A young girl of eight was watching Ramleela in her backyard in Delhi. A sardarji was playing the role of Sita. She went on watching, mesmerised by the power of make-believe that could make something which was not real, appear to be reality. The spell was cast and Arundhati Nag remains in its thrall till this day. She has done theatre for 40 years, acted in films as well as TV serials. A Padmashree Awardee, she has won critical acclaim for several of her roles.
We reach Ranga Shankara, the space known to every theatre buff in Bangalore. Contrary to the high walled and gated buildings that we have become so used to seeing in this bustling metro, Rangshankara, has no walls. It is an open space, free for anyone to walk in. On the third floor of this solid brick and steel structure, we find Arundhati Nag, deep in conversation. As we approach, she gives one of her enamoring smiles.
Juggling a tight schedule, that has kept her from lunch till three in the afternoon, draped in her trademark ethnic cotton saree, Arundhati radiates a vibrant energy that keeps her and those around her at Ranga Shankara going. As conversation unfolds with this theatre maverick, one realizes that she is a person who is living her dream, and is breathing in her passion day in, day out.
Arundhati was born to Marathi parents in Delhi and moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) at the age of 10. She got the opportunity to immerse in two very different and vibrant cultures. During her growing up days in Bombay she thrived on debates and elocutions at school. “Our education system gives a child the space to grow into his or her dreams. If you are good at something, you are spotted. I feel schools and colleges do nurture talent.” Her flair for language and acting earned her roles in several plays at college and the actor within her continued to blossom.
Another factor that deepened her enchantment with theatre was exposure to Marathi plays. With roots in Maharashtra, she grew up on a heavy dose of some fabulous performances by actors such as Kashinath Ghanekar. The bar for Arundhati was therefore set quite high early in her life.
In Arunthati’s own words, “My entry into theatre was one of the most beautiful accidents of my life.” It all began with her joining the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). She came to know about the association from one of her friends. When she went to IPTA, she was spotted by Shama Zaidi. “I was standing there with my comics in hand and Shama Zaidi says to me, you girl in the two pigtails will you act. I said I will act if you teach me.” She was just 16. IPTA was the place for zealots in those days, portraying contemporary realities and raising issues through the art of theatre. Arundhati became one of them.
After bagging the role at IPTA that day, she gave wings to her dreams. It was not easy for the young Arundhati from a middle class background whose parents worried about her unusual hours but her enthusiasm and talent compelled them to overcome their fears.
Even though Arundhati is known to comment on more than one occasion that her debut into theatre was accidental, she was well aware even during her early days of acting that it did not come easy. “You cannot just keep on waiting. Once the apple has fallen on your head, the law of gravity has to come. And, it requires your hundred per cent.” Realizing this Arundhati plunged herself into learning whatever was possible, the acting, the aesthetics, the colour, sound, lighting, texture, fabric, design, language, engineering, lettering, the spoken and the written word. She soon became the toast of theatre scene in Bombay, acting in numerous Marathi and Hindi plays.
Arundhati was studying Commerce at Narsee Monjee College in Bombay and managing her acting schedule when she met Shankar Nag. “I was 17 and he was 19, so it was a long romance,” she laughs. Theatre and love for literature brought them together. She didn’t know then that meeting Shankar Nag would bring her to Bangalore. “I was doing Marathi plays in Bombay and Shankar had moved to Karnataka and had become a famed actor of the Kannda films, but he was missing theatre.” Shankar Nag asked for her assistance to start a theatre group in Bangalore. He wanted to do a one of Girish Karnad’s play and requested Arundhati to act in it. She became a part of Anju Mallige (Frightened Jasmine). The play delved into the life of Indian Diaspora and portrayed complex psychology of human beings. Thats how Arundhati played the role of a sister so obsessed with her brother that she follows him to the Oxford. She essayed her role brilliantly and went on to act in several of Shankar Nag’s plays such as Nagamandala and Barrister.
Later on, when Shankar was directing his first movie, she worked as his assistant director. At the opening of the movie, she went to wish Shankar, he proposed. “He asked me why don’t you marry me and I said fine, day after tomorrow is your birthday, I’ll marry you on that day.” She remembers the incident as one of the most heightened moments of her life.
She found her soul mate in Shankar Nag. “Shankar was a very rare person. We discovered theatre and acting together.” Loosing Shankar was one of the darkest periods of her life. “It was bad because I had lost a companion, a friend, a husband, the father of my child; Shankar was many persons to me.”
