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How Death and Struggle Created Bengaluru’s Most Iconic Drama Theater

How Death and Struggle Created Bengaluru’s Most Iconic Drama Theater

Talented actress Arundhati Nag talks about her love for the theatre, and the tragic event that changed the course of her life forever.

“The world just caved in!’’ recalls multi-lingual theatre and film actor Arundhati Nag. Besides being a talented actor, she is also one of the founders Bengaluru’s renowned theater space, Ranga Shankara.

In conversation with Arundhati, whose voice is full of laughter, she tells me about her roller-coaster like life, “ You know, when you have a dynamic spouse, who is full of plans and energy, you don’t ever think of a possible void in the future. You are living in a world of dreams and constantly trying to pursue those dreams with him”. While we spoke, she was returning from a trip to Kolkata, where she staged her play `Mother Courage and her children’.

Arundhati was married to director, producer, and actor Shankar Nag. In the 1980’s, Shankar and his actor brother, Anant Nag, were a force to reckon with in Kannada cinema.

The Nag brothers, as they were popular known, were famous for their method acting skills that was unlike the style of acting back then.

Along with writers like B.V.Karanth, Girish Karnad, M.S.Sathyu, they brought in a different kind of cinematic experience. Until today, the films that Shankar acted or directed in like Ondanondu kaladalli, 22 June 1897, Minchina ota among others, and the TV serial Malgudi days, are considered a benchmark for good cinema and content.

The day that Changed Arundhati’s life

Sadly, his talent and life was cut short. On the night of 30th September, 1990, Arundhati, Shankar and their five year old daughter Kavya were driving back at night, after wrapping up the shoot of one of his films.

That night is etched in her memory, right down to the very conversation they had during that car ride. It included theatre, their dream of making a viable space for it, and her return to the Marathi and Gujarati stage.

Just then, on a road near Davangere in Karnataka, a parked truck changed the course of this small family’s life. The car crashed into the truck, and Shankar died on impact. Arundhati sustained serious injuries which restricted her to a wheelchair for a year, but Kavya luckily managed to escape only with a few injuries.

“When I came out of the trauma, I had a collapsed world around me–a small daughter, no money, and a huge debt. All I had was only Rs 5000 in my account’’, she says about her struggling years.

Picking up the pieces was terribly hard for a young Arundhati. “ All I knew how to do was act and cook. My dream was that Shankar and I would build a unique theatre space in Bengaluru where audiences could enjoy good theatre at a very reasonable price’’.

Just a month before this incident, Shankar invested in Country Club, a one of a kind resort, for which he borrowed money, as well as to produce some films.
“If he was alive, we would have broken even and probably even made a profit in no time,’’ says the actor, who is now able to look back without much grief.

Arundhati, besides several plays, has acted in films like Paa, The man who knew infinity, Jogi, Accident, 22 June 1897 and many others in Kannada, Hindi, and Marathi.

One of her many admirable qualities is her never say die attitude. As she recalls these events, she isn’t seeking pity, neither does she expect an applause. `’People from the theatre circle helped me a lot. Their support was rock. Girish Karnad, who gave Shankar his film break, has been our mentor. Even Today, he is the chairman of the Sanket Trust, which administers Ranga Shankara. Then there is S. Surendranath, a trustee and also art director of our theater and the doyen M.S.Sathyu as our advisors and many more and they all have been there from the beginning’’, says the actor.”

All her life, Arundhati was either watching or acting in plays. She started acting in Marathi, Gujarathi, Hindi, and English plays when she was young . “ Even during the mid-1970’s, I was working in about 40 plays a month and earning a handsome sum of Rs 5,000 a month, more than my father’s salary. Commercial theatre pays well!’’ says Arundhati, as she proudly recalls her early theatre days in Mumbai. Around this time she met Shankar, who was involved in a lot of Marathi theatre.

How Arundhati made Ranga Shankara come to life

Much after his death, she sold the Country Club. The money she got helped her pay off the loan and also left some money to run her home, bring up her daughter and start planning the making of Ranga Shankara.

For the last venture, there wasn’t a single door that Arundhati didn’t knock to get funds to make the couple’s dream come true. “ Many people thought `this is a mad lady pursuing an unachievable goal’. But I persisted’’, says the Padma Shri (2010) award winner who has also won Sangeet Natak Akademy award (2008), National Film Award (Paa), Karnataka State Film awards (Accident, Jogi) and many others.

The first breakthrough in collecting funds came through S.M. Krishna, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka. One look at her plan and he allocated Rs 10 lakh. But unfortunately she couldn’t get a single penny from any other source and that money wasn’t enough. So one year later she went back to S.M. Krishna with the cheque book to return the Rs 10 lakh plus the interest accrued on the FD. Looking at her honesty and integrity, he sanctioned Rs 20 lakhs more and called up his industrialist friend, O.P. Jindal, who along with othershelped in funding Ranga Shankara.

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Until the construction of the theater began, Arundhati was unsure it would ever see the light of day. But in 2004, Ranga Shankara opened.

Today the theater hosts 300 shows a year, in addition to conducting a drama festival every year. Every play is screened properly and then allowed on stage, keeping in mind the integrity of the group and the play.“

Our theater is only to stage plays, and isn’t a Kalyana Mantapa,’’ says Arundhati firmly.
Her next dream is to work on a full-time theatre for children.

“I need to do a lot of homework, discuss with theatre personalities and approach government and municipal schools where an untapped trove of talent exists. We need to woo children to the theatre if we want good theatre to be alive for long. But this time I won’t do it alone like I did it at the time of Ranga Shankara,’’ says the thespian as she signs off!

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