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Right kind of space


In less than three years of existence, Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara completed 1000 shows in September this year.

Ranga Shankara is built on land leased for 30 years. Says Arundhati, “Let it be renewed if the theatre deserves it.”

Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Performance-friendly: Reviving the theatre-going habit .

Say the name and the theatre world beams. For Ranga Shankara is a miracle: a theatre for theatre workers and theatre lovers envisioned, built and manned by theatre persons. Are we surprised then that it had its 1,000th show in September 2007, in less than three years of existence?

Stage-screen-television actors Arundhati and Shankar Nag had fantasised about affordable, performance-friendly theatre from their early days as stage actors in Bombay. Then Girish Karnad cast Shankar Nag in his film “Ondanondu Kaladalli” and mainstream Kannada cinema spotted a superstar. Arundhati recalls how “Shankar always found time for his first love”, launched the Sanket repertory, and never stopped trying to find the right kind of space for performance. After his death she felt compelled to fulfil his dream.

Early days

Twelve years ago, the Bangalore Development Authority’s proposal caught Arundhati’s eye. She formed the Sanket Trust and applied for space to build a theatre. She got it. Little did she realise that this signalled 10 years’ applications for grants and assistance from every source. Meanwhile the core group, with Girish Karnad and M.S. Sathyu among others, kept bouncing ideas off each other. “Sathyu was always available for every weekly meeting. He made things go right,” Arundhati recalls. His understanding of architectural drawings was a boon when Shahrukh Mistry was entrusted with the task of designing the theatre.

Ranga Shankara was inspired by but did not clone Mumbai’s Prithvi theatre. The new Bangalore theatre had to be global, contemporary, “ahead of its times like Shankar was,” explains Arundhati. Natural sound and good lights were vital, as was the avoidance of self-conscious ethnicity. “A challenge,” exclaims architect Mistry. “I had to work much more than the given brief, with involvement beyond architecture. Like a baby that takes too long to deliver, building this theatre proved trying and satisfying.”

“If you think Bangalore deserves this theatre, help us now,” Arundhati urged the then governor, who released Rs. 75,00,000 (out of Rs.3.5 crores) to get the project started. The Jindals sent cement. The biggest sponsorship came from Nandan and Rohini Nilekani whose personal donation made Ranga Shankara happen. “I’m proud to be part of the effort,” says Rohini, speaking for many when she adds, “Our family has renewed our theatre-going habit because of Ranga Shankara.”

Film maker Rajiv Menon made a short on the project announcing “Ranga Shankara will not feed the hungry or house the homeless, but nourish the human spirit”. A builder donated material and painted the outside for free. Another laid the foundation at no cost. Bureaucrats shed apathy to speed up procedures. But support did not come from the well-to-do alone. A woman from Gulbarga gave Rs.5, half her daily wage. “It humbled me,” sighs Arundhati.

Setting standards

Ranga Shankara is built on land leased for 30 years. Says Arundhati, “Let it be renewed if the theatre deserves it.” From day one audiences have found their way to this 400-seater, with the assurance of plays meeting a certain standard everyday. Queries about monthly schedules and other activities have been mounting.

There are also cries against unbending rules. No one, not even politician or film star, is allowed after the third bell. “Unreasonable,” complain the irate, “with traffic and distance factors.” “Fantastic!” actors exult, as also about easily affordable hire cost (thanks to Hutch sponsorship), but grumble about rules/discipline for them, screening of their work for Ranga Shankara-worthiness, and refusal to accept far-in-advance bookings. But once on the precincts they rejoice over stage, lights, greenroom, and the “five-star” cleanliness.

To enter Ranga Shankara is to feel open-arms comradeship with the ground floor’s no-walls airiness (due to funds running out!).

The space felicitously accommodates English and Kannada theatre. Its annual multi-lingual, multi-genre festival has become a landmark for Indian theatre. Seminars, workshops in theatre crafts and related arts from lighting and stage design to puppetry, cinema and painting, testify to holistic commitment. “Aha!”, the children’s project, is a top priority. Collaboration with a German theatre company is being explored.

The Herculean effort goes on. For chairman Girish Karnad or hands-on chief Arundhati Nag, this could be the most significant contribution they have made to the community. High moments? A parent remarks, “I’m glad my son hangs out here, he’s safe.” A mother says, “My diffident daughter has become a different person after your workshop.” It was a special to have blind persons attending a play. “That day I realised we must have a Braille stage, sets, map, characters…” says Arundhati. Knowing her and the Ranga Shankara team is to be sure that this goal too will be reached one day, and many more with it.

M.S. Sathyu on Ranga Shankara

Commercial organisations, schools and colleges build multi-purpose halls for everything from weddings to film shows. How can we expect good backstage facilities, sound, light, ambience from them?

Now imagine an auditorium built by people who have put in decades of work into theatre. They know all the problems that must be solved. Shankar (Nag) was a good friend. I’m happy to help build a theatre in his name.

I worked closely with co-operative architect Shahrukh Mistry. Good listener! Not enough funds or space to fulfil all our ideas — the ground floor is completely open, less space than needed behind the stage, nor a big foyer and art gallery…

And yet Ranga Shankara, simply by being there, has spurred play production. And now another stage group (Arundhati Raja and Jagdish Raja) is building a theatre in Whitefield.

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