Sunday, February 14, 1999
FREQUENTLY one comes across people cribbing about the decline in cultural values, the want of effort to cultivate good tastes, the absence of cultural organisers to promote traditional arts and encourage new cultural modes. How often, indeed, do theatre people tend to justify their growing withdrawal from the cultural scene on the plea of high costs, non-availability of performing spaces, the vicious role of the electronic media in weaning away the talent, the indifference of the government towards arts and culture, and so on!
Even a single man can perform the miracle of realising what the cynics might give up as impossible. Yes, indeed, even in these blighted times of ours, there does exist a man who has inspired and involved his community to set up a cultural complex. The complex is the seat of a theatre training institute, the home of a professional itinerant repertory as well as a film society, the hub of childrens theatre activity, the venue of a publication house, and the centre of a variety of workshops and courses.
A simple farmer, he has demonstrated that, being a matter of creativity and tastes, culture and its promotion do not depend on big complexes and need not start with big funds, trusts and foundations. All that is absolutely essential for the purpose is good will of the community which cannot but attract the active co-operation of artists and scholars. If not many have heard about this man or his 50-year-long experiment, it is precisely because he is too lost in real work to bother about publicity. In fact, in this abstinence from self-projection lies his real strength.
Believe it or not, this cultivator of areca-nut (Supari) lives deep in the interior of north-west Karnataka, in the midst of hills and forests, in a one-street village, Heggodu, which stands at the centre of some scattered hamlets. In the heart of the village stands an ashram-like cluster of humble buildings. The karma-bhoomi of this karmayogi, this could be the most secular of all the Indian ashrams because here work is the only mode of worship. In October, every year, about one hundred culture enthusiasts of all ages, from all kinds of professions, from all parts of Karnataka, throng to this place to attend a 10-day-long culture course which includes appreciation of literary, visual, performing, cinematic arts by a team of top scholars led by U.R. Ananthamurthy. If the days are spent talking about books and theory, the evenings are devoted to culture in practice music, dances, films and theatre.
A sitting in a session of the course or a word with any participant, and one knows immediately how deeply ingrained in Kannada culture in general and literature in particular the people of Karnataka are. Turn to an average youth in your own locality and you realise the big difference. The reason for the difference lies in the story of the experiment called Ninasam, in the story of its simple, selfless leader called K.V. Subbanna. The success of this story is epitomised in the fact that although Heggodu has a total population of 500, it has an auditorium that has a seating capacity of 750! Before the television could arrive here, this hamlet had three libraries, four youth associations, six womens organisations, a high school, two post offices, and three banks!
It all started around 1945 when Subbanna was a student; after a days work, some young boys would gather in the evenings under a thatch-roof to chat, to talk about their problems, to exchange views about the political goings-on, to dream about their future after Independence.
Gradually these young enthusiasts set up a library, brought a cyclostyled weekly, and started producing occasional plays. After Independence, they formed themselves into a cultural group. Being a purely local affair, it was named after Nilakanteshwara, the local diety of Heggodu. Ninasam is an acronym of that name, viz., Nilakanteshwara Natya Seva Sangha. Theatre was the main art pursued here until 1967 when Subbanna happend to attend a film appreciation course at Pune.
On his return, he started screening film classics and holding film festivals. In the mid-seventies, the film society, Ninasam Chitrasamaja, started organising film-appreciation courses in collaboration with the Film Institute and the Film Archives, Pune. The subject at these courses ranged from film history to film technique, from film theory to film criticism, from art films to popular cinema.
Since these festivals and courses held at Heggodu attracted people from all over Karnataka, their popularity prompted the Ford Foundation to volunteer a grant for a rural theatre and film culture project called Janaspandana, in which similar festivals and courses were to be organised throughout the Karnataka state. Although the project ended in 1985, the activities have continued. It is estimated that about two lakh people were exposed to the best of cinema and that more than 5,000 persons attended the appreciation courses. In the field of theatre, the 37 workshops of six weeks duration, involving 31 institutions, yielded about 50 productions. What is more, it has been possible to set up six theatre-equipment banks in different regions of the state to serve the needs of the theatre groups around each centre. The most unique activity resulting from the project was a theatre workshop for the forest-dwelling Negroid tribes of the Siddhis in North Kanara district, where an adaptation of Chinua Achebes Things Fall Apart was produced.
