How theatre troupes came to thrive in Shivamogga

Shivamogga in southern Karnataka is one of the district centres in where many amateur theatre troupes have been active for decades

Updated - June 15, 2024 07:01 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2024 09:00 am IST - Shivamogga

Ondu Kanoonathmaka Kole (One legal murder), a play staged by Hongirana group in Shivamogga received a good response from audience.

Ondu Kanoonathmaka Kole (One legal murder), a play staged by Hongirana group in Shivamogga received a good response from audience. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Well-known Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s play Kanyadaan was staged at DVS Ranga Mandira in Shivamogga on October 14 and 15, 2023. Both days the hall was packed. The artistes of Sahyadri Ranga Taranga won the hearts of theatre lovers with their performance.

Soon after the show, the artistes engaged in an interaction with the audience. The responses from the theatre lovers were varied. While a few appreciated the acting and presentation of the plot, many raised serious objections to the content of the play, written in 1983. It was a very eager, academic and lively debate with multiple voices coming in.

Kuvempu Ranga Mandira in Shivamogga maintained by the Department of Kannada and Culture is one of the best auditoriums to stage plays, according to theatre persons in Shivamogga.

Kuvempu Ranga Mandira in Shivamogga maintained by the Department of Kannada and Culture is one of the best auditoriums to stage plays, according to theatre persons in Shivamogga. | Photo Credit: SATHISH G_T

Dr. H.S. Nagabhushan, who translated the play into Kannada and played the lead role, and R.S. Halaswamy, the director, listened to the opinions expressed by the audience with an open mind. “This is the beauty of staging a play for an audience in Shivamogga. The audience is frank in their opinions,” says Halaswamy, a journalist and a theatre personality.

The audience also expects discipline from the teams when it comes to managing the time. Dr. Sasvehalli Sathish, a well known director, actor, and founder of the of the Hongirana team, recalled in a programme in Shivamogga recently how senior people among the audience raised objections when one of his plays was delayed by 20 minutes.

A long history of theatre

Shivamogga is one of the district centres in Karnataka where many amateur theatre troupes have been active for decades. According to the association of theatre artists of amateur troupes, Havyasi Rangatandagala Kalavidara Sangha, there are 32 amateur theatre groups in the city. They have come under one banner to take forward the movement of amateur theatre under the cooperative model. The Sangha has worked out a model to organize activities and hold theatre festivals occasionally.

The amateur theatre in Shivamogga has a long history. The emergence of amateur groups has its roots in the theatre productions of popular companies, which camped in Shivamogga for several months a year. The senior citizens of the city recall the plays staged by companies belonging to Gubbi Veeranna, Honnappa Bhagavatar, Master Hirannayya, Varadachar, Mohammed Peer, Yoganarasimha and many more. The actors who visited the city for performances included Raj Kumar, Balakrishna, Narasimharaju, G.V. Iyer among others, who later ruled the silver screen. The plays they staged were based on mythological stories.

In the 1950s, a few writers, lecturers, doctors, and businessmen who were familiar with modern plays and literature joined hands to form the United Artists. This is considered to be the first amateur troupe in Shivamogga City. The team involved teachers, businessmen, advocates, and doctors. They include Khandoba Rao, a lecturer, Hiriyanna, a businessman, Dr. Ashok Pai, a noted psychiatrist, and H.M. Prabhakar, who was an excellent make-up artist.

The artistes chose plays by Kuvempu, T.P. Kailasam, among others. Sa. Shi. Marulaiah, a writer, K.S. Nisar Ahmed, a poet, who worked in Sahyadri College in Shivamogga then, were also part of the team. As the team members shifted to different locations, activities gradually slowed down. Others like Sharada Kala Sangha, Navarathna Kalasangha also became active. They staged plays based on mythological stories.

Ondu Kanoonathmaka Kole play.

Ondu Kanoonathmaka Kole play. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Birth of new troupes in ‘70s

In the early 1970s, a team of active lecturers, writers, and businessmen, felt the need for an amateur theatre group. Under the leadership of poet and writer K.S. Nisar Ahmed, who was teaching at Sahyadri College, staged T. Prasannana Gruhastashrama, written by P. Lankesh, another talent from Shivamogga, and Ellige, written by Na. Rathna. The productions received a good response.

