Karnataka theatre is honoured and respected all over the country. Such a continuous activity as is witnessed on the Kannada stage cannot be seen in any other part of the country.The theatre here is always open to creativity with the involvement of many eminent dramatists, directors and artistes. The fame of kannada theatre has spread to other countries as well.
In Kannada the word ‘Nataka’ is embedded in the name of the State itself as Kar (nataka). When one goes through the long history of nearly 125 years of Modern Theatre here, it can be divided into two branches. One is the Professional Theatre (Vrutti Nataka Samsthegalu) and the other is the Amateur theatre (Havyasi troupes). Professional theatre has its origins in 1882, when Sri Jayachamarajendra Karnataka Nataka Sabha was established. The troupe existed till 1960.
The kannada stage drew its earlier inspiration from Marathi and Parsi theatre. During the period 1860-70 many famous drama troupes from Maharastra like Sanglikar Nataka Mandali, Ichalakarnaji Nataka Mandali, Baliwalas’s Victoria Company and Parsi Theatrical Company used to stage dramas in many parts of Karnataka. This new form of entertainment increasingly attracted Kannada theatre lovers and inspired them to launch their own theatre activity. This urge found instant support from the then Maharaja of Mysore. Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, who was regularly watching the performances of visiting troupes in the Palace. In 1882, he patronised the Sri Jayachamarajendra Karnataka Nataka Sabha and thus became the backbone of the kannada theatre movement.
During the same period, Krutapura Nataka Mandali of Shantakavi came into existence, Providing more opportunities for Kannada plays to be staged. Sri Channabasaveshwara Krupa Poshita Nataka Mandali, established by Gubbi Veeranna in 1884, had created a history of its own not only in Karnataka but also in the entire country. Sahitya Samrajya Nataka Mandali of Subbiah Naidu, Hiranniah Mitra Mandali, Chandrakala Nataka Mandali of Mohamad Peer, Ratnavali Theatricals of A. V. Varadachar, who is also known as ‘ Nataka Shiromani’, were some of the other landmark drama troupes which came into existence in old Mysore region. During this period, drama companies which came into existence in Northern Karnataka were Shirahatti Venkobarao’s company, Enagi Balappa’s Kala Vaibhava Nataka Mandali, Garuda Sadashivarao’s Dattatreya Nataka Mandali and the Arashinagodu Nataka Mandali.
Parsi dramas had simultaneously influenced the Bengali, Marathi and Kannada theatre to such an extent that many of our renowned drama troupes even adopted the popular Parsi dramas and staged them. Gule Bakavali of Gubbi Company is one such play which gave both name and fame to the company. It beacame customary to present the dramas in the Mysore Palace once or twice a week. Rangacharya Nataka Mandali of Mandya and Varadachar’s troupes were also permitted to stage two dramas in a week here.
By the year 1900, professional theatre activity became institutionalized .These troupes staged plays periodically in many towns and cities and also during annual Jaatras and important festivals in different regions. With both the Maharaja and the public patronizing them more and more theatre became a part and parcel of daily life. Initially the stage used to be lit with kerosene lamps and subsequently gaslights were used, to be replaced later by electric lights. The technical standards of theatre production also went on improving. Another important highlight of these plays were the richly popular songs, which came to be called Ranga Geethegalu. These melodious songs have remained evergreen in the minds and hearts of theatre lovers.
Among the professional theatre groups, the Gubbi Company boldly experimented with new techniques on the stage and its efforts brought laurels to it across the country. Wherever the plays were staged, be it in Andhra, Maharashtra or Tamilnadu, they became a rage. The rich and dazzling costumes of the artistes, the background scenes and other innovative visual effects threw the audience into flights of ecstasy. In some of the plays like ‘Lava Kusha’ and ‘Kurukshetra’ Gubbi Veeranna brought real horses and elephants on the stage, sending the spectators into a tizzy. Even the mythological and historical films of those days paled into insignificance in comparison. The Gubbi Company became so popular that in places where it pitched its tent, movie distributors hesitated to release their films. Karnataka Government in recognition of Gubbi Veeranna’s unique contribution to Kannada theatre has made a documentary on his life and works.
Ratnavali Theatricals of A.V. Varadachar was the first company to adopt modern ideas on the stage. In every play this great actor used to play a prominent role.In the drama Shakuntala written by Basavappa Shastri he played the role of Dushyanta and costumes he wore for the role were as resplendent as those of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar. Varadachar gave equal prominence to both acting and singing on the stage. This helped him to take his plays straight to the hearts of the common man. The amateur Dramatic Association which came into existence in Bangalore at the same time started presenting Varadachar’s mythological plays in other languages like Telegu.
The period 1900-1955 can be called as the golden age of professional Kannada theatre. Staging of plays gained the status of a business in this period. The era witnessed the birth, death and rebirth of many troupes. Personalities like Varadachar, Mohamad Peer, Gubbi Veeranna, Garuda Sadashivarao, Handiganooru Siddaramappa and Vamanarao Master made their name as great actors. A new breed of playwrights also followed. Basavappa Shastry, Bellave Narahari Shastry, B. Puttaswamiaiah, Mahantesha Shastry, Hoogara Salunke, Dhuttragi, Bhasme, Joshi, Mandra and Kamath were enriched Kannada theatre with their memorable plays.
The drama troupes at that time needed long months of preparation before appearing on the stage. Suitable plays had to be picked up and rehearsed attractive sets had to be planned, suitable artists had to be picked up and trained costumes had to be designed and prepared with great care, music had to be scored planned and so on. Apart from all this, managing operations of the company smoothly was also a huge task for the owners. Obtaining the permission to stage the dramas in the every town, finding proper locations and retaining of renowned artistes were also big hassles.
Initially, most of the dramas were based on mythology and epics. Basavappa Shastry and Bellave Narahari Shastry used to write dramas by adopting them from original stories. As days went on, Staging of such dramas started getting more expensive, and the theatre troupes thought it wiser to switch over to social themes, reflecting the fast changes in society. ‘ Samsara Nouke’ and ‘ Sadarame’ staged by the Gubbi company were the progenitors of this welcome change and came to be accepted almost instantaneously by the audience.
Though Kannada theatre has a long history of more than a century it was the first half of 20th century (1900-1950) which was the peak period. With the life style of people undergoing a sea change, this pace of growth slowed down. As other forms of entertainment took centre stage, the new generations found it difficult to appreciate the worn out values, artificial dialogue delivery, gaudy dresses and sceneries and depiction of only mythological themes which were no longer relevant, led to the decline of theatre activity. Though, many modern troupes also continue to present mythological plays they were unable to recapture the old magic of professional Kannada theatre.
The Karnataka Government has initiated many plans to keep professional theatre alive and some professional companies continue to exist. The Bangalore Municipal Corporation has constructed a drama theatre in Gandhinagar in Bangalore in memory of Gubbi Veeranna, which has enabled professional theatre to operate in the State Capital. Apart from this, the Government is presenting an annual cash award of Rs. 1Lakh to an outstanding theatre personality in the name of Gubbi Veeranna. Instituted in 2001, this award has so far been presented to towering theatre personalities like Girish Karnad, Chindodi Leela, Gudigere Basavaraju and B. V .Karanth, besides others.
The Karnataka Nataka Academy has drawn up various plans to revive professional Kannada Theatre. In 2007, a festival organized in Davanagere brought together a large number of theatre personalities to share their experience and problems. The Academy has also brought out a CD containing noted Ranga Geetes. The government has also provided financial support to many of the old drama troupes help them recoup. This effort shows the commitment of the Government to encourage this form of art.