Rangayana: Theatre of the absurd

Print edition : January 28, 2022

A seven and half hour-long stage adaptation of S.L. Bhyrappa’s novel ‘Parva’ debuts at Kalamandira in Mysuru on February 12, 2021. The drama was produced by Rangayana. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

Addanda C. Cariappa, Rangayana director. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

At the Bahuroopi National Theatre Festival organised by Rangayana in Mysore in February 2020. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

B.V. Karanth, Rangayana founder. Photo: The Hindu PHOTO ARCHIVES

Rangayana, the pluralistic Kannada theatre repertory and a unique secular cultural space, is in danger of being reduced to a handmaiden of the BJP and the RSS if its present director, Addanda C. Cariappa, has his way.

RANGAYANA is a Karnataka government-funded repertory. It also lends its name to a theatre institute and theatre space located in Mysuru. Since its founding in 1989 by the film and theatre personality B.V. Karanth, the repertory has established itself as a leading space for Kannada theatre. The plays staged by Rangayana have won popular as well as critical appreciation. Often described as a premier theatre institute in India, the repertory has performed at international venues, too. Karanth, who graduated from the National School of Drama (NSD), was the founding director of Rangayana. The repertory has seen eight directors since his tenure ended in 1996. Some past directors, such as C. Basavalingaiah and Prasanna, were also NSD alumni. They played a prominent role in Kannada theatre apart from experimenting with different forms of theatre. Three branches of Rangayana have been established in Dharwad, Kalaburagi and Shivamogga.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State appointed Addanda C. Cariappa as the 10th director of Rangayana in December 2019. Cariappa’s decision to invite Chakravarthy Sulibele, a Hindutva propagandist and provocateur, to deliver the valedictory speech of the institute’s annual theatre festival, known as ‘Bahuroopi’, along with BJP spokesperson Malavika Avinash, sparked off protests by theatre persons and activists in the State. The 10-day theatre festival was slated to begin on December 10 and Cariappa’s choice of Sulibele was made public in the last week of November. The festival was subsequently postponed in view of the new COVID-19 protocol in the State.

‘Loyal RSS worker’

The invitation to Sulibele was questioned on the grounds that he did not have any connection with the world of theatre, but Cariappa stood by his decision. In an interview to Samvaada, a media house of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), he referred to the dissenters as “Maoists” who had captured Rangayana in the past. In the same interview, he described himself as a “loyal RSS worker”. This aggravated the anger among theatre persons and activists, and they launched a ‘Rangayana Ulisi’ (Save Rangayana) protest opposite the Rangayana premises in Mysuru on December 20 demanding Cariappa’s removal.

Speaking to Frontline, Cariappa dismissed the protesters as a “handful of agitators who are jealous of what I have done at Rangayana”. He said, “In the two years that I have been at the helm, I have been working tirelessly and have staged 10 plays, including Parva [based on Kannada writer S.L. Bhyrappa’s novel of the same name and directed by Prakash Belawadi], which was a super success. The theme for this year’s Bahuroopi festival is ‘Mother and Motherhood’. Among the invited speakers are the environmentalist Suresh Heblikar, the novelist Na. D’Souza who is a Christian, the poet H.S. Venkatesh Murthy, the film-maker T. S. Nagabharana, and Sulibele and Avinash. The reason I picked Sulibele is because his organisation, the ‘Yuva Brigade’, was given the Kannada Rajyotsava award in 2020 for its work in cleaning lakes and rivers, which has a connection with the theme of the festival. Malavika [Avinash] worked tirelessly during the COVID pandemic and distributed 1.5 lakh food packets.”

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When asked about his usage of terms such as “Maoists” and “terrorists” to describe senior theatre persons who objected to his decision to invite Sulibele, Cariappa justified it by saying that he was only responding to their accusation that he was a “communal person”. “If I am communal, you are a Maoist. That is what I said and I stand by that. Am I mad to call them ‘Maoists’ first? And yes, I am proud to be an RSS karyakarta; yes, I have attended the shakha of the RSS. The Prime Minister and the President are RSS karyakartas, my Minister V. Sunil Kumar [Minister of Kannada and Culture Department] is a pucca RSS swayamsewak. Should all of them resign? I am a nationalist first and theatre comes second,” Cariappa said.

