Bangalore Theatre Over 30 Years: An Actor's POV

                                                      Original members of Gnatak
Circa 1980 I went straight from school plays to a theatre company called Gnatak. Luckily Gnatak was politically invested in the underdog (bullseye!) and believed in the actor’s process (bullseye plus yummy!!). Thus I was instantly immersed in a workshop with Ashok Mandana, a local actor who had just returned from The National School of Drama (NSD) and Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. He had directed a seminal production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus that drew both English and Kannada speaking audiences, a marked departure in a city that was divided geographically into the English speaking Cantonment and Kannada speaking City. Using Chekhov’s Three Sisters as a skills framework, Ashok’s focus was actor development. So much so that I, complete neophyte, hoping for a performance at the end of the workshop, was stunned to learn that the process was reward unto itself! Shortly after, Deepak Majumdar, a Fulbright Scholar who had trained with Jerzy Grotowski in Wroclaw, did an intense workshop around Waiting for Godot, which resonated with the organic, Artaudian theatre that Gnatak was seeking.

Around 1981 Vijay Padaki and Bangalore Little Theatre initiated an actor’s training workshop around Badal Sircar’s Baki Ithihas. This provoked new questions about Third Theatre - a contemporary urban Indian theatre that was independent of folk - and of our responses to sexuality, moral policing and censorship.

Pattabhi Rama Reddy & Little Jasmine's In the Hour of God, based on Sri Aurobindo's Savitri

Simultaneously B. Jayshree, granddaughter of Gubbi Veeranna, the doyen of the Company Nataka form, was training her Spandana actors in folk forms such as Gondaligara mela and Bhootheya aata. I participated in two such workshops, one on the Manipuri martial art Thang-ta and another on mask-making. B. V. Karanth’s Rangayana opened in 1989 and the effect was felt like a wild wind in Bangalore. I remember driving to Mysore to watch Devanur Mahadeva’s Kusuma Bale and being blown away by the revolutionary set – an entire village built with mud in the sunken amphitheatre - and the phenomenal physical performance skills of the repertory.

Little Jasmine's Shakuntala

Thus theatre in Bangalore began to feel the impact of two distinct influences, Indian-folk and Western late modern theatre. Concepts such as Alienation, Absurd Theatre and Poor Theatre were bandied about in those pre-globalization days. College campuses were a hotbed of politics and debate. By 1982 Karnataka was embroiled in the Capitation Fee scandal involving engineering and medical college seats. In response Dr. Isaac Samuel, wrote a satirical play called Lakhs in Black. Gnatak was invited to perform this at innumerable venues from colleges and trade unions to telecom offices. Deccan Herald initiated an annual theatre festival with the redoubtable Prof. T. G. Vaidyanathan as one of the judges. Litterateur and critic, he demanded answers of our theatrical form, questioning accent, identity and motive.

Then overnight, everything changed. In 1991 we were part of a consumer market - student unions were de-radicalized, campus festivals were co-opted by MNC sponsorship, and theatre, long the mainstay of the loony fringe, became acceptable - and worse, respectable! In 1993 I returned to India after training at the Los Angeles Theatre Center only to find Bangalore in the thrall of a new god – Information Technology. It seemed like theatre had succumbed to the hegemony of “The Fashion Show”. That’s all the sponsors seemed to dig. That, or else tedious comedies imported from Bombay that inevitably had names like Run for Your Wife. There were, however, some positive fallouts: increase in production values, validation of the actor’s fee and - the best thing as far as I am concerned – cross-pollination of the arts, as dancers, musicians and martial artists began joining actors in theatre-making.

Little Jasmine's The Wedding Party

In 2004 Ranga Shankara Theatre was born and announced one performance every night of the year sans Mondays. This spawned, around the theatre, a minor industry of actors, production crew, designers and writers. There was new writing for the stage and greater experimentation with language and form. The Trinity Guildhall drama exam, brought to Bangalore by Jagriti Theatre, was growing in popularity. Soon the city began to want theatre as a form of live entertainment. Actors sought new venues - ‘found’ spaces, bars, old homes, parks. Writers responded to the urgent issues of the city: call centres, arranged marriage, sex, identity.

The inevitable next step was pedagogy. In 2009 Ranga Shankara, India Foundation for the Arts and Goethe Institut organized the 1st Symposium on Theatre Pedagogy for Children in Bangalore - just to listen to the experiences of theatre practitioners and affirm, “What we are all doing has value, has meaning.”

Much has changed over the last 30 years and much will continue to change, as theatre is innately responsive and evolutionary. As Peter Brook says - “the work that I do today is the result of all the work that I’ve done through trial and error, in changing times.”

Gnatak's Gracias Devaraj & Madan Chouthoy in Athol Fugard's Island