“All the world wide web is no stage”- Arundhati Nag on the future of theatre

Theatre, an art form that comes closest to defining living-art, has received a deathblow. How can it repurpose itself in the post-pandemic world?

What is lost in the last nine months is the magic that happens in a live performance. 

Within the 15th minute of a play, everybody’s heart is beating at the same pace. How can that ever happen with us beaming ourselves out on telephone screens and computer screens and television screens? Not possible. 

Theatre is really the only medium that gives it to you, blood, sweat and tears, there in front of you. Cinema blows up everything a hundred times, television compresses it. Theatre is the only space where you see what is real. 

This is the challenge to humanity: are we going to erase human contact? We can’t. So theatre is really one medium which needs to be kept alive, and we need to build a network of theatres. We need to repurpose our public spaces. 

We need to connect further with the real art and artists, and make their lives viable. Otherwise, what will get lost is the Theyyam artist who does not have food to eat, because he is from a caste and community which, thanks to our caste system, is at the bottom of the economic rung. And he is the repository of such fine art. So, I think we really need to look at the economic part of sustainable art.

Arundhati Nag. Pic courtesy: Ranga Shankara

Search for new patrons

For us, in the nine months that Ranga Shankara has been closed, there has been no support from the government at all. About 10 – 14 groups who came together to collaborate, gave an application to the chief minister and got our electricity bills waived for six months. 

We have to go again and get it waived for another six months to a year at least. That’s because we are only going to open at half capacity and our revenues won’t be enough. I hope the government takes note of this. Otherwise we are going to have to go out to the CSR and the corporate sector, and look for money. 

Modules like Ranga Shankara are not-for-profit modules. I mean, in 16 years we are still renting our place out for Rs 2,500. That is the reason theatre is flourishing in Bengaluru, with 400 performances a year at Ranga Shankara alone. True, it cannot be measured as a sustainable module, but it is a socially-linked kind of sustainability. It sustains a social fabric. 

We began a very beautiful programme called Ranga Shankara CONNECT. It is actually free. We took out the transactional relationship between art and society. Everything doesn’t have to be about money.

For this programme, we have people coming and sitting to listen to poetry readings. We have people coming and playing music. Artists are coming and painting. Now this activity shows that RS is not only about buying a ticket and watching a play. It’s about engaging with the way people make art happen. 

We believe that theatre is a counsellor of sorts. Watching a performance gives you solutions or tickles your imagination to image different situations. And in the absence of that — nine months we’ve had no theatre, no counselling — so we have a real psychiatrist coming to Ranga Shankara and counselling. That’s been a lesson in learning how to repurpose our spaces. 

The transgender community also comes and feels happy singing. There’s always somebody painting or dancing. In fact, we can show people what art practice means. They can pay for the performance, but watch the practice sessions for free.

We also have a psychiatrist friend coming and helping people solve their problems of stress. One does not have to pay for it. So it’s like a counselling session for society, which actually is the job of theatre. 

Children and elders most affected

There are no schools and that’s why children cannot come. They are the ones who are most adversely affected.

The big question that all of us across the board need to address very quickly is: how are we going to touch the lives of these children whose lives are completely affected. No school, only online classes, locked up in the house, no friends to play with.

Old people too, senior citizens are affected. India needs to really ramp up its engagement with senior citizens because that is what is looking us in the face. You have the largest number of youth and the largest number of old people coming very soon. 

I really think that we need to create art. These are all marketing strategies and we will all need some kind of marketing team to do this. Like, I realise that even making a video film is a challenge for a real theatre. The challenge of the time is that it’s asking us to be something that we are not trained to be. And there are professionals who can do it, it’s just a matter of money. We really need that kind of funding that can bring a marketing division, a digital division, and allow us to do what we know how to do best, which is create theatre.

Performing in a void

Performers were completely bereft, empty. We really only survive on this invisible connection between what the playwright has given us and what we deliver to our audiences. We become the medium. And to not have anything at all, to not be able to project our voices and not actually perform for our audiences has been like a deathblow for all artists. 

Without audiences, performers are feeling empty. Ranga Shankara awaits January 8, when it opens to half-capacity. Pic Courtesy: Ranga Shankara

We have this free platform where artistes come and sing or play the flute or whatever. They have literally wept everyday.  We do play readings everyday at RS, riding up to the opening on January 8. We have artistes who have not delivered even a single line for the last nine months. They have been rehearsing on zoom. They come to the theatre and suddenly they are projecting their voices.

The future of performance

I look at theatre as a  mirror of society. It really needs to become that space of trust where people come to regain their trust in humanity; to be reassured in their trust in humanity and relationships, or to even question them. 

So I think theatre should be talking about the plight of farmers, about what’s going on in the country. These are questions that art must address. Somewhere along the line, art has abdicated its responsibility, it’s safer not to speak the truth.

We are only weaving love stories like Bollywood; we are not telling the truth. We really probably need a Netflix for theatre, going forward in a hybrid world. I look at Ranga Shankara as becoming so safe a place that people should congregate there. 

[This article is based on Arundhati Nag’s thoughts at a panel discussion on Innovation in Public Spaces – Bengaluru and the Republic of Zoom, organised by Bangalore International Centre on December 29, 2020. The speech was transcribed by Navya P K. View the full discussion here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR5ASlrdw4c: ]


  1. Sudha Narasimhachar says:

    It is really sad that the pandemic has caused so much damage in all the fields and affected so many lives around the world. Theatre is a very important need of human psychology. Hope to see live theatre soon.

    • Subramanian says:

      Madam, Now that you’ve aired the situation and made it public, I’m confident that sponsors and contributors will come forward to revive your activities. I pray for your success.

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