Vighnesh Hampapura in Conversation with Bhagirathi Bai Kadam: Living Theatre

Vighnesh Hampapura in Conversation with Bhagirathi Bai Kadam: Living Theatre

in Interview
Published on: 11 January 2021

Vighnesh Hampapura

A student of literature at Asoka University, Vighnesh Hampapura’s key areas of interests are literature and theatre. He is the recipient of the 2020 Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Oxford.

Bhagirathi Bai Kadam in conversation with Vighnesh Hampapura

Vighnesh H.J (VHJ): We have with us today the director of Rangayana, Bhagirathi Bai Kadam. Welcome, ma’am.

Bhagirathi Bai Kadam (BBK): Namaskara.

VHJ: Firstly, how did your interest in theatre develop? When did you feel you wanted to take it up professionally?

BBK: It must have begun even before I knew what theatre was. I didn’t know the concept of theatre; let alone ever having heard the word rangabhoomi—we didn’t know what nataka (drama) was. When I was six or seven years old, our brothers and others from the town got together to perform a play for the Ganapati festival. We went to watch the rehearsals, and while playing and watching the rehearsals, I memorised the dialogues. I was about seven, I think, and I played everyone’s roles: if I stand here, I’m him, and there, I’m her. So, unwittingly, I had acted. At home, I entertained people who visited us. Whenever visitors were there, I would play-act. Sometimes, the company plays would come to town. We would go and watch, sleep there and then would wake up in the morning and return. It was not a big issue for us village kids. Then, one day, I was playing out a role at home, and my mother came running from the kitchen, scared. I was delighted. I had scared someone with my acting. Well, I’d done something! Now, learning of my passion for acting, grandmothers in my neighbourhood would carry me on their shoulders to plays. I remember that too. They would bribe me with holiges (Karnataka-style puran poli) and jaggery and ask me to act. They would make holiges, and I’d act. They’d give me that sweet that they put inside the holige…

VHJ: The hoorna (chana dal and jaggery)

BBK: Yes, hoorna. And I would act the entire night with complete joy. So, like this, when I didn’t even know the ABCD of theatre, the madness or desire for theatre grew in me. The first time I went on stage was in the fifth grade. I was nine years old, and I played Rishi Vishwamitra’s role. People were impressed with my Vishwamitra. From there, every year during the school union day, I would have a role—this is how I grew as an actor. After completing SSLC (Class 10), I participated in competitions—taluk and state levels. I learnt about Ninasam (Ninasam Theatre School, Heggodu, Karnataka) in 1985. I acted in Kuvempu’s Ratnakshina; did several stages and received statewide prizes. It was like a festival for me when I won the prizes. This was it. Only when I joined Ninasam did I learn what theatre and art actually was. (There’s an entire section here you have cut down, from 3:41 to 4:17 – and indeed that part is not very significant and can be cut.) Truly, it was at Ninasam that it dawned on me: Baap re, this is a big ocean, I will have to swim well. I realised what all was there at Ninasam. 

VHJ: And from Ninasam, you went to NSD?

BBK: Yes. First I did Tirugata (travelling theatre troupe of Ninasam). I think all artistes at some point must undergo such training. Now there are a lot of such troupes. At that time there was only Ninasam. Ninasam paved the paths of many such initiatives. I went to NSD (National School of Drama) from there. There I got to know the entire country. People in theatre from all over India were there. By then I had significant experience in theatre. For them, my experience was substantial—I had done Ninasam, and toured Karnataka with four plays and 150 shows. Because of that experience, I could walk through the NSD years easily, even if the course was in another language.

VHJ: You trained there in acting?

BBK: Yes.

VHJ: So, tell me, is theatre actor-driven or director-driven?

BBK: Both are important. The audience and artistes go for the acting. We act the way we are asked to. During the performance, the director can do nothing. Actors do it in their own way on stage. We improvise our act. The audience first looks at acting. They are attracted to the actors. Only later do they experience the production. Earlier I thought that the actor was the most important. Then I realised the director is actually very important, because they construct the stage and the play. They think from all directions—not only do they guide actors, but they make the entire play. The actors are concerned with only their respective roles/parts. We act and the audience praise us. Although invisible, the skill and intelligence of the director is very important. Until the play gets on to the stage, it is the responsibility of the director, and once it is on stage, the actor has the upper hand.

VHJ: Your journey has spanned 65 plus plays, acting and directing. Antigone, Ashad ke ek din . . .

