Sunday, November 1, 2009

Shankara: The power of passion

The defining quality of those who leave footprints behind them is passion. What is described in literature as Magnificent Obsession. Many of us do our jobs conscientiously, even efficiently. But not many of us are driven by the passion to do what appears difficult to do. Passion is the dividing line between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

It was passion that made Homi Bhabha take the engineering tripos in Cambridge and then the mathematics tripos and go on to father India's nuclear programme with great flair and foresight. At another end of the spectrum, it was passion that drove Ebrahim Alkazi to turn the National School of Drama into a wonder of India. It was P.K.Nair's passion that made the National Film Archives in Pune a national treasure.

In theatre the outstanding pioneer with passion was Prithviraj Kapur himself. The man with the imperial voice was so obsessed with the theatre that he floated a traveling drama company, Prithvi Theatre, way back in 1944, meeting the expenses of the 150-member troupe with his earnings from films. Today Prithvi Theatre is the most valuable theatrical venue in venue-rich Mumbai. The Kapurs keep the passion going.

Come to think of it, Prithvi Theatre had many advantages -- filmic glamour, Mumbai connections, a connoisseur crowd to draw from. K.V. Subbanna had nothing when he adamantly chose his small Karnataka village of Heggodu as the site of his theatre-film-publishing institute, Ninasam, in 1949. But he had a magnificent obsession. It turned Heggodu into an internationally renowned centre of the arts.

Energy is sometimes mistaken for passion. But they are different. Sharukh Khan is energy, Michael Jackson is passion. Shashi Tharoor is energy, Jairam Ramesh is passion. Sania Mirza is energy, Leander Paes is passion. In fact, passion may not even be accompanied by energy. Narayana Murthy and Bill Gates are outwardly rather un-energetic, what with their slow movements and slow talking style. But the passion is unmistakable.

Shankar Nag combined passion with energy. The result was something like ten men in the form of one man. He was everywhere at once, doing everything at once. Now he was planning a ropeway to Nandi Hills, now a Metro rail for Bangalore, now affordable pre-fab housing for ordinary folks.

Shankar dreamed ahead of his times. But instinctively he was a theatre man forged in the crucible of Marathi theatre in Bombay. Then elder brother Anant became a hit in Kannada cinema and Shankar abandoned Bombay for Bangalore. Marathi's loss was Kannada's gain.

And what a gain! Shankar's versatility made him unique. He cut new paths as director, scriptwriter, organiser as well as actor. He performed with panache in both masala and quality movies. His zestful portrayal of an autorickshaw driver in Auto Raja is still celebrated with numerous Bangalore autos sporting a Shankar photo sticker on their vehicles. Although he kept out of politics, Shankar Nag was the artistic twin of Safdar Hashmi - multifaceted, untiring, creative to the fingertips, dream-driven. Hashmi was killed by political goons, Shankar in a speeding car. Hashmi was 34, Shankar 35. A ridiculous age to die.

Like Hashmi, Shankar lives as a theatre legend. Arundhati Nag has now announced an official website for her late husband. This should be welcomed, not so much for the website itself as the fillip it can give to carrying on Shankar's unfinished business. The most important of these is an art centre for northern Bangalore to match the Ranga Shankara in the city's south. Ranga Shankara became a reality because of one person's, Arundhati's, magnificent obsession. If she can develop one more obsession, there will rise a Shankar Nag Centre for the Arts combining, perhaps, an ultra modern theatre with a cinematheque, a badly needed jewel in Bangalore's crown.