Arundhati Nag (b. 1956) is a well -known theatre personality who has contributed immensely to the Indian stage as an actor, director and most importantly, as the founder of Rangashankara (a dedicated space for theatre in Bangalore). She has had the privilege of having acted in plays written and/ or directed by eminent playwrights and directors in India. Her felicity with languages has helped her act in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Kannada and English. Her acting career spans over four decades, winning accolades for her acting prowess and gaining her roles in quite a few Hindi and Kannada films. She has received the prestigious Padma Shri award for her unstinted contribution to the Indian theatre, and the National Award for the best supporting actress, for her role in the film Paa (2009). She currently lives in Bangalore.
Keywords: Indian National Theatre, theatre association, women theatre
For a seasoned actor like Arundhati Nag, theatre is pure magic that never fails to delight. Such is her approach to the craft even after decades of performing on stage. To call her merely an actor would be a grave injustice to someone who has dedicated her entire life to theatre. The many roles she has donned over the years—be it director, producer or even the founder of Rangashankara—have only enhanced her distinguished standing in the realm of theatre. Rangashankara has become a catalyst in redefining the theatre scene of Bangalore, making it more accessible to people and transforming the way they perceive it.
Her tryst with theatre began while she was in college in Bombay in the seventies. Born in Delhi in a middleclass Maharashtrian family, Nag moved to Bombay while she was a teenager along with her family. As a young child, her first taste of acting came from participating in neighbourhood cultural events. For Nag, the transformational experience of theatre was magic that enamoured, enthralled and enraptured. Her move to Bombay, a hub of theatre activities in the sixties and seventies, only facilitated her acting career. As a student, she was inclined towards arts—visual and performing-which became a refuge for her from subjects such as mathematics. While at college, a small role in a Hindi play, Rangmanch Rotha Raha, was the beginning of what was to become an illustrious career in acting. She went on to do numerous plays in college cultural festivals, winning prizes and honours.
Her alliance with the Indian People’s Theatre Association and later Indian National Theatre began during her student days. Nag moved to Bangalore following her marriage to the Kannada actor, Shankar Nag.
They shared a similar passion for acting, especially theatre. Shankar Nag had a firm foothold in Bangalore as an actor and director, in both theatre and films. He, along with Nag and other like-minded fellow actors, started Sanket, a theatre group which has produced numerous plays from diverse genres and languages, through translation and adaptation for the Kannada theatre. In Bangalore, she got acquainted with many theatre personalities who would later become her friends, like B. V. Karanth and Girish Karnad. In Bangalore, Nag became further involved in the theatre scene as an actor and producer. She also assisted Shankar Nag in the making of Malgudi Days, the much-acclaimed television series which was telecast on Doordarshan (the Government of India television network) in 1986. While Shankar Nag was the director of the series, which was an adaptation of R. K. Narayan’s work set in the fictional town of Malgudi, Arundhati Nag translated the script into Hindi and designed the costumes.
Despite working for the promotion of theatre and dramatics in the society for years through many initiatives, at heart, Arundhati Nag is, first and foremost, an actor. Though she has essayed numerous roles through the years in plays of different genres, in various languages, and written by masters in the field, she still feels a sense of elation to put on the makeup and take to the stage. As an actor, she feels extremely fortunate for having been offered some remarkable roles in plays that were crucial and path-breaking in their time. A perspective on the vast expanse of her acting career suggests her versatility, maturity and her deep understanding of the human psyche. Her ability to deal with the myriad shades and complexities of the characters that she played, shows her finesse as an actor. From the self- suffering Rani in Karnad’s Nagammandala (1988) to the innocent Rama in vijay Tendulkar’s Giddhade (1961) to the socialite Nisha in Neela Kamra (1975), the Hindi translation of Madhu Rye’s Gujarati play Kumarni Agashi by Ismat Chugtai, Arundhati Nag has portrayed them all. Karnad’s Anju Mallige (1977) and Bhikre Bimb (2006), Hulagoora Hullaiyya (1991) the Kannada adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage (1939) by Surendranath, Peter Shafer’s Equus (1973), Adhe Adhure (1968) by Mohan Rakesh are some of the important plays that Nag has acted in.