BBK: 65, all together.

VHJ: Yes. How do you choose a play? Or the play’s content? What issues interest you?

BBK: See, when I was an actor, I didn’t have the artiste’s choice. When I was in Ninasam school, I’d play what they asked; my first role was that of Benare’s role in Shantata Court Chalu Ahe. In my town, I had only girls on my team. That was my first where both genders acted together—Benare. And that year, I played Jocasta (Oedipus) too. Benare is one kind of a character. Jocasta is totally different, from the Greek tradition. To fulfill that role was a big challenge actually. When the reading of plays happened in Tirugata, there were characters that caught my imagination, and when I didn’t get those roles, I was disappointed: ‘Oh no, I didn’t get that role. If only I did, how splendidly would I do it.’ I braved through these anxieties like everyone, and fulfilled the roles given to me. Small roles or big roles, I had no say.

At NSD, I think I was given some great roles. I didn’t get so many roles in Kannada, but at NSD, in Hindi that too, for me who didn’t know Hindi, some excellent roles were given. The opportunity there was helpful.

When I came back to Ninasam from NSD, I got some fantastic roles again. Ashadada Ondu Dina’s Mallika. I did not ever imagine that I would ever play Mallika. Maybe Ambika, the old lady, at best. But they gave me Mallika. From Benare to Jocasta to Mallika, and the other Mallika in Haddu Meerida Hadi and Eva in Jambe’s Puntila. All characters of different shades. At Seagull (Seagull Theatre Academy, Assam), I played Arkadina, an important part. In every play I did, I got a major role.

VHJ: As a director, how do you choose your plays?

BBK: I learnt only acting at NSD. I accidently took to directing when I came back to Ninasam Tirugata. Jambe sir first asked me to direct a play for that year’s students. God, could I direct! ‘Of course, you’re from NSD, you’ve watched so many plays—get this done,’ he encouraged me. I challenged myself and directed Antigone.

But the desire to direct came to me only after I went to Assam. I got married, and went to Assam. I couldn’t do plays in Hindi or English, and definitely not in Kannada—they wouldn’t understand if I did. What to do! I couldn’t sit idle either. I wanted to do something. I had directed Antigone here. I went back to that play, studied all translations in Assamese, and I began to direct Antigone in Assamese.  Teaching students of another language and making them act…but the play in Assam came out better than it did in Karnataka.

A big benefit of directing there was that in order to teach them, I had to speak Assamese myself and, therefore, I learnt the language. I started to speak in Assamese. Then, we began a drama school, which meant we had to direct ourselves. Then, I took some Kannada plays that I could understand so that I could read, understand and then teach them. While working there, I became interested in children’s theatre, especially theatre for special children. All this because I began directing. It was a step-by-step process. Even now, rather than a director, I consider myself foremost as an actor. And I work as an actor-director.

VHJ: Let’s come back to acting. At NSD in 1991–92, you performed three monoacts: Shakuntala, Gandhari and Mallika. That was during the beginning of your professional career. How did these characters help you as an actor, and how did you see these characters—from what dimensions?

BBK: There was a reason for doing that. When I was studying at NSD, I had no idea I would do one-woman shows. I only wanted to act. When after NSD, Subbana (K.V. Subanna) called me back to Tiruagata, and NSD gave me a fellowship, either I had to work there in the repertory or I had to work outside for theatre. When I discussing about this at Ninasam, Jambe sir suggested me to read Shakuntaleya Apaharana. I read it, and then he asked me to act it out. When I was trying it out, I wanted Subbanna to direct it for me. I asked. He kept refusing for a while. ‘No sir, you should please do it,’ I was stubborn and got him to direct. At first, I did Shakuntala. Now, I had to do a solo for the fellowship. So, with Shakuntala done, I went back to Ashadada Ondu Dina and took the role of Mallika—A solo. At NSD, to train me in Hindi, Satyadev Dubey, who took the speech classes—he was excellent, said: ‘Uh, you keep speaking in Kannada, and no Hindi—take this and learn.’ He gave me Gandhari Ka Shaap. Just words. That was half an hour. Shakuntala was half an hour and Mallika was about 45 minutes. 

I put them together with Gandhari Ka Shaap into a one-and-half-hour play and presented it first at Ninasam. I can say Mallika was all me. Gandhari ka Shaap was also mostly designed by me. For Shakuntala, Subbana would come and watch and give me small hints and guidelines. And, in the end, he asked me to perform it in nothing more than my jeans, pant and shirt.

