The world was his village

Print edition : August 26, 2005

Kuntagodu Vibhuti Subbanna, 1932 - 2005

"With financial prudence and a gift for bringing others into leadership, Subbanna has built Ninasam to last.... In electing K.V. Subbanna to receive the 1991 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the Board of Trustees recognises his enriching rural Karnataka with the world's best films and the delight and wonder of the living stage."

- Citation of the 1991 Ramon Magsaysay Award for K.V. Subbanna

TUCKED away in a corner of rural Karnataka is Heggodu. To get there, you reach Bangalore, and board the Shimoga Express at night. At dawn, you reach Sagara. You carry on by road. It is one of those small, winding rural roads and it traverses a beautiful, undulating landscape. You are in arecanut country. Inside an hour, you reach Heggodu, a picturesque village of a couple of hundred prosperous arecanut farmers. They live in large, solidly-built houses with sloping roofs. The men and women who work their fields are also around, but you could easily miss their dwellings at first sight, tucked away on the plantations. You could also just as easily miss a remarkable institution, so seamlessly does it merge, architecturally and otherwise, into the local landscape.

This is Ninasam, a cultural centre, a theatre school, a publishing house and a film society - it is all this, while being more than all this.

Subbanna was a prosperous arecanut farmer, who diverted his fortune to building Ninasam. Being a man connected to rural life, he created an institution that has grown organically, and will continue to live long after its founder has gone.

At the root of Ninasam's work is its theatre activities. It was formed as a kind of an itinerant, rural amateur drama troupe immediately after Independence. Subbanna was fascinated by what was called the Company Natak, a popular professional theatre of the time, and he put together a band of dedicated rural amateur actors, mostly farmers like himself.

From the early days, however, Ninasam was more than a theatre troupe. Soon, Subbanna started a publishing house, Akshara Prakashan, and he gathered around this imprint the finest modern writers in Kannada. Yet, characteristically for Subbanna, he was not content to simply publish good, new writing. He was always something of an activist - though he also gave the impression of being healthily sceptical of those who called themselves activists. Subbanna invited writers to Heggodu, and got them to read their work and discuss it with the local people. The motivation for doing this, however, was not to add one more `activity' to the Ninasam annual report, but to build a culture that does not merely receive things passively. He believed one must internalise and critique (not simply criticise) everything, and while doing so, pay equal attention to form and content, to craft and utility, so that the totality of the experience is appreciated.

Ninasam also began a film society. If masters of world cinema, such as Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Luc Goddard, are household names in parts of rural Karnataka, it is because of Ninasam and Subbanna. Similarly, Ninasam runs an annual `Culture Course'. Structured around one theme, a number of speakers are invited to reflect on it. Through the seven-day course, there are performances every evening, some by the Ninasam repertory Tirugata, and some by invited artistes and companies, which then get discussed the following day. A large cross-section of people enrol for the course - school and college teachers, activists, housewives, students, Information Technology professionals, government employees, and so on. Last year, for instance, speakers spoke about `activism' in the various arts, in politics, about environmentalist activism, language activism, Dalit activism, and so on.

A scene from a play by Ninasam.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Ninasam also began a theatre training school, which offers a one-year course, and has trained a generation of Kannada theatre practitioners. The course offers comprehensive training to young theatre persons. Most students choose to stay on for a year to be part of Tirugata.

TIRUGATA is actually not a repertory in the conventional sense. Actors are employed for a season at a time, and most are graduates of the Ninasam course. Each season offers three plays, two of which are directed usually by members of the faculty or by senior ex-students. The third is often directed by a director invited from outside Karnataka. The three plays are offered as a package deal to organisers, so that they get all the plays for a lumpsum payment, while the company does not have to worry too much if one of the three plays is not a `hit' in the conventional sense.

This means simultaneously two things: that Tirugata has to consistently, year after year, produce plays of quality so that the demand for its plays does not dip, but also, that every once in a way, it can produce a play that challenges conventional taste. In other words, the company simultaneously responds to, while also shaping, popular taste. Once the company hits the road, it travels non-stop for about 3-4 months, sometimes even performing two plays a day. There is virtually no town of any consequence in Karnataka that the company has not performed in.

The `mix' of the plays is also crucial. One is generally a Kannada play, one a play from another Indian language, and the third a foreign play. Interestingly, the non-Kannada Indian play is often adapted to a Kannada situation, while the foreign play is generally translated, without any attempt to adapt the situations and characters to a Kannada setting.

The plays are neither esoteric nor avant-garde, but they command a huge, loyal, and growing following in Karnataka.

Ninasam is rooted so deeply in the local community, that a sense of responsibility comes automatically with it. At the same time, Ninasam also becomes the channel through which the community encounters and responds to the most advanced artistic and intellectual ideas from all over the world. The local community cherishes Ninasam precisely because the value of this engagement is there for all to see.

This writer was once witness in Heggodu to a conversation between a tea-stall owner and a taxi driver, discussing with great enthusiasm the latest production of "King Lear", while comparing it with a Lear production of some eight years ago, as well as Kurosawa's Ran.

Nothing is "dumbed down". The effort is to engage with the most complex ideas, in a complex way. A rural, or small-town audience may not be educated, but it is capable of engaging in the most sophisticated aesthetic and social experiences. This is the fundamental belief that Subbanna started with, and this belief has informed everything Ninasam has done over the last half-century or more. As Subbanna memorably put it, with astonishing simplicity: "I am an arecanut farmer from this village. But I am interested in finding out about the paddy farmer from the neighbouring village."

This child-like curiosity, which Subbanna retained till the end, pervades the very air of Heggodu. This is what enabled Subbanna to articulate a cultural praxis that derives its vitality from the fact that it is an enormously rich and complex way of resisting the increasing commodification and corporatisation of culture.

Nonetheless, there are points of criticism - perhaps Ninasam could intervene more actively in the larger political climate, especially given the inroads of the Hindu Right in Karnataka. Perhaps Subbanna could have interrogated his own caste roots somewhat more vigorously. There are those who point out that Ninasam became possible in the first place only because he was a landlord and had the money to put into the organisation. Subbanna himself was a socialist (of the Lohia variety) and displayed a sort of an antipathy to the organised Left shared by all socialists. All these are substantial points of criticism.

There is no doubt that Subbanna created an institution that has managed to do what much larger institutions, with far more lavish resources at their command, have not managed - Ninasam has created and nurtured entire generations of highly sophisticated artistes and critics and audiences. Ninasam is the portal from where Heggodu has surfed the world.

The measure of a man such as Subbanna will never be in terms of the awards he won. However, for the record, it may be mentioned that he was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi and Magasaysay Awards, the Kalidas Samman, and the Padmashri. Sitting in the front yard of the Ninasam office in the evening, chewing paan, surrounded by friends of long-standing from the village, that slightly-built dapper old man would discuss the state of the paddy or arecanut crop in the district with as much enthusiasm as the latest literature Nobel prize winner, eyes twinkling with excitement. He knew, better than most, that human beings die, buildings crumble, institutions decay, but what lives on are ideas that change the world. Even when the world is only a village.

Sudhanva Deshpande is a member of Jana Natya Manch and is editor of the weekly electronic theatre bulletin, e-STQ.

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