Bring on the loonies
A quick trip to Bangalore and the lovely Ranga Shankara proved once again, that in the area of culture (as in many others), it takes an individual with passion to build an institution and sustain it.
Ranga Shankara was the dream of the late Shankar Nag and his wife Arundhati Nag; she worked for over a decade to build the beautiful theatre, with funds raised by contributions made by friends and donors. And once a warm, theatre-friendly space is available, talent in the city actually booms. Audiences get to see plays from other parts of the country and the world, and culture becomes part of the lifestyle of a class of people who want to be enriched by it.
The day I was there, there was a wonderful performance by an Australian company called Imaginary Theatre. The production Look was created for children between 2-5 years, which means they had to be accompanied by an adult. It was so good to see parents, and grandparents enjoy a performance with the tots, who were enchanted. The performance was in inside a small tent, and was mostly non-verbal, keeping the target age group in mind. After the show, the actors invited the kids to come play with the props, and with a whoop of delight they all did. Then shyly a grandmother walked into the play area, and soon everybody was in the circle playing and having a good time. An ordinary auditorium cannot create this kind of magic, and draw people in; it has to be a special space, which sends out warm vibes.
Ranga Shankara was inspired by Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, and the story of the Juhu theatre built by Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor and looked after by their children, Kunal and Sanjna, is too well known. If there was a cultural policy in place, every town in the country would have a theatre space like Prithvi that allowed creativity to flourish. But governments build Ravindra Natya Mandirs and leave them to indifferent staff to run. If the one in Mumbai is any example, it is a badly maintained and unwelcoming space.
In Bangalore again, theatre practitioners Arundhati and Jagdish built a small theatre called Jagriti, which has served to galvanise the cultural scene in the city even further.
It’s not sufficient just to have a performance space, it is important to make it relevant to the community—both performers and audiences. Support infrastructure like rehearsal space, an affordable cafe an art gallery adds to the ambience, not to mention helpful staff.
In Kochi, businessman Jose Thomas and film star Mohanlal, have built the JTPac (Performing Arts Centre) and in a short while, it has become the ‘it’ space for artistes from all over the country. Once such a fine platform is provided, performers follow. Groups from Mumbai and other cities now have Kochi on their tour itinerary. JTPac is also moving outside the venue by taking selected performances to other cities. Which goes to show that if there is will, anything can be achieved. Money is seldom the problem — Mumbai has enough to spare — a strong desire to contribute to the community is needed.
Where there was the will and the means, the National Centre for the Performing Arts was built — the vision of JRD Tata and Dr Jamshed Bhabha.
In Ahmedabad, the Sarabhai family built the beautiful performance space Natarani, and how important it is to the cultural life of the city cannot be overstated.
There is Ninasam in Heggodu, a remote Karnataka village, built by KV Subbanna, which was created for the community but eventually reached out to the world — which is how it should be.
These are the well-known institutions, but there are other heart-warming stories, like the theatre-loving orthopaedic surgeon Dr Brajeshwar Singh in Bareilly, who not just built a theatre in the town, but has been hosting a theatre festival every year. Or, the state-of-the-art theatre built by engineer-entrepreneur Jitender Brar, the Punjab Naat Shaala in Amritsar, where for a small fee and a cup of thrown in, people can watch plays.
Bureaucrats or corporates, may throw some money (never enough) into the culture cauldron, but for it to thrive, it needs the touch of a person who cares.
That said, any city (or country) that believes that culture is important for the growth and well-being of its citizens, will find ways to make it happen. That there are so few community-friendly culture centres (as opposed to businesslike auditoriums) in the country, shows that money is not always invested in the right places. In an ideal world, these spaces would not be struggling for sponsorships, business houses and high network individuals (HNIs) would feel proud to be associated with them.
When Shashi Kapoor was planning to build Prithvi Theatre, Jennifer Kapoor wrote to her sister Felicity Kendal, that her husband had “gone mad.”
But, all said and done, it is the loony who gets things done… if only there were more of them.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator