At Ninasam, the world is a stage

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on November 23, 2019 Published on November 21, 2019

Do it yourself: Ninasam, founded by late KV Subbanna, tries to understand the modern world through tradition and performative cultures   -  IMAGE: DARSHAN SHET

Theatre is taught as an art form that defies definition at this centre

At 5am on a Sunday, while the world around them sleeps, 20 drama students at Ninasam — a centre for theatre and culture deep inside Heggodu village in Karnataka — splash water on their faces. The scent of ayurvedic oils wafts around the hostels. I feel the ligaments I never knew existed; while my roommate cribs about “jelly-like” thighs. Last week’s Yakshagana practice had shaken our bodies and minds out of ennui. In striking contrast, our teacher, Sanjeeva Suvarna, principal of Yakshagana Kendra, Udupi, stands like a bright lamp in the koothambalam-styled (traditional performance space) Intimate Theatre where we have our daily practice.

Art of learning: Students engage in a wide range of activities at the centre   -  IMAGE: DARSHAN SHET


Sri Neelakanteshwara Natyaseva Samgha (Ninasam), founded in 1949 by late KV Subbanna, a Magsaysay award winner, perceives the modern world through the prism of tradition and oriental performative cultures. Kalidasa sits with William Shakespeare, and Konstantin Stanislavski with the Natyashastra. I am an intern at Ninasam for three months, and share my classes with the current batch of students attending the centre’s 10-month course. Theatre education that focuses on mythology and cultural roots is hugely popular among the young aspirants who flock to Ninasam, cutting across caste and class barriers. “I never told my family about the auditions. They wanted me to be a policewoman,” remembers a classmate, who is also my Kannada tutor.

Learning Kannada prove to be a breeze as it is the medium of instruction. We read the Greek tragedies and French neo-classical plays in Kannada. Within a month, I grasp broken, yet functional Kannada that helps me make friends with the local tea seller and the photostat shop owner. And I deliver chunks of literary Kannada prose as devious Shoorpanakha in a Yakshagana production. To my relief, the Heggodu audience lets my Malayalam accent get off scot-free.

But that’s not just it. One day, we plant saplings around the sprawling campus, home to poser snakes and adamant snails, and on another, collect firewood to heat water for the hostels and clean our tour bus, which takes us to the scenic Jog Falls. We publicise the plays we stage by knocking at every house and distributing pamphlets, braving the incessant rains, which descend on this region called Malenadu — the land of rain — throughout the year. The villagers welcome us with bananas grown in their gardens, avalakki, a flattened rice dish, and hot tea.

Ninasam’s cultural influence seeps into the village too. The local at the barber shop chewing betel leaf and gossiping with his friends can also teach you a thing or two about Yakshagana. And there’s a Hindustani raga wafting from the local tailor’s house. “That’s my husband listening to a concert,” the tailor says with a smile, noting down our measurements for the rehearsal uniforms. “He used to be a music teacher at Ninasam. I myself have acted in several plays.” As has our canteen caretaker, who has chosen to stay on in the complex simply because of his fondness for Ninasam. A few others, active in the community theatre, credit Ninasam plays they watched as children for inculcating in them a passion for theatre. The villagers are ready to forsake television serials and movie blockbusters to watch a play. During the performance of this year’s play Karnasaangatya by Tirugata, Ninasam’s wandering theatre company, the 533-seater Shivaram Karantha Rangamandira was packed to capacity with villagers and theatre enthusiasts from across Karnataka.

Villagers of Heggodu in central Karnataka are mostly farmers, engaged in paddy and arecanut cultivation. Many of them also teach at Ninasam. Theatre history professor Madhava Chippali belongs to a family of arecanut farmers and tradesmen. His father and grandfather are also members of Ninasam. Asked why he volunteers in Ninasam as a teacher, Chippali, who was a research scholar at Manipal University, says, “Agriculture provides me enough reasons not to go in search of food elsewhere. Ninasam provides me a space for thinking and imagination.”

Fresh take: Students engage in a wide range of activities at the centre   -  DARSHAN SHET


Yet another powerful cultural influence locally is the Samskriti Shibira, a five-day arts festival, at Ninasam. Thinkers, critics and artistes wrestle with participants on complex questions related to art and aesthetics. I share my room with a few of the women participants, for whom the time spent at Ninasam is a break from their daily grind. A 56-year-old woman from Belgaum quips when asked if she was an actor, “My family life is good enough for the drama.” A senior theatre professional from Coimbatore, who works closely with schools and colleges, remarks, “People in my hometown do not believe me when I tell them about this place.” An English teacher from Tumkur says that she catches up on the latest trends in theatre during this time of the year.

“I am not sure if Ninasam will be there next year or not,” reflects playwright and director KV Akshara, son of Subbanna and the current head. It’s always been “one year at a time”, he says as he opens his betel leaf box and cracks an arecanut into two. He observes, “It’s really a way of life here.” The syllabus is flexible. Lessons evolve organically in response to the times. In Akshara’s class, he urges us to define theatre and shows us videos of theatrical forms from across the world. After giving a patient ear to an outburst of our googled definitions and jargon, Akshara shrugs and says something that perfectly captures the Ninasam spirit. “There is no one definition, you just have to be open to all cultures,” he says.

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based out of Thrissur

Published on November 21, 2019
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