Once, when some of his fellow Hindus were glorifying the practice of sati, Mahatma Gandhi remarked that “self-immolation at the death of the husband is not a sign of enlightenment but of gross ignorance”. If she truly loved her deceased husband, said Gandhi, the wife would not commit sati but dedicate her life to the fulfilment of his ideals ‘for his family and country’.
Gandhi’s remarks come to mind when considering the career of the great actor and institution-builder Arundhati Nag (nee Rao). Arundhati grew up in Delhi, speaking Hindi, Marathi, and English, and while still in school chose a career on the stage in these three languages. Then she married the Kannada actor Shankar Nag, and took on his language for her work as well. They built a life together, pursuing their work while raising their young daughter. They had, it seemed, truly found both professional success and personal happiness. Then it all came apart via a road accident, in which Shankar, who was at the wheel, died while his wife and child survived.
Arundhati deeply loved her husband. Back in the 19th century, orthodox Hindus might have asked her to demonstrate her love by committing sati. In the late 20th century, an understandable reaction may have been to retreat into herself. But this was an exceptional woman whose love would take an exceptional turn. She decided to build a theatre in Shankar’s memory, to, as it were, fulfil their shared ideals for their profession and their country.
To be a single woman is hard in India, and to be a single woman who is an entrepreneur, even harder. Arundhati had no access to family money or family connections. But she was determined to fulfil her dream, which she knew was Shankar’s too. For this she needed four things, each almost impossible to fulfil in a city then not yet known as Bengaluru. First, acquiring a plot of land in a reasonably central location when politicians had their eye on every such plot for personal gain. Second, raising money from rich Indians whose philanthropy generally did not extend beyond education and health to the arts. Third, finding an architect who would build the kind of theatre she wanted, and for a fee she could afford. Fourth, attracting an audience willing to travel long distances to attend plays in her theatre, when they could just stay at home and watch one of the 400 (or perhaps 4,000) channels on television.
Somewhere in-between fulfilling the third and the fourth of these ambitions, Arundhati approached my wife Sujata Keshavan, and asked her to do the logo and branding of what was now being called ‘Ranga Shankara’. Sujata had built her design practice with absolutely no help from her living husband; and seeing Arundhati at work compelled great admiration in her, and great admiration (as well as belated guilt) in me. After the theatre was commissioned in 2004, Sujata and I went to see many plays there, written by the likes of Vijay Tendulkar and Habib Tanvir and featuring actors such as Rajit Kapoor and Ratna Pathak.
Both in its design and in its functioning, Ranga Shankara is a wonderfully open and democratic space. It has a large and high-ceilinged atrium, with a bookstore on one side and a cafe on the other. To get to the theatre one has to queue up and climb a flight of stairs. There is no VIP row, and all tickets are priced the same; to get the best seats you have to arrive earlier than everyone else. The theatre has some 300 shows a year, in every language of the Eighth Schedule (and in some foreign tongues too).
I have known Arundhati Nag for more than a decade now, but until last week had never seen her perform in the theatre she had built and nurtured. She has continued, of course, to appear in plays in other cities, and in films as well. But in Ranga Shankara itself she has rarely performed. This time, however, the great Girish Karnad had persuaded her to appear in a new Hindi production of his play, ‘Bikhre Bimb’, which features a single actor, in a dual role, playing herself on stage and an alter ego through an image appearing on a television screen. The play is a classic; playing on the rivalry between two sisters through the rivalry between the mother tongue, Kannada, and the language of global privilege, English.
I had previously seen the play performed in English; now I was to see Arundhati perform it in Hindi. She was stunningly good at capturing the shifting moods of the main character, from elation to disquiet to horror. I knew her to be a gentle and caring person in real life; but in this professional incarnation she was absolutely convincing in showing herself as suspicious, paranoid, and selfish.
After the play ended, I sat alone in the Ranga Shankara cafe, eating a dinner of akki roti and sabudana vada. Around me was a buzz of chatter and excitement, from men and women, young and old, of different castes and religions, and from all parts of the city. An hour after the play ended, Arundhati came shuffling down the stairs. I wanted to personally congratulate my friend; but many others had got there before me. So I waited my turn, as was appropriate to the place, and the person.
Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of what Arundhati Nag has done. I know every theatre-loving resident of Bengaluru is. If every city and town of India had its own Ranga Shankara, our Republic would surely be a much happier place.