How Prakash Raj’s Nirdigantha has set the stage for art free

How Prakash Raj’s Nirdigantha has set the stage for art free

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Veena Jayashankar has been waking up early since the past fortnight. Once she is awake, she doesn’t laze around because her task for the day is clearly — and creatively — cut out. Hailing from Jakkalli village in Chamarajanagar, Veena joins about 25-30 people inside the Nirdigantha Theater Incubator Centre, which opened its doors to artists on June 11, on the banks of the...

Veena Jayashankar has been waking up early since the past fortnight. Once she is awake, she doesn’t laze around because her task for the day is clearly — and creatively — cut out. Hailing from Jakkalli village in Chamarajanagar, Veena joins about 25-30 people inside the Nirdigantha Theater Incubator Centre, which opened its doors to artists on June 11, on the banks of the cold-flowing Lokapavani river for her morning exercises, which include stretching and Yoga. Some also come together for a meditative session.

That done, Veena devotes time in the small farm which grows seasonal vegetables and condiments. She then heads to the kitchen with the farm produce to help prepare a meal for the people who stay along with her at Nirdigantha near K Shettyhalli in Srirangapatna. After a light breakfast, it is time for her to head for practice along with other inmates of Nirdigantha, a theatre incubator set up by renowned actor Prakash Raj.

“I have been staying here for the past 15 days. The place offers a learning process to view everything differently from what we have learnt so far,” 29-year-old Veena Jayashankar, who completed a one-year theatre course from Natana Rangashaale of Mysuru, tells The Federal.

Prakash Raj at the entrance of Nirdigantha Theater Incubator Centre.

Nirdigantha offers theatre artists a picturesque and well-equipped stage to hone their skills, break free from set patterns and allow their art to soar.

“Theatre practitioners from across the royal city of Mysuru and Rangayana, a theatre institute, are flocking Nirdigantha captivated by this new theatre incubator concept,” says Rajesh Basavanna, convener of Rangavalli, a Mysuru-based theatre group.

Nirdigantha, the brain child of actor Prakash Raj, is a unique experiment that offers a distinctive opportunity for artists to immerse themselves in a vibrant and inspiring setting.

It helps artists ignite their imagination. Interestingly, Prakash Raj, a polyglot, is himself a product of Kannada theatre, literature, music, folklore and diversified cultural experiences of the land.

After leaving a unique imprint on Indian cinema, Raj is now looking back at theatre to enrich it. “This is my way of remaining in ‘present continuous tense’ and repay my debt to the great theatre personalities like BV Karanth, P Lankesh, Poornachandra Tejaswi, Gopalakrishna Adiga, Girish Karnad and others, who inspired me,” Prakash Raj tells The Federal.

Is Prakash Raj — Prakash Rai for Kannada audience — returning to theatre to act or direct a play?

“No,” says Raj, who strongly believes that theatre is the bedrock of ‘quality cinema’. Nirdigantha, he says, is only his attempt to infuse new ideas and dimensions into Indian theatre. Nirdigantha itself means transcending horizons — a metaphor that has been extensively used by Jnanpith Award recipient, poet-writer Kuvempu in his works.

What theatre incubator is

Theatre incubator appears to be a pioneering concept in the context of Indian theatre, but the concept has been tried and tested in the US. Learning from the US experience, many countries across the globe used the formula to solve a plethora of problems faced by theatres.

The first such experiment was made by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. The Incubator Theatre began operating in 2005 with the support of the Beracha Foundation as a project whose main objective was to build infrastructure for original theatre in Jerusalem and enable actors and theatre professionals to establish themselves.

Later, the Theatre Centre of USA created an incubator for the Off Broadway community. The Theatre Centre accepted submissions of the new plays or musicals at the start of every programming term.

Chicago Dramatists, which stopped production of plays because of issues pertaining to transition of leadership among other reasons, decided to adopt the concept of The Play Incubator, with the support of The Lark in New York City and Playwrights’ Centre, Minneapolis. It resolved that instead of being guided by factors like audience attention and box-office numbers, the Play Incubator will pursue a more holistic approach in serving the needs of the playwright and thus leave an indelible impression on the ecology of the play development sector.

Speaking about Nirdigantha, theatre director Dr Sripad Bhat says incubator theatre is the need of the hour.

“Theatre incubator is much needed because theatre across the country is at a crossroads and serious theatre practitioners are searching for avenues to express their thoughts and vision through plays of the kind Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar conceived. A similar effort is being made at Nirdigantha now. It will be interesting to see how its future pans out,” Sripad Bhat tells The Federal.

Many believe that while artists are interested in theatre, its reach has been a constant constraint. Lack of finances also make theatres less attractive in situations where artists are required to stay on the premises.

Prasanna, a renowned theatre director and playwright observes, “The theatre incubator concept of Nirdigantha is critical to expanding the reach of theatre to villages. In recent days, hundreds of youngsters are flocking to theatres just like their previous generation was attracted to progressive, socialist, literary and cultural movements. Extending dignified living for the aspirational generation is important.”

