A stage of her own

A stage of her own

Actor-director Shankar Nag had dreamed of an exclusive theatre space for Bengaluru, but he died in a road accident 20 years ago. That dream remained unfulfilled for a long time. His wife, Arundhati Nag, along with other theatre persons and friends, helped make that dream come true.

Ranga Shankara has completed 10 years, and has become an important part of the City’s theatre scene. Situated in the south of the City, it opens every evening for at least one play (except on Mondays) — which means it has seen at least 4,000 shows so far. Arundhati spoke to Sunday Herald about the long and emotional journey of Ranga Shankara...  

I am trying to find that point in time when this seed of an idea for Ranga Shankara began in your head…

We are really a trust, five of us who were on this trip of wanting to build this theatre that Shankar wanted so badly, all of us wanted, and he was one of us. And suddenly one person from this gang had to leave. So the moment we recovered physically, emotionally from that shock of having lost Shankar, the recurring theme was this theatre that he wanted and we wanted. And because of his absence, it became more of his dream. It gave us a reason to rally around. So it’s not something that I dreamt of alone.

And what was it like through your eyes alone?

Through my eyes? It became a beautiful peg — a strong one, to anchor my life to, because my loss was great. And what I was left with was a daughter who was too young. I lost my connect with theatre. I met Shankar when I was 17 — that I loved him was important, but if there was no theatre, I don’t think our love would have lasted.

My connect with Shankar was theatre. And I think it was this hope that someday we will be able to build the theatre which really kept me going — my sanity was kept together, knowing that I had a five-year-old daughter to bring up; and knowing that if I worked hard, maybe this theatre dream would also come true.

So this dream to build this theatre became a sort of an obsession to keep your sanity, as you’ve said?

Looking back, I can’t call it anything else… one has to be possessed to do this kind of thing. Because I didn’t have money at all. I didn’t have money to put petrol in my car! I would come to drop my daughter at the bus stand, and hang around in the city because I had to pick her up at 5 o’clock, and I couldn’t afford to go back home and come back again. With that kind of financial crisis, to bloody dare to dream of a theatre worth so many crores — you must be mad!

Going forward to the time when the Sanket Trust was formed, the site happened…

When the site happened, there was a lot of jubilation. All the Kannada theatre people came, put a rock on the site, that rock (points to the large boulder that still stands at the entrance of the theatre), and sang around it! Just kept our own energy going. We had got the site — what do you do next? I was sure that we should not build a tent and start doing plays…that would be the end of it.

We would never bring the tent down and build a building! We were sure we wanted something like Prithvi Theatre — because Bengaluru didn’t have that — black box, thrust stage… natural sound space…that was the brief given to architect Sharukh Mistry. (Points to a row of photographs and drawings, sketches and letters). If you go through that you will see the architectural history of Ranga Shankara, with all the heartburns, which went on for 10 years.

So this is actually 20 years old — 10 years for the idea, 10 years to complete the building?

Yes. Ten years for completion…And for eight of those 10 years, I stopped acting in plays. That was the kind of madness. I wouldn’t go from this place when the construction was going on, wouldn’t go out of Bengaluru, because if someone came with money I wanted to be there to receive it. I was offered Hindi movies, offered Dil Chahta Hai… I said I would get many mother’s roles — but another Ranga Shankara? No. I had to be here. That was the kind of madness…I wanted to know how much a basement would cost — I was told Rs 25 lakh. I only had Rs 20 lakh — so I thought the building wouldn’t even get off the ground level.

And where did the Rs 20 lakh come from?

(Laughs as she recollects) I’ll tell you. It was New Year’s Day in 1999. I picked up the phone and called Vidhana Soudha, and asked to meet the chief minister. Just like that. The person there called back and asked me to come immediately as CM S M Krishna was free. I rushed across the City and met him, gave him our proposal, and told him my file was lying with the government for two years… I told him if he thought Bengaluru deserved a theatre like Ranga Shankara, he should please do something…

20 days later, he released Rs 20 lakh. A year later, when we couldn’t raise any money, I went back to return the money when the Government asked for the accounts… he picked up the phone and arranged for free cement from the Jindals…

And he released (an additional) 30 lakh.

Here we raised some money (points to a large mural hanging in the lobby with the names of people who contributed to building the theatre) — those are the names of the people who gave amounts ranging from five rupees to whatever amount above that…
So every time Ranga Shankara had a problem…

Look at the beauty of this City! You have a Sudha Murthy, a Kiran Mazumdar, a Rohini Nilekani… you have people like that who come forward and say here it is (funding), come on, take it and run with the baby! I hope this tradition of ownership continues, because it’s not big money that we need — but we need something. And it’s a model worth emulating. I don’t know where you will get the mad people to run it with the conviction that their daughter’s wedding will not be held there (laughs), but with some principles. Then you would have given the baby its direction.

Now this ship has come a long, long way… what next? Build something new in Ranga Shankara itself? Or just enjoy the moment? Has that madness found some stilling?
(Laughs) Yes, I think so. It has taught me a lot… that these are not projects that don’t really die because of someone or are born because of someone… the project is so large, it has taught me how small we all are. And if we get to do something, we are fortunate. And this is the making of history…

And what is ahead?

I think 10 years ahead, I think I would look ahead and see how the theatre community really uses this space. For them also it has been a challenge to be shaken out of Saturday/Sunday shows you’re performing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays…that stamina to do more shows, to building new audiences, in terms of quality… I would look forward to more youngsters. And theatre for children. I would really like to see another physical space which dedicates itself only to work for children.  

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