60 minutes with Arundhati Nag | Theatre

The magic of this space continues to baffle me: Arundhati Nag

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

Ranga Shankara, the state-of-the-art theatre space in Bengaluru, has turned 15. Over the years, it has emerged as a vibrant cultural hub in the fast-developing city. Arundhati Nag, thespian and multilingual actor, built the theatre to realise the long-cherished dream of her husband, the late Shankar Nag, talented theatre and film personality. In a freewheeling conversation, Nag, managing trustee and artistic advisor of the nonprofit Sanket Trust, which runs Ranga Shankara, spoke about the theatre’s journey, the influence it has had on theatre in Bengaluru and beyond, and her plans for it in the coming years. Excerpts:

You have crossed a major milestone. How has the journey been in the last 15 years?

Even today, I can’t believe that it’s done. When I sit here and look at the size of this building, I wonder, when did it get completed? Who did this? There is this sense of awe at the result... There was a kind of zid [stubbornness] when we started, but if the community had not embraced it the way it has, I would not have been able to do over 6,000 performances on this stage in 15 years. It’s been a lesson in humility. There are forces putting wind in your sails every time. The magic of this space continues to baffle me. People ask me to write a book. But I don’t know if I can write a book because I didn’t have a plan. I was just singing the same song for many years. Persistently chasing people, chasing the dream.

Any highs and lows that you can recall?

No lows. The highs are standing in Frankfurt airport and having somebody from out there waving and saying, “Ranga Shankara? It’s fantastic”; or a person sitting next to you on a flight to Germany saying, “My grandchildren go to watch plays there.” It’s the recognition of the space. It’s the recognition of what this space does to lives. I have seen women come here and say they can’t take the stress at home, but this is the place they can come to without any luggage. You see a change. It’s a kind of reiteration for us that something is going right.

How was this idea of a dedicated space for theatre conceived?

Every theatre person wants to build a theatre or wants to be part of the theatre-building process. When Shankar and I came to Bangalore from Bombay [in the late 1970s], he was part of the Chhabildas theatre movement and I was part of several theatre movements because I was doing plays in many languages. There was nothing on my horizon except theatre. Shankar came here to do films. After doing a couple of films, however, he realised that he needed theatre for sanity and started a theatre group called Sanket.

At that time, there was only Ravindra Kalakshetra [the State-owned auditorium] and everyone could perform there. We knew that we wanted our own small place. It took us so long. The dream was constantly there, but Shankar wasn’t there by the time Ranga Shankara happened [He died in a road accident in 1990]. I wanted to build it on the site Shankar was allotted by the government. One of our friends advised us against building a theatre in a residential area and asked me to apply for a civic amenities site. So we formed Sanket Trust and applied for one in J.P. Nagar. We were like any other theatre group dealing with the loss of a very dear friend, Shankar, who was like a fulcrum, and suddenly we became a trust. We knew we wanted to be a nonprofit trust.

It was quite a struggle for you after that.

It gave a purpose to my life. With Shankar suddenly disappearing, I had no reason to stay back in Karnataka. But life had other, larger plans... The opportunity of greatness was offered to me. Many people helped me along. I started with the zid that if nobody comes to perform, I will stand on stage and read a play. But people came, and I didn’t have to do that except once when a show was cancelled suddenly and we theatre friends got together and read Pablo Neruda’s poems.

Bengaluru’s theatre scene is divided into English and Kannada, with almost no interaction between them. Has Ranga Shankara become a bridge connecting the two worlds?

Absolutely. In our country, language is a dividing factor and there has always been a chasm between the host language of the State and English. It was only after Ranga Shankara came that English and Kannada plays have been performed at the same place. When we opened Ranga Shankara, we consciously kept gave out 60% of the programme dates for Kannada and the rest for other languages — English and Hindi. But we have observed been seeing that English and Hindi theatres are not producing plays with such regularity as Kannada theatre is. So now, we have 70% of the plays in Kannada.

In the last decade or so, Bengaluru has seen the emergence of many other venues such as Jagriti, Shoonya, K.H. Kala Soudha, KEA Prabhath Rangamandira and Vyoma Artspace. How do you view this development?

More the merrier, considering the city’s population growth in the last 15 years and the pathetic condition of public transport and our roads. This, however, hasn’t affected Ranga Shankara.

Have you seen a change in the way roles are scripted and scenes performed and also in the audience profile over the years?

We haven’t done a systematic study of our audience. But we have seen that the audience profile is the same as that of the people who used to watch plays at Kalakshetra, say, a generation ago. A completely different crowd comes to watch Hindi plays, mostly from the IT/ BT sector, which is reassuring. English plays draw a mixed crowd. Kannada plays mostly have a Kannada-speaking audience. Also, of late, Kannada theatre has not produced a magnum opus play that people speaking other languages would also want to see. And yet we have had such cult plays as Jokumaraswamy and Tughlaq. So we have to look inwards.

In the 1970s, the theatre was regarded as a ‘movement’ because of its direct connection to social movements. Is that phase over now?

It’s not over but it has changed. There are people like Abhishek Majumdar who write plays that dare to hit out at the powers that be. There are urban voices sensitive to grassroots issues — they need to be nurtured and presented to city audiences. Theatre’s association with social movements should continue, otherwise you will be doing what movies and television are doing — pampering people to believe that they are very intelligent. I would like Ranga Shankara to speak about issues with the community.

How would you like to take Ranga Shankara forward from here?

As an institution, we need to provide training. But unless there is a livelihood at the end of the training, no one is going to come. So we hope to create sustainability for artistes. We have done workshops for youngsters who wanted to be directors and in this 15th year, we are doing more. Jean-Guy Lecat, theatre consultant who designed sets for Peter Brook, will be doing a workshop on scene designing in January. Andrea Gronemeyer, artistic director of Schauburg Theatre, Munich, will be conducting a workshop for young directors in December. We also hope to start an international incubation centre for pondering over the kind of art that is being created for the generations to come. Ranga Shankara dares to exist without political and religious leanings, and without having sold out to market forces. The city needs to celebrate this. It is the city’s responsibility to ensure this continues.


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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 3:14:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/the-magic-of-this-space-continues-to-baffle-me-arundhati-nag/article29982049.ece

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