A career spanning over three decades, the recipient of multiple awards and accolades… veteran art director Shashidhar Adapa looks back on his work and life.

Veteran art director Shashidhara Adapa holding a maskFacebook
Features Interview Tuesday, March 16, 2021 - 16:53

When Girish Karnad’s play Nagamandala, was being adapted for the big screen in the late 90s, director TS Nagabharana turned to art director Shashidhar Adapa, who had mostly worked in theatre up till then. He rose to the task and went on to create the atmospheric and realistic rural sets against which the story would play out. And the movie, which is based on a Kannada folk tale, won Shashidhar Adapa his very first Karnataka State Film Award for Art Direction. 

And it wouldn’t be his last. Over the years, Shashidhar Adapa has worked on more than 45 Kannada films and won four Karnataka State Film Awards for Art Direction. From Shankar Nag and Mani Ratnam to Rajiv Menon and Reema Kagti, Adapa has worked with filmmakers from across the country. And in a career spanning more than three decades, he’s been a part of noted Kannada films such as Uppina Kagada, Idolle Ramayana, Bollywood films like Aamir Khan’s Talaash and foreign films like Passeur d'enfants à Pondichéry and Fred Glen Ray’s Inferno.

In 2013, Adapa received the Rajyotsava Prashasti Award from the Government of Karnataka, which is the second-highest civilian honour in the state.

Adapa’s journey as an art director began in the early 80s at Samudaya Theatre Company, which was started by RP Prasanna. And while he credits Prasanna and various other theatre professionals as encouraging his interest and helping him hone his skills, he was first drawn to the profession as a young child. 

Adapa’s father was a farmer in Mangaluru. Growing up, there wasn’t a lot in the way of theatre and cinema events. But there were still experiences and people that shaped his interest in art and theatre. Whether it was playing with the clay at the potters' settlement near his home, or watching the village carpenter make agricultural tools. “Art for me was never daunting,” says Adapa.   

But what stays with him, all these years later, are the vibrant and energetic Yakshagana performances that were staged in his hometown. “Watching the performances as a child was mesmerising to me,” says Adapa. “The stage and background that was created, the colours and lighting — at that age it all seemed marvellous to me.” He also participated in whatever cultural events were available at school. 

In his free time, he would assist his father on his farm. He would watch his father deftly use the sickle to cut the crops. “My father always told me that the work needs to be done graciously and that it is not a matter of applying strength,” says Adapa. “He would say it all lies in technique.” This is a lesson Adapa has applied in his own work. Whether it is creating the church set and recreating giant waves for Mani Ratnam’s Kadal, or lending authenticity to the sets of a feudal family home in pre-independence Malnad for the movie, Kanooru Heggadithi. You can see the value he places on technique and his eye for detail.  

In the mid-80s, Adapa started his own studio, Prathiroopi. “After working in theatre for around five to six years, I realised that I had to have my own firm to take on more business,” says Adapa. “It is not just a company to me but more of a family. And all the members contribute equally when it comes to doing the work and take equally as well.” Prathiroopi has designed sets for many plays, films, stage events such as Hampi Utsav, and models for exhibitions for various states’ tourism departments. 

Through Prathiroopi, Adapa was commissioned by the state to create many beautiful floats which were showcased during the annual Republic Day Parade. “The state tableaus that I have created are my most cherished work. They’ve made a great impact on people who viewed them,” says Adapa. “When I designed one based on Channapatna toys, people actually wanted the toys that they saw on display. And in one tableau we recreated a coffee plantation dedicated to Kodagu’s coffee production.” He adds that Karnataka is the only state that has for 12 consecutive years had a float in the Republic Day parade.

“The creation of the tableaux is a time intensive project,” he says. After multiple discussions, an idea gets finalised and presented, the Ministry of Defence decides whether the float will be displayed, only then do the artists get to work. “And as soon as one parade is done with, artists start brainstorming on creations for the next,” says Adapa. It is an exhausting but creative process, and he is proud of the fact that he has worked on various tableaux for the state, from Hoysala Heritage in 2008 and Bidri Craft in 2011 to Channapatna lacquer toys in 2015 and Wildlife of Karnataka in 2018.

Working on these floats, Adapa amassed a wealth of knowledge and understanding of Karnataka and its culture. “Culture and art are intertwined and an artist needs to understand the culture before making art based on the culture,” says Adapa. “Art gives a deeper understanding of social values.”

Shashidhar Adapa is a man of many talents, not only is he an art director for stage and screen, but also a skilled puppet maker and has conducted and designed puppetry performances on various themes such as the environmental campaign for the preservation of the Western Ghats biosphere and a puppet show highlighting the issues of child labour, among others. He also found the time to make six documentary films on social issues, which have been produced by MESCA,  Bengaluru.

For all he has achieved, Adapa is now giving back and encouraging young talent. He does this through Prathiroopi. “I don’t want to build an empire of my own, nor do I want to be the only one to thrive.” And many of his former assistants have found a footing for themselves in the Kannada film industry.

Having spent decades in the field, he has noticed changes in the industry. “When I first started working as an art director in theatre, it was all voluntary work, unlike today, where everything is done professionally,” says Adapa. “There is not much scope for experimenting with art styles now, as I could back in the day.” He spends most of his time now creating and working with his puppets. “I am always happy to help those who need my guidance or suggestions,” says Adapa. “During the pandemic, Prathiroopi faced a setback, but that is getting better now.” Asked whether he will work in film or theatre in the future, Adapa says that he is always open to taking up projects that interest him. 

Edited by Suvasini Sridharan.

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