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Inside Prakash Raj's experimental space for theatre artists

Nirdighanta has been envisaged by actor Prakash Raj as an incubator, which will expose theatre practitioners to all forms of creativity

One of the highlights is a large sunken space, which serves as a rehearsal and performance area for artists. Photo: Anita Rao Kashi
One of the highlights is a large sunken space, which serves as a rehearsal and performance area for artists. Photo: Anita Rao Kashi

Less than 10 minutes from Srirangapatna, near Mysuru, Lokapavani, a tiny tributary of Cauvery curls its way through a portion of Mandya district. Near K Shettihalli village, the rushing waters calm into a placid rhythm, the gurgling becoming a whisper. On either side of the Lokapavani, lush vegetation abounds, and a gentle breeze blows from time to time.

Occasionally muffled sounds and bits of conversation are heard from time to time. Seats are scattered across a little clearing, offering visitors an opportunity to soak in the tranquility. The serenity feels boundless. It is only apt and poetic that the space is called Nirdigantha, or the unending, horizon-less. Spread across five acres, the space offers an undulating view of nature. A handful of buildings, all in earthy tones, dot the expansive space.

It is easy to mistake the place for a resort. But its purpose is far more dramatic—quite literally. A large structure, with an enormous gabled roof and open sides, stands out from among the cluster of buildings. The previously-muffled sounds become clearer now. Within a large sunken space, nearly a dozen actors are immersed in rehearsing a play. Director Shripad Bhat stands at one end, frequently interrupting to correct, coax, encourage and compliment.

Nirdigantha was set up in early 2023 by actor Prakash Raj. At first glance, it is easy to assume it’s a theatre school. Raj is quick to disabuse the notion. “The idea is to make a space for an incubator, for different directors and different players to experiment,” he says. “It is easy to open a drama school, but there are already so many of them. The problem is what do students do next? There is no place to experiment, no place to know if they are relevant. Nirdigantha wants to fill that gap.”

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The concept borrows from highly successful incubators in Europe and the US that are half a century old or more. It has taken several years of soul-searching and brainstorming to arrive at this current form. Raj feels that there is so much more to be added still. The project is entirely bootstrapped by him but the actor expects investors and sponsors to join in at some point.

The idea is simple: Nirdigantha offers space and funding to a director to develop a play, audition his team, workshop and rehearse for 45 days, and then take it on the road for three months. “During this duration, they don’t have to worry about money, food, accommodation, and more,” he says. As one team hits the road, the next batch moves into Nirdigantha, and the process starts all over again.

While sitting in a little gazebo, his gaze occasionally strays to where the actors are rehearsing. “The idea is not to do an existing play. In the next two years, we want at least 20 new theatrical plays and 250 actors – some old, some new, some who have just passed out - to have emerged from Nirdighanta,” says Raj. The first one by Bhat, titled Gaayagalu (wounds) draws from works by such playwrights and dramatists as Kuvempu, Krishnamurthy Hanur, Sadat Hasan Manto, Rabindranath Tagore and Luigi Pirandello. It opened in end July to rave reviews.

During their time at Nirdighanta, Raj hopes that the participants will be exposed to all kinds of writers, playwrights, artists and creative people. “This is not a space to teach anything; this is a space to sharpen their perceptions and ways of expression, to see life in its different dimensions. I want to give them strength so they can fly; I don’t want to tell or decide where they should fly,” he says.

Author Preethi Nagaraj has joined the board as a permanent member and serves as the creative director at the incubator. “Nirdigantha is such a wonderful experiment that promises to grow. It is so close to Mysuru, where I live, and I simply had to be a part of this,” she says.

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Prakash Raj and Preethi Nagaraj, creative director, Nirdighanta. Photo:  Souhardha U L
Prakash Raj and Preethi Nagaraj, creative director, Nirdighanta. Photo: Souhardha U L

Raj has envisioned the space to be inclusive for all kinds of creative expression. Take, for instance, a film on covid-19, shot on a mobile phone, by a 22-year old. It caught his attention sometime back and the actor decided to promote it. The film is currently being shown across prominent film festivals. “I want youngsters to experiment with music, with space, with colour. Nirdigantha cannot and should not be limited to theatre,” he says.

A sense of community lies at the heart of the experimental space. The artists help out in the garden in the morning and later in the kitchen. The space offers employment to the locals, and their children come to watch all the plays.

Raj’s commitment to the project is evident from his attention to the smallest of details. He makes suggestions, adds corrections and checks in on tasks. His presence is always engaging as he adds witty asides and peppers the conversation with dramatic renditions from plays and funny punch lines.

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When I ask him if he considers Nirdighanta as his legacy, he is reluctant to agree. “It gives me joy, meaning, and some peace. I don't see it as my legacy, but it does give some relevance,” he says. ‘Relevance’ is a word that comes up often in conversations with him, whether it is about current trends in theatre, of plays revolving around political and current issues, the state of the nation, and more. He has been ruminating about his own relevance as well.

“If one is not relevant, then one is a burden on earth,” he quips. “Our education system does not account for changes that will happen a decade from now. By the time children finish, their learning is already irrelevant. That futuristic vision is lacking; there’s no effort to even look for what might be. Nirdigantha is this search -- to find a solution together. I haven’t found it yet, but I want to be on that journey of discovery.”

Anita Rao-Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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