A cloud that passed through hell and came back

"If you strip off all your material possessions, you are nothing but the sum total of your thoughts. You need something in life you have nurtured and watered with time or else old age will be a curse."

Arundhati Nag has been doing theatre for 35 years, but it took one successful Kannada film (Jogi) and one successful Hindi film (Paa) for Shankar Nag‘s wife to become everybody’s favourite celluloid-mom.

Honoured with a national award for “best supporting actress” yesterday, Arundhati’s name is synonymous with Ranga Shankara, a space devoted to theatre in Bangalore that she set up in the memory of her husband.

But it wasn’t always so.

When Shankar vanished from her life one night in 1990, debtors were lining up. She became the last parent paying her daughter’s school fees. Her friends handed down clothes for her to wear. She stopped cooking. She stopped doing anything. She was going to seed.

Till she picked up the pieces….



In the serene, early hours of the dawn of the new millennium, Arundhati Nag was silently mulling over an unfulfilled dream.

As she sat alone in her home in a farmhouse in  Bangalore, waiting for her daughter Kavya and her friends to wake up after a New-Year party the night before, she suddenly decided to set this decade-old dream in motion.

She plucked the courage and called up the chief minister’s office, requesting an appointment. Half-an-hour later, the office returned her call asking her to come right away.

Arundhati grabbed her files and drove to the Vidhana Soudha.

She had not met chief minister S.M. Krishna before, but she confidently placed before him the file of a project conceived by her late husband, the film actor Shankar Nag.

“This proposal has been lying with your government for the past two years,” she told him. “If you think Karnataka deserves this project, do something about it. I’ve tried and have not been able to raise the funds.”

The CM quickly released Rs 20 lakh, another Rs 30 lakh a year later, and also requested the Jindal industrial group to provide the cement. Thus began Arundhati’s labour of love—building Ranga Shankara, an exclusive space for theatre in Bangalore.

She did not know then that it would take her another four years to raise funds to the tune of Rs 3.5 crore to complete it.

She recalls clearly the day she watched the earthmover drop the first claw into the 10,000 square feet plot of land which would house what is now the haunt of ardent theatre-goers.

That is when she said to herself: “Aruna, you have relinquished the right to abandon this project. You have to see this through, whatever it takes. You cannot run away now.”


Back in the early 1970s, when 17-year-old Arundhati feverishly ran from one theatre practice to another and simultaneously attended BCom classes in a college in Bombay, her father nicknamed her ‘Cloud’.

It was difficult to pin down this wildflower child of his, he would say.

Enchanted by the “timeless world of theatre”, she would leave home at 6.30 in the morning only to catch the last local train back home.

Arundhati, who was picked up by the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) by chance, soon became the toast of the theatre world. Being a polyglot she acted in Hindi, Marathi and English plays, and also grabbed a role in a popular Gujarati TV serial.

Those were heady days for this volatile young girl from a middle-class Maharashtrian background. Her parents, who usually went by the book believing that girls should return home before the street lights were switched on, did not somehow blanch at her lifestyle.

They were worried, but like all true Maharashtrians they also loved theatre and would eagerly join the snaky queues outside Shivaji Mandir to watch the plays of the late Marathi actor Kashinath Ghanekar. And it helped when theatre veterans from IPTA dropped by her house to convince her parents about their daughter’s safety and of her prodigious talent.


It was in theatre that she met and fell in love with another actor, Shankar Nag.

This larger-than-life actress was attracted to the quiet, rugged-looking actor, who would sit by himself in a corner solving crosswords and reading Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre.

He was so different from the sons of rich businessmen she knew.

Shankar quickly recognised Arundhati as his soulmate, but she held back yielding space for them to grow as individuals. After all, they were caught up in the high of youth, in the whirl of an exciting awakening of Indian theatre in the ’70s.

Together they discovered colour, texture, multiple layers of life and a different way of doing theatre, in a milieu which bristled with intellectual questioning and uninhibited criticism of false values.

