Come October 31, the theatre aficionados of Bangalore will be treated to the resplendent and glorious tradition of Company Theatre with elements of mythology, fashion, music and colour at Ranga Shankara, a theatre-space of its kind in Bangalore.
The golden era of Company Theatre, spanning a century will come alive in the ten-day theatre festival, which will bring to fore its "spectacular quality and theatricality" Girish Karnad, a doyen of Kannada theatre said.
Company theatre, emerged as the country's first modern commercial theatre and created what was perhaps the largest ticket-buying audience in the Indian stage history. The theatrical style was greatly influenced by Parsi theatre, Sangeet Natak and several local performance traditions.
Sharing the historical odyssey of Company Theatre with PTI, Karnad who has also directed a number of internatinally acclaimed Kannada films said, modern Indian theatre began in the middle of the 19th century. Troupes of actors used to come from Britain to entertain the colonial ruling class in India.
The fact that the rulers indulged in this form of entertainment, gave in the eyes of the subjects, a new prestige to secular theatre, which until then had languished in disrepute as a distinctly lower class vocation.
In the 1850's, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Lucknow, danced and sang in a court production of "Inder Sabha". In Calcutta and Bombay of those days, the Indian entrepreneurs saw the business possibilties of theatre and formed companies which soon became the fountainhead of entertainment in cities.
In 1842, Karnad said, Vishnupant Bhave was prompted by the ruler of Sangli to start a company in the manner of the visiting Bhagavatara Mela troupe from Karki.
When royal patronage failed him, Bhave introduced the system ticketing to finance his operations, Soon, even more enterprising commercial troupes entered the field.
Most significant of them were the "Parsee Companies" which emerged in Bombay. They, combined with immense success features that were to define the "Company Natak" brand of entertainment, riveting melodrama, powerful dialogues, magical specatacle made possible by proscenium stage, most of all enchanting music.
These companies toured the countryside and provided the prototype for the theatre in western and southern India during the next hundred and odd years.
On October 31, 1880, Annasaheb Kirloskar, who hailed from Gurlhosur in Karnataka, staged "Shakuntal" in Marathi and created history. Within two years followed his "Sowbhadra". The tremendous success of these two plays gave rise to Sangeet Natak (musical theatre) tradition in Maharashtra.
More Mandalis (companies) followed, and these in turn inspired a similar movement in Karnataka. If in North Karnataka, the Marathi stage inspired pioneers like Shantakavi to dream of a grassroots Kannada theatre, in Mysore, it was court, impressed by the pomp of Parsee companies, that set the wheels in motion.
Theatre, which had gone from Karnataka to Maharashtra, thus came a full circle.
According to Karnad, Natak Companies lead "vigorous, often feverish existence", marked on the one hand by superbly crafted plays and performers who went from strength to strength mastering the challenges of the new form, but also scarred on the other by a high mortality rate and miserable record of betrayals and back-stabbings.
Nevertheless, in its ability to reach out to millions, its consummate packaging for romance in visual splendour, its purveyance of an extraordinary body of new music, nourishment it provided to artists like Mallikarjun Mansur and Ahmed Jan Thirakwa outside court patronage.
Nadak companies early shaping of star system in the from of artists like Bala Gandharva, Keshav Rao Bhonsale, Gubbi Veeranna and Garud Sadashiv Rao and finally its immense technological sophistication, in short, "in its sheer breathtaking sweep, the new form scaled heights which redefined the very concept as well as possibilities of entertainment", he said.
The arrival of the "movies" marked the death-knell for Natak companies. Visionaries like Gubbi Veeranna started experimenting with the film medium even in the silent era.
Amazingly, the authentic Natak Mandali tradition, still faithful to its original economic and aesthetic model, survived to this day in North Karnataka, where nearly a dozen companies are still active in the countryside. No such companies survive either in Maharashtra or Bengal where the tradition originated and flourished.
Only, Assam, says Karnad has recently revived this style of theatre to enormous economic success.