Sriranga was the pen name of Adya Rangacharya (1904-1984), one of India’s most eminent dramatists. He wrote 40 full-length and 67 one-act plays, as well as books and articles on the theatre. The following extracts are from Sriranga’s Nanna Natya Nenapagalu (My Memories of the Theatre). Although the book is about his personal experiences, it gives a picture of the theatre of the times he speaks of.
The book begins with his fascination for the theatre from the time he was a toddler, watching the plays performed in his village; moves on to his exposure to professional theatre (Marathi and Kannada) in Bijapur, then the theatre in London’s West End. It ends with his becoming a dramatist and a founder of the amateur movement in North Karnataka.
The first extract is about his experience as a spectator of the dramas (called aatas) in his village Agarkhed; the second is about the plays he saw in Bijapur.
I am not sure what my exact age was then. But I remember I wanted to kill Ravana – and I could not. I decided I would kill him with an arrow. I could not control my eagerness, which drove me into contriving an arrow out of a cane, with a thorn stuck into wax at the tip. With this I “shot” Ravana. Fortunately Ravana did not die, though, poor thing, he was badly hurt where the thorn pierced him. Ravana, by the way, was a boy of my age.
There’s a story behind this “Ramayana”. It was the custom in our village to dress up in costumes during Holi. (Or was it Rangapanchami?) I had often looked at the costumes of Rama and Ravana with delight and longed to wear them myself. But how could I, a Brahmin boy from the Jagirdar family, have done such a thing in those orthodox times? It was this disappointment that drove me into acting the drama outside the village with some friends. Actually, I didn’t know the word drama (nataka) at first. What I knew was aata – a performance. The first aata I saw was Harishchandra. Saw it? No, I was fast asleep even as it began. I opened my eyes when Vishwamitra entered, slapping down his deerskin mat. In fact, I remember nothing of the entire play except Vishwamitra. There are vague memories of Taramati kneeling, her body swaying; of her singing and weeping. When the snake that bit Rohidas appeared, (the snake was a piece of twisted black cloth) they tried to wake me up, saying “Look, the snake! Look, the snake has come!” By the time my sleepy eyes opened, Rohidas was dead and Taramati was weeping. My eyes closed once again. On our way home, when I heard the adults discussing a good scene, I complained, “Why didn’t you wake me up?” and began to cry.
Such are my early memories of drama – distant and vague, as if I’m seeing them through a dark curtain. Yes, there’s another aata I remember called “Dakshabrahmana-aata”. I slept through this entire drama. But at about two or three in the morning I woke up in fright to the terrifying sounds of war drums. The sounds were not coming from the stage, but from somewhere far away. It scared me. The sounds gradually came nearer – not only drums but trumpets, and flaming torches as well. In the midst of all this, a character danced in a very strange way. He danced the entire distance, jumped on to the stage with both feet, and made some hideous sounds. He was Virupaksha. I have no idea what he did later, or whom he killed, because I went back to sleep.
As a sleepy child, I saw only a few scenes that dazzled my eyes and stunned my ears. Actually, I got the real taste of the performance later, when I chatted with the young farm labourers who took part in the aatas, and they spoke their lines to me. I was fascinated by the way the words were put together, by the beauty of the rhymes, and the wonderful way the words were pronounced. When I was sixteen, I wrote a play called “Dharmavijaya”, which is, fortunately, lost. Here are two sentences from the play (as well as I can remember them); they clearly show the influence of the aatas I saw in my childhood:
Adhama atmagedi iduvarege ishavannu udurisi urolage ene illavendu eri airavtanante oduri odadi autukondeyellave? 1 (I guess at that age I did not know any words beginning with um and aha!) Karkasha, kakanante kitavanagi kelujanara kusangadalli kudikondu kettu Keshavannanu kai-inda kollicchisida kotiye, Kauravadhama, kangalanagi kuhpurushanadeyellave?
I think I understood the words I wrote in this play as little as the villagers understood the lines they spoke. Whatever it is, I must have been powerfully impressed by the discovery of how words could add to the artistic charm of the play.
Finally, I will speak of another performance. There is a reason for my using the word “finally”. None of the performances I have spoken of were staged by a drama company; they were generally put up by our villagers. The performance I am going to speak of now was also of this kind. This drama was called “Jayadrathavadha” (The Killing of Jayadratha). A village Gowda played Jayadratha; perhaps because the drama had Jayadratha’s name in the title, he thought Jayadratha was the hero of the drama. Which is why he was unwilling to die when Jayadratha was supposed to!