It was the time of Vijay Tendulkar’s political satire, Ghasiram Kotwal, and his sexually charged Sakharam Binder that shook up middle-class morality, Shambhu Mitra’s Raja Oedipus and Putul Khela, and Oxford graduate Girish Karnad’s attempt to stoke the larger truths of life in plays like Hayavadana.

Those were the heyday of Uptal Dutt, Vijaya Mehta, Dharamvir Bharati, Mohan Rakesh, Sulabha and Arvind Despande’s Chhabildas movement, and more. These were the stalwarts who had transformed the face of urban theatre in post-colonial India.


Shankar Nag’s destiny was not to remain in the backseat as a struggling amateur theatre actor hanging around his star-girlfriend. He moved to Karnataka to act in the epic Kannada film, Ondanandu Kaladalli, directed by Karnad and based on Akira Kurosawa’s famous Seven Samurai, for which he bagged a national award.

Shankar went on to become a king in commercial Kannada cinema but his passion and his lady love belonged to theatre. The actor started an amateur theatre group, Sanket, and continued to stage plays. During this time, he sent Girish Karnad’s script, Anjumallige, a story of incest and an immigrant’s struggle, to Arundhati in Bombay asking her to come down to Bangalore to act in the play.

Based on a true story, the play compares the pressure on Indians in foreign lands, uprooted from their familiar milieu, to perform or perish, to the ripping out of a mogra plant from its roots to show it to the sun and frighten it into flowering.

The incest angle in the play involves a possessive sister who loves her brother to distraction and makes his life miserable by following him to Oxford, and ends up committing suicide. Arundhati essayed this powerful role brilliantly, and subsequently figured in all the lead roles in plays directed by Shankar Nag, like Sandhya Chaaya, Barrister and Nagamandala.


All this while, Arundhati and I have been seated in the sprawling wood, brick and steel interiors of Ranga Shankara that strongly remind me of the avant garde ambience at Prithvi theatre in Bombay.

Raptly listening to this veteran actress’s narration of her life story, I am enveloped in her warm personality. Wearing an ethnic cotton saree, Arundhati brims with life, with a can’t-stop-me attitude, full of dreams, like a dam waiting to burst.

Keen to leverage the success of Paa, the recent Hindi film which won her awards and accolades, to attract more people to theatre, she is willing to patiently answer inquisitive queries from journalists.

“I’ve been doing theatre for 35 years and nobody knows me, but one Paa makes me famous nationwide,” she says wryly. The role came to her without her actively seeking it. It was director  R. Balakrishnan (aka Balki) who called her for a screen test.

“I agreed, but once they picked me I asked them to send me the script before I finally agreed. I assessed the length of the role first. I also decided to charge them handsomely. If they want me in the film, they have to pay for it,” says this actress who has also acted in Mani Ratnam’s film Dil se and the superhit Kannada film Jogi, and assisted David Lean in the direction of A Passage to India.


Theatre always comes first, however.

“Theatre is my sanity, my mantra and lifeline, and something I hold very dear. It’s a space where you can keep discovering yourself through impersonations, a zone where nobody wants to know who your parents are, how rich or poor you are. You are only as good as you are,” she strives to explain her love.

It’s also a zone in which she never ever fools around, she points out.

Her “on-off” relationship with Shankar did the final flip when he convinced her to marry him. Then 23, she was at the peak of her theatre career and her move to Bangalore must have dented her career in Marathi and Gujarati theatre. But after knowing him for six years Arundhati decided this relationship deserved more and felt that she could contemplate a longer life with him.

It is another matter that in the end she never really had that luxury of time with him.

“I’m not ambitious,” she says, “but since I worked with an oneness of purpose in theatre, it has paid off. It’s not as if TV or movies don’t come my way. But something had to be done for theatre. I’ve seen generation after generation moving to movies and not coming back. This is an Indian phenomenon, because in the West even a Meryl Streep returns to the stage once a while.”