VHJ: In that costume?

BBK: Yes, there was just a bench. A bench and this attire. Even now I do it that way. I have kept it alive all these years. I performed it recently.

VHJ: All the three plays or. . . ?

BBK: No, I’ve kept only Shakuntala. Shakuntala is in all three languages— Assamese, Kannada and Hindi. Performing it all these years—maybe with Vaidehi’s writing or the perspectives Subbanna gave me—wherever I’ve done it, people have loved the play. I’ve experimented with it at many places in many languages. Also, the subject is like that—people liked the way I essayed the role, and I have kept it alive.

The characters—it’s not simply about acting them out. Their views and ideas instinctively enter and work in us. They change our way of thinking. The way we speak, we think, our rituals, all of that. When we face tough times, we think: ‘Arre, we act so tough on stage, and yet, we can’t do that in life?’ They influence us and reveal our hypocrisy. We are playing them, and they are, in another way, playing us. Two faces of the same coin—character and actor—and only through a conflict and dialogue between the both do we become one.

VHJ: Assam has been a big part of your life. Did you know the language when you went there? At that time, the ULFA movements were happening. Amidst all that conflicts, and in another state, you built a troupe and produced so many plays. How did this journey take place?

BBK: It was long journey, a 25-year-long journey, not one or two. What did I know about Assam? That they grew tea, and there is a river. I got to know my husband (Baharul Islam), and I courageously married him and went there. There, the atmosphere was weird. Sitting here in the security of Mysore, we could never imagine that. There was the issue of language too, which is another matter. Then the floods; every year the houses would flood, villages would submerge. Every year fury of nature acts out. On the other hand, the black cats (army commandos) in vans would patrol. You could see them carrying their guns. There was fear in everybody’s eyes, a helpless fear because there was no freedom. You can’t get away, you can’t live.

I didn’t understand. Every street would have the presence of army. The ULFA wanted to make Assam an independent country. They didn’t want to stay in India. Some of them surrendered and became SULFA. Their members were given guns by the state. The ULFA people already had guns, the surrendered people were given guns for protection. There was a conflict between them. Who is ULFA? Who is SULFA? Both hit each other. It were these stories that made me decide on doing Antigone. Brothers from a family, one in ULFA, one in SULFA. The conflict between them. What is the plight of the sisters? The SULFA man is supported by the government, ULFA is in opposition; similarly, one for Creon and the other against him. One of the brother’s bodies is left in the woods. Thinking of the state of the sisters, I did Antigone. That’s how the idea came—I don’t know if it worked.

My husband, Baharul Islam, had already begun a troupe, Seagull, as in the title of the Anton Chekov play. I joined it later. He started it in 1990, and I went to Assam in ‘93. I felt that it was necessary to train the troupe very well. We were trained, but the troupe wasn’t, and if we wanted to work together, we needed to train them. We selected new students, among them were brothers of both ULFA and SULFA members. When you listened to them, each story would astound you, their stories, backgrounds.

So, the troupe—well, there wasn’t really a troupe—meant that there were people from different places for a play. I started a school, where year-long training happened—a lot of students came to us and practiced theatre.

VHJ: And you mastered Assamese?

BBK: Yes, the language came, theatre came. The incidents would pain me a lot. There would be a show scheduled, and then a bandh would be announced—ULFA or SULFA, or the State would impose curfew. If there was a bandh, it was all over. Not an animal would pass. Now it has all changed and is better. Back then fear terrorised us. You couldn’t walk around at night. Doors closed around 8–9 pm. And it would become dark quickly as well.

Even amidst these fears, the madness of theatre didn’t leave me. After Antigone, I felt: You read the news, there are killings and attacks. For them, it’s oppressing to read the papers, and then they have to watch it on stage too! Why do plays like Antigone on stage? The same dangers and violence. Who will want to watch? Not the ones who bomb. The civilians will, but they know all this already. If you asked any student to improvise during training, they would do something like a man walking through the market and a bomb exploding. Arrey, their heads are filled with only violence. I had to try to change this and make them think about other issues too. So, I made them do Girish Karnad’s plays, Chandrashekhar Kambar’s comedy plays, Ibsen and Chekov, Shakespeare, etc.

The situations there should be presented before outside audiences. What’s the point in showing them their own problems? Let them have other thoughts in their mind, other issues.

