From Dusk to Dawn

A nine-hour, multi-stage Kannada play draws packed houses

A scene from Malegalalli Madumagalu, an all-night production that recently ran to packed houses in Bangalore. COURTESY SUNIL KUMAR HH
01 September, 2013

ONE EVENING AT THE END OF MAY, I found myself huddled with eight men and women in a makeshift tarpaulin tent, seeking shelter from the lashing rain. Next to me, a bespectacled elderly man addressed a 20-something boy fidgeting with a sound mixer. “We don’t mind the rain,” he said. “Just tell us if the play will happen.”

We were in Kalagrama, a sprawling, ten-acre arts centre in the west of Bangalore, waiting for the start of Malegalalli Madumagalu (Bride of the Mountains), a nine-hour-long, all-night theatrical production of Kuvempu’s acclaimed 1967 novel of the same name, adapted for the stage by KY Narayanaswamy. The show—the twenty-second of that run—had been scheduled to start at 8.30 pm that night and conclude at 5.30 am the next morning. But a drizzle that began at 7 pm soon built to a downpour, and audience members who had gathered early at the open-air stage were forced to wait in the tent located at the top level of the amphitheatre. When our numbers grew, we were shifted to a larger indoor enclosure.

Crew members went around, assuring people that the play would begin as soon as the rain abated, or even lightened to a drizzle. “People have watched the play through the rain, covering their heads with cloth,” an organiser told me. About an hour later, indoors, a woman said into the darkness, “I don’t care how late they start—I’m not leaving without watching the play.” Unfortunately, her determination was in vain: the torrent did not let up even slightly, forcing the organisers to postpone the show.

As I made my way back to Kalagrama two days later, the skies were promisingly bright. At the venue, large families, armed with bags full of packed meals, beverages, and pillows, were enthusiastically settling into the amphitheatre’s stone seating. Soon, a band of musicians struck up a pastoral tune, and groups of dancers swirled into view. Then, a group of travelling storytellers took stage, and the story began to unfold, a many-stranded narrative set in four adjoining villages, featuring separated lovers, a scheming landowner and the labourers who work for him, a zealous missionary’s failing attempts at converting villagers to Christianity, and a woman who sells her daughter-in-law’s body in exchange for comforts.

“It has everything: culture clashes, humour, love—it’s not limited to sex and violence, like today’s television,” C Basavalingaiah, the play’s director, told me over the phone from Mysore after the run was completed. The production was first performed in Mysore’s theatre centre Rangayana in 2010. Basavalingaiah was particularly excited about this year’s run because Kalagrama’s untamed campus was the the perfect venue in which to recreate Malenadu, the region of the Western Ghats in Karnataka where the play is set. The show is performed over four stages, a few hundred metres apart from each other—roughly every two hours, we would travel between them, while actors took separate routes, hidden from view by trees.

Before the run, Basavalingaiah was unsure whether Bangalore audiences would be able to sit through a nine-hour show. “In the past, we have had a rich tradition of watching all-night shows—there’s no doubt about that,” he said, recalling the example of all-night Yakshagana performances. “But would a population used to watching two-hour-long films in multiplexes sit through the whole production?”

As it turned out, the duration did not prove a deterrent to audiences, who flocked to the venue over its six-week run between mid-April and early June. “I thought I might have missed some dialogue or expression, with all the action going on,” said Bhargavi Dev K, an attorney from Bangalore who made it to two performances. “I didn’t mind sitting through the play twice. The second time around, I went prepared with coffee.”

Both days, when I approached the gate at the entrance, the security guard regarded me suspiciously, allowing me to enter only after I assured him I had tickets. “There has been a heavy rush,” he said apologetically. “People have been desperate for tickets.”

Basavalingaiah told me that for each of the play’s 24 shows, the venue was packed to its 1,200 capacity, often accommodating upto 1,500 people; he estimated total collections at around Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million). The extent of the play’s success had come as a bit of a surprise to him. “I did expect younger people to show up,” he said. “What I didn’t expect were the 60- or 70-year-olds. They came, braving backaches, and sat on plastic chairs.”