Of course, theatre is no longer the only pursuit of the Natya Sangha, Ninasam, but it is certainly a chief activity. The Ninasam Theatre Institute, started in 1980, offers every year a 10-month-long diploma course to about 20 trainees. Of about 250 of its alumni, about 200 have continued to work for theatre as full-time professionals or part-time amateurs. As part of the training, the Institute has staged about 50 major productions. Besides the regular faculty, comprising NSD graduates, the institute has had visiting directors like Shivarama Karanth, B.V. Karanth, Chandrashekhar Kambar, G. Shankar Pillai, K.N. Panickar, Kanhailal, Rustom Bharucha, Fritz Benevitz, John Martin, S. Raghunandan, et al. Besides teaching, the institute has been organising courses, workshops and study tours.
After training, some of the graduates join Ninasam Tirugata, a rural theatre repertory troupe (1985 ) that prepares, every year, three major productions which are taken around Karnataka. During the first 11 years of its existence, Tirugata travelled about 82,000 km, staging 1546 performances at 172 places (mostly rural) for an audience of about 11 lakh. It has also performed outside the state at places like Delhi, Bombay, Pune, Hyderabad. The big thing is that although all its members receive regular salaries, instead of lamenting the want of audiences and funds (as most urban theatre groups do), Tirugata is sustaining itself 80 per cent through gate collection and 20 per cent through government grant.
During 1991-93, Ninasam conducted a Government of Indias Theatre-in-Education project in the form of a series of 13 production-oriented workshops for school children. Since 1987, Ninasam has been coming out with a quarterly house journal which not only reports Ninasam activities but also carries special articles, dramatic texts and lectures by eminent persons presented at the culture courses. It is published by Akshra Prakashan which has been publishing books on film arts, childrens literature, play-scripts and the works of some major writers of Karnataka.
Doing so much, howsoever quietly, cannot but make a great news; no wonder the word went beyond India and, in 1991, Subbanna was honoured with the prestigious Magsaysay Award. Although he had turned down several awards, including the much-coveted one from Sangeet Natak Akademi, he accepted this one because he felt that it signified the recognition of the community effort. He passed on the entire amount to Ninasam which has used it to create a trust, Ninasam Pratishtana; the interest accruing on the deposit is being used for funding and conducting extension programmes of Ninasam.
Subbannas attitude to honours and awards is not only most characteristic of him but is also the key to the success as well as the survival of Ninasam. An award, he feels, gives the impression that the awardee is superior to the others; that pampers the ego of the individual. "It has taken me decades to sublimate my ego and I dont want that effort to be wiped out by any award. Magsaysay Award was different insofar as it recognised our institution and inspired us to go on".
Equally characteristic of him was his attitude to the grant from the Ford Foundation. Very reluctantly he had accepted the offer after deciding that the money would be used for the fresh work outside and not for the main activities of Ninasam.
And after two years, he refused to seek the renewal of the project. Easy money, he felt, could spoil the group; depending on these crutches, they could lose their will to stand on their own, lose their resources and possibly alienate themselves from the community. He has been proved right by what has happened to the habitual grantees. Generous grants having bred in them a money-oriented approach, they feel crippled now when that source has gone dry. this is exactly what Subbanna did not want to happen to Ninasam. "True, most of those grantees managed to build big centres, but where is the work? For us, work is more important than buildings. We dont want to lose the essence of the central thing for the periphery".
Such is the approach that
pays in promoting arts and culture. This philosophy is
what makes Ninasam a model for others. True, Ninasam is
by no means a perfect prototype to be copied in every
way, but it should be possible to seek inspiration and to
learn certain lessons. Imagine something like this in
each state in your own region! The very thought of
it is so thrilling. This might sound utopian but it is by
no means an impossible dream. All that is needed is a man
with a vision, a man with creative imagination and
qualities of leadership, a man with a positive attitude
in the spirit of selfless service to community, a man
committed to culture in general and creativity in
particular a man like K.V. Subbanna, so to say.
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