Theatre At The Grass Roots: K.V. Subbanna In Dialogue With Prasanna And Geeti Sen

PRASANNA : Our discussion here is not only an attempt to understand a personality. It is also an attempt to understand a crucial problem facing the Indian cultural scene. That is, most of modern culture has become metropolis-centered. But if there is one example in this country where a contemporary institution has emerged in totally rural surroundings far away from Delhi, it is here. In this context, we want to understand how it happened, why it is not happening elsewhere, and how it is different from other efforts such as Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal.

We might also bring in your personal contributions; your work in Kannada translations from Sanskrit, your productions as a director, Shakuntalam, produced for the National School of Drama, was among the earliest attempts at using folk forms to interpret a modern production. By using Yakshagana, you wrote a new play, which was considered a break-trough, based on Kalidasa's Shakuntalam called Lok Shakunthalam.

GEETI SEN : It is, of course, always difficult to take a retrospective point of view. Often one might begin something with deep conviction, but without necessarily knowing where it will finally carry one! I would like to go back to the history of Ninasam. What were the beginnings; in what sense did you bring about radical changes in the direction of local theatre? How did you ensure interaction between folk, traditional and contemporary theatre?

K.V. SUBBANNA : Actually, it all began immediately after Independence. Some friends and elders joined us and we started Ninasam in 1949. That was a time when probably the whole of India reacted with renewed enthusiasm. Many institutions, cultural and non-cultural, began at the time. We were thinking of building a new India by ourselves because the Britishers had gone. This is how we started this institution. Later on we introduced a nuclear activity around which we could work. So we thought theatre was the most appropriate means because it appealed to our community.

G.S : There was already perhaps, in Karnataka, the Yakshagana?

KVS : There was the basis of Yakshagana, yes, and also the basis of Company natak. Village people at that time were taking to Parsi theatre, or its replica in the regional language. Yakshagana was viewed as being a traditional form of communication and we needed something more than that. The interest in Yakshagana revived much later.

Our idea was not to promote Yakshagana or traditional theatre. We were interested in breaking with tradition and creating something new. Ours was actually a confrontation with tradition-an effort to quarrel with our own tradition. That was the beginning....

P : The significance of this phenomenon is that it did not happen in Bombay or Calcutta but in a remote village in the Malnad district, which in the 1940s was inaccessible. There were not roads, no buses, nothing. People were walking about 20 kms to go to school. In such a situation there was this tremendous aspiration!

GS: When you started this theatre and were looking for new modes and new grounds to break, perhaps one of the confrontations was, as you said, between tradition and the new world. Did this also extend itself to an examination of the caste or class problem or, as you might call it, the transition in values? Was this one of the considerations in starting the plays and contemporary theatre?

KVS : It was not clearly defined at the time. We were not clearly aware of our objectives. It was a continuation of the freedom movement, the social consciousness, the desire for creating a new kind of theatre and a new society.

GS : What were some of the plays you took up at the first instance?

KVS : Building up an institution or even a detail like the selection of a play became a process of coming to an understanding of the community. For example, when we started to select our first plays, I was interested in modern, realistic well-structured plays. But my other friends were interested in 'Navarasa' type of plays, which included all the motions.

GS : Do you mean comedy?

KVS : Comedy or tragedy which retained some traditional elements of entertainment, say, music, dance, costumes. So we had to make a compromise between these two ideas. This way the whole process of Ninasam, building up the institution as well as the production of plays, has been confrontation, discussion, quarrel, and a striking of balance between ideas... Even politically, we could at no time blend ourselves with any of the political parties. We were all the time quarrelling among ourselves. My friends were in the Congress party, but I was interested in Indian socialism. Ninasam could not identify with any political ideology, but it always tried to debate the issues.

P : What was the contribution of Mysore? You had studied at the Maharaja's College in Mysore. Anantha Murthy was your classmate, Puttappa was your teacher. Mysore at that time was going through, if one can call it that, a renaissance...

KVS: It must have made a great impact on me. Actually, it had all started earlier. My interest in literature or modern literature grew in high school days. There we had a teacher of Kannada who every year would start his teaching with a work of European fiction, like Alexander Dumas. The first six months of the year he would not teach; instead, he would tell us about one or two great novels, very important novels from Europe. He would do it in our language. He was giving us the essence of Europe in our own terms. This confrontation started there.

Probably, my study at the University of Mysore gave a direction to these aspirations; but the aspirations had started earlier. And I shall forever remember Anantha Murthy because he was very close to me.... and probably whatever I learnt, we learnt together, and most ideas from Europe came to me through him.