Nag is credited with promoting the cause of theatre and bringing it closer to the people. Her Rangashankara, a theatre for the people, was a dream of her husband’s, which symbolises his desire to create an exclusive space for drama in Bangalore. Arundhati Nag brought her husband’s dream to life by establishing Rangashankara in 2004. Rangashankara has been continuously showcasing a play a day over the last ten years. Its own productions, Bhikre Bimb has completed hundred and fifty shows in Hindi, Kannada and English and Mike Kenny’s The Boy with the Suitcase (2004), in collaboration with the Manheim National Theatre, Germany, has completed hundred and twenty shows. At Rangashankara, Arundhati Nag and her team are constantly exploring and experimenting with theatre. ‘Aha’, the children’s theatre and Maruti Puppet Theatre, showcasing puppetry from the boot of half a Maruti car are some of Rangashankara’s initiatives for children while ‘Other voices’ tries to experiment with theatre presenting short sketches to small audiences in unconventional settings.
Sundaram : You have been privileged to have had an extremely successful career in theatre. How did it all begin?
Nag : I think it is the most beautiful accident that happened to me in a way. Of course, one was fond of standing in front of the mirror as a child and making faces. I wanted to dance and my mother enrolled me in a dance class, when I was about five or six. I used to beat my legs and pretend I was dancing so much so that my arch [of my foot] collapsed. That was my little tryst with dance. We were in Delhi that time. My first exposure to theatre per se was the Ramlila performances which used to go on every year in our backyard. A sardarji used to play Sita because he had long hair. It was just this magic of transforming . . . it used to enrapture a small child. Then we moved from Delhi to Bombay and during annual day functions, I got to play in Norman McKinnel’s Bishop’s Candlesticks (1901) and as Lady Macbeth. And I think that, that was when the seed was planted. The idea of becoming someone else was an unconscious thrill. My god, you are speaking somebody else’s lines! My god, for that little magical time of half an hour you are somebody else and nobody can stop you. A great sense of power, a great sense of curiosity . . . even now my hair stands on the end when I think about that magic of becoming.
Sundaram : Would you say that moving to Bombay from Delhi helped you in pursuing a career in theatre?
Nag : In a way, yes. When I was in Narsee Monjee College I began acting in plays and became very active in theatre. Again for me, this magic was approachable and available. My first prize was a consolation prize, validating the magical experience and then I went on to win many. Once this spate of getting awards began, I started acting in many more plays in college in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and English. And once I started getting awards, the college gave me a scholarship. So with intercollegiate competitions and lots of prizes, your sense of being emerges by the time you are around seventeen or eighteen. So there you are at that young age doing radio, television, commercial Marathi theatre, commercial Gujarati theatre and amateur or unpaid Hindi theatre.
Sundaram : You were associated with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the seventies. How did it influence you as an actor?
Nag : I was introduced to IPTA by a college friend who took me to see their rehearsals. And I was standing there with a comic in my hand when Shama Zaidi, who was Satyu’s wife, looked at me and said, “You, the girl in the pigtails, will you act?” I said, “If you teach, I’ll act”. And I got the main role. You know it is a series of these, you happened to be at the right place at the right time. Very famous people like Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor have been a part of IPTA. When I joined IPTA, I had gurus like Kaifi Azmi, Shaukat Kaifi, A. K. Hangal and Manmohan Krishna who suddenly opened up another world for me. These were people who believed in the communist ideology. To meet people who had chosen which country they wanted to be in [during Partition] was something. The world of so many choices opened up to me. A way of being dedicated to the theatre is what I learnt. They were all earning their livelihoods doing other things but this evening time, when they came to the rehearsals was a sanctified time. Being dedicated, learning your lines, coming half an hour before rehearsals, these were the values that one really learnt.
Sundaram : Would you say that IPTA defined the actor that you became?
Nag : It gave me the whole pack of cards— the value system essential to be a theatre person, principles, idea about the world, gender equality, secularism and much more. I was very fortunate to meet the stalwarts of theatre and learn from them what it meant to be an actor.
Sundaram : Do you believe IPTA helped the entry of women in theatre?
