Recently actor Arundhati Nag was in Mumbai with her production of Girish Karnad’s BIKHRE BIMB that saw shows at the Prithvi theatre and at the NCPA Experimental. The thespian hardly needs an introduction but to recall her words during our conversation, “for a generation or two who missed me (her) on the Mumbai stage”, she has proved to be one of the few, talented multi-lingual actors that Indian theatre can be rightly proud of. Today along with her acting assignments in both theatre and film she manages her dream theatre ‘Ranga Shankara’ in Banglaore. In its two years of existence, the theatre has come to be highly regarded and is spoken of as filling in a void of alternative and intimate theatre spaces in Bangalore. Its upcoming annual theatre festival is due in October. The following interview assumes a personal, informal tone as Arundhati reveals her tryst with the Mumbai stage. She starts off by talking about BIKHRE BIMB and goes on to relive her past productions in Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi theatre. She also contemplates her actor’s journey and gives us her observations on the differences between theatre in Mumbai and Bangalore.
If I am not mistaken you’re returning to the Mumbai stage after a very long time with BIKHRE BIMB. How do you feel about it? Yes! I am back on the Mumbai stage with a new play after over two decades! I am getting a taste of the Mumbai audience reaction. It all feels magical and strange!
The television element in the play is an integral part of the plot. Its functional necessity is quite akin to that of a co-actor’s. So was there any extra effort that you had to put in during your rehearsals of the play to become comfortable with its presence and the role it fulfills? No doubt I had to put in extra effort. The image is a complete character. It is not a passing shot or memory. At times it actually gives me more heartache than a real co- actress would! The image is relentless…..it is inhuman and hence cannot and will not change even if I were to choke on stage. I am used to now addressing it as ‘she’ and ‘her’. This is a classic case of an actor upstaged by his/her own image! I have to keep time with her. While everything in life is about timing, in the theatre it is more so…You are out there alone in front of your audience and there is no one to save you if you are out of tune or rhythm. In a play like BIKHRE BIMB where one character is fixed, the onus of play and timing is on the single live actor. In this case it would be apt to say, ‘your’s truly!’
The play amongst other things highlights the acrimonious, but almost a cold war kind of a syndrome between Indian writers of English as against those writing in Kannada. This is also quite true of other regional literature whose many proponents rue the hierarchy that the English language commands. In your experience and opinion do you feel that the people associated with regional literature or more pertinently with Kannada Literature are justified in their feelings of being shortchanged or of being neglected? The writing on the wall is clear…I am responding to your questions in English! However I believe in the power of the vernacular and I think of the dialects as being the repositories of wisdom and knowledge that is very fine and developed, almost imperceptible. These delicate means of communication need to be preserved and nurtured even as we may use English to communicate with the world.
BIKHRE BIMB has come to be considered as the first Kannada play to use technology as we understand it in our contemporary world. But don’t you think that we unnecessarily make a big hue and cry about technology on the stage when we have always been using it in its most basic forms on the modern Indian stage? I buy this one of yours! Technology for effect…..magical visuals ….all this has been used by the theatre and even in the circus for as long as we can remember. Using mirrors to create the image effect has also been seen. BIKHRE BIMB is new only because Karnad weaves in his magic by making the image a complete character. The person and her image take an exit together in a classic Karnadian morphing of the mind and the body. Of two selves perhaps?
You’re credited with being one of those few multi-lingual actors that our theatre has. But which language makes you feel completely at home? I am completely at home in Hindi…..Second is Gujarati….third Marathi…fourth Kannada and lastly English! I am at a miserable loss when I have to play the American woman in a skirt in a Neil Simon play! No problem doing Greek Tragedy or Fugard or an Indian Play in English.
While you were in Mumbai you worked in Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi theatre. Do you recall any significant productions that you were a part of vis-à-vis these two language theatres? For Gujarati it has to be Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS which was adapted as TOKHAAR. I also recall Badal Sircar’s PAGLA GHODA that we again did in Gujarati. In Marathi it has to be Vijay Tendulkar’s GIDHADE directed by Kamlakar Sarang and then there was a play called LAPANDAV. I did many plays in Hindi with IPTA amongst which I particularly remember AAKHRI SAWAL and SHATRANJ KE MOHRE. Then there was the adaptation of Ibsen’s GHOSTS that we did as ATEET KI PARCHAIYAAN.
