I am not really so sentimental about the old pensioners paradise of Bengaluru. I think it is ugly now but vibrant and more of a metropolis. I have a large family here which used to spy on me and report to my parents! I ran away in 1977 to study in Baroda and never wanted to come back. However, looking back, my early years here have influenced me profoundly. I was a teenager in the 1970s when the city was the centre of the New Wave cinema movement, new theatre and the Nayva (Modernist) and Dalit movements in Kannada literature. It was the days of the Emergency and Prasanna had started Samudaya, the most important left theatre group in the country. Actress Snehalatha Reddy, who had played the role of Chandri the Harijan woman in Samskara, the first Kannada New Wave film directed by her husband Pattabhirama Reddy, was arrested on trumped up charges and jailed. When she died soon after being released, there was a big protest march by all the leading citizens of the day. Their son Konarak was our friend and we used to meet there often. The Reddys’ cottage off St. Marks Road was a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. I first met Dr U R Ananthamurthy there.
Bengaluru has always been a centre of cultural experiments and intellectual discourse even in its provincial small town days. (Girish Karnad once remarked that there was no urban literature in Kannada because Karnataka lacked a metropolis). I used to hang around as a young teenager with a bunch of disreputable friends called the Chod gang in Central College. The English Department had teachers like the Navya writer P Lankesh and TG Vaidyanathan (TGV). TGV was a very influential intellectual with a devoted following, and I was a kid at the edges of this group. Cinema was discussed hotly and a large group would go and sit in the first row to see New Wave films which were commercially released in theatres like Rex and Blue Diamond. I saw Satyajit Ray films in Rex morning shows, Awtar Krishna Kaul’s 27 Down and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord were released in Blue Diamond. K N Hari Kumar and several others were also part of the TGV group who went later to join Jawaharlal Nehru University which had newly opened. (He was in the rival Void Gang, so called after their music band!). P Lankesh is of course legendary. I acted in a play directed and translated by him, Aristophanes Lysistrata. I was in the group scenes in the chorus. It was about Lysistrata who leads a women’s rebellion to stop the Peloponnesian war. The women refuse to sleep with their husbands and cause havoc. In the war between the sexes, I actually threw a pot full of water on stage on an actor, instead of pretending to. It seems the play was full of foul language which we didn’t understand, and a family friend wrote a damning letter to the Deccan Herald which infuriated my father and put paid to my budding theatrical career. Not that I could act really. P Lankesh went on to make several New Wave Kannada films and many of the students who acted in this play were in them.
When I was doing my graduation in Mount Carmel College, I was part of a play, Herman Hesses’ Siddhartha, adapted and directed by a member of the Chod gang, Rajashekhar, and we used to have rehearsals in the Holy Cross Christian Boys Hostel building on St. Marks Road. I was in the group scenes (but very dedicated). Balan Nambiar ran evening classes called the Bangalore Art Club in the big shed where we rehearsed, which I later joined. He told me that I had talent and should study art seriously and go to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. He advised me to wait till I got my degree so as not to upset my parents, got the entrance forms for me, and convinced my father to send me off to live in a hostel in a faraway place. Recently, during my lockdown studio cleaning, I came across a bunch of life studies that I had done in my 1970s Balan art class days. I am now using the drawings in a new project which will draw from various strands of my art practice.
My years in Mumbai/ Bombay after Baroda were also very rich. I was married to a film scholar, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, and was part of a large group of people working with the new wave filmmakers Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul, who were some of the leading intellectuals in the city. I played a bit role in Shahani’s 1998 film Khayal Gatha as the River goddess Rewa. Mumbai was still the cultural and intellectual capital of India in the 1980s and ‘90s and I was in the centre of the art scene. I was living in a major metropolis for the first time and soaking it all in.
I moved back in 1996 after building my studio here, after twenty years away. My father had been haranguing me to build on a plot he had bought in the boondocks called Ideal Homes off the Mysore Road. Gauri Lankesh lived nearby and we became close friends. My then husband and several of our friends founded the Centre for Society and Culture- CSCS- which became an important centre for cultural studies. When I moved into my new studio in 1996, Prasanna told me sarcastically that I should name it Somberikatte (which literally means Idler’s Platform in Kannada) because he said we artists just hang around the whole day smoking and idling. I loved the name and started a fictitious institution by the name through which I organize lectures and seminars. In the late 1990s I had a series of Sunday afternoon seminars in my studio around the Idea of the Folk where three speakers presented formal papers around a discipline around the idea of ‘the people’ followed by discussion. When I see the roster of speakers it is like a who’s who of Bengaluru. Madhav Gadgil, Ramachandra Guha, Nandan Nilekani and many others – it shows how small a town it was in those days, when people trekked across the city where all the roads were dug up, on a Sunday afternoon to meet and discuss ideas. More recently, to celebrate 20 years of Somberikatte, I organized an international seminar ‘Mysore Modernity, Artistic Nationalism and the Art of K. Venkatappa’ at the NGMA Bengaluru in 2016. The book, the first major study on the artist, edited by Deeptha Achar and myself, will soon be published by Routledge.