Later, they formed a group and named it Abhinaya. The first production of the team was Hayavadana, by well-known playwright Dr. Girish Karnad. Gururao Bapat, a native of Sagar, who was teaching at a college in Shivamogga, directed the play. T.V. Hegde, also a lecturer, composed music for the play. One of the songs for the play was rendered by Shivamogga Subbanna, who later won the national award for playback singing. Moved by the success of the play, Hayavadana, the artists designed a logo, that relates to the play’s theme, for the team.

The team invited Jayatirtha Joshi to direct a Kannada adaptation of the Hindi play Andha Yug written by Dharamvir Bharati. “The play became a super-hit. The troupe had to hold multiple shows in a day to meet the demand. In those days, the troupe would give only one ticket to a person. Hence, everybody had to stand in the queue to get tickets,” said S.C. Gowrishankar, a retired professor of English, and also an active member of Abhinaya.

Kantesh Murthy, A.S. Krishnamurthy, B.M. Kumaraswamy, Venkatesh Mudaliar, Shivamogga Venkatesh and many others were founders of the team. In the later years, N.K. Halesh, who was teaching at Sahyadri College, S.C. Gowrishankar, who translated plays of Shakespeare, and others joined the team.

The artists, though they had no formal training in theatre production from any school, were open to picking up skills and improving their performances. They invited trained artists and directors to guide them. “As we were making productions, Chidambara Rao Jambe from Sagar had just come out of the National School of Drama. Gururao Bapat brought him to direct us plays. He directed Tamra Patra and Dr. Siddaraju. In that way, the troupe opened up to new trends,” recalled Halesh. In the early years, the groups faced difficulty finding female artists. However, gradually, members of the Abhinaya team motivated their family members to get involved.

Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkars Kanyadaan was staged in Shivamogga in October 2023. The audience engaged in an interaction with the production team after the play was staged.

Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkars Kanyadaan was staged in Shivamogga in October 2023. The audience engaged in an interaction with the production team after the play was staged. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Crowd funding

In order to mobilise funds for theatre productions, the troupe raised contributions from theatre-lovers. A.S. Krishnamurthy, an active member of Abhinaya, in a recent programme, said that ₹10 was collected from a patron. “The patrons were assured of four or five plays in a year. They would get free entry to the shows. With this, we received a considerable amount at one-go and that helped us procure lights and other materials required to enhance the production,” he said. The number of patrons increased to 2,750 at one point. The team had to hold multiple shows of each play to meet the demand. S.N. Channabasappa, now BJP MLA from Shivamogga, was among those in the team engaged in back-stage works.

The team invited S. Malathi, a well-known theatre personality from Sagar, to conduct a workshop for them. She directed Bheema Kathanaka, as part of the workshop. Similarly, they invited Ashok Badaradinni to direct a play for them. N.R. Masur, who led a team of Udaya Kalavidaru in Sagar, also directed plays by Sri Ranga for Abhinaya. Gowrishankar, a professor of English, directed many Shakespearean plays. “Instead of relying on other translations of Shakespearean plays, I took on the task of translating them on my own,” said Gowrishankar. “I reduced the length of the plays to suit the theatre adaptation. The idea was to attract students to the theatre. Many of the plays chosen for production were part of the syllabus.”

Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkars Kanyadaan was staged in Shivamogga in October 2023.

Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkars Kanyadaan was staged in Shivamogga in October 2023. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Many more teams

Meanwhile a few more troupes of amateur artists took birth in the city. They included Kala Jyothi and Kalakirana. Kala Jyothi concentrated on children’s theatre. Some of the artists were trained at workshops conducted by Neenasam at Heggodu, set up by K.V. Subbanna.

In the later years, many more like Sahyadri Rangataranga, Ranga Prayoga, Geleyara Balaga, Chiguru, Nam Team, Srushti, Sutradhara, Hongirana, Ranga Belaku, Belaku, Samanvaya, Nam Halli Theatre and Thorana became active.