But before Jayadratha’s death, he had a dialogue with Duryodhana (I was sitting right in front) during which Jayadratha (the Gowda) forgot his lines. Poor Duryodhana, with great humility, whispered “Gowd-re, you have to speak.”
The Gowda, whispering in the same way, solemnly said “Yes.”
Duryodhana pleaded, “You have to speak.”
“I know, man. You speak,” the Gowda replied. And before Duryodhana could again say “Your lines, Gowd-re,” the Gowda said, “Will you speak, or do you want me to kick you?” Duryodhana then spoke Jayadratha’s lines as well as his own, after which the Gowda said, “The sun has set.” The scene ended and the curtain came down. I don’t know how many people enjoyed the humour of this incident like I did. Possibly the others didn’t understand it at all, because the performance generally had a religious purpose. People came to see Krishna’s glory and his Maya. What did it matter if an actor forgot his lines?
I came to Bijapur, the capital of the district, as a high school student. For a village boy, it was a very strange atmosphere; but fortunately for me, a few of my friends from the village came to Bijapur at about the same time and became our neighbours. In this place, there were no aatas. I didn’t find them necessary for some time, either. I have a vague memory of seeing a Marathi drama in the company of adults soon after going to Bijapur. Since I did not know the language, my attention was more drawn to other things, like the attractive costumes, the curtains, the lights and the classical music. I don’t remember the theme of the drama, but the acting certainly impressed me. Apart from this, the drama made no impression on me at all. And the songs, which were sung repeatedly in response to the audience’s applause and “once more’s”, bored me. If a song was to be sung over and over again, how would the story progress? Maybe it was all right for me, because I didn’t understand the language, but what about those who did? Didn’t they mind? Did drama mean nothing but songs to these spectators? I was quite dissatisfied. Perhaps, as the psychologists would say, I had a complex which came out of my own ignorance of music. The theatres were packed with spectators, but I was not interested in what I could not understand.
It was in Bijapur that I saw a real company drama for the first time. I had seen the Rastapur Company in our village. In spite of the costumes and makeup, it hadn’t seemed very alien. This Marathi drama, however, was very different. If there really were people in the world like these characters, well, they were not part of my world. The Vishwamitra in our village drama seemed a person I knew, but the people in these Marathi dramas were wholly unfamiliar. At that age, of course, I couldn’t possibly have fathomed the reason for this difference. Of all the company dramas that I saw in the next few years, both Marathi and Kannada, it was the Kannada drama “Shani Prabhava” that I enjoyed the most. One of the reasons for this was the “transfer scene”. To me, a village kid, it seemed like magic. One moment, there was King Vikram’s palace. Then bang! The stage became dark. And a moment later we saw trees instead of pillars, a boulder instead of a throne, and Vikram standing clad in rags – all this because of Shani’s curse. Each time I saw this scene, I was astonished. But once, something happened. The scene changed as usual. “Oh, what is this?” Vikram cried out sorrowfully. “Has my palace vanished and become a forest?”
A spectator from the back of the house called out, “Look! There’s still one pillar left. Hold it tight.”
The house exploded with laughter, but I was filled with uncontrollable rage, my mood shattered. When I next looked at the stage, one of the stagehands ran across, turned the pillar around and ran out. I now knew the secret of the transfer scene. Wooden planks had pictures of pillars of one side and trees on the other. All the curiosity, expectations and joy with which I had watched this scene before left me. However much I tried to forget it, I could see the pillar behind the tree. My enjoyment dissolved.
In these couple of years, though I saw a number of Kannada and Marathi dramas, no play enchanted me as did “Shani Prabhava”. One more reason for my enjoying this play was the character of the oil-crusher. His dress, his behaviour and the way he spoke – all these were very natural and made me forget the outside world. Generally the characters spoke in a high-flown literary style. Perhaps I felt that this was not my language, that it had nothing to do with me, because I never listened to such speeches as attentively as I listened to the oil-crusher. And when I heard the sound of the oil-crushing mill as it revolved, I was in a state of absolute bliss. I don’t think I have words to describe how I felt. For a long time I didn’t know that the man himself was producing these sounds.
