By Sukant Deepak
Panaji– At the age of 16, she performed for the first time. She will be 64 soon. So, how does she look back? Pause. “You want to say I am a dinosaur,” she laughs.
Goa’s balmy weather, in thick contrast to the northern part of the country is perfect for a long conversation with Arundhati Nag, recipient of the Padma Shri honour and one of India’s best known multilingual contemporary theatre actors, who may have never underwent formal education in the craft, but has been instrumental in bringing to the audiences some of the most socially relevant and experimental theatre in modern times by setting up Ranga Shankara, a theatre space in Bengaluru.
“It has been 15 years since it was established, but it challenges me everyday, and that is the best part,” she said.
Now wanting to set up at least four theatres on the same lines in Tier 2 cities across the country – Bhubaneswar, Jabalpur, Junagadh and Aurangabad, Nag says that she is depending on private sector for finances as she has never been able to crack government funding.
“These are ideas one needs to constantly talk about. I have had an initial meeting with the India Philanthropy Initiative, and will be making a presentation soon besides meeting Narayana Murthy, the co-founder of Infosys. In fact, with the cross subsidizing of Rs 10 lakh each year by Sudha Murthy and Kiran Majumdar, Ranga Shankara pays its salaries, maintenance and subsidizes the rent. I don’t say these theatres should be called Ranga Shankara – your town should own it. We are willing to not only share our successful template but also run it for three years.”
Nag’s theatre charges only Rs 2500 as rent for one day and 10 per cent on each ticket sold. “We owe it to B towns. Isn’t it strange that we have fed our A cities and deprived the others? Why should a boy living in Jabalpur not get to see a play like ‘A Boy with a Suitcase’?”
Recollecting her experience with IPTA at an early age and contact with people like Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Azmi and AK Hangal during her teenage years, Nag adds, “Interacting with those people and seeing whatever came my way was akin going to a drama school. To see the other side – amateur theatre – theatre of conviction, of different content happened to me very early. I am grateful to life for those kinds of accidents. I could have just gone over to the other side of bedroom comedy and farce. Though I did some commercial Marathi theatre, but after shifting to Bengaluru, there was no theatre of that genre happening there. It was the golden era of Kannada theatre spearheaded by B.V. Karanth and Girish Karnad. Being there at that time was a great eye opener for me. My husband, late Shankar Nag and I started a theatre group and it has been an awesome journey.”
In Goa, as one of the curators for the theatre segment at the ongoing Serendipity Arts Festival, Nag, who feels that such opportunities are moments that give value to one’s works, insists that it is high time that amateurs theatre groups, working for more than a decade started calling them ‘professional amateurs’. “At least their performance should be professional. You just cannot continue to do mediocre work for 40 years and say we are amateurs.”
Nag feels that though it is a great indicator that the government has brought drama to school curriculums, but the system is still plagued with the absence of excellent theatre teachers and instructors. “Where will they come from, considering there is only one National School of Drama? The whole ecosystem needs to be pondered over and created. You cannot slap what is there in a western country onto India. We are too varied a country.”
The veteran feels it is high time that we stopped blaming television for snatching away some of the best theatre actors. “Unless there are repertories that can ascertain sustainable livelihoods, how else do you expect theatre persons to survive? Yes, I feel very happy when I am paid for my work, which may be few and far between. While some doing English theatre in A cities are able to do workshops for corporates, but there is little work for those working in Indian languages.”
Adding that initially she did miss formal training in the craft but not anymore, Nag adds, “One does need the tools… but then I was pretty much like Abhimanyu – you figure things out on the way, there are some wins, some failures…”
Also keen to start a center that looks at work being created for children, the actor adds, “We have the same old Disney stories or ones from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, said without any imagination. Nothing wholesome or age specific. Or you’re showing the kind of violence that a child should not be exposed to. Indian youngsters need to be shown content that talks about politics, social justice, right and wrong.” (IANS)