A theatre of one's own

Published : Dec 03, 2004 00:00 IST

A rehearsal in progress at the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. - V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

A rehearsal in progress at the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore. - V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Theatre activity can flourish only when it is nurtured through enlightened sponsorship - in terms of finance, voluntary effort, or a sensitive appreciation of the difficulties that confront amateur and professional theatre workers. Ranga Shankara holds out such a promise.

EXACTLY three years and two days after construction began in 2001, Bangalore has gained a spanking new theatre auditorium, Ranga Shankara. On October 28, it opened its doors to the paying public with the Mysore-based Rangayana's Maya Sita Prasanga (directed by Ramesh Varma) as the inaugural performance of a month-long festival of theatre organised to celebrate its arrival. Ranga Shankara has been a long time coming. The Sanket Trust acquired the land on lease in 1994 but had no money to proceed with construction. Now, 10 years of its 30-year lease have gone by, and Arundhati Nag, the driving force behind the project, has 20 years left to realise the vision that brought the theatre into being.

Ranga Shankara is acknowledged as the theatre that Arundhati Nag has built in memory of her husband, the late theatre-television-film personality Shankar Nag, partly as a tribute to his extraordinary talent and drive, and partly as a realisation of a dream that was his too - the dream to have a theatre space of one's own. Wary of being seen as using the project to reinforce the mystique of Shankar Nag, Arundhati puts it differently when she declares, "I have not hung the project too heavily on Shankar Nag". That Shankar Nag's mystique needs no reinforcing is evident in the fact that even today autorickshaw drivers do not accept the fare from Arundhati if they happen to recognise her. The reason is that the film Autoraja, made Shankar the darling of the city's autorickshaw drivers. Shankar Nag's image as a working class icon and middle-class achiever (Malgudi Days) could easily have been milked to move the project faster. But, that could have vitiated his dream of a theatre building as a collective space where groups come together. It is just as well that apart from a likeness of Shankar Nag at the entrance to the building, Ranga Shankara presents itself as a project that is founded on a vision rather than on a personality.

Tucked away in the south Bangalore suburb of J P Nagar, Ranga Shankara is far removed from the city's theatre auditoria like the Chowdiah Memorial Hall, the Ambedkar Bhavan or the Kalakshetra. The distance is not merely geographical (though driving through the city's traffic to reach a show on time makes one wish it were not geographical at all!) but also indicative of the position that the Ranga Shankara team aims to adopt in relation to existing theatre practices in Bangalore and Karnataka.

Ranga Shankara was never intended as just another building that houses an auditorium which performers can hire to stage productions that spectators then pay to watch. It is because the practice of theatre is usually shaped by financial transactions of this sort that even the best-run of the theatre auditoria in India are today reduced to soulless shells. If theatre is to survive the assault of other media in urban centres, it can no longer entrust its future to a simple momentum of this kind. At a time when more multiplexes are being commissioned in a single year than performance spaces in the last two decades (at a conservative estimate), theatre activity can flourish only when it is nurtured through enlightened sponsorship - be it in terms of finance, voluntary effort, or a sensitive appreciation of the difficulties that confront amateur and professional theatre workers. Ranga Shankara holds out such a promise.

One among the many sad stories of Indian theatre is that exciting, supportive or even performatively efficient spaces are abysmally few in number. Performers habitually moan this lack but do precious little, despite knowing that the best way this problem can be addressed is when theatre people themselves take on the challenge of designing, building and managing the spaces that form their lifeblood. After all, a theatre building, unlike a cinema hall, is not just a display space: it is both studio and gallery, a private work space and a public presentation area rolled into one, whose potential is optimally realised only when it is controlled by those who use it.

That is easier said than done, as members of the Sanket Trust - prominent among them being Girish Karnad and Vijay Padki - realised once they had embarked on their venture. Having acquired a civic amenity site to build their theatre, nothing moved for six years because there was no money to be had. A grant of Rs.20 lakhs by the Karnataka government headed by S.M. Krishna lay unutilised for one year in a fixed deposit because the Trust could not raise any more money. An additional grant of Rs.30 lakhs from the State government the next year emboldened Arundhati Nag to take the plunge. She remembers: "We felt we had to start, else if we continued like this waiting for money to come in, nothing would happen. So we started construction with only [Rs.] 50 lakhs" and with cement arranged by the Chief Minister as a donation by the Jindals.

Today, Ranga Shankara stands proud as a Rs.3.5-crore auditorium. Arundhati recounts how the money came in bits and pieces from a variety of sources: "An old woman from Bellary started it all with a Rs.5 contribution seven years ago; a software engineer donated Rs.500 a month from his salary for the last three years (and would call up if his bank statement showed that the amount had not been debited); a well-known couple in one of Bangalore's leading software firms who donated Rs.10 lakhs to start with, then called later to say that she was good for another ten, and finally ended up contributing a total of Rs.60 lakhs after her architect assessed the actual shortfall." Theatre friends like Rohini Hattangadi, Sanjna Kapur, Roysten Abel, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, among others, also pitched in with fund-raising shows.

