Ninasam – Karnataka’s cultural powerhouse

Far away in the hinterlands of Karnataka’s Shimoga district, a small village named Heggodu has been a witness to a cultural phenomenon called NINASAM for last 64 years. NINASAM (short for Nilkantheshwara Natyaseva Samgha), founded in 1949 by a group of enthusiasts as an amateur theatre group, has evolved into a powerhouse of Kannada culture and intellect in last six decades. Ninasam today has branched off into several directions and holds together a variety of sub-groups and projects to disseminate the principles of culture, activism, art practice, social commitment, individual creativity and collective responsibility.

Shivaram Karanth Auditorium

Shivaram Karanth Auditorium

Initially it rose up as a group of cultural enthusiasts from places located around Heggodu coming together to discuss contemporary issues and events. They would also put up occasional theatre productions. All these activities started gaining traction among those interested and soon this informal gathering of people crystallized into the formation of an amateur cultural troupe named Nilkantheshwara Natyaseva Samgha, named after “Nilkantheshwara” the local deity of Heggodu.

In its initial years, Ninasam would hold theatre workshops, publication of books related to theatre & literary works in parallel to staging theatre productions. As the years passed and more people got connected in this mission, it gained sharper focus and also reached higher qualitative levels.  People like Dr. Shivram Karanth, B.V.Karanth were involved in the workings of Ninasam. A full fledged theatre building was constructed which became the centrehouse of new activities. The theatre troupe started performing plays in other parts of Karnataka as well.

K V Subanna, noted writer, thinker, founding member of NINASAM and Magasaysay awardee

K V Subanna, noted writer, thinker, founding member of NINASAM and Magasaysay awardee

Ninasam also branched out into film studies and started India’s one of the very few village based film society in Heggodu. K.V.Subanna was among the first batch that passed out from FTII’s Film Appreciation Course. When he returned to Heggodu, he was charged with the kind of cinema that he was exposed to and thought this needs to be shared with his village folks. So, with assistance from National Film Archive and Film and Television Institute of India, Ninasam organized festivals of classic films and also conducted short term film appreciation courses for the villagers. Interesting to know, none of the villagers there had an understanding of English. To eliminate this language barrier, Subbana would write synopsis and entire screenplay of the films in Kannada and distribute it to the people before screening. Also, later they developed a technique called “para-dubbing”, wherein the dialogues would be translated in Kannada in real time while the film was running. The villagers were trained in film appreciation under the able guidance of Prof. Satish Bahadur, Prof. Shyamala Vanarase amongst others. Even today if you ask the villagers what is their favourite film, they would talk in depth about Apur Sansar and Rashomon and Seven Samurai.

In 1980, Ninasam established a theatre institute with aim of providing formal theatre education to youngsters through a 10 month diploma course. Till date, the institute receives an overwhelming response every year and considered to be the best theatre institute available in Karnataka and in Southern India.  In 1985, they established “Tirugata”, a repertory unit of Ninasam. Tirugata performs a set of 2-3 plays across the state of Karnataka. When Tirugata was being forumulated, dissemination was given the most priority and all the plays produced under it were designed in such a way that they are flexible to be carried anywehere in Karnataka on a 24-seater bus. Every year Tirugata recruits a fresh team of artists and travels length and breadth of the state putting up the shows. Over the years, Tirugata has developed its own audience and almost all their shows are sold out in the places they go to perform. It’s a repertory in true sense and would put even NSD’s repertory to shame in terms of their dedication and production values.

K V Subanna, the man spearheading this revolution was awarded Ramon Magasaysay Award for his contribution towards enriching the fields of arts, culture and education in 1991. Subanna gave away the amount to set up a corpus fund which gave birth to another offshoot called Ninasam Pratishthana. It has been conducting short term literary and cultural appreciation course for educational and cultural organizations in the state.

In the same year, the film appreciation course was altered into a culture course known as “Samskrutik Shibira”. The culture course has now become a flagship event of Nianasam and draws attention of culture enthusiasts from all over the world. The culture course is a 7 day programme which is a combination of intellectual discourse and aesthetic experience, designed around a chosen socio-political theme. Seminal figures of Indian culture such as B V Karanth, U R Ananthmurthy, Sammik Bandhopadhyay amongst others have delivered lectures at the culture course.

Bharat Yatra-A play written and directed by KV Akshara

Bharat Yatra-A play written and directed by KV Akshara

Currently, Subbana’s son K V Akshara heads the institution. Akshara himself is an alumnus of National School of Drama and LEEDS University UK. He is also an acclaimed playwright and director. Ninasam is still going strong in its activities and vision of spreading the love for art and culture.

More than anything else, Ninasam’s credibility lies in the way they’ve touched and changed lives of people that came in contact with them. Sharing and dissemination of knowledge are the two factors that drive all activities at Ninasam. Subbana was a visionary in that sense and his efforts have paid off in a big way. I had an opportunity to spend a week at Heggodu in May 2013 as a part of a study tour organized by India Theatre Forum and the experience was surreal. With a baggage of such concrete contributions towards Karnataka’s culture, people at Ninasam wear a very simple and humble profile. It’s a must visit pilgrim for theatre and culture enthusiasts and I bet you will never want to come back.