GS : Who for instance influenced you among the European playwrights, and who inspired you to some extent?

KVS : I can't pin it down to a name, but Shakespeare was very interesting from the beginning.

P : At some stage, Gopalakrishna Adiga, one of the most well known modern poets of Kannada and the country today came as the principal of the college in Sagar. You began a magazine, which changed the shape of Kannada literature in Karnataka. Do you have anything to say about that phase?

KVS : Actually, that was a very important phase for me: in the sense that we all had enthusiasm probably carried over from the Gandhi movement. But after a decade of independence, we had become disillusioned; and what we thought was the driving thrust of our lives was not there. We had to find something else beyond Gandhism. So we had to respond in a new way, and this new literary movement in Kannada really gave us that direction. Probably it helped Ninasam and it also helped me personally to get that new direction.

P : Was it around the same time that this theatre was built? I am asking this question because even as a structure, the Shivarama Karanth Rangamandira that you have built, is something that you cannot see anywhere in the country. An auditorium to seat nine hundred, with all modern facilities in a village with less than 3,000 people! How did this happen?

KVS : A man living in a village cannot think of a small room, or a small place at all! Mentally the village community needs a bigger space. You can't consider an auditorium that holds merely 200 people....

GS : When you stage plays, as we have seen in the last two days, the hall is filled to capacity-which means many, many people. I have spoken to people who have come in specially to see the play, for instance your carpenter, who came with his wife and child from another village to attend the show.

KVS : They come regularly. Maybe this is due to the tradition that has been built up. I believe that this is possible in all places. The only difference is that elsewhere there is no organization, no follow-up. They produce a play and thereafter for the rest of the year there won't be any activity at all. If you can provide some activity continuously, you will have an audience. There will be no problem! The problem is of the organizers. You should be able to sustain the audience. This holds true all over Karnataka; you can build up audiences.

GS : As Prasanna has just pointed out, this is the reverse of our folk/rural tradition. It is usually the actors that move from one village to another. Whereas here, Ninasam has become a focal point towards which people move... Or do you tour?

KVS : It is both. We do travel. Actually in Yakshagana people go from place to place to see plays, different plays and performances. There are people who go from here to South Kanara to see Yakshagana of their particular choice.

P : In the last three decades, theatre is fading out instead of reviving; and amateur theatre activity is slowly dying out. If you have to see a play or a folk performance, you probably have to go to Delhi and sit in the lawns of Rabindra Bhavan. In such a situation, how do we understand this extraordinary phenomenon of theatre continuing with intense activity in a village?

KVS : I don't know. I have no doubt that the same process is going on all over Karnataka-all over India in different ways. But it has not crystallized. Taking a different example, there are farmers in different parts of our country-who experiment for themselves, which is very important. But we don't recognize it. Probably, what is done here is a consolidation of such community activity.

GS : I want to disagree with you. In all humility I say this; from the very little that I have seen, I feel there is a need for theatre here; whereas in many other parts of India theatre has been supplanted and replaced by film and video. This makes the situation here somewhat unique. I think that could only have happened because, one, there is already a tradition of theatre and two, what is provided by Ninasam is a vital and meaningful kind of communication. So, how do you hold out against the threat from the new media?

KVS : Once you are accustomed to this medium, to theatre you will see its uniqueness and people would rather see theatre than the electronic media; because the communication gained through theatre is radically different from the dialogue to be had through the electronic medium. People need to know about the uniqueness of this form-which requires organization. Nothing else.

GS : I see it as a deliberate choice of a particular community, which possesses a long-standing heritage of this cultural form. Last year I went to a village in Jammu called Basohli. For me this was an interesting experience because it is a part of the world where the most exquisite and vibrant miniature paintings were created. As a student of miniature painting, I was very enthused about going there. I discovered, to my astonishment, that with a population of 16,000 people, Basohli does not have a single cinema hall! This is quite, quite extraordinary. The most important event in the year is the Ramlila, which goes on for 14 days where, like in Varanasi, they move from one place to another. Every child in this village aspires to play a role. This then becomes the motivating force in another part of India, which again, I feel is a conscious decision, nurtured by a sensibility already developed.

KVS : Maybe. There are two things. One is resisting the new. That will not work because we cannot resist modern media or anything. We will have to accept it also. The main thing is you have to know the difference between the two media. A young woman with a small child would know how alive is the child's cry rather than its recording on the video. When she understands it, she will not resist the video, she will see it, but at the same time, she would know that this is more intimate. The unclear things that a child utters are more intimate, more meaningful than one hour of film.