Not all the support to Ranga Shankara has come in the form of money. In fact, most of it has not. Arundhati speaks of approaching suppliers and contractors to donate in kind rather than cash with a simple question: "This is for the city; will you give?" Her experience provides important lessons to all those budding theatre-builders out there: it is easier to garner support from the market if you ask for materials and labour instead of cash. And, it works out cheaper too, for both the giver and the receiver. Most of the materials - flooring, bathroom fixtures, tiles, pipes, and so on - in the building have been sourced in this fashion. As has the painting, even if it has involved awkwardly juggling one contractor who painted the exterior free of charge with another who similarly did the interiors. The only material that Ranga Shankara has had to buy at market rates, revealed Arundhati somewhat ruefully, has been its wood and steel. Today, Ranga Shankara is still faced with a large deficit. But, with the building up and running, it is difficult not to feel buoyant. Not when you are feeling, as Arundhati confesses, "like I'm walking on the road and the clouds are showering blessings only on me".

DESIGN was another challenge. "Where are our architects with experience in building technically proficient theatre spaces," asks Arundhati. As with all rhetorical questions, you do not have to search for an answer. Architecture schools have stopped offering theatre design as a specialisation because very few students opt for it because it has no market. How then does one design a theatre? The Sanket Trust alighted upon Sharukh Mistry of Bangalore's Mistry Associates through an interesting turn of events. Arundhati had seen his work and liked it. She was also clear that they needed a Bangalore-based architect because "you can't have your gynaecologist in another city when you're delivered of your baby." Mistry had earlier agreed to adjudicate a theatre design competition that Trust members hoped would throw up a solution. But, when the Trust found it could not afford the participating architects' fees, the juror suddenly discovered that he would become the awardee. Mistry demurred, but finally came round. The fact that he was a theatre enthusiast and offered to cut his fee was just the icing the cake needed.

Ranga Shankara is Mistry's first theatre auditorium. Its design was evolved through a survey of several auditoria in Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi "in order to see what works and what doesn't". While the thrust stage of Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre was an obvious inspiration, the Ranga Shankara stage, by virtue of being larger and having more fly space, can comfortably host elaborately designed productions. Arundhati points out that they "were keen that the design should allot equal space for the audience seating and for the stage". Acoustics were also a priority. "We wanted natural rather than aided sound for the theatre."

This 300-capacity auditorium is a delight. Seating is so steeply raked that while shorter spectators enjoy an unobstructed view of the stage, taller spectators do the same without feeling their usual guilt. The stage floor has a revolving stage and a trapdoor, facilities that very few auditoria in this country possess. The front row has wheelchair access built into it, and a few rows have been wired for headphones, should the need for a translation facility arise. The building features an art gallery, a bookshop and a cafe - all with a view to ensuring that Ranga Shankara functions not merely as a theatre auditorium but becomes a vibrant cultural hub over a period of time.

That will happen once Ranga Shankara sets into motion its own way of doing things, even if that means bucking habits that have come to be regarded as normal. An instance: notwithstanding its concern for spectator comfort, Ranga Shankara will not admit latecomers to the auditorium once the show commences. As in the case of Prithvi theatre, protecting the interests of the performers and the spectators who arrived in time is paramount. However, unlike Prithvi, Ranga Shankara has provided a viewing galley for latecomers to watch the show from outside.

RANGA SHANKARA's major intervention in local theatre practice is in the area of rentals and pricing. The auditorium is available for a mere Rs.2,000 a night - excluding `actuals' on electricity consumed by the stage lighting, which Arundhati estimates will cost about Rs.500 a show - provided the tickets are priced at the recommended rate of Rs.49. (The tax slab begins at Rs.50, hence the odd figure of Rs.49.) For groups that wish to price their tickets higher, the management will charge an extra 10 per cent on each ticket sold. Compare this to the rentals of the Chowdiah Hall and the Ambedkar Bhavan, both 1,000-seater auditoria, which range between Rs.30,000 to Rs.40,000 a night and one realises the huge boost that Ranga Shankara's rental policy will give to the local theatre. The Kalakshetra comes cheaper at Rs.2,000, but bookings are hard to come by for this government-run theatre.

Arundhati Nag's dream is to see Ranga Shankara function as a bridge between Bangalore's English and Kannada language theatres on the one hand, and between Karnataka theatre and theatre elsewhere in the country. To this end, she aims to host an annual festival of plays, organise interactive sessions between experts in the field and local enthusiasts, especially the young, start off a children's theatre group on the Grips model and commission directors to produce plays at Ranga Shankara. This obviously entails expenditure of a kind that is difficult for a private player to entertain let alone sustain. If Arundhati Nag is being able to dream this big, it is because Hutch Telecom has come on board the Ranga Shankara project and has agreed to underwrite losses during the first few years.

Let us leave Arundhati Nag with the last word: "Driving to the Chief Minister's office to negotiate our first grant, I saw this hoarding on Race Course Road with the famous line drawing of Mahatma Gandhi and a slogan underneath: `Find the purpose; the means will follow'. It sounds so cliched, but whenever things have been difficult, I've taken heart from that line and said to myself, `Yes, it's very, very do-able'."

Kewal Arora teaches at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He writes on theatre.

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