Theatre director and first director of the National School of Drama, Bengaluru, C Basavalingaiah says Prakash Raj’s effort could be a game-changer. “I am sure Nirdigantha will show a new direction, not only to theatre, but also to the spectrum of performing arts,” he says.

Genesis of Nirdigantha

Narrating the sequence of events that motivated him to establish Nirdigantha, Prakash Raj says, “The idea of repaying debt to those who moulded my artistic and humanistic sensibilities was haunting me for the past two years. At that time, the theatre beckoned me back. Initially, I thought of acting on stage and establishing my own theatre group, but these ideas did not enthuse me really. It looked like I was being selfish. As I dug deeper, I saw a lot of poverty in theatre. Poverty not in terms of money, but poverty of hope. I noticed that theatre institutes in Karnataka, NSD, Rangayana, Natana, Ninasam and others are training actors who would be later sucked by either television or cinema and there is no hope for those who want to do serious theatre. At this juncture, the idea of theatre incubator struck me.”

At a time when, the social, economic, cultural and political turbulence is threatening the pluralist structure of Indian society, Nirdigantha aims to provide a dedicated space for ideas that make theatre exciting and infuse into it new energy and passion for performing arts and a strong commitment to fostering creativity. The institution has the potential to provide a nurturing environment for theatre artists to explore, experiment, and showcase their craft from across the world.

Nirdigantha offers a distinctive opportunity to artists to immerse themselves in a vibrant and inspiring setting, besides enhancing their creative process and ignite the imagination of theatre practitioners. This space seeks to fulfil the diverse needs of theatre artists, besides providing them with essential resources and support to nurture their talent. This unique institution includes boarding space, where artists can live and make dramas and plays; an unconventional rehearsal space; production and technical support as well as collaboration spaces for artists to exchange ideas and discuss projects.

“Whether one is an emerging artist seeking a platform to complete one’s theatre work as part of a team, or an established theatre company looking for a space to experiment with new productions, or an individual artist seeking a supportive community, Nirdigantha welcomes them with open arms. It is an attempt to ignite the stage with creativity, inspiration, and the magic of theatre,” the institution’s creative director Preethi Nagaraj tells The Federal.

The institution, a non-profit, is also proactively extending invitations to theatre artistes, enthusiasts, directors, playwrights, technicians, painters, writers, musicians’ poets and anyone passionate about theatre to make the space a thriving hub of artistic innovation and artistic excellence.

“It is an all-inclusive cultural experiment,” Prakash asserts.

Prakash Raj says Nirdigantha will create new things and theatre groups will produce plays and stage them.

Basavalingaiah concurs, adding, “An institution of this kind is now needed more than ever. At a time when the society has been divided on religious and caste lines, art and culture are also being appropriated by divisive forces.”

Prakash Raj passionately terms his incubator as Rangada Thittu — Ranga means space where acts are performed, and Thittu is an elevated platform. He claims the institution is not guided by market forces but aims to nurture a holistic perspective of theatre, including the ecology of theatre development.

Raj is strictly against Nirdigantha being referred to as a theatre institution. “It is not a theatre school. We don’t teach prescribed texts on theatre and it is not a theatre training school. It is a space for artists, playwrights, technicians to express what they have learnt all these years freely without hesitation. Those who come here will create new things and theatre groups will produce plays and stage them. We will hold Nirdigantha Theatre Festival once a year. The plan is to produce 20 plays over the next two years,” says Prakash Raj.

“Over the next five years, Nirdigantha will be a distinctive institution for performing arts in India,” he adds.

Before taking up the project, the team of Nirdigantha conducted a survey on the state of theatre in Karnataka. The team collated data on the number of active theatre groups, availability of auditoriums for them across the state, besides facilities for rehearsals. Preethi Nagaraj says that after coming across the dismal state of affairs, Prakash Raj and his creative team envisioned Nirdigantha as a single-window answer to all problems.
For Prakash Raj, “It’s a 10-year vision.”

Nirdigantha is a perfect destination for artists to ruminate and explore new forms in performing arts, especially theatre.

The vision of the institution is best captured by an installation at the entrance of Nirdigantha. It shows a bird taking off after hatching.

Noted theatre director Dr Sripad Bhat is creating an exclusive text for the first theatrical experiment of Nirdigantha based on extracts from the classic works of Sadat Hasan Manto, Kuvempu, Krishnamurthy Hanur, Rabindranath Tagore and Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Apart from pursuing his art, Prakash Raj has been calling out the divisive forces over the last few years. He believes Nirdigantha would offer a solution to bring in much-needed peace. “Yes, it is the need of the hour. Even secular forces in the country have no vision to counter the strategy. There should be a politics of art. Isn’t it,” he says when asked about the institution’s role in fighting hatred.

Representatives cutting across the cultural spectrum, including writers Jayanth Kaikini, Krupakar-Senani and theatre personality Prasanna, are now keen to join hands with Prakash Raj in this effort.

“For me, Nirdigantha is not just repaying my debt. It is my responsibility and urge to become relevant by empowering theatre practitioners, who clings to theatre like ‘uda’ (Bengal Monitor) without succumbing to market forces,” says Prakash Raj.

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