P : I think Subbanna has pointed out a very important aspect of cultural forms. That is, they are basically and fundamentally democratic, so that there develops an intimate dialogue between persons which is lacking in mechanized forms of media. Would you have a plan of action for making these democratic modes of dialogue prevalent in the country?

KVS : That is very slowly done- like democratizing the political structure! In the same way we make them aware that there are intimate utterances like a child's utterances. That films and videos may be sometimes more useful, we don't resist. At the same time, one must realize the difference between the medium of the theatre and other media.

GS : One point which you made is the genuineness or the appeal of the live presence. The other that comes to mind is that you are in dialogue with you audience, that is, you are striking a note which rings a bell in the mind and sensibility of your audience. In other words, you are appealing to them in a way that in some subconscious manner they are already familiar. Now, I believe, that in a sense you are compromising! You are not putting forward you point of view. You are actually coming to terms with their point of view. Then theatre cannot be radical.

KVS : Ninasam is not radical in that manner. We have no radical messages to give people, nor do we have the objective of uplifting people. I am not arrogant to say that I have some solutions for my community and will deliver it to them. This is not the way of my theatre. My theatre is just a dialogue among members of the community. Where we discuss issues and try to become aware...

P : Subbanna, I would ask you to elaborate on this point on the basis of one other experiment, which you did with films. Ninasam was probably the only institution in the country that tried to understand how people respond to good cinema. It was the first institution that tried to show people films such as Pather Panchali or Rashomon- films, which were not in the language spoken.

KVS : I went to Delhi for the first time when I was forty-seven or forty-eight. Some of my friends said that to see the Taj was of no consequence if some of my companions did not accompany me. Actually, I could go to Agra when I went to Delhi with my wife. So when I saw some important films of Pune and attended a film appreciation course there, I thought it would not make sense at all if my people didn't know about it. I can discuss the film only with my people. What use is it if I even saw Brahma, if I were the only man in the community to see him!

P : And how did they respond to Brahma?

KVS : Oh it was interesting as my own experience! They are my own people. My excitement was theirs too, and this convinced me of the democratic nature of this country and the wisdom of our people.

P : Does this attitude reflect in the way you have shaped the theatre institute?

KVS : Yes, we are trying to do that. We thought, when we started the institute, it should be only for the Kannada people and we thought it should be within the framework of the economics of this country. It should not be a place built with money procured elsewhere, to build a new heaven. It should be simple.

P : Yes, a theatre that can be done in a school auditorium, a hall, or an open place- a theatre that is possible anywhere. Tirugata is a theatre repertory, which was formed as a consequence of this institution.

KVS : Our main objective even now has been to have a dialogue between people in Karnataka. It is not art in that sense or aesthetics. I would like to talk to a man in say Bidar about our economics, our politics, our spiritualism, our religion, everything. Actually, even in Ninasam, when we took a play, it was the peg on which to hang all our problems-the daily problems within our society, on our farms, on the elections-everything! Shakespeare or Kalidasa were just that for us, a peg on which to hang our problems.

GS : You chose plays, which had universal meaning, and others from this region in, Kannada. One may be an Indian classic, another an international play. Now how would you take an international play and make it meaningful in this context? How do you choose the plays you project?

KVS : Actually, I live in my own village growing supari but I am interested in the man who grows paddy. My interest is in all kinds of things all over the world; but I cannot go out and stay there. So I have to fix my physical frame to this space and allow my imagination to be exposed to the whole world. Gandhi has beautifully expressed it: "I would like to open my windows for winds from all directions to come in." But I don't want to be uprooted.

GS : Do you have a problem in finding new Kannada plays? Girish Karnad said there were very few plays being written in India that could be adapted.

KVS : Such problems, the problem of not finding enough plays may be true for a person who is a performer or a theatre manager, but to me there are hundreds of problems which confront me everyday!

P : I would like to go back to you attitude to culture, and you attitude to life itself. The citation of the Magsaysay award when it was given to you, identifies you as a 'social worker active in culture,' someone who is trying to change the community in the cultural context, through theatre. Now you have many facets. How would you define yourself? As a social worker, working in culture, or as a creative person?

KVS : I would like to identify myself as a Malnad supari grower, living in 1992 in democratic India-in a world where we have nuclear weapons and cold war between the USSR and the USA, and a Saddam Hussein... But essentially as a supari grower in a small village in Sagar taluka. As just a human being.

P : With regard to this insistence on your being known as a peasant first; from this point of view, how do you look at urban India, at an India influenced by industrialization?

