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The drama of five decades 

Preethi Nagaraj, actor and playwright, walks you through the changing landscape of Kannada theatre since the ’70s, when Karnad, Kambara and Lankesh reigned
Last Updated : 05 July 2024, 22:00 IST

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It was the mid-90s and we were performing the hard-hitting play ‘Sankranti’ written by the dynamic journalist, thinker and writer P Lankesh. The performance was part of a popular jaatre at Anagodu, a town near Davanagere, just off the Pune-Bangalore highway. In the play, a man in the middle of a crowd is killed. The king makes an entry, demanding to know what the commotion is all about.

At the show, when King Bijjala entered the scene, the ‘crowd’ burst out laughing instead of fearing his presence. The actor playing the king was perplexed. He did not know what was wrong. Did he enter the stage without his dhoti? Had his moustache come off? Was his make up off? He began to check himself surreptitiously. The audience, initially confused, chose to follow the crowd and laughed hysterically at the king. The scene is written to establish the authority of the king, but its dynamics had changed completely.

It had so happened that the man who was to play dead had carried cigarettes in his costume pocket. The crowd on stage had spotted someone from the audience stealing them. But the play, based on the vachana movement of 12th century-Karnataka, had given a twist to the narrative.

In theatre, a potent mechanism for unsettling power dynamics comes from the subversion of audience expectations. Through the strategic deployment of satire, irony, and other dramatic tools, playwrights can dismantle deep-rooted assumptions about power and the stereotypes that perpetuate them. This approach fosters a profound transformation within the audience, fostering not just empathy for the marginalised but also a critical re-evaluation of the established order.

Listening to a ‘play’

In the 1990s, when an entire generation was following the Khans on screen, obsessing over Jhankar beats, and listening to Anuradha Paudwal singing all songs produced by Gulshan Kumar, cassette tapes were our ‘soul stirring’ possessions. 

I had a few tapes that always lifted my spirits. They were cassettes from Kannada plays. ‘Sattavara Neralu’ (written by G B Joshi, directed by B V Karanth), ‘Sangya Balya’ (a folk drama by Hucchappa Mastar performed in Lavani form) and ‘Odalaala’ (a play directed by CGK alias C G Krishnaswamy, based on a story written by Devanoora Mahadeva) were among them.

I came to the University of Mysore in the late ’90s from my native town of Davanagere to pursue a master’s degree. I had begged my parents to let me buy a small tape recorder so that I could listen to these plays. Though B V Karanth’s last and most glorious initiative, the theatre repertory Rangayana, was thriving under his guidance, the royal city of Mysore was not easy to navigate for outsiders like me. Getting around was a challenge as the city would fall deafeningly silent at sunset. So if I had to watch a play, I needed a means of commuting, which was hard to come by and extremely expensive for a student. My other option was to relive the scenes by listening to the plays that I loved the most.

I would listen to them in the early mornings, then some more while I had breakfast. The tapes would bring alive the voices of Krishtachari, Bandi, Sakavva, Dupti Commissioner, Sangya, Balya and Gangi again and again till I fell asleep.

My polite roommate, a dreamy-eyed fan of Bollywood stars, was growing tired of my obsession. I wasn’t heeding her initial requests to moderate my listening sessions. One evening, when I returned to the hostel, I couldn’t find my tapes. I almost went crazy since I was addicted to those voices and characters. I searched everywhere but to no avail. I became like an addict who had been thrown into rehabilitation completely unawares.

I asked my roommate about the tapes when she returned from her parents’ house in Bengaluru three days later. She shrugged and feigned ignorance. Upon relentless begging and coaxing, she told me she had destroyed them. DESTROYED MY CHARACTERS! Why? Because she felt I was showing abnormal behaviour by listening to plays all the time!

“Who ‘listens’ to plays? You watch them!” was her argument.

I was in tears. I held my breath and walked away, swearing never to talk to her — not because of what she did to the tapes, but because she didn’t think one could ‘listen’ to plays. Hadn’t she heard of radio plays? “No,” she said assertively. “On the radio, I only listen to Hindi songs and BBC news,” she said, smirking. That was the moment of a stark realisation: a majority of the world would never understand the magic of theatre.

Mystical Kindari Jogi

Have you seen the Kindari Jogi statue standing guard outside the Rangayana premises in Mysuru? He stands tall, like a chronicler of the time passing by. He wears a strikingly long, flowing gown, his hands play a small single-stringed instrument called the kindari, and his silky grey hair and beard radiate with a mystical aura. His wide ears look like they are catching every sound, while dry brown twigs jut out of his head like horns. Or are they thorns? I have never been able to decide.

The idol was a representation of a character created by our great poet Kuvempu, and it comes from his enchanting Kannada version of the Pied Piper. Kuvempu called him ‘Bommanahalliya Kindarijogi’ and initiated us all into a world of magic through words. Theatre doyen B V Karanth charmed us further by staging the play and setting up the Kindari Jogi idol.

Growing up, theatre was a staple for me. Davanagere was a small, not precisely idyllic town. It had a throbbing theatre scene in both ‘company’ drama (aka professional theatre) and amateur theatre. The latter, with a surge in progressive plays, arrived on the scene in the ’70s in Karnataka. It was a clear departure from the social or ‘saamaajika’ theatre that captivated audiences from across the spectrum.