Nag : IPTA, being a political theatre movement which has in its roots the Indian freedom struggle in the 1940s, was very active and vibrant in the decades that followed. Since it is closely associated with the freedom movement, which saw women step out of their homes for the first time and participate in demonstrations, IPTA always encouraged women to be a part of it. There were very strong women in IPTA whose opinions really mattered. I don’t think men looked down upon them but rather considered them partners. But the directors and playwrights were all men.
Sundaram : You had also worked with the Indian National Theatre.
Nag : What Indian National Theatre did was they put together all the best actors from various intercollegiate competitions and did a full length play, John Patrick’s Hasty Hearts in Gujarati and I was chosen for it. That was my first Gujarati play and I did not know the language. And I was one girl and there were nine boys, including Shankar Nag. We had Paresh Rawal in the play along with Homi Wadia, Siddarth Randeria, Shankar, Chavi Nanda was the assistant director. So everybody who was in that play became big in the theatre world, became quite big. We were just a bunch of kids in college who were passionate about theatre and today all of them, who were a part of that production, are still performing, forty years down the road.
Sundaram : As you mentioned earlier, you were fortunate to be associated with pioneers in the world of theatre. One such association must be with Girish Karnad. How did that relationship enrich your career in theatre?
Nag : I am very privileged. I came to know him through Shankar when he cast Shankar in Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978), not as an actress for him but just his hero’s girlfriend. We were really young. He (Shankar) was acting in Sartre’s No Exit (1944) in Marathi. Girish was looking for this young actor and Satyadev Dubey said “You know Anant Nag has a younger brother, who is good. Take a look at him”. So Girish went to Chabildas High School, which was a movement in Bombay. Chabildas was a small school that gave one room to the amateur theatre community of Aravind Deshpande, Sulbha Deshpande, Satyadev Dubey, Dr. Lagoo. And these people started doing plays with Manmohan Ramdesh and Karnad. All that happened in Chabildas High School. It was called the Chabildas movement of Bombay, of Marathi and Hindi theatre. So Shankar was performing No Exit on stage and there were three people on stage and three people in the audience. That was how it was, amateur theatre. And so Girish liked him and offered him the main role in his film. Girish and Shankar shared a magical relationship. I think he really loved Shankar like he would love a younger brother. For Shankar, he was guru. For me also he was this great playwright, informed elder. That’s where he is for me. There is a certain decorum in that relationship.
Sundaram : How did you make an entry into the Bangalore theatre scene?
Nag : Shankar was a success in Kannada films but he wanted to do theatre. He directed Karnad’s Anju Mallige and called me here to play the role of yamini, the sister. So I came here. He started the theatre group here called Sanket. The first people we went and met when we came to Bangalore were B. V. Karanth, his wife Prema and Suresh Heblikar, so we had that advantage. So I think it is really about meeting the right people at the entry point you know. We really had a fantastic team. When we opened the bookings, the shows were sold out. The play itself was a little different from the usual Karnad’s historical, mythological plays. It was his first contemporary play. It dealt with incest and I don’t think the Kannada audiences were ready to take incest as a theme up front where the mirror is shown to the society. But we were accepted. We had made our entry as a theatre group in Kannada theatre. By that time Shankar was ready to direct his first film. I came here to wish him luck and do the costumes. I went to the location and his first assistant director just left and did not come back. So I was here holding the baby and the bathtub. That’s how it was just a series of events. I guess you call it destiny. I had to stay back, cancel my shows in Bombay. The film was ready and when we were mixing the film in Chennai, we decided to get married and live in Bangalore.
Sundaram : You spoke about this thrill that you experience when you become someone else, do you feel that even today?
Nag : Absolutely, absolutely. That’s what keeps you going, you know. It is that someone else, it is not you. You are giving that character your understanding of another person, of situations. How that person would behave in a particular situation and how you would behave, there is a kind of a layering, your maturity you give to the character, the power of impersonation you give to the character. It is a very fantastic game that you are playing constantly. That’s the thrill and it is all yours. It is not you, but it is yours. You can’t pass the buck. You can’t say, “No someone else was doing it”.
Every mistake and every good thing is yours.
Sundaram : Bhikre Bimb was one of your recent performances at Rangashankara—a solo play. Would you say that it was the most difficult role you have essayed?
