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Shiva Prakash

Between politics and aesthetics: Kannada theatre (1970-1990)

Kannada theatre, one of the richest in India, went through an intense period of struggle between the political and the aesthetic from 1970 to 1990. It was a phase of restless exploration of new forms, figures and possibilities and a host of socio-political causes contributed to this historic transformation. A number of local, national and international causes contributed to this scenario.

One important regional cause was the large scale literalisation of Dalits and other backward castes for the first time. These communities brought their resources and expectations to the language and culture which had marginalized their sensibilities for centuries. Also this was the phase of as feminist turn in the history of Kannada culture. In effect the existing cultural paradigms produced by Kannada modernity and modernism broke down. Equally important was the political development at the national level: the declaration of Emergency and the suspension of democratic rights for the first time in Independent India. The struggles for social justice in other parts of the world like the movements against apartheid in South Africa, the student struggles in France, the peace movements against the Vietnam War in the USA, the assertion of African and Latin American identities had their impact on Kannada culture in that period.

The first most important response of Kannada theatre to the above situation was the problematisation of the pre-70s modernism and the search for new alternatives emphasizing the immediate political function of theatre. The limited version of modernism that dominated the theatre scene till then was a selective version of modernism derived from French existentialism and Anglo-American modernism. The translations and adaptations of the Absurd theatre had characterized Kannada theatre in the preceding period. The declaration of Emergency in 1975 clinched matters. The subjective modernism of the earlier period was of no help in a situation of brutal suspension of constitutional rights. Further, the earlier modernity and modernism had been moulded predominantly by upper caste agendas. But now a whole new people with very different cultural memories and metaphors had made their inroads. Their problems were immediate. They had to assert their difference in culture at a time when the first backward caste Chief Minister Devarajas was pushing ahead with his agenda for the empowerment of Dalits and other backward castes. A leftist theatre movement Samudhaya emerged as the champion of the oppressed castes and classes. Brecht became more important to Karnataka than Beckett, who had held sway till then.

However pervasive the overtly political agenda of theatre during the period, the opposite trend of aesthetics came into being as an anti-thesis of the former. This aesthetic preoccupation in theatre was spear-headed by the drama school theatre culture committed to actor training and technical perfection. BV Karanth, the former director of the National School of Drama in New Delhi (NSD) returned to Karnataka in 1973. His three major productions-Oedipus, San kranti and Jokumar Swami- inaugurated the new modernist theat5re in the state. Thanks to his efforts the Karnataka government set up Nataka Karnataka repertory mostly along the model of the NSD and Rang Mandal repertory of Bhopal. The new theatre that BV Karanth and his team promoted, lacked the political dynamism of the Samudhaya theatre.

The tension between the two poles of the political and the aesthetic was reflected in every department of thetare: playwriting, staging and organization. Though it was the newly emerging alliance of Dalits, Backward Castes and the working class that decentralized and popularised theatre all over the State not only through successful productions without patronage, but also through highly successful jatas (touring theatre acts). It was the Drama School theatre that benefitted from this popularization in the long run. Samudasa activism received a fillip from the newly emerging Dalit-Bandaya movement, the expression of dalit and backwards. In this context, street theatre became a weapon of political protest. CGK’s production Belchi, a protest against massacres of dalits in Bihaqr, became a superhit not only in Karnataka but also in other parts of India.

The rise of the non-Congress government in 80’s led by anti-Congress one time allies of the cultural struggle during Emergency brought about an increase in the State patronage towards theatre. Neenasam, a most innovative cultural exercise pioneered by KV Subanna, was an attempt to balance the politics and aesthetics of theatre. However, very soon it became another drama school though it did continue to maintain a difference reflected in their focus on the relationship of theatre to literature, visual arts and democratic movements. Apart from the increased state patronage, foreign patronage in the form of Ford Foundation grants, started impacting theatre in a big way. Neenasam itself was formalized into an institutional set up with a Ford Foundation grant.

In playwriting, new trends emerged. In a situation of the proliferation of performances and the paucity of plays, the new directors began to base their performances on other literary genres like fiction and poetry. This was a clear departure from the 1970s. Some of the best productions by leading directors like Nagesh, CGK and B Jayashree were dramatisations of significant contemporary literary works like the fiction of Devanur Mahadeva, Tejasvi or the poetry of Siddhalingiah and Shivaprakash. Senior playwrights like Girish Karnad , Chandrashekar Kambar and P. Lankesh, who dominated the Absurdist phase now began to write plays with clear story lines. Both the Brechtian theatre and the Drama School theatre emphasized non-realistic possibilities, which is reflected in the productions of the period. In particular Shivaprakash’s plays,and their productions by CGK, Suresh Anagalli and Basavalingiah, were experiments to find alternatives both to realism and Absurd theatre.

The oblique political commentary became a necessity during Emergency. The use of old classics for this purpose was pioneered by Samudaya productions like Vigadavikrama Raya, a rehash of a classic by Samsa and Macbeth by Shakespeare. Even after Emergency was lifted in 1978, this trend continued alongside immensely popular productions of Brecht’s Mother and Galileo by Samudaya.

The directorial styles that were shaped between 1970 and 1990 also reflected the tension between the political and aesthetic demands. Amateur drama troops that had been mostly committed to apolitical modernism till then now began doing plays which were more politically overt. Leading directors like Prasanna and CGK balanced the demands of these two pulls in their most successful productions. Nevertheless, vehement politicization of theatre that began in the 1970s during Emergency, gradually petered out by the end of the 1990s as a result of increased patronage from the State and foreign foundations and due to the fragmentation of Dalit working class, backward caste and feminist movements and organizations. The end of the Soviet dream had a metonymic relationship with these developments in Kannnada theatre. This rich period of experiments, discoveries and achievements is an exciting chapter in Modern Indian theatre history.

However these developments are poorly documented. For instance there is no video documentation of any of these major productions, I will be reconstructing this history by depending on the following archival materials:

  1. interviews with the leading theatre personalities, who made important interventions,

  2. back numbers of irregularly published theatre journals,

  3. theatre autobiographies by BV Karanth and CGK

  4. photo documentation and newspaper clippings from leading drama troops like Samudhaya, Rangasampadaha, Neenasam and Prayaogaranga

  5. v) critical writings of theatre scholars like Marulasiddappa and KV Subanna.

  6. I will also bring in clippings from the videos of at least two plays representing the opposite trends of a politicical conscious Kannada theatre vis-a-vis one whose major preoccupations were aesthetic.