Even when Arundhati took a break to have her only child, she returned to the stage with a 28-day-old baby to act in the lead role of the runaway popular comedy Nodi Swamy Navirodu Heege. She paid a tribute to her husband on his first death anniversary not with a shraadh or pooja but by staging a play he had discussed with her before his life rudely ended in a car accident in 1990.

She says, “The last conversation Shankar and I had in the car before the accident was whether I would do Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. So when I was discharged from the hospital after nine months, our theatre-friends and I staged the play as a tribute to him. We had lost a central pole in our lives and this was the only way we could remember him.”

Her relationship with her husband was an equal one based on mutual respect.

It was with him that she had taken her first steps towards intellectual thought. “I discovered Fyodor Dostoevsky and Albert Camus with him. He had a high regard of me as an actress. He was my compatriot. In the 17 years I was with him, I know people will not believe me, he never once raised his voice with me even to say, enough! If I was angry, he would say, ‘Jaani, you are angry, we will talk later’,” she relates.


The hardest part was coming to terms with the physical annihilation. Accepting the unfairness of it all took time.

“You cannot understand when you are so young, why someone sitting next to you should go and not you. I did not see him after that.” She herself was badly injured in the accident with broken bones, and had to fight hard even to be able to walk again. Her sister never left her side even as her mother and theatre friends rallied around to help her recuperate.

Her mother-in-law managed to bring a sense of calm to their daughter, Kavya, then just five. But life took an even more difficult turn when she realized she had inherited her husband’s projects and the debts linked to them.

“It’s not like Shankar was foolish with money. Nobody expects to die before turning 35,” she says. “Shankar had great ideas. He had borrowed money to set up the Country Club project, a garment unit, and he had done the survey for an underground railway project in Bangalore. All he had earned was scattered among these projects but his dreams were arrested mid-air. All his projects boomeranged when he died.”

Worse, Arundhati was totally in the dark about what he charged for a movie, and sans any written documents she was staring at the prospect of a seriously depleted bank account.

The anguish dulled with time. Stoking long-forgotten wounds might be painful but she gamely carries on.

“I just had to learn quickly what was happening around me, and take strong decisions. People were changing around me with Shankar gone. In a flash, I had to learn, literally, to live life all over again – from walking, talking and understanding money.”

She took up the reins of the Country Club for five years with money borrowed from the market, and finally sold it off to pay debts worth crores. It took her ten years to get rid of all the liabilities.

“I was broke. I was the last parent paying the fees. My friends gave me hand-me-down clothes. I had just enough money to put petrol and drive my daughter to the bus stop,” she recounts.

“I guess once it hit me I had no choice, I had to pick up my life,” Arundhati continues. “I could not collapse because I had a young daughter who should not see me as a dependent and broken woman. I had to bring up a healthy, normal child. Anything for that!”

So, she filled her farmhouse with robust laughter, music, painting, flowers and books. A Mallikarjun Mansur tune would put a spring in her step. She learnt vegetable dyeing. She plunged into cooking, rustling up different flavours.

Kavya, whose greatest fear was to see tears in her mother’s eyes, never did anything to make her cry even as a teenager. If her school bag or shoe was torn she would reassure her mother that they could wait for the next term. “The child was completely sensitive to the situation. She knew her amma was in a tough spot.”

At one point, however, when the financial mess got too hot and she was constantly on the phone reassuring people she was not going to flee Karnataka but pay up her debts, she realised this was not an environment for a child to grow up.

“That was a difficult time. I stopped cooking, stopped doing anything around the house and let myself go. I would sit in office till 10 pm, not eating or sleeping. This went on for three months. But one day, I just got up and realised that I was going to seed. I berated myself: ‘Should I be finished when my husband dies or if my daughter goes to a hostel? Do I have such low self-esteem? It’s really about being nice to yourself first.’ You can give birth to beauty only if you nourish yourself.”

