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The autonomy of culture

The recent sacking of the management of Rangayana, the Karnataka-based theatre repertory, has caused a furore. Theatre personality and former Rangayana director Prasanna questions the reasons behind it

October 04, 2019 05:48 pm | Updated October 06, 2019 09:57 am IST

A scene from Kuvempu’s ‘Sri Ramayana Darshanam’. Photo: H.S. Manjunath

A scene from Kuvempu’s ‘Sri Ramayana Darshanam’. Photo: H.S. Manjunath

Rangayana is the name of a chain of small theatre repertories in Karnataka, built over the years with much love by the people of Karnataka. There are four repertories today — in Karavali, Malenad, Hyderabad-Karnataka, and Shimoga — with proposals for a few more. A repertory is a theatre institution meant to perform plays professionally, but only partly on a commercial basis. This is so because it is hard for a theatre company to survive as a fully commercial entity.

Subsidised by the state, it is the government which pays the salaries of artists, directors and the few technicians who run Rangayana. The government also builds and pays for the maintenance of the infrastructure. All production and marketing costs of performances are meant to be generated by the company, through ticketing, sponsorship, training programmes, etc. In Western countries, too, theatre repertories are supported with enormous pride, not just by governments, but by city councils, universities, cultural funds and such.

Not being entirely independent, repertories are always precariously placed. They have to fight for autonomy at both the commercial and the political end of things. Karnataka’s theatre artists have, however, assiduously fought for the autonomy of Rangayana, succeeding in the official formation of an autonomous body called Ranga Samaja — literally meaning a theatre fraternity — to guide Rangayana and help it take a middle path.

Art as critique

But theatre, or for that matter all art in general, is always problematic. In a sense, it is meant to be problematic. Being a critical entertainer, theatre can get into trouble either with the authorities for being critical or with audiences for being boring. Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra , for example, begins with the narration of an incident where a play is disrupted by the Asuras because it is critical of them. In the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church refused to perform the last rites of the great French playwright Molière because they were angry with his famous satirical play Tartuffe which focused on religious hypocrisy. Well, the entity who represents the Asura keeps changing. It can be the state, the clergy, the mafia, depending on the local situation and on who is being criticised. Famous theatre personality Safdar Hashmi, for example, was killed by thugs while performing a critical street play in support of industrial workers.

Members of Rangayana perform ‘Papu Gandhi Gandhi Bapu Ada Kathe’. Photo: Special arrangement

Members of Rangayana perform ‘Papu Gandhi Gandhi Bapu Ada Kathe’. Photo: Special arrangement

The latest incident of Asura anger has happened in Karnataka against Rangayana. Within months of coming to power, the ruling BJP government has sacked the autonomous body that runs Rangayana, and also the heads of all four repertory companies. The reason given is that the members of Ranga Samaja and the four Rangayana directors were appointed by the previous government and that it is a routine action to dismiss them.

Well, for one, it is not a routine action. And even if it is, it is not right. No government in Karnataka so far has done this. Governments run by the Congress and other parties in the past have routinely interfered in matters concerning state-run cultural academies, but have never removed the governing body of a professional cultural organisation. There are, of course, many States where autonomous cultural institutions do not even exist. But that is another matter.

The question is, why did the BJP government behave like an Asura, despite its claims to being a ‘cultured’ party? Why did they choose to target this small institution even while they allow the Internet, TV serials and commercial cinema to go scot-free — entities which, according to their own submission, are destroying Indian culture? The answer is simple. They need the pure entertainer. But not the critical entertainer.

What is pure?

‘Purity’ seems to have become central to politics today. But there is a serious need to question this notion of purity. The pure priest, the pure millionaire, the pure and the smart city — this is what the establishment is dreaming about, but not the purity of nature — nature which is both outside and inside us. In fact, anything that is small and critical, is dubbed impure and pushed aside. What the establishment wants, I suppose, is a single narrative, a narrative that keeps praising the government. It happened once before, during the Emergency of the 70s. It is happening again now.

Let’s go back to Rangayana. Rangayana, in fact, loves the Ramayana . It is interesting to note that in the last couple of years, Rangayana has done more plays connected with the Ramayana than with anything else. In fact, Sri Ramayana Darshanam , an epic re-rendering by famed poet Kuvempu, has been one of its flagship productions with shows across Karnataka. The present government should have actually commended the Rangayana directors. Instead, it sacked them. It is interesting to note a subtle philosophical difference between Kuvempu’s understanding of the Ramayana and that of the BJP. Kuvempu maintains that the epic Ramayana is more important than the isolated projection of its hero, Rama. Is this what has irked the BJP? We don’t know.

The BJP, however, has been constructing not just a stand-alone, but a drastically altered, image of Rama. It has changed the calm face of Rama into an angry one. It has done that even with Hanuman, the kindly bhakta of a kindly Rama. Hanuman now has a face that is distorted with anger. Rangayana, on the contrary, has consistently and lovingly projected the civilised face and persona of Rama, as told by Kuvempu.

Maybe they don’t know. Maybe the new Karnataka CM was not properly briefed by the bureaucracy. Maybe he was told that all institutions funded by the government should be headed by political nominees of the party in power. In any case, it is not too late to rectify the mistake through a small gesture of calling back the heads of Rangayana and commending them for their excellent work. Politics apart, anger does not sit well on the faces of Rama or of Hanuman nor, indeed, of any ruler for that matter.

The writer is a theatre director and playwright from Karnataka.

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