: Rajeev Bhatt
Willed to succeed Arundhati Nag in New Delhi photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A n easy effervescence marks Arundhati Nag. Casual, but never vain, she gets into the depth of matters without casting an intellectual web around them. Her approach to theatre is never divorced from her views on life.

Arundhati has given to Bangalore a nerve centre of culture — Ranga Shankara, the “world-class” yet “affordable” theatre space. Built over 10 years with contributions from the mighty and the ordinary — the smallest donation is said to be of Rs. five — it validates its existence with over 300 shows a year. A memoriam to the vision of her late husband, actor Shankar Nag, may be the igniting thought behind it, but Ranga Shankara is part of the city's collective consciousness today.

An actor who grew up on stage, Arundhati has brought spark to the few movies she has done, the latest being Paa. However, Ranga Shankara has kept her from being busy on stage or screen.

In New Delhi as part of the jury at the recently-concluded Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, in her signature attire, “a coloured mundu with any printed dupatta,” she talks about the thought that should guide theatre practitioners today. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What do you think are the specific areas in theatre that require attention?

The challenges are attention span and vertical growth. The young always want to know ‘what next', ‘is there anything else we can get to', and one sees that at Ranga Shankara too. However, in the corporate world, with people burning out, they are beginning to realise that only culture can save them. One can see youngsters waking up, the tumble happening. The city youth is reaching saturation, while the rural young want to be where the city youngsters are.

It means we have to work harder. At Ranga Shankara, I see a lot of corporate people coming to watch plays. But at the awards festival in Delhi, I saw a lot of grey heads and women. The male needs to wake up, because culture is passing them by. The art sector around the country is being headed by women. By focussing entirely on their career, the men have let the development of the culture part of their personality completely bypass them.

Six years after Ranga Shankara came into being, what are your challenges as an institution head today?

I recently went to Berlin and saw awesome theatre there. When I came back, it was a not-so-great play that was happening at my place. But before I reached the balcony of the auditorium, it struck me; this is a nation of a billion people, 26 languages and one National School of Drama. At Ranga Shankara it is a celebration where a bunch of people are doing plays for 300 days a year, not for money, politics or religion. They could choose to go to the bowling alley, but they chose Shakespeare and Bhasa. That was a humbling thought and a fact I keep reminding myself.

We are living through tricky times, and we have to preserve what we have.

From the age of 18 to 23, you were on stage almost every day. How difficult was it to move from the bustle of Mumbai to the relative quietude of Bangalore?

I jumped off the fast lane. It helped me be uncluttered. Further, Shankar and I continued to do plays and so also our engagement with the arts. It was a changing point. In Mumbai, I was beginning to do theatre mindlessly, where the whole busy-ness kept one going. There were times when I did “Equus” and “No Sex Please, We Are British” on the same day. It was time to evaluate... There was no commercial theatre in Karnataka and it led to my complete engagement with amateur theatre. I confronted myself, made choices and engaged responsibly.

But you have increasingly chosen to be away from stage and screen. Why?

I am content as an actress. Ranga Shankara is a demanding child. I recently did “Harlesden High Street” with a crew aged below 26. Here I was, double their age, and it was wonderful to watch them. Otherwise, in the last four years I have not done anything except “Bikhre Bimb”. Leading an institution is sapping and makes you a little myopic. When I become active in plays, I can't attend office.

Even films, I don't want to do the “paranthe banana hai”, “beta, ghar aao” kind of roles. Paa was a part that connected to the spinal cord of the story. In terms of number of scenes and length, it was enough to do a sensitive performance.

What is up next for you?

Theatre for children. If we have to generate audience for theatre, we have to take it to schools. At Ranga Shankara we have a programme with Britannia — “Aha”, under which one lakh children have come to watch plays over the past two and a half years. Every child should have seen one good performance created for children.

We are also bringing in youngsters from the Indian Institute of Management where they can come and see a play and meet the actors and director. Forty per cent of them have never seen a play before. How we take art to them, build a sense of the arts in the decision-makers of tomorrow, is vital.

There were times when I did “Equus” and “No Sex Please, We Are British” on the same day. It was time to evaluate...

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