Arundhati had suffered multiple injuries in the car accident that killed her husband. She was physically battered and was in a wheel chair for a year. Kaavya, her daughter was just five. “Its very difficult when your whole sky collapses and the earth sort of disappears from under you.” After Shankar, Arundhati was facing a world where she had to deal with financial losses and debts. “It took me 10 years to straighten everything,” shares the woman who never gave up.
Accident had bound her to the wheelchair, she was torn emotionally and her bank balance drew a bleak picture when she examined it. But somehow, even in her darkest days Arundhati did not forget about the dream she had nurtured of building a theatre space in Bangalore. “It had to happen. When we came to Bangalore, we realized that there is an amateur theatre community, which does not earn money but does theatre and they had no space. I belonged to that community.”
Building Ranga Shankara was no mean feat for her. 14 years back when the economy was not what it is today and all that she had was a fire in her belly, it was a monumental task. “I had never raised money in my life.” Yet, when she set out, Arundhati raised three and a half crores. Both the industry and individuals contributed and it took three years to build the theatre space. The journey to build Ranga Shankara was a high point for her. “I was like a woman possessed. I was eating, breathing and sleeping just one dream.” Kaavya witnessed as her mother ran from pillar to post to make it happen. “Now she is 29 and has a lot of respect for all the hard work that was put in.”
The earthy appeal of the theatre comes from Arundhati’s love for being close to nature. She has lived on a farm for 32 years and continues to do so. Quite early in their marriage, Arundhati and Shankar Nag had moved to a farmhouse outside the city. “I told Shankar I do not want to live in an apartment. I wanted the earth.” She inherits her love for nature from her mother. “My mother had a garden with 42 different types of roses in Delhi but we lost the garden when we moved to Bombay.” Thanks to this nature lover, Ranga Shankara remains a plastic free zone.
Ever a theatre enthusiast, Arundhati strongly believes that theatre would never die as long as human beings are alive. And, several of the plays that she has acted in draw a parallel between life and theatre. One of them is Bikhre Bimb by Girish Karnad. In the play, Arundhati plays the role of an actor who has just been interviewed at a television studio. On her way out the actor is confronted by her image on one of the monitors. The next 45 minutes of the play is how the image unravels layer by layer, the persona that the actor had created for herself. Arundhati likens the play to life and feels that every individual indulges in theatre and presents different persona to different people as and when required.
Doing theatre has also shaped Arundhati’s personality. It has made her articulate and observant. Theatre is all about the chiseled goods presented to the people in a limited span of time. “I have learnt how to pull out the right word from my arsenal to express myself. When the word is not enough to express, I know how to use the gestures and it is all because of theatre.”
Arundhati feels that not just for an actor, doing theatre can help everyone. “I believe everyone should do a theatre workshop. It helps a person to recognize their own body and improve their personality.”
Theatre is clearly not just about acting for Arundhati. For her, it is a way of life. “I do not know how happy I would be as a person if you take theatre away from me and I am not just talking about being an actor, but also watching and reading.” She considers it to be a place where caste, creed, religion and background, hold no meaning. “The most significant thing about Ranga Shankara is the people who do theatre here are the indicators of health of the society. This is not for money, religion or fame. You could be doing Shakespeare, Shudraka or Bhasa. You are in a literary world here.”
However, even after doing theatre for so many years, Arundhati has never ventured into directing a play. “It has never come from inside. I am a very good behind the scene person. If I walk on a set I can immediately spot if something is wrong with it.” This knack of hers came into play on the sets of Shankar Nag’s Malgudi Days and later on, when she worked as an Assistant Director to none other than David Lane. “I worked alongside David Lane on his film, A Passage to India based on E.M. Forster’s novel for nine months. It was a privilege.” Arundhati is the only woman whom Lane has ever taken up as an assistant director on his project.
Arundhati Nag is very much a part of a generation that began weaving the tapestry of contemporary theatre in India. Her acting prowess remains exemplary till this day, as she plays the role of an actor questioned by her own image on stage and the role of a mother to a woman with a child suffering from progeria on the film sets of Paa. She has lived her life with a wild courage, believing in her dreams with an intensity and following them till they materialised in front of her eyes. One would think that with Ranga Shankara going in full flow, Arundhati would slow down but it is not so. Even as we wrap up, she is already making plans to go out of the city, on yet another new venture, to explore yet another destination!