Nag : The most complicated. Sometimes, it is the husband’s betrayal that gets heightened. For some shows, it is the sister’s betrayal that gets heightened in my portrayal. And for some shows, it is just my inadequacy, the character’s inadequacy to deal with both or to deal with survival which takes the lead. It is a solo performance in which I am acting with and against my own image. So it is very much layered. It is about this woman who has always written Kannada stories, a teacher . . . English literature lecturer in a college, which is very typical of India. So that was the dichotomy. So now, when she enters the television studio, she had become famous for writing an English novel. She walks in completely in control, gives a live telecast to the viewers because what is going to follow is a serial based on her English novel but the serial is in Kannada. He [Karnad] has placed the argument of language and hung it there, hung the whole theme on this peg. Then she talks about her sister, the novel was inspired by her. Her husband helped her while writing it and she was grateful to them. She hopes that the viewers would enjoy it. When she is leaving, the monitor that had a live relay of her talking, stops her and says “Hello, I need to talk to you”. What follows is forty five minutes of confrontation between the image and her. And image knows every lie that she has told. The image just breaks her down. So in the end the image and the woman merge. It is a very well-crafted play. I have done about a hundred performances and I have not yet had a single show where I have felt that I am mouthing the lines mechanically or I have finished exploring all the possibilities of this character. She doesn’t cease to surprise me. There is sometimes one word that blows me and it blows me there in the process. I rehearse at least five times before every performance with myself, with the image there.
Sundaram : What is your process of character study, especially when you do a complex play such as Bhikre Bimb?
Nag : Every actor has a process and it is the director who gives the guidance. We discuss the play, read the lines along with the other actors, discuss the topography and the dramaturgy of the play and think of the political or social issues that the play may address. That is when the character emerges after which the process of embellishing the mind space of the actor begins. All this is done along with the director. The director lays down the rules of the game. In the case of Bhikre Bimb, the director and the playwright was Girish Karnad, so that saved us one level of interpretation. During the rehearsals slowly the actor takes on the side of the character and even argues with the playwright.
Sundaram : How was the experience of acting alone different from ensemble acting?
Nag : To do a solo play you must be a powerful actor. Apart from it being quite tiring, there is a great responsibility placed on you. What become visible are your pitfalls, your pluses and your minuses. On the other hand, ensemble acting is not easy either. It has much more to it— timing, the trust you share with the other actors and waiting for impulses from others.
Sundaram : Did you learn acting from any drama school? If not, how did you train yourself as an actor?
Nag : No. My learning is by work experience. I was fortunate that my entry point was with the very established IPTA. One had examples to emulate and learn from Vijay Mehta, Dr. Lagoo, A. K. Hangal, they were all my gurus who taught me meticulous working style and a passion for theatre. In that sense, I learnt acting on the job.
Sundaram : As an actor who has been active on the stage for more than four decades, when you look back, which are the most memorable roles you have played?
Nag : I feel always fortunate to be offered big roles. I have played the one act in Brecht’s Mother Courage when I was in college. At that time, I didn’t even know that there is a full length play about this woman who loses her sons to war. That play was adapted to the Bangladesh war. Later I did the same in Kannada, adapted and directed by Surendranath. I did the one act of Aadhe Adhure, a masterpiece by Mohan Rakesh which I have not yet got to do as an adult. So I think those two roles were extremely important in making the artist that I became. They were very mature subjects. One was losing sons to a war when you have not yet been a mother, so the impersonation is complete. Another was about a woman, a family that has not really found one another. The breakdown of the family in the late sixties was being questioned. Pagla Ghoda (1967) was another very important play by Badal Sircar which I did in Gujarati. Then there was Peter Shaffer’s Equus in Gujarati. In Kannada, Anju Malligae was an important play because of its take on incest and truth. I did Neela Kamra which was the Hindi translation of Madhu Rye’s Gujarati play Kumar ni Agashi. I played Nisha, a woman accused of having an affair with her brother-in-law. So it is about the validity of truth. It is a very beautiful play. With Tendulkar, I have played Giddade. I did Rama, the meek sister-in-law. I have played Tendulkar’s Ashi Pakhare Yeti (1970) as well in Urdu. I had done vasant Kanitkar, Kirwadkar, Mahesh Erkunch, Badal Sircar and Mohan Rakesh. It was great to play these roles. Of course I have been privileged to work in three of Karnad’s plays, Anju Malligae, Nagammandala and Bhikre Bimb. I have acted in Abhishek Majumdar’s two plays, one of which was Harlesdon High Street (2008). I loved working with the youngsters and the play was in verse. So I played a first generation Punjabi woman who moves to England. I was very happy with that. Then he wrote another play, Afterlife of Birds (2011), which was on the LTTE. Revathi and I played these two women who were from the LTTE cadre. It was quite an experience working with youngsters and having this whole undercurrent of terrorism, fighting for the country and fighting for freedom.