You were I think only sixteen when you first began to act with IPTA. Was all that you learnt, a hands-on experience or did you undergo any training? I went through no kind of formal training ever. I was simply consumed by a mad desire to learn and I had the good fortune to get good roles at the right time! It was a magical time…TV had just come to India. Black and White if you may please! No commercials. Radio had just gone commercial…..Hamam Soap ads and Patel Roadways ads….Cinema was the big word and Theatre was also big in Marathi and Gujarati. I never wanted to be anywhere else! A typical day in the life of this 16 year old was full of all rehearsals. For inter-collegiate competitions, my days played to this schedule:
• 7.30 am…Bhangda practice • 9.00 am…..Hindi drama practice • 11.00am…..Marathi drama practice • 1.00pm….Gujrati drama practice • 3.00 pm rehearsals at Worli for a TV serial (I think the first on Indian TV…written by Adi Marzban and directed by Jyoti Vyas….called “Haji Aavti Kaal Che”…Oh! I was so popular…….people would get up an give me a seat in the local train because the character I was playing was that of a pregnant woman. What fun! The box had just made its appearance in homes and the magic was truly something for the mersmerised audiences.
When you were young did you have any mentor in the theatre or were there people whom you looked up to? I had Shaukat Kaifi in IPTA. She was a great influence on me. I related to her sense of joy and commitment towards the theatre. She had a very developed aesthetic sense for colour and she had a way of just being herself. I must accept that I have looked at her as a role model in many ways. Then there were brilliant actors like Shombhu Mitra, Sarita Khatau, Satish Dubhashi, Vijaya Mehta, Dr Lagoo, A K Hangal…. These were all committed giants of Indian Theatre who had commendable discipline and dedication towards their work. We youngsters were naturally groomed in their mould….the list is long…
I would imagine that you have clearly and obviously come a long way from your acclaimed productions like IPTA’s BAKRI. Any reflections on your journey as an actor? Yes the journey has been long…..very long. Life has taught me a lot. It is the greatest school. And if any of us have the sense and time to stop and reflect on its lessons, there is much we can learn. For me much remains to be learnt. I have been away from Mumbai for a long time. I have done one play at a time in the 26 years that I have spent in Bangalore. I have done only those plays that I wanted to do. No compulsions and therefore I can really say that I am one of those fortunate actresses who has not had to make a compromise on the quality of work that I have come to be associated with. Now at a point where I have given 30 years or more of my life to my passion, I have also been fortunate to have realized my dream of a space that will nurture theatre. “Ranga Shankara” the theatre built in memoryof my late husband Shankar Nag is a living space that has had over 600 performances in the two years of its existence. Over a lakh visitors! Much to look forward to. The logical end of a full life in the theatre…..an opportunity to serve the art and keep it alive! Cheers!
Ranga Shankara’s third annual, theatre festival is now due in October. What kind of plays can people expect to see at this year’s festival? The Festival for us at Ranga Shankara is a time to invite plays that have never been staged in Bangalore before. The festival also offers a platform for those plays that might not invited by other event teams. So we have our own collaborative effort with Rage Productions of Mumbai and Roysten Abel from Delhi. The festival will open with a play by Girish Karnad that has been directed by Roysten. It is a solo performance by Rajit Kapoor. Though the fest is only 8 days long the fare is truly interesting this time.
Having spent a good amount of time on both the Mumbai and the Bangalore stage, do you feel that there is any marked difference between the theatres in the two cities? Bangalore does not have an urban commercial theatre. In Mumbai there is a developed commercial theatre in the Gujarati and the Marathi languages. Urban theatre in Karnataka is completely amateur. There are some commercial theatre companies performing in the districts but the content of these plays is completely influenced by the movies and also sometimes dominated by double meaning dialogues. So, we have an extremely vibrant amateur theatre movement in Karnataka. The content is therefore rich, bold and is not dominated by commercial considerations.
So will we get to see more of you on the Mumbai stage now? Any future project on the agenda? No plans as of now. Mr Karnad is toying with the possibility of returning to Mumbai for another run of BIKHRE BIMB in january. I may do a Gujarati play in 2007…..really itching to speak the language! For me speaking Hindi, Marathi, Kannada or Gujarati is the real high…..every language has its own nuances….its own rhythm….wah!
*The interviewer is Editor of this site, a theatre critic and an academic keenly interested in Theatre and Performance Studies.