KVS : We have to strike a midway balance between the two. Rural India cannot exist alone. Urban India cannot exist alone and the world cannot afford to continue its greedy way. The whole world is aspiring towards a new civilization. This may not be very clear to several countries due to their personal history experienced. Probably, this idea of a new civilization is being concretized in the third world countries. Rural and urban, we cannot remain unaffected. We have to accept some of the technology and assimilate it into our minds, and our lives; but we must not let technology master us!

I have faith in the wisdom of man learning through his experiences.... We may have to go through a tragic period to realize ourselves.

GS : The Good Woman of Setzuan, Brecht's play which you produced, deals with the community; whereas the conversations we have had before suggest that you are equally interested in the individual. Now, at the present moment in history there is a dilemma between the self-sufficiency of the individual, and the fact that we cannot move beyond our personal agonies to see the problem as being universal. Do you feel that in your theatre the accent should be more on the community situation rather than the individual?

KVS : I think a beginning is made with the personal intimate world; then it slowly extends to humanity. A woman who knows the utterances of her child can understand the utterances of other children too. So through your attachment to the community, you will be able to understand the whole of humanity. So this is the way we start with our own problems here. We know that this will make us interested in the problem of other villages in other countries too. I know about the quarrel in our village panchayat; so I would like to know about Barange panchayat in the Philippines, or the panchayats in China...

GS : Visually, it seems to me like the central point in a concentric circle, moving outwards into larger circles to understand that human situations are similar....

P : Can you think of any other person or organization in culture that has similar views?

KVS : No, I have not tried to identify such people or such organizations at all. But I have confidence that I have been a very small link in the chain of such activities in Karnataka-in India-probably in all third world countries.... There is a search going on, probably a futile search. I am one of the elements in this search. I would like to understand my work in the light of the economy and the political life of India.

P : There is another aspect to Ninasam which I have observed for 15 years now, the sense of austerity. You have never hesitated to use modern methods or technology; but in every case, whether it is building a hall or building seats for people to sit in the evenings, or the use of spotlights or curtains, there is a great sense of austerity. Your theatre, though with a seating capacity of mine hundred, is built of mud! The acoustics are provided by gunny sacks. Can you comment on this attitude?

KVS : This is imbibed directly from my father and my community. The situation around us compels us to do it. Whatever resources we have, we have to use sparingly. I come from here. So I have to build my theatre as I build my house or my father built my house.

P : I agree with you. This is what attracts me to this institution. I don't see this even in governmental cultural institutions. There is so much wastage!

KVS : This is probably because of the severance between the community and the players....

GS : It is a sense of aesthetics actually. We are speaking of a kind of aesthetic sense that grows out of the environment.

P : It could be a sense of politics too. In Gandhi austerity grew out of a keen awareness of politics.

KVS : It could be anything. It is a sense of life. This is how we can afford to live, and if I go to, say, the USA and live there and get some funds, I think I will be doing the same thing.

P : I think this is the most crucial problem facing the country. I think this is where we lost track. We did not realize that building a nation was not different from building your home. Once you lose this sense of austerity, on which Gandhi insisted and to which he returned again and again, I think we have lost our sense of direction!

KVS : In the life of India we think of a Parliament at the centre and a panchayat at the base. The panchayat is a unit of administration and cooperates up to the level of the Parliament. This is very good. This experiment is going on in our theatre.

P : Incidentally, I must add that Subbanna has been insisting on Panchayat Raj and decentralization even at the cost of ridicule-that he is falling either on this side or that side of the political fence. In the politics of Karnataka, Panchayat Raj has been one of the major issues in the fighting ground between Congress and other parties for the past fifteen years.

KVS : Yes. Even where the Kaiga nuclear power plant is concerned, I would like the Kaiga panchayat to first accept it, and then the Parliament. If anyone does not accept it, it should not come up. Then the government will be very inefficient, no doubt. I don't mind inefficiency. I would like people to be at liberty and to enjoy equal status.

GS : I would like to make some observations, experienced during the days that I have been staying here that this place is one of such untold extraordinary beauty-of people as shaped by their environment. I have always felt that the environment actually shapes your mind and your culture deeply. Because I have seen the natural abundance and wealth of these fruits and trees and flowers, I think people here have no problem. It would be difficult for us in Delhi to envisage this kind of beauty. But, perhaps this is an illusion. Would you care to comment?

KVS : My illusion is that the whole world is very beautiful. Man has not been able to manage it well. These forests are very fine for me, but the Rajasthan desert is also fine. There are people there living in dignity. The problem is not of the environment. The whole world is so beautiful. The only thing is we have to learn, very slowly, how to manage ourselves.

*Published in the IIC, a Delhi based journal.


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