Taking birth in 1949, in the immediate wake of India’s gaining its independence, Ninasam could not but be infused with the spirit that characterized the nation and the age then. Through a means widely acknowledged as most unique in history, India had, in the decades preceding that momentous event, engaged itself in an unprecedented kind of exploration that finally not only brought it freedom but also helped it expand and redefine several of the key concepts and practices governing the world scenario at the time, such as liberty, resistance, self-hood, equality, democracy, and universality. Shunning exclusive dependence on violence, and refusing to demonise or antagonize its oppressors, it had set an entirely new paradigm in plain everyday life as well as political life. Under the inspiring guidance of someone like M.K. Gandhi, it succeeded in transforming the fight against the ‘others’ into a fight against one’s own ‘self’ too, thereby enriching the encounter between apparent bipolarities from being a process of ‘othering’ into one of ‘twinning’.Charting one’s course following the principle of twinning meant that one had discard, or at least passionately contest, the prevalent concepts of tradition and modernity, East and the West, personal and the universal, subject and object, the sacred and the secular, and so on. One of the conceptual spheres that the modern West had seriously affected was that of the interrelationship between the individual and the collective. In transforming traditional ‘communities’ into modern ‘societies’, the colonial enterprise had opened a deep -and artificial- schism between human individuals and human ‘congregates’. India, however, although drastically altered under the colonial regime, steadfastly refused to accept this divide, preferring instead to evolve newer, and more meaningful modes of interaction between ‘micro’ individual and the ‘macro’ commune, viewing the two entities as being mutually complementary rather than competitive.Ninasam’s own modest effort has been towards helping develop a new kind of community, a multidimensional entity that equally treasures culture and politics, continuity and change, conservation and alteration, but with the firm conviction that whenever choices are to be made, that right should rest solely with the local communities, and not be abridged or appropriated by some hegemonic power-centres.

The years 1949-68 mark the first phase of Ninasam. Its beginnings were humble, originating as it did as a little group of culture enthusiasts from several little hamlets located around Heggodu, a small village in the Western Hills of southern Karnataka, regularly meeting in the evenings, after having done their routine agricultural work for the day, to gossip, to discuss contemporary issues and events, to put up an occasional theatrical production or to listen to a person of renown visiting the neighbourhood. These random activities gradually crystallised into strong interests, leading to the formation in 1949 of an amateur cultural troupe that the founder-members named Nilakanteshwara Natyaseva Samgha, after Nilakanteshwara, a local deity, regarded as a manifestation of Lord Shiva.Soon, in this formative period, Ninasam took up, besides amateur theatre productions, holding of theatre workshops, publication of books related to theatre as also literary works (this done under the aegis of the publication wing, Akshara Prakashana, established in 1960), striving to be a ‘community forum’ in its own way, and within its limited scope.

An important turning point came during the decade 1969-79, which marks the second phase of the organisation. During this period, Nilakanteshwara Natya Seva Sangha came to be renamed Ninasam (‘Ninasam’ being an acronym to Nilakanteshwara Natya Seva Sangha) The choice of a more modern-sounding name such as this one, quite an unconscious one at that time, today seems to many to resonate with the characteristic aspirations of the organisation — to creatively blend the traditional and the modern, to meaningfully negotiate between the sacred and the secular. The organisation not only gained a sharper focus but also reached higher qualitative levels with the involvement of many accomplished personalities in its activities. Dr. Shivarama Karantha, one of modern India’s truly great intellectuals, fit to be placed alongside Rabindranath Tagore, and a Jnanapeeth awardee, conducted a Yakshagana workshop at Ninasam. B.V. Karantha, a seminal figure in modern Indian theatre history, directed for the troupe a landmark production, Panjara Shale, based on a Tagore work. A full-fledged theatre building was constructed to accommodate and facilitate the new spurt in projects and programmes. The troupe, till now totally localised, began to travel outside and perform plays in other centres as well. A very interesting detail from this period concerns the staging of Sangya Balya, a highly successful production of Ninasam, in far-flung places, not merely because of popular demand, but also because the organisation urgently needed to pool together a considerable sum of money in order to repay the loans it had taken out to construct the auditorium at Heggodu.

In the same period, it also branched out in an entirely new direction — that of film studies. Having realised the immense potential of this, the most modern of media, and that, sadly, popular cinema had its own self-centred agenda to pursue, it began to organise, under the banner of the newly founded Ninasam Chitra Samaja, festivals of film classics, and short-term film appreciation courses, with kind assistance from the two premier institutions of the country, the National Film & Television Institute, and the National Film Archive of India, both of Pune. It also began a long series of publications in Kannada, the local language, on topics related to cinema, such as translations of film scripts, critical writings, and compendiums. These were the very first such activities to be held in rural parts of India, an achievement unparalleled to this day. They also brought to the little village such persons of eminence as Marie Seton, a legendary film scholar, one who had closely followed and chronicled the works of Sergei Eisenstein, and Satyajit Ray, two giants of world cinema. While her visit brought us our first wave of a broader, even international recognition, her inspiration carried us towards more committed, more organised work, and not just in the field of film culture dissemination.

The third phase, between 1980 and 1992, saw Ninasam adding certain semi-professional features to its amateur character. The first such feature was the Ninasam Theatre Institute, established in 1980, with the aim of providing formal training in basic theatre art and craft to youngsters over a 10-month diploma course. The Institute had its share of teething problems, particularly as regards funds, but three years into its life, it was given a grant-in-aid by the Karnataka State Government. In 1985, Ninasam began Tirugata, a travelling theatre troupe made up mostly of the alumni of its theatre school, who work as paid, full-time artistes in the project, performing a set of three plays at centres spread all over the state, every year.

In the meanwhile, the annual Film Course and the Theatre Workshops, both held locally at Heggodu, had come to gain such appeal that there were repeated requests by patrons located in different, distant parts of the state that Ninasam conduct similar programmes at their respective places. Ninasam’s response to this was Janaspandana, a two-year project, executed in the period 1983-85, of conducting short-term film festivals, film appreciation courses, and theatre workshops, at various places, in collaboration with local cultural organisations.

The fourth phase, 1993-2004, brought Ninasam greater recognition, particularly in the form of the Ramon Magsaysay Award given to its senior member, and guiding spirit, K.V.Subbanna, for his contribution, made through Ninasam, towards enriching public awareness about Arts, Culture, and Education. The purse that formed part of the award was used as the corpus fund for initiating and running yet another project under a foundation launched for that very purpose – the Ninasam Pratishthana. The foundation has, as of today, conducted more than 100 short-term literature appreciation courses for educational and cultural organisations, in various parts of the state.