Why did Bengaluru’s regional theatre die?

Plays in regional languages other than Kannada – Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali et al. – have reduced considerably in Bengaluru over the past 15 years. This runs contrary to Bangalore’s much heralded cosmopolitan nature. Citizen Matters decided to investigate, and found out that the question only led to more questions that encompass seemingly disconnected spheres.

Dr K Y Narayanaswamy, 45, Sahitya Akademi awardee for his play Kannada Pampabharatha, says we must re-examine the meaning of cosmopolitan as it appears today. While it actually means a mix of multi-ethnic cultures, what it translates to, is the knowledge of English in these times.

Narayanaswamy says that besides English being the language of communication, it is also the language of market forces and commerce. English being in the driving seat directs the nature of ‘cosmopolitan’ to mean a uniform English-speaking people. This happens to suit Brand Bangalore, as corporate entities can use it to attract more business and money.

A scene from Kalavu.Pic courtesy – KSDL Chandru.

49-year-old Prakash Belawadi, a theatre director, filmmaker and journalist, says the true nature of cosmopolitan is revealed in celebrations like the Rama Navami shows at Fort High School, Chamarajpet, which has successfully brought together diverse artists like M S Subbulakshmi, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. The Rama Seva Mandali which organises the festival has been in existence for 71 years and the venue is always packed to the gills. MS has performed here 31 times, and K J Yesudas commits to fly down from wherever he is to sing at the festival.

A ‘cosmopolitan event’ like the Bryan Adams concert, which sold out about 40,000 tickets for the first time in Bangalore attracts media interest over noted Kannada composer and singer C Ashwath’s performance in 2005, which sold around 100,000 tickets. Nor can we ignore the ‘Gujarati’ Dandiya and Raas programs at Palace Grounds, which annually attract at least 15,000 people, many of whom are Kannadigas, Tamilians, Bengalis, etc.

Regional language associations

Traditionally, a strong cultural thrust has always been provided in Bengaluru by bodies like the Maharashtra Mandal, Bengalee Association, Tamil Sangam, and Gujarati associations. Conversations with office bearers of these organisations leads to interesting facts and observations.

Achitya Lal Roy of the Bengalee Association is also the convener of their local theatre wing Krishti. He says Bengali theatre in Bangalore has seen a rapid decline since at least year 2000, when he remembers a minimum of eight Bengali theatre groups staging plays. All of them have disbanded, mostly due to reasons of work transfers, lack of time and sufficient interest. Bengali plays in the city have been reduced to the occasional groups from Kolkata.

The Maharashtra Mandal continues to be extremely active in the theatre circuit. Their Yuva Marathi Sangh has staged 28 plays in the 15 years of their existence. The President of the association, Rajeev Potnis, says that they have organised ‘Rangadakshini’, a theatre competition for Marathi groups across South India for the past 15 years as part of Ganeshotsav.

A similar story is being played out in the Bangalore Tamil Sangam, where theatre has dwindled to an annual competition between the Tamil Mandrams of HAL, ADA and other such traditional Tamil pockets. V Sridharan, who heads the drama initiative at the Sangam, says there are hardly any takers even for free Tamil plays. The occasional S Ve Shekar and Crazy Mohan plays in Chowdiah are backed by private producers.

However, the Maharashtra Mandal continues to be extremely active in the theatre circuit. Their Yuva Marathi Sangh has staged 28 plays in the 15 years of their existence. The President of the association, Rajeev Potnis, says that they have organised ‘Rangadakshini’, a theatre competition for Marathi groups across South India for the past 15 years as part of Ganeshotsav.

With 18-20 groups applying every year, 12 chosen plays are staged, with prizes worth Rs. 2 lakh being disbursed. This is also supported by Marathi plays brought down from Maharashtra, which are at the cutting edge of creativity with good content and storytelling techniques and technical complexity in terms of execution of lights, sound and sets.

Cultural disconnections

Belawadi feels that the newer large migrant population from North India and other places bring only their skills to Bangalore, leaving behind their cultural roots. They find entertainment in mainstream Bollywood cinema, and rarely make an effort to find anything culturally relevant, simply because they have no time, energy or inclination.

This is echoed by Achintya Lal Roy of the Bengalee Association, who says Bengali youth no longer feel the need to participate in cultural events, being more attracted to English theatre. This he says is the strongest reason for the decline of Bengali theatre here.

Belawadi also notices the emergence of the ‘new’ generation of only English-speaking youth, who have no cultural or emotional ties, floating in a bubble of non-identity. Bangalore also seems to support this attitude of not making the effort to learn about regional art and culture

Political climate and media coverage

Even as theatre in other regional languages has taken a hit in the city, selective coverage of major Kannada cultural events such as those noted at the beginning has led Bangaloreans to perceive that Kannada has lost its popularity. This perception is also reinforced by the ‘Pro-Kannada’ groups. However a quick look at the Indian Readership Survey 2010 Q3 results reveals that Kannada dailies together have a readership of roughly 18 lakhs as opposed to English dailies with seven lakhs.

