Bengaluru’s cultural landscape of limited spaces and growing pains 

Arts-centric venues fall short in Bengaluru where other built areas like apartment blocks and offices thrive. The Hindu explores the infrastructure around performance spaces and speaks to the communities that work in theatre, music, and dance

February 22, 2024 06:50 pm | Updated February 23, 2024 10:56 am IST

An inside view of Ravindra Kalakshethra in Bengaluru.

An inside view of Ravindra Kalakshethra in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

A couple of months ago, VASP Theatre, an emerging troupe in Bengaluru, was in for a surprise when they landed at Kalagrama Auditorium in Malatahalli, managed by the Kannada and Culture Department. The auditorium had been double-booked with a dance group scheduled to perform on the same day. VASP had reserved the auditorium well in advance with a deposit. However, they had to eventually cancel the show and refund money to all those who had booked tickets. Worse, the wait to get the refund of the advance from the Department was several weeks.

This incident underscores a more significant issue plaguing Bengaluru’s cultural landscape — grossly inadequate performance spaces for a bourgeoning city. Even as the population and expanse grow, and with it a richer cultural scene and a growing interest among the youth in theatre, music, dance, and various art forms, there are too few affordable performance spaces.

Amidst these challenges, Ravindra Kalakshetra, the nerve centre of cultural activities in Bengaluru, turned 60. Situated on J.C. Road in the heart of Bengaluru, it was built by the government way back in 1963. Since then, there has been no similar publicly-funded facility to match it in terms of seating capacity, connectivity, and affordability. Back then, Bengaluru’s population was 12,92,000, according to the United Nations - World Population Prospects. In 2023, it ballooned to 1,36,08,000, an increase of 953%.

Ravindra Kalakshethra on J.C. Road in Bengaluru.

Ravindra Kalakshethra on J.C. Road in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash. K

What a culture space needs

A recent ₹24 crore proposal for the renovation of Ravindra Kalakshetra has now been put on hold following a protest by theatre activists and artists on the grounds that it does not focus on what the artistic community and audience really need. Sreenivas G. Kappanna, one of Bengaluru’s senior theatre artists, says that performance spaces must cater to their audience and artists rather than turning them into commercial spaces.

“Cinemas focus on comfort, such as air-conditioners, seating, and other amenities that a commercial space requires. But a performance space should focus on affordability and creating good technical support for artists,” he said. In fact, the effort to make it “plush” has backfired, he argues. “Ravindra Kalakshetra is one of the best auditoriums in south India; it used to have great wing space, very good acoustics, and one of the biggest stages. However, a couple of years ago the department decided to put in air-conditioners. The ducts ruined the acoustics of the entire space,” he adds

With the installation of the ACs also came a massive increase in rent, due to which many theatre, dance, and music troupes decided to perform without the AC. There has also been a fall in performances at the auditorium over the years, and it mainly hosts government events. “The government must stop investing in amenities that are not required by artists and should focus on increasing cultural activities in the space,” he argues. In 2015, the rent used to be anywhere between ₹1,000 and ₹3,000 per show, depending on the event per show. It is now between ₹7,850 and ₹9,420.

The Town Hall on J.C. Road in Bengaluru.

The Town Hall on J.C. Road in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.

Cost to (theatre) company

Currently, Bengaluru has close to 25 auditoriums, both government-run and private, that actively host cultural events. Prestige Srihari Khoday Centre for Performing Arts, on Kanakapura Road, is the most expensive space at ₹6.5 lakh per day.

Ranga Shankara, run by the Sanket Trust in J.P. Nagar, is among the affordable spaces, with a rent of ₹2,500 per show and a 10% share in the troupe’s box-office collection. However, it is restricted to theatre performances. The other options are now Ravindra Kalakshetra, K.H. Kalasoudha, Kalagrama, Town Hall, and a few others, which are run by the government, with varying capacities and rents.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has a couple of performance spaces in the city, but with many of them partially run by a third party, they are expensive, and the process of booking these spaces is unclear according to many artists.

The fully renovated Sir Puttanna Chetty Town Hall.

The fully renovated Sir Puttanna Chetty Town Hall.

Among privately run ones, one of the affordable spaces is Jagriti Theatre, Whitefield, with a rent of ₹5,000 per show. However, due to its geographical location, distance from the heart of the city, and a perception that audience tastes in and around the area revolve around films rather than culture, a section of artists prefer other locations.

