Back in Bombay, I was doing Marathi commercial theatre. I knew what it was to be doing relentless theatre and earn money. I came to Bangalore after marrying Shankar Nag in 1979 only to be confronted with little or no shows, a new language and a new landscape. It was very tough to move here. I had to learn Kannada and perform in the language of the people. It was not easy, as my subtext was always Hindi. I was born in Delhi.
In Bombay, it was Shankar who was doing amateur theatre, whereas I was this fairly good-looking actor, who got picked up for commercial theatre, very sought-after because I spoke so many languages. Here, the tables turned. I was nobody and Shankar was the star. Luckily, Girish Karnad’s Anju Mallige was our first play, which was a landmark. What I observed in Kannada theatre was that the group was the actor and the star. It was an eye-opener for me. It is very good, as it shoots the actor’s ego down. But 34 years later, I think it has dealt a different blow to Kannada theatre where we don’t have fine actors anymore. We have good theatre groups, but not actors.
Karnataka today is the only state that has the maximum number of theatre-trained people to take on theatre teaching in schools and colleges. But where is the next Karnad or Karanth coming from? Where are the writers coming from? Where are the ideas coming from? You have the oldest treatise on acting in the country, the Natya Shastra, and we have only one drama school?! So even the National School of Drama has failed. The nation has failed its only drama school by not providing a livelihood for theatre persons and pushing them towards cinema.
I think youngsters have stopped reading. The basis of creativity, especially in theatre, requires you need to have knowledge of visual arts, dance, music, language and the nuances. You need to know to reject. You cannot be in a state of rejection without knowledge. Society invests so much to prepare a theatre artist. They have to read the Sappho’s, the Komos, the traditional and then make their choices. Perhaps, sending our youngsters to Edinburgh or the NSD festival will help greatly. These are seeding processes that will take 3-5 years, then we will have handful of youngsters.
From my generation, I can say I am the only one doing theatre. The others got married, went abroad or moved to television. My generation failed, that is why we haven’t passed on to the young. Our generation is the one that went after television and money. We left for television, but we didn’t continue with theatre. We starved an entire generation and now we are crying that there’s no theatre. The link was broken. It was a global phenomenon and it happened everywhere.
Ranga Shankara, which was our dream to provide a space for amateur theatre, will turn 10 next year. Our focus will be to take the benchmarks higher. It pains me that while we celebrate the fact that in a society where everything is measured in money, there is a bunch of people who say that we make a living out of theatre, I find people who’ve been doing theatre for 20 years give shoddy work. This gap needs to be rectified. I find many of my amateur theatre making performance into a sham. Then they say: “Arrey, hum to amateur hain.”
Also, Kannada audiences are also very generous. They just enjoy listening to good Kannada, so I think even the audience needs some push. At Ranga Shankara, we want audiences to feel that they are part of a great tradition, a feeling that Shankar and I had when we were 19 at Sombhu Mitra’s theatre festival in Bombay. We watched plays back-to-back and that changed us. But there are miles to go and much more to be done.