A fulfilling fifteen

The delights that Ranga Shankara offers are many and multilingual

The beautiful expanse opposite my house which revealed the ledges of the vineyard that once occupied it only under heavy rain, where a mongoose troop once gambolled every Sunday, where parthenium bloomed prettily while cows ran up and down in some obscure bovine Olympics, where boys ran up and down every morning and evening bellowing after a ball, is now utterly dug up and occupied by concrete hunks inching in increments towards becoming an indoor stadium. Another such expanse to the west was once empty but for a reliable borewell and thus a favoured venue for tennis-ball cricket matches. It is now home to the shiny glass-in-metal ugliness that is the inevitable fanfare announcing some temple of higher learning in our midst. Both were CA or Civic Amenity sites, set up under a kinder dispensation, and meant to serve as parks, libraries or other such places of public benefit, now inevitably shopped to private enterprise, for private purposes that benefit nobody we can see.

There are many things one can say about Ranga Shankara as it completes its fifteenth year in existence. It is moot that we begin here: by marvelling that the idea of public benefit was still miraculously alive in 1994 when the Sanket Trust was allotted the civic amenity site, and at the fact that this generosity has managed to survive all the way down to today without being totalled by the new commonsense. In its survival, in this upholding of the idea of public weal, we see some intimations of the city we could have been. We shouldn’t have stopped at one Ranga Shankara, we should have had a dozen such.

There is another sense in which we might talk of this venue and the city we might have been in the same breath. For about a century and a half, Bangalore was two cities. City and Cantonment continued to be two different places after Independence, and this separation showed up in two parallel theatre scenes, and two parallel networks of patronage. The ease with which Ranga Shankara brings these networks together, and the comfortable multilinguality that it has achieved are each a reminder of how easily we could have built a less sequestered Bengaluru, and possibly a better capital for Karnataka.

I’ve probably been there about 30 times in the last 15 years. My average of 2.0 conceals within it a story that should be told. My inability to have successful relationships with clocks is probably genetic. Unfortunately, the occult enzyme that slows me down is also the one that fills me with utter horror at the idea of getting there at 7:31 pm and finding the doors shut to me. I have thus never been late to a show there, but the mountains I must move each time I watch a play there leave me so exhausted, and so filled with dread that I might be third time unlucky, that I can never lift myself above this poor average.

One could parachute into this sentence a footnote about how nothing starts on time in this city, but we won’t. Instead, we will meditate on the epic journeys and the equally epic calculations we Bengalureans must undertake to get there because those wooden doors swing shut silently at 7:30 pm every day. My own strategy is to get halfway across the city by 5 pm, and to pause for tea. Thus fortified, 30 minutes later, I resume the journey and squeeze through cycle gaps to arrive with 45 minutes to spare. My student NT stops feeling easy in the head at 2 pm; only such anxiety can get her there with time to spare. The Lord of Life amongst us, however, is my friend NM, who manages to stop thrice on that long stretch to JP Nagar among sundry organic stores to stock up on little bits of nothing after having left a mere two hours before showtime.

Those who run the place seem dimly aware of the fact that those who get there in advance need to find things to do. A canteen that is perennially out of small change, and a snazzy bookshop are two good moves to pull. Think of all the calculations people must make at one or the other venue, and how effortlessly such mental algebra can consume time and propel it forward simultaneously.

The ritual of queuing up to enter the auditorium deserves its own Barthes-length exposition. I will hold back after saying that this merely serpentine form can cause contrary anxieties. I’ve waved at people who seemed to be waving at me only to realise that somebody else was getting that love that day. Now I focus grimly on the floor. NT tells me that she feels lost and small in the queue because it moves so slowly, and because everybody seems to know everybody, and because everybody is so well-dressed.

NM loves the queue because he can eavesdrop on random conversations, and has picked up all kinds of nuggets that he has never forgotten.

And finally, once you have stumbled in, and found a seat, there is a certain feeling that lights on you and does not leave. A kind of extreme caution, because you realise that Ranga Shankara delights in bringing home the proximities that define theatre and theatre-going. When people laugh, you know. When they shift in their seats, your body responds involuntarily, as if equilibrium is a task it must contribute to.

NT remembers a time when somebody burped, and Arundhati Nag turned a baleful eye in that general direction, which caused that sad offender to burp again.

I have a sad story to tell of this kind. At my first time there, I rushed to the first row to sit at B Jayashree’s feet. The nice lady who was accompanying me was amused by this fanboy behaviour and had begun teasing when an old couple came and sat next to us.

The old man shifted, and farted. And the old lady farted in sympathy as the music began. My sense of outrage at these extra sound effects must have shown, because the nice lady began laughing at me.

At this point, B Jayashree glared at me while sashaying across the stage. The fact that there is no justice in this world came home to me at that moment, and since then I have gone alone to Ranga Shankara and skulked somewhere in the middle rows, neither too far away nor so near.

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