The city has well-maintained private performance spaces like Bangalore International Centre, Alliance Francaise, Chowdiah Memorial Hall, MLR Convention Centre, Prabhath Auditorium, Dr. C. Ashwath Kala Bhavana, Good Sheperd Auditorium and more. Rents range from ₹12,000 all the way up to ₹2.5 lakh per show/day.

There are educational institutions that also boast high seating capacity spaces, like Dayanand Sagar College, Christ (Deemed to be University), National College, St Joseph’s University, Bangalore University, NMKRV College, JSS School and more. Even with all these spaces, performers say the numbers are still grossly inadequate, and the costs are often beyond their means.

Varshini Vijay, the founder of Prabhath Auditorium and proprietor of performance venues across the city, particularly in South Bengaluru, says it is a deliberate decision to set higher rental rates rather than seek external funding, “If we do not have a self-sustaining model, we must depend on grants or CSR [corporate social responsibility] funds. A space like Ranga Shankara is funded, making it the most affordable space in the city; Vyoma Art Space and Studio in the same vicinity sustains itself by conducting workshops throughout the year. We at Prabhath maintain our spaces with a slightly higher rent, as we are not funded and prefer not to be. Each space has a different model, and this is the only way to have quality spaces in the city,” she argues.

Nayana auditorium on J.C. Road in Bengaluru.

Nayana auditorium on J.C. Road in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash. K

An uneven distribution

Yet another issue about Bengaluru’s cultural landscape underscored by both art enthusiasts and artists is the spatial distribution. Most auditoriums are situated in south and east Bengaluru. Though the north and western parts of the city have alternative performance spaces, the lack of well-equipped halls with a capacity of 300-500 seats has been a significant deterrent to people choosing these areas. According to Sathvika Nadig, a theatre and dance aficionado and a resident of Yelahanka, the lack of performance spaces in the area has led to a lack of interest in attending cultural events.

“I am a huge fan of theatre and enjoy watching Bharatanatyam performances, but I always have to commute to the south of Bengaluru, which is a minimum 50-km round trip. Some performance spaces do not allow you inside even if you are late by a minute, and with Bengaluru’s traffic, I have ended up not showing up on time for many such cultural events. You tend to lose interest in cultural activities eventually,” she says.

J. Lokesh, a senior theatre artist and ex-chairperson of Karnataka Nataka Academy, says equipping the existing BBMP performance spaces and creating compact spaces in these areas is crucial. “What performers and artists want are compact theatres of 300-500 seating capacity, with good light and sound equipment, spread out in various parts of the city,” he says. He suggests that the government invest in quality equipment, a good stage, basic amenities like folding chairs, and simplifying the booking process. Then, the spaces in north and west Bengaluru can also help conduct events related to literature, women empowerment, and more. “The only way to take this forward is to have a committee with artists on the board, led by an IAS officer who has an equal interest in the arts,” he says. 

According to Vinay Shastry, founder of VASP theatre, “Over the last 20 years, several layouts and areas have been developed in the city, and the only means of entertainment these areas have are shopping malls and no cultural spaces. A little push by the artist community could also contribute to changing the cultural landscape of these areas.”

Samsa open-air auditorium on J.C. Road in Bengaluru.

Samsa open-air auditorium on J.C. Road in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.

Ujwala Rao, a young English and Kannada theatre person, says artists also need to embrace alternative spaces in the city. “There are a few alternative spaces in north and west Bengaluru that have come up, which many people are not aware of. Whenever we perform in north Bengaluru, we are aware that the area lacks an audience base, and we will not have the same headcount we see in spaces in South Bengaluru, Indiranagar, or Koramangala, but we have taken the risk and performed.”

Concurring with this view, Arundhati Nag, founder and managing trustee of Ranga Shankara, also says that it is time theatre practitioners explore smaller and informal spaces that already exist in the north and west of Bengaluru.

‘This is a theatre’

“The demography of performance spaces has been ruled by the Kannada population staying in the South of Bengaluru, and North and West Bengaluru has a newer population. But there are a couple of new spaces in these areas, too, that are smaller and informal. It is time for theatre practitioners to explore new spaces. It is all about demand and supply, we need daredevil entrepreneurs to go to a space and say, ‘this is a theatre’ and it becomes a theatre,” she said.

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