It also helped that Arundhati was inherently a happy person. “I guess I’m one of those people who cannot be sad for long,” she says candidly.


After this struggle one would think Arundhati would have dimmed the stage lights and got ready for a fadeout. But no, she still had her husband’s dream to fulfil.

“I was focused on Ranga Shankara, the theatre I wanted to dedicate to him. When I opened my eyes every morning I would think, who should I call up today for money? The money market was bad at that time. Nobody could understand why this woman wanted to build a theatre when people were pulling down theatres to build multiplexes,” she tells me.

She compares her frenetic hunt to raise money for the project to the ferocious intensity in Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts in Thus Spake Zarathushtra.

In a strong voice, she quotes from it: “…your room trembles when a carriage goes past. I, however, am sitting in the carriage and often I am the carriage itself.” During that period, she had no eyes or ears for anything or anybody except for someone who would give her money.

Once things got started after S.M. Krishna gave her funds, Arundhati remembers being overwhelmed by the enormity of the project. “My own house is a mud house with tiles. Here, the scale was so huge. I had never seen 75,000 bags of cement or 300 tons of steel,” she says.

This determined woman knocked on every possible door to make her dream come true. She contacted the department of mines and geology for picking up rocks at a concessional rate, for someone to cut it and a builder to lay it for free, for someone to paint the walls inside and yet another for the outside.

Industrialists, working professionals, students, and even a daily wage earner donated money for the theatre to become a reality.

Ranga Shankara opened in 2004 after three-and-a-half years of construction. It is run by the Sanket Trust and Arundhati Nag is one of the managing trustees.

It is not a paid position but she works around the clock to keep the place buzzing with plays (300 performances a year), workshops, lectures, an ongoing children’s theatre programme and theatre festivals. It has forged partnerships with theatre companies abroad as well, such as the one with the Mannheim National Theatre of Germany that will lead to a play on immigrants called Boy and the Suitcase.

Launching in Germany in April 2011, this co-production will come to Ranga Shankara in July 2011. She has also signed an MoU with California Shak espeare Theater for a similar partnership.

Today, Ranga Shankara is supported by three major sponsors – Biocon, Titan and Infosys – which helps in keeping the cost of renting the theatre affordably low.

One of the best features of the place is the air-conditioned auditorium with a seating capacity of 320 and a thrust stage with a floor area of 1,750 sq. ft. It has four green rooms and the best of sound, lighting and other technical facilities.

Having just returned from travelling around India sourcing plays for the annual Ranga Shankara festival, Arundhati is also busy acting in plays like Girish Karnad’s Bikhre Bimb (Broken Images). The play revolves around an English literature professor swamped with guilt for her success in penning an English novel.

As she introduces her book on TV, she is confronted with images of herself questioning her betrayal to Kannada, her mother language. “A story Girish wrote for me, which is the ultimate flattery,” she says with joy.

As Arundhati enters another phase of her life with the marriage of her daughter Kavya and Ranga Shankara settling into its own rhythm, you wonder, what next?

But Arundhati has more dreams and it all has to do with theatre, naturally. She would like to make her role of creative director at Ranga Shankara a coveted paid position in theatre after her, to take theatre to corporates and school and make them alive to aesthetics, to ensure that the next generation will take theatre forward, and for more theatre to emerge.

Theatre, theatre and more theatre – but that’s not surprising considering this is one area she has not let go all her life.

As she rushes off to catch an English play being staged by a young theatre group, her words ring in my mind: “If you strip off all your material possessions, you are nothing but the sum total of your thoughts. You need something in life you have nurtured and watered with time or else old age will be a curse.”

She need never worry, for theatre will always be by her side.

(This piece appears in the September-October issue of the outstanding bimonthly magazine, Housecalls, edited by Ratna Rao Shekar and published by Dr Reddy‘s Laboratories)

Photograph: courtesy Dr M. Vivek/Housecalls

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