Sundaram : You are a polyglot who has acted in many languages. Do you think it is easy to perform equally well in all the languages that you know? Which language makes you feel most comfortable?
Nag : Languages come naturally to me. If I go to China, I would do a Chinese play and in Chennai I would do a play in Tamil. I learnt Hindi from Delhi, Marathi and Gujarati from Bombay, Kannada from Bangalore and Konkani from being married to Shankar Nag. I also know Bengali. My metaphors would come from any language. I feel most comfortable in Hindi and English in that order.
Sundaram : Having won many prestigious awards such as the Padma Shri and the National Award for your film Paa, do you think awards validate the work you do?
Nag : To an extent, yes. It is not some fellow on the road who gave it to you. I know I did not use any influence to get it. I did not lobby. I was as surprised as anyone else. So it does validate your work. If I got the National Award for Paa, how many movies have I done? One Hindi movie after eight or nine years, so I feel great. I know I did a good job in the film and I was recognised. I know I have served theatre and I got my Padma Shri for that. But I don’t use it as a title or anything.
Sundaram : Being a woman in the world of theatre, have you faced any challenges because of your gender?
Nag : No. I think I am from that privileged, urban, Indian middle class, educated background who really has not had to fight.
Sundaram : Were your parents supportive of your career choice? you were also very young at that time when you started acting.
Nag : My parents were not very happy about it. Initially, so long as you got your college awards and all that, they were happy. When I joined IPTA, they were truly worried because the rehearsals were in the evening and here I was a good middle class girl from a Brahmin family where you had to come before the lights came on. The seniors came home and assured my parents that they would drop me home. They were conservative to that extent. I mean, even threading our eyebrows was an issue, cutting hair was an issue, nail polish was an issue. Though we were a fairly liberal family, they were in the protecting the girl child kind of mode. They didn’t know what to do if this bird flew. I did fly. I was wild. Nobody could have held me back. I was completely uncontrollable.
Sundaram : There has been a stigma around women in theatre/acting in India. Do you think that stigma still exists?
Nag : In urban India it doesn’t exist. Middleclass morality has undergone a sea change. Today everybody wants their daughter to become famous. With regard to rural India, I would say that we still live in two Indias where rural India is strictly guided by patriarchy.
Sundaram : Considering that you have worked in films and television, would you say that theatre is more ‘women-friendly’?
Nag : In the urban amateur theatre, yes. There is a bunch of Indian women now who seemed to be in very important decision making positions. Till recently we had Sanjana at Prithvi, Amal at NSD, there was me here at Rangashankara, Jayashree who has now become an MP from Karnataka. So there were lots of women doing work that mattered. But if you looked at the company theatre structures or the folk theatre areas, say, Koothupattarai, in those spaces I don’t think women are in decision making positions. They need the man to protect them; they need the men to endorse them, they need the men to provide all the business dynamism in their lives to earn their livelihoods.
Sundaram : Why do you think the women in the folk theatre structures are not in decision making positions?
Nag : They function like municipal bodies where women are like tokens and husbands take all the decisions. It will take time. Look at the corporate world, it is only now that we have the Naina Kidwais and the Chanda Kochars.
Sundaram : Whenever we talk of successful playwrights in India, one comes up with names of male writers. Are there not enough women who write? Or are they not acknowledged as one of the greats?