I missed out on the golden era of company drama. It was well before I was born. But my childhood is dotted with memories of watching play after play through a theatre collective called Pratima Sabha. It was set up by my father B G Nagaraj and a group of like-minded friends. He was a mathematics professor and principal of DRM Science College in Davanagere. The early ’80s was also a time when Doordarshan was growing popular across the nation. While I watched some impressive TV serials, theatre was always my top priority.

Why does theatre hold magic for me? Maybe because whatever magical realism technology aims to create, theatre does without much ado. What else would you call ‘real time experience’? A live performance exists only in the moment. There is beauty and an urgency to this impermanence. Once the curtain falls, that specific performance is gone forever. The next time that play is performed, even if by the same actor in the same place, it is very different.

In my bank of memories is a scene from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. In this whimsical comedy, four young Athenians find themselves lost in a magical forest inhabited by fairies and mischievous sprites.

We were a group of young amateur actors rehearsing the scene of Duke Theseus’s wedding from ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This was in the ’90s and we barely appreciated Shakespeare because the language was inaccessible. But then we grew close to him in a special way through our love for theatre. I cannot quite tell how many times we the actors — a weaver, a bellows mender, a carpenter, and a tailor —  came across as hilariously inept by taking the play way too seriously. Our bumbling efforts and misinterpretations of the script provided humorous relief to the audience.

This scene exemplifies the magic of theatre. It uses humour to remind us that even our most serious endeavours can be comical. The live aspect adds another layer of fun. A badly delivered line or a mishap on stage can result in the audience erupting with laughter, creating a unique and unrepeatable moment.

The ’80s vibe

I think the ’80s in the context of Karnataka was a dynamic time in many ways. The progressive movement was going strong. Poets wrote their best works, young writers were born and theatre had fresh energy. It spoke to power. It spoke in metaphors through powerful texts. Those who did not do proscenium theatre did street theatre and took the medium to people who wouldn’t enter the auditoriums to watch a play.

In the ’80s, humans were still more important than industries and automation. The National School of Drama in Delhi had started producing amazing actors and most of them returned to their hometowns to do theatre. Writers such as Lankesh, Girish Karnad, Chandrashekhara Kambara, Chandrashekhar Patil, Siddalinga Pattanashetti and many others enriched theatre with their works. Stalwarts like B V Karanth, Prasanna, Shankar Nag, Nagesh and B Jayashree consistently delivered plays that went on to become hits.

Doing plays was also an informal activity in towns like mine, grappling with not having ‘informed audiences’. But the audience grew with time. The way Davanagere, used to conventional social plays, took to the edgier ‘Sambashiva Prahasana’, ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’, ‘Hoo Hudugi’, ‘Hayavadana’, ‘Jokumaraswamy’, ‘Tughlaq’, and ‘Evam Indrajit’ was mind boggling.  

In my case, ‘Sankranti’ is a play that grew inside me.

Theatre today

Having grown up on a staple of plays performed by Neenasam (Neelakantheshwara Natya Sangha, Heggodu) shaped by the theatre legend K V Subbanna, Benaka by B V Karanth, Kalagangotri, Spandana, Rangayana, Samatento and many other troupes in big and small cities of Karnataka, I can say that theatre, no matter what, will always speak to us in a contemporary language.

Eventually, I chose to act, write and direct plays. It is an everlasting bond I have with this medium. In the last two decades, theatre strived to break the hegemony of government-run auditoriums. In Bengaluru, Ranga Shankara, Vyoma Theatre and Jagriti Theatre have eased the difficulties of finding performance spaces. I see a lot more plays being staged than before, and in many languages as well. Smaller cities like Mysuru, home to me for the last two decades, have kept me engaged with theatre. I have been working with Rangayana, Natana, Rangavalli, Parivarthana Ranga Samaja, Samatento, and Kalasuruchi, all of them groups staging plays regularly.

Threat of ‘sustenance’

The surge in professional studies that began about three decades ago has forced many talented youngsters to take up courses in the hope of making a living from the medium. For a while, it seemed like theatre would lose out on new talent, especially to more attractive and lucrative media such as television, cinema and subsequently OTT.

A few decades ago, in the pre-IT revolution days when the troupes met, the challenge was to put resources together — we needed a text to perform, a space for rehearsals, and a team that would stay together. Today, the challenges remain but in different forms. What has become harder to find is the right text.

A performance is to be read between the lines, and watched between the acts. As we see more and more youngsters come into this space, I am filled with amazement and pride about what brings them to the stage; it must be a strong calling!

Many young talents are science and engineering graduates, and they have found a ‘calling’ in theatre. They explore themes, write their own scripts, do their own light and sound, and move from one production to the next. They carry no burden of legacy, but follow only their hearts when it comes to theatre.

Every year, come January, Mysuru is abuzz with the Bahuroopi Theatre Festival. It is usually a week-long event with a multitude of plays and seminars at Rangayana, right beside the Kindari Jogi statue. It is like the Jogi still plays the kindari to attract people from all age groups to witness the magic unfolding on stage.

As the Bard famously said, all the world is a stage, and that is what we reflect in theatre!

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Published 05 July 2024, 22:00 IST

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