Partial view of the theatre village constructed for Malegalalli Madumagalu at Rangayana, Mysore Pic courtesy – Rangayana.

With respect to theatre, Narayanaswamy says there are about 80 established Kannada theatre groups in Bengaluru with consistent output every year as opposed to 5-8 English theatre groups. 50 new Kannada plays are written every year as opposed to 3-5 English plays. Karnataka has the maximum number of drama schools in the country. The state also has about sixty active NSD graduates working here. So why is this perception of English being ‘stronger’ than Kannada, especially in cultural contexts?

Narayanaswamy traces this to the emergence of regional forces in national politics; Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have been powerful dictators of the Centre’s moves. Karnataka in an effort to catch up and make a noise imitates this at a local level. Art, and by inference morality, is a very convenient target. Hence, the perception that the local language, followed by the regional languages, are no longer in popular usage.

Narayanaswamy also rues the fact that the staging of Kuvempu’s landmark Malegalalli Madumagalu, involving 90 actors from all over Karnataka, with a complete village that was created for the sets, a nine-and-a-half hour staging of the play, and watched by over 7,000 people, completely bypassed popular media. He urges the media to be responsible in delivering relevant local content, albeit in English, to the people, who would like to be involved in their local realities.

Noted Kannada theatre director, Pramod Shiggaon, 44, of Kalavu, Pampabharatha has, like many others, borne the brunt of indifference by the ‘English’ media. Incorrect information about plays being staged, an inability to sit through a regional language play, and a lack of informed criticism all lead to regional theatre groups quietly ‘doing their own thing’ as opposed to the brouhaha over English theatre productions.

S Rajashekar, Bangalore’s Chief of News Bureau for The New Indian Express, agrees that Kannada and regional language plays do not get as much news coverage in English newspapers as they should. However, he also points out the fact that traditionally Kannada theatre has never been good at handling publicity, and continues to maintain poor public relations with the media. On the other hand, people in English theatre understand the need for dedicated PR and personally know many media professionals, which helps in getting better coverage.

There are people in the English print media who are interested and would like to follow up on regional plays, but are unaware of such events simply because organisers don’t bother to inform or invite them, says Rajashekar. 

Working conditions in the Bangalore theatre circuit

28-year-old, Pawan Kumar, scripwriter of popular Kannada films, Manasaare and Pancharangi struggled for seven years in the theatre before finding his forte in Kannada films. His struggle took him to Mumbai, where he says the regional groups have very strong presence, and greater content.

Compare this to Bangalore where facilities, dates and venues are hard to come by due to issues such as partisan hall administrations, “quality” control, kow-towing to ‘international’ theatre groups and the lack of a professional system like a union of working theatre people.

Economics of staging plays

Bhaskar Ethirajan of Indian Stage, an online ticketing service used by a majority of theatre groups, says the economics of staging a play often deter regional theatre groups. An effort to break even would mean the hiring of a relatively small auditorium like Ranga Shankara for a single show with no publicity except a 3-line event insert in the dailies.

The news of such plays circulates only within the communities, as vouched by the Bengalee Association and the Maharashtra Mandal. Importing plays are much costlier; an average troupe from Kolkata or Pune charges Rs. 1 lakh to 1.5 lakh, besides accommodation, food and travel expenses. This seems to be the reason that regional plays, unlike English plays supported by corporate sponsors, are on the wane.

Kannada plays though do not suffer from such logistical challenges. However, the viewers of Kannada theatre are also not used to paying above Rs. 50/- Ravindra Kalakshetra plays are usually priced at about Rs. 30/-, and this reduces the scope of profit. But Kannada theatre artists do not normally expect to earn livelihoods through theatre alone. Their skills in the theatre translate to good money in the cinema and TV industry.

Death of a culture in Bengaluru?

What then is the future of regional culture – theatre as well as the other arts – in a city like Bangalore?

People appear to have started feeling this cultural imbalance and are looking at ways to change it. The Bengalee Association is making particular efforts to involve children in their plays to redress the lack of cultural balance. The Maharashtra Mandal’s theatre wing is entirely run by enthusiastic youth with a slew of fresh ideas. Still, these seem but feeble efforts in the face of a vast majority who will not acknowledge the problem.

About Umesh P N 9 Articles

Umesh P N has spent the last ten years of his life taking theatre to schools, colleges, Corporates and NGOS. Besides writing for theatre he is deeply interested in theatre and the arts as a medium of education.

3 Comments

  1. Hello Mr.Umesh
    Me as a part of a theatre group “WeMove Theatre”,performing both kannada and english plays ..,would like to add an imp factor that….if every regional theatre group makes use of the technology as used in english theatre’s and also by employing the new ways of potraying the play..then there could be a growth and would be as like eng plays..
    Several theatre groups have already started with new innovations ,ideas and Designs..and it is very Imp for some artists to come out of a boundary which is called as a limitation in theatre and could explore things beyond it..
    And to share my opinion its been lil hard to market our kannada plays compared to english..
    If we,the people of all theatre groups come out of restricted boundaries and work together to explore much in theatre and create an Ecosystem…Then no more the language would be a barrier..

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