This recalcitrant attitude of Cariappa of refusing to engage democratically with his critics and his brazen attempt at transforming Rangayana into another institution with a strong Hindutva thrust was evident in the interview. This is precisely what irked the protesters who described Rangayana as a ‘liberal’ space known for its ‘progressive thinking’. According to the protesters, Cariappa is not suited to hold the position of director in the organisation that had been helmed by stalwarts of Kannada theatre and who had used their position at Rangayana to further a theatre movement in the State.

Theatre director C. Basavalingaiah, who succeeded Karanth as the director of Rangayana in 1996, contextualised the appointment and attitude of Cariappa as part of a larger attempt by the BJP to take over cultural spaces. Describing Cariappa as a political appointee who made a ‘back door’ entry to the post of director, Basavalingaiah said, “This takeover of cultural institutions has taken place under the BJP government. This has happened even at the NSD.” “Rangayana is an autonomous body. Ranga Samaja [governing body of Rangayana] recommended three names for the post of director. Cariappa’s name did not figure in the list but C.T. Ravi [who was Minister of Kannada and Culture Department in 2019] ensured that he was made the director,” said Basavalingaiah, who has been at the forefront of the protest. He added, “The previous directors never allowed their political ideology to dictate the orientation of Rangayana. All kinds of people—rightists, leftists, centrists—have performed their plays at Rangayana. Cariappa should do his work and not spoil Rangayana. This is not a political platform.”

The Kannada writer N. Divakar, who has been participating in the protests, said Cariappa had defamed his immediate predecessor, Bhagirathi Bai Kadam (who was director between 2017 and 2019), by making a communal accusation against her.

“Bhagirathi is married to an Assamese Muslim who is a great dramatist, but Cariappa called him a Bangladeshi Muslim and linked him to illegal migrants. A person like this [Cariappa] cannot be the director of Rangayana. He is simply not fit to occupy the position. The director of Rangayana must be pro-people and pro-culture but this man [Cariappa] is behaving like a dictator,” Divakar said.

The thinker and social activist Sripad Bhat said, “Who is Sulibele? Why was he invited? Does he have anything to do with theatre? He is a joker and a bigoted liar who speaks directly against Muslims. Cariappa has politicised, degraded and distorted the pluralistic culture of Rangayana and ideologically aligned it to the RSS.”

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Purushottam Bilimale, former holder of the Kannada Chair at Jawaharlal Nehru University, commented on the pluralistic character of Rangayana: “In 1989 when Karanth established Rangayana he had said ‘Hindus go to temples, Muslims go to mosques, Christians go to churches but all of them come to the Rangayana that I have built’. There was no concern for anything apart from theatre when plays were performed at Rangayana. Now, Cariappa sits in the director’s seat and makes communal statements which is a travesty for the secular nature and legacy of Rangayana.”

The protesters have articulated their opposition to Cariappa in two open letters. The signatories of the letters include some of the most prominent writers, thinkers, and creative artists in Karnataka. The aggrieved tone of the letters is clear evidence of the apprehension that the pluralistic character and respectful stature Rangayana has acquired in the cultural space of Karnataka in the past three decades could be lost during Cariappa’s tenure.

The protesters submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai but it is unlikely that he will make any effort to correct the rightward turn of Rangayana. Through a slew of decisions such as the introduction of the Anti-Conversion Bill and his defence of moral policing by Hindutva vigilantes, he made it clear that he would toe the Hindutva line during his incumbency.

The BJP’s attempt at capturing the cultural sphere was evident recently in the election to the Karnataka Sahitya Parishat (KSP) when a few BJP politicians expressed their support for Mahesh Joshi, who was subsequently elected as president. While KSP presidents in the past had displayed political biases, Parishat elections had remained largely apolitical. The BJP broke the tradition by endorsing a particular candidate.

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