As I stood outside a paan shop in Heggodu, a small village in the north of Karnataka, Guru wiped the betel leaves clean, applied a little chunna, and told me about the time he acted in the play Alibaba and the 40 Thieves. He added that he enjoyed watching King Lear and has never tired of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. I had never met a paan seller who spoke about an Arabian tale, a British playwright, and a Hollywood classic in the same breath. But then, the residents of Heggodu weren’t like most people I had met before. I had first heard about the village six years ago while rehearsing for the chorus of Romeo and Juliet in Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre. We were only weeks away from opening night, but the director, Atul Tiwari, was having a bad day with the actors and mumbled something about his exemplary students in Heggodu. After the rehearsal ended and his temper subsided, I asked him about the place he had spoken of. Four cups of chai later, Tiwari was still nowhere near the end of his happy Heggodu tales.
In those three hours, Tiwari painted a picture of a magical village. He described a hamlet in northern Karnataka where everyone cared deeply about Shakespeare, Brecht, and Ibsen. He told me of bullock-cart drivers who discussed French cinema, of daily performances of world-famous texts, of literary debates between farmers and shopkeepers, and of a library filled with films and plays from all over the world—all this in a village with a population of less than 1,000.
Heggodu’s astonishing cultural life is the result of the vision of a plantation owner named K.V. Subbanna. In 1949, he decided to revive ancient Indian plays, and share famous dramatic works from around the world with the people of his village. His vehicle was Ninasam, a theatre company founded by his parents. Since then, Ninasam has added an institute of performing arts, a travelling theatre company, a library, a film society, three performance spaces, annual culture courses, a publishing house, summer workshops, and film festivals. These institutions and events have helped Kannada-speaking farmers, plantation workers, government employees, and shop owners acquire a passion for the works of writers like Bertolt Brecht, Mohan Rakesh, Kalidasa, Bernard Shaw, Molière, and Leo Tolstoy.
A few months after Tiwari told me about Heggodu, I gave up my four-year-old career in theatre for a better-paying job. I had no time for rehearsals anymore, I told my theatre colleagues. Six years later, while working as a journalist, I saw a five-minute segment about this village in a documentary called The Celluloid Man. I realised that Heggodu had never left my mind. I knew it was time to find out if it was for real.
I arrived in Karnataka’s Shimoga district at the break of dawn on a hot summer’s day. A small road through green farms led from the railway station at Sagar Jambagaru to Ninasam. Next to mud houses, roaming cattle, and a patch of dense forest sat a large theatre. Painted in soothing shades of maroon and brown, and decorated with hasechitra tribal motifs, the structure blended in well with its surroundings. That is exactly what Ninasam aims to do: blend theatre, films, and literature with everyday life—to make it a daily ritual.
“We worked hard on the farm all day, but there is nothing much to do in the evenings,” a 70-year-old farmer named Satyanarayan told me while picking out raw mangoes from a tree on his plantation. “So all of us would gather at Ninasam and watch films, rehearse plays, watch shows, or just debate politics. It prevented us from going to the bar and getting drunk like most other men around.” That tradition, he said, hasn’t stopped after all these years. “I’m too old now,” he added, “but I know that other farmers still go there every evening.”
In the Ninasam canteen, I met some students of the ten-month long course in performing arts, who were preparing for their final exams. They were revising for a three-hour paper on set design. The class of 20 were spread out in small groups, studying as they had their breakfast of idlis and steaming sambar. The exam was to begin in an hour, but there was no nervousness in the air—it was clear that they loved what they were doing.
Ninasam was never meant to be an elite institute where students study the arts and then go off to cities to showcase their talents in large auditoriums or films. The idea was to involve youth from small villages in Karnataka and give them professional theatre training in the hope that they would spread the love of playwrights like Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Girish Karnad, and Oscar Wilde around the state. This batch of students aimed to do just that, despite all the opposition in their personal lives. One student, Chandru, managed to complete the course without letting his parents know, since they would have never given him permission to choose a life in theatre. He planned to work with the travelling theatre group Tirugata, which performs in rural Karnataka.
Among the factors that keeps Ninasam rooted to its environment is the fact that all communication here is in Kannada—the classes, readings, and performances. Subbanna, who died in 1995, spoke perfect English, but he was very passionate about preserving Kannada. He wanted more people to enjoy the plays that he did, and translated works from several languages into Kannada, even publishing them through his house, Akshara Prakashan. While his work was primarily with theatre, he formed the Ninasam Film Society after a visit to the Film and Television Institute of India in 1979. It was one of a handful of rural film societies in India. Subbanna would organise screenings of classics by Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurusawa, and Satyajit Ray for the spellbound Kannada-speaking audience of 1,000. Since there weren’t subtitles at the time, Subbanna would translate the dialogue during every scene. The shows went on for 20 years.
At the guesthouse on campus, I was woken by the sweet sound of drums keeping time while students did warm-ups and kalaripayattu, a martial art form from Kerala. I peeked into rehearsals of Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths and Akshara’s Bharat Yatra. Through the day, I noticed that every person walking past the complex would stop by the notice board to see the list of performances for the week.
Evenings were lively affairs, with crowds pouring in to watch the shows. The audience was a mix of holiday goers from cities, farmers dressed in their best clothes, patient children, and people from neighbouring villages. Everyone clapped with the chorus of Bharat Yatra and stayed silent during the tense scenes of Lower Depths. Not a single phone rang and there were no loud whispers during the shows. It’s quite rare to find such a respectful audience. I ended most of my days sharing chai with shop owners, farmers, and teachers discussing the recent elections and script ideas for their next productions.
I had come to Heggodu to see a magical world of theatre, but what I saw was even better—a real world. I didn’t meet people who walked around in Shakespearean costumes or eccentric artists who had given up their livelihoods to practice art. These were real people who had jobs, supported families, and contributed to society. They took time every day to enjoy and participate in the arts and made it a part of their lives. I suddenly realised that I had no excuse strong enough to quit the stage that I had loved so much. There is always time for rehearsals.
Orientation Heggodu is a village in the Shimoga district of central Karnataka. It is 350km northwest of Bengaluru and 200km north of Mangalore.
Getting There Sagar Jambagaru, in Sagara town is the closest railway station served by daily trains (7 hr) and buses (8 hr) from Bengaluru. From here, auto rickshaws to Ninasam are available (8km/20min).
Stay Sagara is a small town with few choices of accommodation. Hotel Varadasree has basic, neat rooms (08183 228899; doubles ₹600). Ninasam’s campus has spacious dormitories for guests, but you may have to book ahead. Simple, healthy meals are served in the students canteen. (email@example.com; guests are only charged for meals, which cost ₹85 per day.)
Best Time To Visit Every October, Ninasam hosts a ten-day culture course. During this time, theatre practitioners from across the country hold workshops and performances. Registrations begins in the first week of September (www.ninasam.org). The campus is open to visitors throughout the year. Shows are regularly held in the theatre. Call to inquire about the performance schedule (08183 265646, 08183 265723).