Nag : Now there are one or two girls writing, Deepika Aravind and Irawati Karve from Bombay. Writers’ Block— what Shanaz Patel and Rajat Kapoor are doing is amazing because they are really encouraging young playwrights. There the male -female ratio seems to be quite balanced. But otherwise you are right. I think the society did not encourage women to have an opinion and writing a play meant ‘writing’ and it was there forever. So I don’t think we have encouraged our women to be agents of change in such a way that what they say is written and stored. We have not done that.
Sundaram : There is an urgent need for us, as a society, to take gender issues head on and deal with them. Do you think theatre can bring about attitudinal changes in this regard?
Nag : Very sure. Very sure. I think popular Indian cinema is going the Gulabi Gang way. If you look at the Indian heroine, she is able to take different roles. Still, we have the tried and tested formula. It will go on. I think we [theatre] are a very urban phenomenon. We are not going to the hinterland. We are performing in Delhi, Bombay, Gujarat where ever. We are not going and speaking where our voice would probably matter. These are very genuine questions and I can speak for myself. I think Neelam Mansingh performing in Punjabi in Chandigarh makes a statement. We have drastic plays like Vagina Monologues. It is male- bashing at its best and needed. I mean it does give the strength of coming out of the closet for many. In an urban setup, it is a good dialogue. Can we take this in Tamil to the woman who is being actually bashed up physically and sexually every day? We are not giving her an answer, a solution.
Sundaram : As an administrator at Rangashankara, have you had to deal with misogynistic mind-sets?
Nag : There have been many times that I actually had to have Satyu, M. S. Satya, who is my guru by my side. So Satyu being there and me placing the gun squarely on his shoulder for decisions that need to be taken so that the men around understand that this is what is needed and not what I want. So those battles will go on for some time. You can’t blame all of male-hood for it because they are also trapped. They are badly trapped, brought up by our own sisters. We really don’t know what is the best. We know that there is an awakening, an awakening in the women. We have a long way to go.
Sundaram : Rangashankara is the dream of Shankar Nag’s which you brought to life. Where would you place Rangashankara today in the realm of Indian theatre?
Nag : Rangashankara, I think, is a boon to the amateur theatre community because it has given them the respect that they deserve which is a space they can call exclusively theirs—a space that will not have a corporate Manickchand Zarda programme or a wedding as it is happening at the NCPA in Bombay.
Sundaram : In one of your interviews, you had said that Rangashankara is not a business but a public service.
Nag : It is. It is a nerve centre that is telling you the health of the society in Bangalore, in India, on this planet. It is a microcosm. In a city like Bangalore, a country like India, if this world can have one space which says, I salute this whole community of human beings who could have been horseracing, bowling, mall-hopping or just spending time with their families, but choose to get into an Antigone or Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam or Mrichakatika or Copenhagen, that’s positive. Here, people work for a month and produce a play for nothing, not for politics, not for religion, not for money, not for fame. That man or woman who involves him/herself in this activity is an indicator of social health. The happiness that they derive, you cannot buy. So this is not an exchange of money, the Rs. 200 that you pay to watch the play does not go to him as remuneration. It only goes to make the next show happen. The Rs. 2,500 that they pay to us is our electricity bill. The 10 lakh rupees that Titan, Infosys or Biocon has given us goes into subsidising that rental, to make this happen. So these are I think extremely important nerve centres that tells you that, “Something is okay, something is fine, something is not sold out”.
Sundaram : What exactly would you say is the visionof Rangashankara and over these eleven years, would you say that you have achieved that?
Nag : We have had three thousand actors performing on this stage—that is the magic. I think in these eleven years, I have learnt a lot. The writing on the wall is, you must create a module of excellence, excellence that also pays. And we have achieved what we wanted to which is make that dedicated space affordable, available. One would like to involve the city more. I think what we have achieved is now worthy of saying, “We are a theatre built in the memory of Shankar”. We have not put him in the front all these years, we can now. But I think we’ve done a good job. And of course, there is more and more and more. Whatever you do, you feel you are at the tip of the iceberg. The writing on the wall is that we need a theatre dedicated to children.
Sundaram : How has Rangashankara endeavoured to promote children’s theatre?
