Not many in Bangalore have heard of Sanehalli, although the name might ring a bell among this city’s theatre lovers. This remote village in central Karnataka houses a theatre institute, and its repertory company takes out shows to towns and cities across Karnataka every year. Sanehalli is known for a Lingayat religious institution headed by Panditaradhya Swamiji. The pontiff is a playwright of some merit, and produces what theatre students would describe as morality plays, but is better known as an enlightened supporter of theatre education.
“For religious institutions, theatre is almost taboo, but Panditaradhya Swamiji takes a liberal view,” said Chidambara Rao Jambe, director of the institute.
The pontiff runs a theatre school for 20 students, selected from districts across Karnataka, and gives them free food and education for a full year. That effort costs him Rs 15 lakh a year. The students come mostly from poor families, and are children of farmers or pliers of small trades.
Based on the Ninasam model
The Sanehalli experiment is based on the now famous Ninasam model. In a village called Heggodu near Sagar, K V Subbanna built an institution called Neelakanteswara Natya Sangha (abbreviated to Ninasam), now acknowledged as a realisation of the Gandhian decentralisation dream. What Subbanna did for over 50 years inspired the Swamiji to set up this school.
The Sanehalli experiment is informed by the egalitarian and non-violent philosophies of Gandhi and Basava, but it seems to have left the police uneasy. They recently told a reporter they were keeping an eye on the mutt for Naxal activities, and accused the swamiji of encouraging Maoist-leaning intellectuals.
Jambe studied at the National School of Drama, Delhi, and then served as a director of the Rangayana theatre repertory in Mysore. He makes a monthly trip to his hometown in Shimoga district, but otherwise spends all his time overseeing work at Sanehalli. He is supported by Nataraj Honnavalli, a Ninasam alumnus who has made a name as a director.
Nataraj is now rehearsing a Kannada translation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with his students.
For weary city types, Sanehalli looks like a magical little cocoon. The Mumbai highway is about 40 km away, but the village isn’t overwhelmed by the Internet, mobiles, or the movies. Landlines work, but when it comes to mobiles, Airtel and Reliance hardly catch any signals.
The village retains the picturesqueness of an earlier era. All houses, except one that stood out conspicuously with its new-age city architecture, are tiled. At a little eatery in a corner, we ordered snacks (khara mandakki) and tea for two, and the bill didn’t cross Rs 12. Hung prominently here was a picture of C G Krishnaswamy, the famous theatre director who helped give shape to the swamiji’s vision for a theatre village.
The late CGK brought to Sanehalli several theatre experts, and helped the swamiji build an amphitheatre that can seat up to 3,000. That’s where they have their annual theatre festival, and people from villages in the vicinity come to catch Shakespeare, Chekov and Kalidasa, besides the best of Kannada playwrights.
This December, folklorist Ramanna had come down from Mysore to teach kamsale, the vigorous folk dance form popular in the Male Maheshwara region, and he was putting students through the paces at the amphitheatre. After the kamsale class, students flocked around singer Gajanana Hegde, who was teaching them music.
The Sanehalli and Heggodu experiments are perhaps unique in India, and point to ways in which our theatre traditions, both classical and contemporary, can be practised and propagated.
How to get there
Sanehalli is about five hours by road from Bangalore. It can be reached via the Mumbai highway, but a bridge had collapsed, and we were advised to drive through another route that took almost eight hours.
An occasional bus plies to Sanehalli. But people mostly hop into cargo autos at Hosadurga, 20 km away, and arrive at this village with a population of about 650. The repertory theatre, called Shivasanchara, goes touring in a van donated by an industrialist.