'A labour of love', is how most people view Bengaluru’s Ranga Shankara, started as a platform for theatre by Arundhati Nag in 2004 in memory of her husband, Shankar, after his death in a car accident. Since then, the institution has hosted over 6,000 plays in over 35 languages and showcased 30 different forms of theatre. But when the pandemic struck last year, and the lockdown forced art venues to shut down, Ranga Shankara too had to close—for the first time—and pivot digital.
“Needless to say, things have changed vastly since last March. Apart from the way of life that the pandemic itself warrants, everything has gone online overnight,” says Nag. “For a space as physical as ours, there was now a need to reach our audiences through a screen for the first time. We knew we had to rise to the occasion, though, which spurred our online programmes.”
Now, as art and culture venues open up across the country, the auditorium at Ranga Shankara too is back, ready to welcome both patrons and performers.
Its reopening is significant for theatre enthusiasts, as it offers a rare space for multilingual performances—a nod to the city’s cosmopolitan outlook. As Nag says, Bengaluru is perhaps one of the few cities where there are as many takers for Tamil and Bengali plays as Kannada plays.
Fittingly, a host of performances are lined up to celebrate this reopening act. Veteran actor B. Jayashree, creative director of Spandana Theatre, will be taking to the stage with Karimayi, which will be the opening performance. Sharanya Ramprakash will be back with the acclaimed Akshayambara, an experimental Kannada play that uses Yakshagana to question fixed binary ideas of gender roles. Naseeruddin Shah will continue his engagement with Ismat Chughtai’s stories, staging Motley’s Ismat Apa Ke Naam next week. Nag will share the stage with actor Srinivas Prabhu after decades to present Iti Ninna Amrita. Some plays, such as the Bangalore Theatre Collective’s Kovigondu Kannadaka and Thief. Cactus. Goat. Smut., have been co-produced by Ranga Shankara specifically for the reopening.
This is a time for the Ranga Shankara team to look back on the learnings of the past year, and incorporate them. “We are a theatre and we ensured that in everything that we do, online too, we remained a theatre,” says Nag. She started the Gems of Theatre campaign in April with 33 artists including Ratna Pathak Shah, Neeraj Kabi, Mandya Ramesh, Shabana Azmi and B. Jayashree sending videos of readings. This was followed by Maneyinda Manege/ Follow A Play: Scene Readings, a live online play-reading programme in Hindi and Kannada with a pan-Indian cast.
Then came Little Cloud, stories in seven languages by 28 storytellers. Next came their festival, uniting artists across India as they presented works in multiple languages digitally. “Neelam Mansingh shot her play for our programme ‘Staged@RS’ in Chandigarh and sent it to us to premiere online,” says Nag.
The aim was to keep the programming going. “Very beautifully, the digital medium gave us opportunities to do things we hadn’t explored yet, and going forward, in the new normal, they will remain in our programming,” she adds.
When the government allowed them to explore spaces such as the airy foyer in September, the team quickly mulled over the possibilities and launched the RS Connect programme for specially curated components related to theatre, poetry, music and dance. “Thanks to the pandemic, we have been able to explore the possibilities of such programmes,” says Nag. The café too adapted, offering the iconic Onam sadya as a takeaway this time. All these initiatives will stay.
For the moment, the robust children’s programme, Little Cloud And AHA!, will continue online.
Theatre lovers couldn’t be happier. For, as historian-writer Ramachandra Guha noted in a Hindustan Times piece in July 2018, “Both in its design and in its functioning, Ranga Shankara is a wonderfully open and democratic space.... To get to the theatre, one has to queue up and climb a flight of stairs. There is no VIP row, and all tickets are priced the same; to get the best seats you have to arrive earlier than everyone else…. If every city and town of India had its own Ranga Shankara, our Republic would surely be a much happier place.”
Nag, meanwhile, is chalking out the programme for the coming month—an amalgam of digital programmes, foyer activities and physical shows. “Everyone’s excited about the possibility of collaboration and experimentation that the digital medium affords. Let us see what this brings us. We are very sure that something very exciting will happen,” she says.
For the reopening programme, being held till 31 January, visit www.rangashankara.org.