VHJ: From being a principal there, you’ve come to Rangayana as its director.

BBK: Principal because we called it a school. More or less, it worked as a group, a troupe. Eventually, we were the first troupe to go out of Assam to perform plays. We went to Kolkata. And then other troupes were also invited. A lot of troupes began growing there. We would call people, form groups for them, and send them to act. Many alumni of our school formed their own groups and worked. In parallel to us, there was a mobile theatre there—a theatre that went to every village and performed. It is a long story, if I begin on that, it will be a big chapter.

VHJ: Your acquaintance with Rangayana wasn’t new.

BBK: True. While I formed a group there which flourished, Bahuroopi (Bahuroopi National Theatre Festival) began here under Prasanna—it was called AKKA festival. It was my honour to be invited by Prasanna—who’d come to Assam once—to come here and direct a play.

VHJ: Sarasammana Samadhi.

BBK: And for whom? For the Rangayana artistes! I said: ‘Sir, they are all my contemporaries, my equals. How can I direct them?’ He encouraged me though. I came here, learnt with them and directed. Three months. We did Sarasammana Samadhi. As we went along, the confidence grew: discussions with the senior artistes, etc. Right or wrong—it was a nice creation. And my husband came here to direct Seagull. I’d come too. That was another experience. The next year we brought our play to participate in Bahuroopi. Three–four plays were presented that year. Plays of other Assam groups also came here.

(There’s a part here from 25:19-26:32 that is removed from the transcript, and it can be removed from the video too!)

For us to come and serve here, of all that we experienced in theatre, we consider this our biggest experience.

VHJ: What new schemes or plans have you introduced in Rangayana as its director?

BBK: That Karanth built this is a great thing, but the success of its growth belongs to the directors and artistes of Rangayana. Some artistes left, but they still are serving theatre as experienced directors and actors. It’s a matter of pride for Rangayana. Their challenge was that they’d left Rangayana and they had to show the world what it meant to be there. It is a matter of pride. They have achieved in their own way. And the ones who’ve stayed here—that’s another kind of achievement. To work in theatre endlessly, to maintain the pace through the ups and downs... There have been issues and conflicts, out of which the artistes have matured, become distressed or strengthened—amidst all this, they didn’t abandon theatre. Everything has happened. Sometimes they say: ‘Enough of all this,’ and yet they didn’t stop doing theatre. That’s great, no?

VHJ: This is Rangayana’s greatness.

BBK: Yes, greatness. And theatre needed this. There will be troubles, you will hurt yourself, blood oozes from the wound, people might die, taunts will be directed at you, whatever comes . . .

VHJ: The play always happens!

BBK: To build Rangayana, its directors conceived various events. So, for new directors like us, there are several established events for a year already. Which can we abandon, which do we continue? Some people complain: ‘You do the same thing always like the Bahroopi festival.’ But watching new plays from other places is a novelty in itself. Some might feel the festival is the same every year. But the plays are new, and we should watch other plays. Some feel this way about children’s theatre too. To bring some change—we changed nothing here: children come and learn, we reached out to two villages where we conducted Chinnara Mela workshops, encouraged those children. So, now that it’s happened in two villages, next time, we can increase it to five! Let those children learn too, why not?

VHJ: I also heard there was a mid-day meal programme for them.

BBK: Yes, the schools cooperated and we did the workshop. When the College Rangotsava happened too, I said: ‘Not just Mysore colleges, colleges around here must be called.’ We invited them. Now, I want to reduce revivals of old plays and produce as many new ones as possible.

VHJ: Now the senior artistes are retiring, as the years pass. Do you think another team, another group of artistes, can be built?

BBK: Look, three artistes retired this year. In five to six years, only Nandini will stay for 10 more, others will retire. If you think about it, there is a dread as to what will happen? A lot of hard work went into building this—most of them worked here almost whole of their lives. We could bring new good actors now and build a troupe. But will the government give permanent jobs to those actors? This uncertainty is like the uncertainty of the theatre itself. The play is over, good, but what about tomorrow?

In a way, you are filled with energy to work on another play. There is the Ranga Shikshana Kendra—a branch of ours. RSK and Sanchari Rangaghataka. If we build up the school well, the students will perhaps work for us, or proudly proclaim our name when they serve theatre. Ninasam is an organisation. Nobody’s permanent there, but the organisation is alive. It has been working forever and working well—like a society. For Rangayana to survive, the next directors should strengthen it similarly.