20 February 2009

The sounds of a vanishing world - Theatre Preview

Trisha Gupta finds that Telugu theatre in Delhi has a long and interesting history.

Minutes away from the madness of the ITO intersection, in a relatively-quiet lane behind Azad Bhavan, a group of sari-clad women are gathered in a large, rather bare room. There is no colour, no ornamentation; nothing except the faded remains of a Rangoli pattern painted on the mosaic. Two women pace the floor, gesticulating as they speak, while two others listen attentively. One woman is playing with a child, while an older, bespectacled woman sits on a chair, occasionally interjecting, a stapled sheaf of handwritten pages in her hand. The script of a play.

The scene would be interesting enough in itself – a play being rehearsed by an all-female cast – but it becomes even more so when it’s in Telugu. The hall, in fact, belongs to the Andhra Vanita Mandali, an organization for Andhraite women in Delhi, and the rehearsal in progress is for a play called Savitri Sawal, to be staged this fortnight by the Dakshina Bharata Nata Natee Samakhya. Apart from Savitri Sawal, a comedy that draws on the Savitri Satyavan myth to poke fun at modern middle class life, the DBNN will also present a more serious play, Repati Satruvu (Tomorrow’s Enemy), about the problems of old age.

The DBNN (often referred to simply as the Samakhya) was founded in 1958 by five young men who had arrived in the capital to study acting at the then-new Asian Theatre Institute, which later became the National School of Drama. Of the five men, three were from Andhra Pradesh, including the young Kuppili Venkateswara Rao, who had already founded well-known theatre groups in his home state: the Navya Kala Mandali in his hometown Rajahmundry, and the Rasana Samakhya in Vijayawada, where he was then working as a clerk in the railways. Now armed with theatre scholarships from the government of Andhra Pradesh, K Venkateswara Rao and his friends K Prasad Rao (also known as Cinema Prasad) and ‘Radio’ C Rama Mohana Rao borrowed money to get to Delhi. Once here, the trio started watching theatre with a passion and dreamt of staging Telugu plays in Delhi. K V Rao’s reminiscences of those days include a story about how he watched a Bengali play directed by stalwart Shambhu Mitra at AIFACS. “I went backstage to find out the expenditure incurred for the production. When told that it was Rs 380, my throat (became) parched… I came back without a word,” he wrote.

The problem of money was solved by a combination of generous patrons and self-imposed thrift, and the Samakhya staged its first play, Narasuraaju’s Naatakam, in 1959. Plays were rehearsed everywhere, from houses where they were driven out by irate landlords, to Delhi’s myriad tombs. It was the Andhra Vanita Mandli that gave the group its first – and lifelong – proper rehearsal space. “There is no doubt that having this space has helped the group a lot,” said Anuradha Nippani, regular actress and ex-General Secretary of DBNN.

In the first decade of its existence, the Samakhya produced an astounding sixty plays. The enthusiasm of the 1950s lasted well into the 60s and 70s, with new talent being recruited from among the streams of Andhraites who continued to arrive in the capital in search of government jobs. “My father-in-law came to Delhi in 1946. Over the years, he brought his three brothers as well as his two brothers-in-law,” said Nippani, who grew up in Andhra Pradesh and only came to Delhi after marriage. Despite the fact that there are now some 16 lakh Telugu speakers in Delhi, NS Kameswara Rao, one of the group’s veteran members and director of Repati Satruvu, points out that Andhra theatre no longer has the kind of support it once did. “In the 70s and early 80s, our shows in Kamani and Shri Ram Centre ran to packed houses. We took our plays to neighbourhoods, Janakpuri and JNU alike. In 1979, we staged the first Telugu street play in Delhi. Participation has certainly decreased since then, both of actors and audience,” he said. Rao traced the dwindling numbers to the screening of Telugu films in Delhi, which started in 1984. “It is not only the case with Telugu theatre, of course. Until fifteen years back, people would at least go and watch films in a hall. Now, they only sit in their drawing rooms and watch on a small screen.”

The Samakhya continues to do at least two plays a year. “We always do original plays, written in Telugu. Usually they are socially relevant, about contemporary themes,” said Nippani. The diasporic context also plays a role in their choice of scripts. “Like last year, we did a play foregrounding the Telugu language, about a family who go abroad and forget Telugu,” said M Kusuma, who has been active in the Samakhya and the Vanita Mandli for some forty years, and is directing Savitri Sawal. “We have only one young person, Kritika, who is acting this time,” Nippani points out. “What we need is for more young people to show an interest. But theatre takes so much commitment. And even my own children don’t really speak Telugu.”

Published in Time Out Delhi, September 2007

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