As Ranga Shankara completes eight years, Talk speaks to actor/director Atul Kumar, who has been associated with it since its inception, and was back to open its theatre festival with his adaptation of Twelfth Night
When Ranga Shankara was conceived, that is, much before its physical structure came up in JP Nagar, theatre lovers in Bangalore knew this venture was going to change the face of theatre in the city. Eight years later, it has delivered on that promise, thanks to the tireless efforts of Arundhati Nag and a host of well wishers, many of whom were present at the theatre’s anniversary celebrations on October 27.
It was only appropriate then, that Arundhati decided to come on stage on its eigth birthday to reflect on the journey of Ranga Shankara and thank the many patrons who stood by her, and also to declare Ranga Shankara’s ninth theatre festival open. An opening performance directed by Chennai-theatre group Evam was chaotic, but set the mood for the start of a festival. Sweets were offered to everybody in the audience on their way out, with a reminder, ‘It is Ranga Shankara’s birthday’.
There was one name in Nag’s speech which stood out and was evidently linked to the journey. It was that of actor and director Atul Kumar of Mumbai’s The Company Theatre, who in Nag’s own words, “gave Ranga Shankara the most precious gift, of his time, six months during the final phase of its construction.” Atul, who also curated the gala festival that marked the opening of the theatre, returned this year to open the Shakespeare Festival with his acclaimed version of Twelfth Night, Piya Behroopiya.
Kumar, who has worked on several works and adaptations of the bard, including King Lear, Hamlet The Clown Prince and now Piya Behroopiya, was commissioned to direct a translated version of Twelfth Night for the prestigious Globe to Globe Festival, held in London annually. The play premiered successfully with a full house and roaring applause at the end. Atul was called on stage and accompanied the cast for repeated curtain calls until the applause died down. “I was scared when I was called on-stage as I expected I would have to introduce my actors and I have memory issues. But, jokes apart, it was a very endearing and emotional moment. The applause was overwhelming,” he says.
Exc e r p t s from Talk’s t e l e p h o n i c interview with Atul, who spoke from Kamshet near Pune, where he now lives and runs an artists’ residency theatre.
How did you first meet Arundhati Nag? We met as friends first. She contacted me to help her for the soft finishing of the space. I spent six months and supervised things like stage and lighting construction. She asked me if I would stay back and curate the opening festival and I did that.
Was opening their ninth festival part of a plan? What did it feel like, returning to a festival you had once curated? Festival director Gayathri Krishna and I spoke on the phone and that is how the idea of bringing plays featured at the Globe Festival came about. It was a very emotional experience to be performing as part of the festival.
Your daughter Noor performed at the fest on a stage that you had helped build. How did that feel? It was very beautiful to see her perform here even though she has performed at Ranga Shankara before. Sometimes I feel like I am indulging in child labour: she is only six.
How has Ranga Shankara changed over the years? Is it the sort of change you imagined for the space? It has changed and it needs to change even further. I have certain problems with the space and its administration, and I hope the loopholes are plugged soon. It is a dynamic space. I had imagined it to be nothing more, as I have always seen it as performance space. The people running it have matured, I can see, and Arundhati is already talking about a succession policy which is a good thing.
VARIED THEMES Scenes from Black Coffee, dancing on Glass and Khel,among the plays performed during Ranga Shankara's first theater festival in 2004
How according to you has Ranga Shankara helped theatre in the city? It does theatre every single day of the year, which is a fabulous thing. It is great for the local community as it is an intimate space and gives lots of scope for experimentation. It has put Bangalore theatre on the global map. It is as good as Prithvi as it is a theatre made by theatre people and hence has got a lot of things right. Above all, it is affordable for both performers and the audience.
What is it about Ranga Shankara that doesn’t work for you? What would you like to see changed immediately? The audience angle of the space is something that doesn’t really work. Besides, it’s yet to become a cultural hub the way Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai has, where you see everybody from artists to musicians hanging out.
The place needs to ease out on rules immediately. The ‘don’t sit here’ and ‘what are you doing there?’ type of rules. In the café at Prithvi theatre there are about 25 couples who sit around every day, though only half of them go for the plays. But the Prithvi management doesn’t find it necessary to say anything to them.
What changes would you like to see at Ranga Shankara in the long term? There is something about the vibe of the festival. The festival feeling was missing. I wish it was possible for artistes to stay over during festivals. I understand it becomes difficult and expensive but I would like to know what happens with the energy we left behind. Another thing I feel the space must have is a cultural policy, spanning five to 10 years, devised by patrons and officials.
How do you describe the style of Piya Behroopiya? It has been referred to as Shakespeare in nautanki style. What is your take? It is not really nautanki style. In fact, I don’t quite know what nautanki style really is. It is a big khichdi of all kinds of experiences. Yes, it has song and dance but I can hardly put labels on it.
What were your rules for adapting Shakespeare work? I have no rules. I hate making rules. I have done King Lear, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in the past. This has been no different and I have no specific way of seeing a Shakespeare play.
Going by the levels of improvisations in the production, did every show turn out to be different on stage? I keep my actors free to improvise. It was a lot of work. We had about 80 songs which we had to cut down to 15-18. That was the real work, the acts took only 15 days. Amitosh Nagpal’s translation was brilliant. There was very little Atul in the play.
What was the advantage of producing Piya Behroopiya out of your residency theatre in Kamshet? We lived together for a month, so I was a taskmaster with a whip. But it helped, because the actors were available at all times and we could work whenever we wanted and had no jobs to go to. The month spent there easily equated three months of work in the city.
Are ‘residency programs’ viable for actors? The Company Theatre is perhaps one of the best paying theatre companies around, but even that is hardly enough for an actor to live on.