In recent years Asia's prosperous
urbanites have discovered the rural arts. Handicrafts from villages now
adorn their city homes. Meanwhile, polished versions of country dances and
plays appear on television and grace official extravaganzas. Yet the finer
elements of urban culture are rarely introduced to the village world; its
inhabitants are thought too unsophisticated to appreciate them. By
introducing modern plays and films to rural folk in southern India, K. V.
SUBBANNA is making a powerful case for the universality of art.
The rural town of Heggodu is home to some five hundred people in the
Kannada-speaking state of Karnataka. There, areca palms and betel-pepper
vines provide members of the SUBBANNA family with a comfortable living. But
theater is their passion. In 1949 SUBBANNA formed the theater group, Ninasam,
to stage local favorites based on the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata;
his father became the group's first president.
After finishing a literary degree at Mysore University, SUBBANNA returned
home with fresh ideas for Ninasam. Under his leadership, its repertoire grew
to include Kannada-language renditions of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Brecht,
as well as new plays by Kannada playwrights, plays for children, and modern
adaptations of classics from the Indian canon. With help from the state
government, he built a large local theater, a rarity in rural India, and
introduced modern staging and lighting. Heggodu's citizens liked what they
saw—and came back for more.
Ninasam's success led SUBBANNA to form the Ninasam Theater Institute in
1980. In this "theater ashram," fifteen students a year learn theater arts
in a Gandhian atmosphere of simple living and hard work. An itinerant troupe
formed from the institute's graduates perform Ninasam's plays the length and
breadth of Karnataka—often in open-air theaters before crowds of seven
hundred or more. Following Ninasam's example, and with its practical
assistance, local theater companies are now being formed in other rural
Film followed theater. Ninasam began introducing film classics to Karnataka
audiences in the 1970s. Today, participants in its annual film-appreciation
course view works of leading filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Akira
Kurosawa, both former Magsaysay awardees, and Ingmar Bergman. By showing
such films, Ninasam is bridging the gulf between rural and urban cultures.
India's democracy, SUBBANNA believes, demands cultural diffusion of this
Playing many parts in his time, SUBBANNA also crafts traditional Indian
myths and tales into plays that probe modern issues. As a publisher, he
brings out new works by regional writers as well as his own poems and
translations of foreign movie scripts and books.
With financial prudence and a gift for bringing others into leadership,
SUBBANNA has built Ninasam to last. Its headquarters in Heggodu boasts a
library, rehearsal hall, guesthouse, and office, in addition to its famous
theater. At fifty-nine, SUBBANNA says, he now leaves most of the real work
to junior colleagues who include his son, Ashkara. But as one admirer has
pointed out, self-effacing SUBBANNA still carries on multiple projects,
"seemingly oblivious to the scale of his activities."
In electing K. V. SUBBANNA to receive the 1991 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the Board of
Trustees recognizes his enriching rural Karnataka with the world's best
films and the delight and wonder of the living stage.