Nag : The Boy with the Suitcase was produced through ‘Aha’, our children’s theatre. We have had around 2.5 lakh children come to Rangashankara to watch the plays, nearly half of them from underprivileged backgrounds. And now we have started the Maruti Puppet Theatre. We had half a Maruti car without an engine and we have made its boot into a small puppet theatre. And we are doing little twenty-five minute pieces for small children in that. So I guess it is more about giving the child a personal experience without the child feeling that, he/she is a part of a huge crowd of 300. During our Children’s Theatre Festival we did a play, The Squirrel’s Birthday which is based on a set of small stories.
Sundaram : Other voices is an initiative of Rangashankara’s, which aims to experiment with what is conventionally known as theatre and redraw its boundaries. How did that come about?
Nag : I realise I am going backwards in scale. I am excited by the small, lesser numbers, by the quieter moments, the thought of holding an idea in your hand and looking at it from different angles. So that is what is right now exciting me. Even as artistic director of Rangashankara, I began ‘Other voices’, which we decided to play out in the corridor for 25 people. We had a French actress who did The Stronger (1989) by Strindberg. Revathi did Chetan Datar’s No.1 Madhav Bagh about a boy coming out of the closet and confessing to his mother that he is gay. I did Lady Macbeth, played backwards from her suicide to the moment where she reads his letter that says the witches said he would be killed. So those kinds of moments, to catch hold of a moment and play it, that’s what we do in Rangashankara and it’s just called ‘Other voices’.
Sundaram : How is the Indian theatre scene faring alongside the gigantic presence of cinema? Would you say that the heyday of the Indian theatre is over?
Nag : I really think that we are sitting at an extremely magical juncture, a magical juncture where things are going to disappear very fast. What we have is a fertile backyard, extremely fertile. I mean to still practice a codified performance art like Kutiyattam which is two thousand years old. It is not a joke. Nobody on this planet has it, we have it. We have a culture that is continuous, that is living. And the crushing is so forceful, the global crushing and the demands are tremendous. I really think culture is the saving grace. We are sitting at a magical moment and we are to be blamed if we allow it to slip into oblivion. There is the responsibility of preservation and continuity. I don’t say go back to the stone age. I don’t say that theatre is the only thing. But theatre is a fantastic live thing that has no death. As long as human beings have the need to look into each other’s eyes, you have theatre. Theatre will be the new laboratory where new feelings will emerge, new permutations and combinations will come because it doesn’t need the kind of money the image (cinema) needs. In the face of complete destruction of technology, if two human beings are the last survivors, there will be drama between them. If you and me are the last, in that last moment, before we die, if we just hold hands, that’s theatre. There is so much of the real over here that it becomes our duty to keep it alive. And I really think Rangashankara has that in its soul.
Sundaram : Looking back, how would you assess your very significant journey in the world of theatre?
Nag : Theatre is the constant, the only constant that I have held on to. It’s been a very rich journey. I belong to an extremely privileged generation who has had the opportunity to travel. Being a Maharashtrian, I had the advantage of watching commercial Marathi theatre at least one play a month, when we moved to Bombay. So I got to see the Kashinad Ganekhars and the vijay Mehtas, they were our role models. Then in the Gujarati theatre Pravin and Sarita Joshi, they are the Indian National Theatre heroes and heroines. Theatre was such a star. I have done television too. Then, I actually broke away from the commercial theatre mould and came to Bangalore where there is no commercial theatre. But I got to do real good amateur theatre as the amateur community was very alive here. So I am fortunate, otherwise I would have been in Kyon Ki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. You know if I had not come away to Bangalore at the age of twenty three and done Anju Mallige and had been in Bombay, it would have been different. So I would say that I have been privileged to have had this magical journey into the realm of theatre, being in the right place at the right time. And very fittingly, the logical end of a career in theatre is establishing Rangashankara, a space for the common people, an affordable space made available to the community.
APARNA SUNDARAM. Assistant Professor, Department of English, D G. Vaishnav College, Arumbakkam, Chennai, has ten years of teaching experience in English language and literature. She is passionate about women’s rights and freedom and that forms the core of her research interest, which includes feminism, feminist literature, gender studies and related areas. Women and archetypes of mythology, feminist dystopia, women and violence and women’s access to public spaces are some of the subjects on which she has worked and published.