September 3, 2002


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Tribute/ M D Riti

From Bhopal to Mysore, from Bangalore to Delhi……if modern, Indian repertory theatre were to be represented by just one name, it would be that of Babukodi Venkataramana Karanth, who passed away into the ages on Sunday.

The towering stage personality from Karnataka, who tried all his life to give professional theatre a modern face and some sustainability will not be easily forgotten by scores of young actors and spectators who witnessed the magic he could always create on stage.

The first time this correspondent met him, over 15 years ago, he had already moved on from his home in Bangalore to the Bhopal repertory theatre, Rang Mandal.

Watching artistes from Rang Mandal rehearse Ghashiram Kotwal behind the Ravindra Kalakshetra auditorium in Bangalore was an unforgettable experience. Everyone including Karanth was so immersed in the play that it was hard to spot the short, bearded, kurta-pyjama clad man in the middle.

It was only his heavily South Indian accented Hindi that finally enabled this correspondent to identify him. The accent obviously made no difference to his cast, who seemed to worship the ground he walked on. "This is the beginning of my endeavour to make professional theatre modern," said Karanth vigorously, as the cast took a short break. "In a big country like ours, it is such a shame there is no single group that is a national drama group."

It was precisely this that drove the young and poor Karanth out of Bangalore, although his heart really lay in Kannada theatre, as he always admitted readily. He ran away from home when he was a young boy and joined the famous Gubbi professional theatre company, where he was a contemporary of superstar Dr Rajakumar.

Difficult circumstances compelled him to teach for some years before he took the plunge into making a profession out of the performing arts. It was during his stint as a teacher that he met his wife Prema, who was also teaching at that time, although she too felt that her real calling was in theatre. Mutual friends introduced them to one another and practically arranged their marriage, because, as Prema once confided, they were both young, orphans, poor and passionately in love with theatre.

This phase of Karanth’s life also gave the nickname maeshtre (teacher), the name by which his friends and disciples in Karnataka called him ever after. His contemporary and friend P Lankesh also went by the same name, for the same reason, but there was no confusion as their students and disciples were quite different.

The Karanths got married and set up one of Bangalore’s oldest amateur Kannada theatre groups, Benaka. It literally means "Bengalooru Nagara Kalavidaru," Karanth once explained to this correspondent. Then, Prema took up a teaching job in Delhi and supported Karanth through the National School of Drama. He returned the compliment after he graduated from the NSD, and eventually became its director.

They both taught there for a while and spent some wonderful times before they returned to Bangalore. Karanth also dabbled in some cinema, as well as music for the new wave of alternative cinema and theatre that his friends and contemporaries like Girish Karnad and U R Ananthamurthy were involved in.

Their years together in Bangalore, at various such points, were the golden times the Karanth couple looked back upon with the greatest nostalgia thereafter. Then came the Bhopal years, when Prema immersed in children’s theatre in Bangalore, and even began making films for children, while Karanth worked with the Bharat Bhavan repertory.

Karanth’s friends were shocked when he was suddenly arrested by the Bhopal police one day, when his star actress Vibha Mishra set herself afire. He literally burnt his hands over this affair as he managed to save the actress from death. Rumours were rife about Karanth’s association with Mishra. His friends from Bangalore, including film distributor M Bhaktavatsala, actor Anant Nag and playwright Girish Karnad went on a mission to rescue Karanth in Bhopal.

Some years later, Karanth was vindicated of all blame in this affair, and returned to the repertory theatre movement. The Karnataka government invited him to start a similar repertory in Bangalore, which he named Rangayana. This was his forte because the language, idiom and culture were all his own.

He brought together young men and women from all over Karnataka and built up a professional theatre movement, organised with the best contemporary knowhow, on a sylvan campus in Mysore. He and his students built themselves a beautiful open-air theatre in the best traditions of Greek amphitheatres. His troupe put up some of the best theatre Karnataka had witnessed, and toured both the country and overseas with these plays.

Karanth wanted the repertory to spin off professionally on its own after a point, but that never happened. After some time, government grants dried up. Rangayana folded up and Karanth returned to Bangalore.

By that time, the hard life he had led had begun to take its toll on him. Prema and he had drifted apart after the Bhopal years. However, they continued to remain close friends, no matter what their personal relationship might have been.

Like the true all-round theatre artiste he was, Karanth could design the most divine, original musical scores. His music had distinctly folksy overtones. He had a powerful singing voice that never failed to enthrall listeners. It had a raw, earthy quality that had a strangely hypnotic quality. The last film he scored the music for was Girish Karnad's national award-winning Kannada film Kannoora Heggadthi.

He was always trying to experiment with dramatic forms, and this is what his contemporaries remember most about him. "His staging of Macbeth in the Yakshagana folk style was unforgettable," recalls Jnanpith awardee U R Ananthamurthy. Adds film-maker M S Sathyu: "An era of theatre has come to an end with Karanth, not just in Karnataka, but all over India. We can only hope that he has inspired enough young artistes to become innovators and creators of drama, like he himself always was."

Design: Uday Kuckian

Pay homage to Shri B V Karanth