M. Ganesh, founder of the theatre group Janamanadaata, is a rare combination of pragmatic beliefs and unbridled imagination. Basking in the recent acclaim of staging the 100th show of his famous Ooru-Keri, he still believes he has a long way to go in his crusade against social evils.
Ganesh is an alumnus of one of the most prestigious drama institutes in Karnataka, Neenaasam, founded by K.V. Subbanna. “Subbanna was always sensitive about the needs and welfare of the community and never hesitated to express his views on issues of social importance – be it economical, agricultural or political factors. This was a major influence on me,” says Ganesh. After graduating from Neenaasam, Ganesh continued to teach there. A chief aspect of his teachings was the narration of stories. This planted the seed for Janamanadaata. “One of my favourite stories was ‘Shraddha’ by Srinivas Vaidya. When I read and narrated the story, some of my friends and students expressed their interest to enact it. I was able to use some of my earlier experiences in Neenaasam, wherein we used to go and sell earthen lamps to every house on the occasion of Deepavali. The songs we used to sing during this event and this story finally took the shape of the first play of Janamanadaata, Shraddha Mattu Hanate .
The distinguishing factor of this group is their plots, which are based not on scripts but on short stories or biographies. Ganesh elaborates on the challenges of this approach. “In a typical play, the dramatist would’ve elucidated the setting for the plot including the details of how the various characters are supposed to enter the stage. Hence, the director’s job is simplified to a great extent. However, in adapting the short stories and biographical works, the challenge exists in conveying to the viewer the details of the central plot. The director has to decide which sequences from the work can be adapted for stage and create an appropriate environment for it.”
Language is one factor Ganesh emphasizes to enhance the impact of his plays. “Language plays a significant role in establishing the authenticity of the plot. In some stories, the setting may be in a region of Karnataka where the style of speaking Kannada is different as compared to others. It is then imperative that the artists ensure they adapt that style and deliver it effectively and thus impact the representation. We spend a lot of time in choosing the appropriate words, studying the behaviour of the people from such regions so that their expressions and demeanour can be used in our characters.”
Ganesh keeps his props simple. Using nondescript items, he creates rivers, falls and fields on stage. “If I can lay out a sari from one end of the stage to the other and see it as a river flowing across or drainage from Kengeri, and give the same vision and creativity to my audience, without diluting the narrative, I do not see a point in creating an expensive set for it.” A simple staging also helps the group take their performances farther.
Theatre is one of the oldest mediums of entertainment, but does it have a role beyond that? Ganesh aims to hold a mirror to society and create awareness while entertaining. Ooru-Keri , a historical play, also deftly shows the socio-economic problems faced by certain communities. Baduku Bayalu is based on the life of a transgender. “I have a sense of satisfaction when I see the response that my plays get from the audience,” says Ganesh.
“Particularly for Baduku Bayalu , I had requested the presence of the members of Hijra community during our first performance in Shimoga. Initially there was a lot of hesitation and apprehension amongst the other audience who observed that there were Hijras amidst them. However, by the time the play ended, the initial coldness had vanished and all the audience together stood up and gave a standing ovation. It showed me the power that theatre has to melt the barriers that the society may have created between them.”
Still, Ganesh feels modern Kannada theatre has hit a roadblock in its reach. “Of the more than 100 shows that Ooru-Keri has seen, nearly 50 per cent of the performances were done in places where the villagers had never even seen a play in their life. While we seem to be gaining greater technical expertise and learning new nuances of acting and direction, the idea of taking this medium to the remote corners of the State and to every strata of the society has been sidelined.”
Ganesh believes theatre must respond to the needs of even the smallest and most obscure groups and sects. “Unless theatre can prod the intellect of the viewer and compel him to think and question existing values, it will fail in this responsibility.” He is optimistic about the medium. “I am confident that Kannada theatre shall expand in its reach and bring to the forefront the rich tradition and diversity that exists in Karnataka and the various philosophies that developed here.”
Janamanadaata, he says, is one step in this direction.