Serious theatre professionals in India have their task far from cut out. There is no money in it. There are no rehearsal spaces. Original scripts are not really pouring in. And there are not enough good theatres. No wonder, then, there is also not enough of an audience for serious non-commercial theatre. By this logic, Arundhati Nag, an acclaimed actor, is madder than most. Midway through her professional career, she decided to embark on a daunting project: building a high quality theatre in Bangalore.
Ranga Shankara, with a 300- seat auditorium, opened in 2004. Almost three years, 900 shows and 1,75,000 filled seats later, Nag wonders how she was able to do it. She had begun only with a dream, widespread goodwill, a close team and a great deal of faith. Now, she can afford to say that destiny is probably involved. “I have been trying to build a bathroom for so long, but it is just not happening,” she laughs.
“Ranga” is Kannada for stage, and “Shankara” is a nod to the late Shankar Nag, whose dream it was to build such a theatre as a “home” for the theatre community. Shankar was an inspirational theatre and film personality who also directed the unforgettable serial based on R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days on Doordarshan in the 1980s. He moved from Mumbai to Bangalore with his wife in 1980. The lack of good performance spaces immediately hit them hard. The only real, affordable venue at the time was Ravindra Kalakshetra, a cavernous 1,000-seater that was hard to get, and harder to fill. Over the years, Shankar made many unsuccessful attempts to build a theatre. When an accident claimed him in 1990 and confined Nag to hospital for many months, the dream was still unrealized. Later, for Nag, picking up the pieces meant realizing the dream.
The design of Ranga Shankara builds on the example of Mumbai’s Prithvi. M.S. Sathyu, who together with Nag, defined the vision and the brief for the building, took Sharukh Mistry, the architect, around the country to study the designs of other theatres. Few theatre builders—whether clients, architects or designers—realize how crucial and complex the design actually is.
A performance space that enables a human bond between actor and audience, over the short period of a performance, is a catalyst for a vibrant theatrical culture. If such a space sits within a building and campus that is genuinely welcoming, the place becomes a tool for building a public for theatre. Rare is the Indian theatre that does either.
Like its model, Prithvi, Ranga Shankara does both, and better than most in the country. Its design and fitment focuses on the engagement between actor and audience, as well as between the visitor and the place as a whole. The choice of the thrust stage—a stage that literally “thrusts” out into the audience so that the mass of viewers “embrace” the actors from three sides—enables the former. The completely penetrable ground floor has a cafe in the side open space and is the central gesture for achieving the latter.
In an unusual move, the auditorium has been elevated, leaving the ground free for the foyer which can be used in both formal and informal ways, for exhibitions, discussions, rehearsals and even performances. A dramatic, but slightly overstated, staircase leading up to the auditorium is the centrepiece of the space. The foyer is open to the front and one side, and easily extends outdoors. The cafe into which it extends, ensures that the expanse has buzz. A bookshop is another destination on the other side. There is also a promising terrace, whose potential has yet to be fully exploited.
The auditorium was meant to be intimate, but the stage had to be generous for the performer. So, it seats only 300, the bare minimum for financial viability, while the stage can hold bigger performances than one would expect.
The seating is on continuous sofas, as at Prithvi, which makes for a sense of connection in the audience. It is also cheaper than providing individual chairs.
The provisions backstage are equally well thought out, such as the provisions for green rooms, toilets and the movement of scenery to the stage on the upper floor.
Many theatre people in India are today building small performance spaces for themselves, frustrated with the quality of theatres built by governments and private bodies. Ranga Shankara was put together by a series of donations and contributions—from land leased by the state government for 30 years (only), and cement given by Jindal, to bathroom tiles from one supplier (and free labour for fixing them from another). Ranga Shankara is more unusual because Nag stepped out of a budding career to build a theatre for other performers to call home. She had the backing of an eminent board at the Sanket Trust—Girish Karnad, its chairman, Surendranath S. and Vijay Padaki are members—which owns the theatre. But the burden of seeing it through was largely Nag’s. Does she regret the digression from her acting career?
“Not really,” she says, “every theatre person wants to build a theatre. The fact that Ranga Shankara has been up and running for three years is very heartening. It was not meant to be a personal space—it is for everyone. I see this as an extension of a friend who is missing—Shankar—who had a great ability to leap into the future.” As on stage, so in the building: Personal emotion and public expression come together.
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