Engaging with culture

Print edition : January 09, 2015

K.V. Akshara: "One of the key strengths of India lies in its interaction with tradition." Photo: P.K. Ramesh

Interview with K.V. Akshara, theatre director, playwright, translator and essayist, who heads Ninasam.

What made you choose the theme “Is there an Indian way of thinking?”

The theme of the course is usually decided after consultation with several friends. This time, we were looking for a theme that covers various innovative intellectual and activist modes that have originated in India recently, and which also have tried to apply indigenous ways to tackle long-existing problems. The strategy of the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] was one such example, and the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara and responses to them were another. But the theme of this course has to be framed in such a way that it lends itself to expansion into the realm of various art practices, and for that, A.K. Ramanujan’s essay seemed to fit. Incidentally, it was also the 25th year of the essay and therefore we finalised on that title. The idea was to take off from the argument of Ramanujan’s essay and expand it into questions such as “is there an Indian way of doing theatre?” The selection of Bhavabhuti’s play for Tirugata this time was also prompted by this idea.

As an insider what are the tensions that you see which may be very different from an outsider’s perceptions of Heggodu’s “idyllic” and “ideal” life?



Heggodu is neither idyllic nor ideal. For instance, the number of daily hours of scheduled and unscheduled power cuts makes this a hard place to live! And, Heggodu has its share of all the petty and not-so-petty politics that any other village in India has. However, on a communitarian level, being in Heggodu has its large share of advantages: a huge seven-day event such as the culture course is made possible with a financial support of Rs.7 lakh, largely because of the voluntary inputs and supervision of the village community. Even this communitarian life has its flip side: one has the whole community to fall back on in case of difficulty; but one has also to be constantly alert, at each single step, about taking everyone in the community along.



When we say Indian, we are in some way referring to what we understand as tradition and as organic. Perhaps more. I recall the piece you wrote on the demise of Ni. Na. Madhyastha and Ga. Su. Bhatta lamenting the loss of traditional thought processes.

As I see it, one of the key strengths of India lies in its interaction with tradition; but tradition is also the most misunderstood and misinterpreted notion. One often hears from the ultra-modernists that tradition is static, reactionary and even evil, a baggage of the past that needs to be dropped as early as possible. But the reality that I see in the village where I live is completely different. Tradition has been a source of energy, even the source of creativity in the lives of people here who live with the tradition, sometimes following it, sometimes rejecting it, sometimes altering it and negotiating with it in many complex ways. I have written about the so-called traditional theatre forms such as Talamaddale or Srikrishnaparijatha, where tradition is handled with such critical fervour that some of our “modernists” seem very “traditional” in comparison! The problem, as I see it, is that there is not enough interactivity between the so-called traditionalists and the modernists. That was my argument when I wrote about Ni. Na. Madhyastha and Ga. Su. Bhatta, who were considered “traditional pundits”, and therefore, our “academic scholars” never cared to interact with them. But it is also true that, on a pragmatic level, most of the creative minds in Kannada have drawn their energies from their interaction with tradition, which also includes quarrelling with it.

Do you think most civilisational predicaments arise because we continue to see culture as a secondary and superficial aspect of human life?

I feel that many of today’s problems are rooted in the fact that we have neglected our roles in engaging with the arts and culture. A very glaring example is education. Many people argue for an equitable opportunity for various sections of society to get educated, but very few talk about the equitable treatment of various concepts and modes of education. How many drama, music and dance schools do we have in Karnataka compared with the innumerable general schools and colleges? And how much public money is spent on arts education? It is negligible compared with what our society invests in what is called general and higher education. Add to it the fact that in the last two decades, our cultural industry has foregrounded TV to such an extent that hundreds of channels beam the same trash 24/7, and you have nothing less than the recipe for a cultural disaster. Culture is the software that runs the hardware called society, and our education system will collapse if it does not find sensitive ways of engaging with culture. Our culture course is a very small step in making young people engage with culture.

If culture in its most powerful sense is an endless creative field of play, where people can constantly break and rebuild utopias every day, can we use this power to rethink socialist politics?

I remember an essay by PuTiNa, a well-known Kannada poet and essayist. Named “Theatre and the Laboratory”, this informal and non-academic essay begins with the writer looking at and musing on a science laboratory where his scientist friend conducted experiments. And then the essay takes off into various directions to finally ask a very “utopian” question: Can we not imagine a scenario where arts practice also becomes the laboratory of society, in the sense that we first “test” our “revolutionary” ideas there and then apply it in society at large?

At first sight such imaginaries may look like the typical wishful thinking of artists, but in a deeper way, I feel, they could offer a direction to the future of arts practice. We have so far spent most of our energies on proclaiming what constitutes entertainment, and what kind of arts practices build social awareness. Beyond the commercial and the didactic possibilities of the arts, we have lost sight of arts practice as a catalyst for building critical minds that could possibly dream the impossible.

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