I wrote this piece for the discussion (Open) page of GUTS, where we raise a particular topic and invite responses. I sent this to a few in my mailing list; four or five people responded. I’m not sure we’ll be using this piece in the next issue, though, because it is full up.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the spread of sport in India is that organised mainstream sport – training and competition — is a largely urban phenomenon. Semi-urban or rural areas have no access to either infrastructure or the funds required to make competitive sportspeople, and are hence dependent on the flow of money from urban sources, in the form of government or private funding. There are few exceptions to this rule, although many might have noticed that the success of Indian boxers at the Olympics shows that a well-run boxing centre in a non-urban milieu can produce world-class results.
The evidence thus far has been that athletes in non-elitist sports (athletics, wrestling, boxing, football) mostly hail from non-urban areas, but have to relocate to cities to pursue the sport. The question is: can rural or semi-urban areas support sport without having to depend on urban funding?
But perhaps it’s time to look for examples outside sport.
In Shimoga district of Karnataka, some 15 km off the taluk of Sagar, lies the village of Heggodu. The village has been witness to two movements that have not just transformed the imagining of a ‘rural’ space; it has become a model for other villages across the country.
Heggodu today houses one of India’s most vibrant culture spaces – Ninasam. Short for ‘Nilakanteshwara Natya Seva Sangha’, it began in 1949 as an amateur group of theatre enthusiasts, who got together after the day’s work in the fields and plantations and staged plays in a room with a thatched roof. The pastime became a passion and the group has produced 40 plays since. Among those who started this group was KV Subbanna, who went on to attain renown as one of Karnataka’s foremost intellectuals. At a time when people were getting paranoid about regional cultures losing their identity, Subbanna believed the people of his village could open themselves to world cultures on their own terms, and not be swept away. By the 1970s Ninasam was organising film festivals showcasing the work of masters like Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurusawa and Charlie Chaplin, and had also introduced a 10-day film appreciation course each year. In 1980, the Ninasam Theatre Institute was formed, and it offered a 10-month diploma in Theatre Arts.
The institute is today among the best cultural spaces in the country – it includes a training centre, a ‘repertory’ (travelling group), a library with an extensive collection of books and films, and intellectual access to the ideas and philosophies of the day. Every year Ninasam hosts a conference that is attended by over a thousand delegates from across the country – and it becomes a space for dialogue on theatre, politics, cinema and music.
I was fortunate to be part of the annual conference this time in early October. Heggodu was host to some of the biggest names in literature and theatre, including Jnanapith winner UR Ananthamurthy and writers Vivek Shanbagh and Vaidehi.
Heggodu demonstrates the workings of a great idea that originated in the mind of KV Subbanna, and it holds important lessons – for it tells us that if the idea is good enough, location doesn’t matter. Heggodu’s alumni now grace theatre and other cultural spaces across Karnataka and outside; it also helps keep alive folk forms that are in danger of being lost.
The other movement in Heggodu that I mentioned is ‘Desi’ – which operates on the same philosophy as Ninasam. Desi (one of its founders is the famous theatre activist Prasanna) is a collective of handloom workers; products are made using natural fibre and natural colours. Several homes in Heggodu double up as units of cottage industry, and their products are sought after in Bangalore and elsewhere.
What we see here is the multi-directional flow of ideas and wealth between the urban and non-urban. By creating an economy in the village, residents have no need to migrate to overpopulated cities. Both Ninasam and Desi have managed to create as near a model of self-sustenance as possible. KV Akshara, Director of Ninasam, tells me they run the institute at a cost of Rs 18 lakh – a tenth of the budget of the New Delhi-located National School of Drama.
Community participation is the critical element of the success of such a model – Ninasam has managed to open up world culture to the people of Heggodu, so much that a friend mentioned that the village children once had a ‘strike’ because Vittorio de Seca’s masterpiece ‘The Bicycle Thief’ was not screened.
It this model workable in sport, and more specifically, in badminton? Is Ninasam evidence that the only way a movement can happen is for the community to take responsibility? If badminton has to become a mass sport, it has to go beyond the smaller cities and towns. Wedding halls can be used to double up as shuttle courts. Perhaps each state association has to create local centres with the help of local communities – and leave it to them to create an economy around the game. If sufficient numbers of village people played badminton, there would be a small economy built around it – of shuttle and racquet sales and so forth, and that might help generate some money towards running a programme for the village children. Of course, since shuttles are so expensive, they will need to be subsidized by the state association. This is not to suggest that such centres can become world-class, but it opens up access to those unlikely to ever take the game seriously. Badminton has too long remained a sport for the urban middle and upper classes.