Sahyadri Ranga Taranga, which was started in 1986, has been active even now. Recently, they staged Direct Action, a play by Dr. Nataraj Huliyar on the life and struggles of Prof. M.D. Nanjundaswamy, leader of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha. Earlier, the same play was staged by the Bengaluru-based Nagna Theatre. Sahyadri Ranga Taranga of Shivamogga chose the same script for production. Kantesh Kadaramandalagi directed the play.

Ranga Prayoga, which was launched in 1987, brought Kuvempu’s plays to the stage. It introduced many talents to theatre through its activities, including Rangashataka, in which the team staged 100 children’s plays in a year. Journalists, who were interested in theatre too, started Nam Team, and their first play was Suryana Kudure, based on a short story by Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy. Similarly, many government employees, including teachers, formed their group Hongirana.

N.K. Halesh, who has been an active member of Abhinaya, said the theatre activities of Shivamogga had produced many good actors. Shivamogga Venkatesh, who was one of the founders of Abhinaya, T.V. Hegde, K.N. Kantesh Kumar, and B.M. Kumaraswamy were among the talented actors of those years. In recent years, he said, Sasvehalli Sathish, Dr. H.S. Nagabhushan, Renukappa, and Sudhindra Rao were among the best.

DVS Ranga Mandira on Sir M.V. Road in Shivamogga has been the place to stage plays over the decades. Many amateur groups flourished because of the facility in the city.

DVS Ranga Mandira on Sir M.V. Road in Shivamogga has been the place to stage plays over the decades. Many amateur groups flourished because of the facility in the city. | Photo Credit: SATHISH G_T

Building a space

The absence of well-built theatre spaces was a hindrance for the theatre groups for many years. They made use of the Karnataka Sangha auditorium and DVS Rangamandira. “Most of the time, it was difficult to arrange chairs for the audience. Hence, we decided to spread cotton carpets,” recalled B.M. Kumaraswamy, a retired professor and active participant in Abhinaya productions.

With the construction of Kuvempu Rangamandira in 1994, many of the problems of the theatre groups were resolved. “The construction of Kuvempu Rangamandira is itself an interesting story. The construction had been stalled due to a lack of funds. When S.M. Jaamdar was DC in Shivamogga, he took the initiative to complete the project. Kannada matinee idol Raj Kumar was invited to a programme meant to raise funds for the project. The actor entertained the audience without taking any remuneration,” said Honnali Chandrashekhar, one of the founders of Nam Team, a theatre group.

In the year 2011, Shivamogga got a unit of Rangayana. The repertory strengthened the theatre groups with new productions and experiments. Many groups staged their productions at Suvarna Samskruthika Bhavana, where Rangayana functions. Now, the teams are facing the absence of facilities for rehearsal. They have been demanding the State government make rooms available for rehearsal at Kuvempu Ranga Mandira.

Mobilising funds in unique way
Shivamogga has a good number of amateur theatre groups active for decades. Abhinaya, one of the groups started in 1972, had devised a system to mobilise funds. They collected ₹10 as annual contribution from those who regularly watched their plays. The commitment from the troupe was to stage at least four plays in a year.
Black screen and spotlights
Amateur troupes, influenced by the company theatres, normally used scene-curtains as the backdrop. The curtains with pictures depicting locations changed as the scene changed. For the first time in the 1970s, Abhinaya troupe used black screens. They also experimented with lighting, using spotlights in place of floodlights.
Plays from college syllabus
As many of the people involved in theatre productions were lecturers, they chose plays keeping their students in mind. Often they chose plays, which were part of the syllabus for undergraduate and post-graduate students. Prof S.C. Gowrishankar, who taught at DVS College in Shivamogga, adapted a few Shakespearean plays.
Experiments with new directors
Amateur troupes in Shivamogga were eager to experiment. They were ready to act under new directors. When Chidambara Rao Jambe returned to Shivamogga from NSD in Delhi, he was invited to direct plays in Shivamogga. Later, groups invited directors like Ashok Badaradinni, Nataraj Honnavali, Ganesh Mandarthi, and others.
A very enthusiastic audience
Actors and directors of Shivamogga fondly remember occasions when audience met them after shows and praised their acting or depiction of characters. Many people involved in theatre production remember the days when hundreds of people would stand in long queue in front of DVS Rangamandira to purchase tickets.
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