BY DRISHTI RAKHRA
On telling someone that Bangalore’s theatre scene is rife with possibilities, I am always met with a look of polite surprise. Where is this theatre world, they seem to be asking me. The answers to this question are many in number, but perhaps the first one is Rangashankara.
Rangashankara is one of the city’s most popular theatres set up by actor Arundathi Nag, in memory of her late husband Shankar Nag. Shankar Nag was an important film and theatre practitioner in the Kannada industry, while Arundathi Nag is an actor from Mumbai who acts in productions across languages. If you are like me, you will remember her from the Hindi film, Paa, in which she plays Vidya Balan’s mother. Running into her in Rangashankara’s cafe is never out of the ordinary, but her kind voice will never fail to make you feel comfortable. If you venture to Rangashankara’s Facebook page, you’ll find many pictures of Nag, leading play readings and conversations on culture and performance.
For a regular audience member, Rangashankara is a space of quiet. As you enter, you will be met by a large open space, with a staircase curving up into the first floor. On the left side of this staircase, there are images from Rangashankara’s history, posters of old plays, pictures of famous theatre practitioners who have visited. On the other side, as the open space continues — you will first see a small blackboard reading out a list of food items — the top of the board reading ‘Anju’s Cafe’. The cafe has been a part of Rangashankara for as long as I’ve known it. This space is occupied by ten or so four-seater tables, all of them at a comfortable distance from each other. Once you find an empty table, you are left alone with your devices. You can read there for hours, or simply pause for a quick cup of tea before the theatre bell rings, signalling your need to hurry on up. Now and then, you might even be allowed to eavesdrop on conversations on culture and theatre; you will learn something about the play you have just watched, or about the food you are eating.
My first time there, over 8 years ago, I felt like I was given the keys to a larger, kinder, more careful world. I was in awe of the people — not only the employees and theatre groups but even the audience members. Everyone who comes to watch a play at Rangashankara is carefully dressed, just as much as the play being performed is carefully picked. If you are at the venue, you never have to worry about whether the play will be good. This guarantee is one I take immense comfort in. I can decide to watch a good play on any given day, and Rangashankara will give me that. The bonus, of course, is the sabudana vada we get at Anju’s Cafe. If you do a quick search of Rangashankara on Instagram, you’ll find dozens of identical pictures of the sabudana vada, all from different people. The counter at Anju’s Cafe always has a large plate filled with a pile of these piping hot, mouth burning, crunchy vadas fresh off the gas (if you ever find that they’re sold out, then you must go back another day). Priced at less than 100 rupees, these go perfectly well with a hot cup of filter coffee.
Fifteen minutes before a play is scheduled to begin, a bell will go off in the distance — identical to the bell that would ring at the end of a school day. But unlike school, the bell at Rangashankara signifies the start of an experience. If you are in the process of having tea, you will need to speed up just a little bit; if your sabudana vada is still piping hot in your hand, then you might need to risk burning your tongue. The fifteen-minute warning bell is followed by two others, one at five minutes before the show, and one last bell after which you will not be allowed to enter the auditorium, no matter how much you plead. A few times, I have heard the voices of angry people who were just a few seconds too late, but a rule is a rule.
The auditorium itself fans out from the stage at the centre. The layout is a classic continental type, with each row of seats on one step, allowing you to find the perfect spot irrespective of where you’re sitting. But if you’re early enough, maybe you can find a seat just at the centre, so when you see the actors standing mere feet from you, it is like they are performing just for you.
When I made my way to Rangashankara last week after a two-year, pandemic induced hiatus, I found a seat right at the centre, after having devoured one very hot vada with a cup of coffee. As I sat waiting for the play to begin, I looked at the crowd around me — smaller than it used to be in a Covid-less world, but enthusiastic nonetheless. This time, I was watching a Hindustani play, Ishtihaar. I watched two young men (Devaas Gupta and Prakil Singh) speak in various voices; various shades of Manto, and left feeling as dazed as I have always felt — for being in Rangashankara is like no other experience, it swallows you whole and transports you to a different time, a different place.
I was convinced of this a little bit later as I was leaving when I glanced back at Anju’s Café. The mood at the cafe after the play is always different from before a show. There is more laughter, more tea to drink. Only looking closely, I realised that the laughter I was hearing was actually from the production team and several people I’d seen in the audience too – all of them sitting at one table, all celebrating the end of a successful show.
Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi, and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.