Love, passion, drama: The story of Ranga Shankara

A love story which infused Bangalore’s theatre scene with new energy


When Arundhati Nag looked for funding through the 90s, to start a theatrical space in Bengaluru, whichever funder she went to, couldn’t understand why she wanted to build a theatre, when everyone was building shopping complexes, pubs and malls. But had they paused to open up a conversation about her theatrical vintage or her passion for it, they may have been less business-like about it.

Arundhati Nag

Here was an actress who grew up in Mumbai, saw her first full length play with IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) in mid-1974, before you could even say teenage. Travelled all over Maharashtra doing Marathi commercial theatre plays and all over Gujarat doing the same. A middle class, 16 year old who was rich in pocket money due to this. From acting in Monday morning 10 am shows at Dadar, Mumbai, because the shops were closed that day to starring in one of the earliest TV serials in Marathi made by Adi Marzban. She learnt from watching Shaukat-Kaifi Azmi in amateur Hindustani theatre to Dr. Shreeram Lagoo who was doing both film and Marathi plays. The mentors were many. The experiences rich. She recalls with great fondness, how one of the plays she did about telephones in villages and sugar factories, when rural India didn’t have phones. She was evidently popular enough to be mobbed in the ladies compartment in Mumbai’s local trains, because the ladies wanted to know what would happen in the next instalment of the TV serial.

Then she fell in love with one of the Kannada film industry’s superstars, Shankar Nag. A common passion for theatre bound them deeply. So much so that when they arrived together in the Bangalore of 1979, they wanted to start performing immediately. Except, there was only Ravindra Kalakshetra, where a single play was performed once in 3-4 months. A performance which could also be cancelled, possibly due to a civil servant’s daughter’s arangetram. Karnataka’s own theatrical culture had deep roots and many were fine to perform once in three months, in those more laidback times. Shankar and Arundhati’s theatrical passion took them to Karnataka’s prime art institute with an offer to change the electrical grid for using it as a theatrical space or to Suchitra Film Society, which obviously was dedicated to film screenings. Eventually they found that theatre space availability was too piecemeal in a state capital, where theatrical traditions were rich and varied. At this point, Shankar Nag got an offer from the state government for a site given to artists on a long lease, at a nominal rate. And then in 1990 he passed away suddenly, in an accident.

What would happen to their dream? Of two performers who knew what they wanted and one of them was gone. They had wanted a Prithvi theatre like space, with natural sound, no individual seating, and no shopping complex at the bottom. A space for affordable, world class theatre which would make it a pleasure for theatre troupes to come rehearse full day in a comfortable air conditioned environment and give the public, a credible space to enjoy theatrical performances regularly. Arundhati had also learnt from seeing Jennifer Kendall-Kapoor in Mumbai, how a theatrical space demanded that the performer not have their back to the audience. In the seven years after Shankar’s death, the future-founder of Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore, had to do just that. Because no doors would open, despite many knocks.

Ranga Shankara - the doorless entrance

Ranga Shankara – The Doorless Entrance

Sets displayed at entrance

Sets displayed at entrance

When you walk into Ranga Shankara theatre today, there are 200 names on the right on a wall. You might recognise some of the well-known names like Girish Karnad, who is said to have written the popular Bikhre Bimb for her. Like M.S.Sathyu, who directed Arundhati in her first full length play. Known as a great stage designer, who also helped design Ranga Shankara. Many arrived at odd hours to support any which way, including building concerns like how to make the ramp, wheel chair friendly. Some like a daily wage worker from Gulbarga who gave Rs 5, half her day’s earnings to contribute to the kitty, you may not know.

The 10 yr anniversary

The 10 year anniversary welcome at Ranga Shankara

They are the link between ‘Land given at a nominal rate on a 30 year lease’ and a theatre which celebrated its 10th anniversary on October 27, 2014. From the Mines and Geology Department of Karnataka to an individual contribution of 60 lakh. Money, material, time, a true public-private-government partnership over a decade until 2004, when it opened with a play.

Posters of plays performed at Ranga Shankara

Posters of plays performed at Ranga Shankara

The Ranga Shankara bookshop

The Ranga Shankara bookshop, where books on plays are always available

The theatre today hosts a calendar of 300 plays a year, tickets never cross Rs 300, performing groups can hire it for Rs 2500 for a day’s performance, with a full day of rehearsals included. It is a registered trust with its account books available for scrutiny. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you arrive after the last bell is rung, you do not enter. Ten to twenty percent of its plays are continuously first time commissioned productions, to encourage experimentation. A dedicated theatre space which doesn’t allow any other kind of concerts to make money on the side. As she says, ‘When you walk into Ranga Shankara, there is no sponsored board saying buy me, buy me. There is a small board highlighting the play of the day, that’s it.’ This for a theatre which started at a time when tickets cost Rs 10 or 20, Ranga Shankara pushed it to Rs 49 with a one rupee chocolate included. This was also done to avoid the entertainment tax which the government levied for tickets over Rs. 50.

In post liberalization India, it is a great metro-based example of the old values showing staying power, without a cash flow obsession or a nod to political privilege or cultural-glibness. In the less than decade that Bangalore has taken to officially become Bengaluru, a woman who spent her early years in Delhi, her theatrically formative years in Mumbai, has led a much supported effort to add a voice to a more robust theatre going culture in a state capital. To a woman called ‘mad’ and ‘broke’ with no ‘business model’ the next decade of Ranga Shankara will have a special focus on children. She’s already stepped aside as artistic director and hopes to reach out to Karnataka in building an even deeper appreciation for the arts. As I leave her after a long, informal chat, one question she raises stays with me – ‘There are so many rich people, how many of them build public spaces that are affordable and available, consciously supporting the arts.’

Even if Ranga Shankara forgot to build a basement, there is something in that foundation which shares an important national learning, unfolding today more in the space of business entrepreneurship. Even if there is no money, start with a dedicated madness, be transparent and stay with it.

In less than twenty years, Ranga Shankara’s land lease will be over. How will the Bengaluru community respond? In this past decade, Arundhati Nag, has had to put aside her love for acting. As the curtain goes up, one hopes that she also returns to that first love – acting.

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