One more reason that prevented me from enjoying other Kannada plays was that they were carbon copies of the Marathi plays I had seen, especially the music. I have never had an ear for music. Even today, I think I lack the emotional chord that will help me to understand it. But some of the songs in our village dramas did appeal to me, and I used to hum them all the time. When my friends and I staged our own plays, I sang them with the right emotions and expressions. And if I forgot some of the words, I would make up my own; despite my ignorance of the taal, they would somehow fit in. But the songs in these dramas were quite different. The actor would come to the edge of the stage and sing as if the songs had no connection with the play. Very often he sang till he was exhausted. And when you sighed in relief, thinking it was finally over, a “Once more” would come from somewhere in the audience and, alas, he would start singing all over again.
I was upset because this stalled the drama. Maybe I could have enjoyed the music as a child, but then I used to fall asleep. The music was an imitation of the music in Marathi plays. In fact, even the names were copied from the Marathi theatre. There was a “Kannada Gandharva” in a company – a response to the Gandharva in the Marathi theatre. I saw this Kannada Gandharva, but I have no memory of his music. Soon the imitation went further and came out into the open. The Kannada theatre openly converted Marathi plays such as “Sant Sakhubai”, “Bhakta Damaji”, and “Mahamaya” into Kannada. After seeing companies put up these imitations like stale left-overs, I lost the desire to see them and gave up the habit.
When we were high school students in Bijapur, it was not only a matter of pride to see Marathi dramas, it was also considered fashionable. This was the attitude of the adults, and we naturally followed them. The day after seeing a Marathi play, we strutted about among our friends in school. There were other reasons for this pride too. Like the oil-crusher, who even today seems to me one of the great actors of the Kannada stage, I had the good fortune of seeing some of the great Marathi actors of the time. First, Bal Gandharva. As I said earlier, I had no knowledge of Marathi. But the moment this actor stepped on the stage in a female role, it was a feast for your eyes. In your joy, your eyes triumphed over your mind and it never occurred to you that this was a man playing a female role. His dress, his behaviour, his laughter, his speech, his facial expressions – all these were easily and comfortably female. Though I had no knowledge of either the language or the music, he made me understand him merely through the modification of his tone and his expressions. Such was the skill of this great actor! Why shouldn’t I, a mere schoolboy, be proud that I had the chance to see him? But I have no idea how this pride, which came out of having been able to see something rare, was affected by the fact that he was not one of us – not a Kannada man. I can only remember the facts now.
There are two more unforgettable Marathi actors I saw on the stage at about this time. One of these was Ganpatrao Joshi. As a writer now, I have a large vocabulary at my command and can describe his acting with a shower of adjectives. But it will not satisfy me; on the contrary, it is possible that it may work against my intentions, for my words may impress you more than his acting. And so I will speak of Ganpatrao through my memories of the happiness of a child who did not have a great many words at his command.
The first sight of the short stout man with sunken eyes was not impressive; but this was just for a moment. As soon as he began to speak, you sat up. By the time he had completed his first sentence, you forgot the world. What a voice! What awesome control he had over it! When he spoke, your hair stood on end. Joshi had the power to evoke different expressions even on the faces of the spectators. They say he drank a lot, that he was, very often, not in his right senses. Let that be. This world has never had a good word for an actor. When you watched Joshi on the stage and became part of that wonderful world, you realised how trivial such things were. God, if he is truly wise, will give him enough to drink, so that he can witness rare acting skill.
The other Marathi actor I remember is Ganpatrao Bodas. There have been times when actors flaunted labels such as “hero” and “comic actor”. But when I first saw Ganpatrao Bodas, such categories did not exist. The company, following their tradition, used to have shows on Wednesdays and Saturday nights, and also on Sunday afternoons. And so Bodas, who wrung our hearts with pity and terror on Saturday night, made us laugh on Sunday, laugh so much that we could not sit still in our seats. But yes, I forget, I could say this about Ganpatrao Joshi as well. He usually acted in a drama of about two and a half hours. But since the audience wanted a four hours show, a short comedy was tagged on to the main drama. And so Joshi displayed, in just one night, the same versatility that Bodas revealed on two different days. I have still not forgotten how Joshi, after a thrilling performance in a serious drama called “Rana Bhimadeva”, reduced us to hysterics in a short comic piece based on a story in the Arabian Nights. (It was called “Jhopi gelela jaga jhala”, or “He Who Fell Asleep Wakes”). We laughed and laughed till we were breathless; tears poured down our cheeks and our bottoms grew sore with all our twisting and turning in our seats. Even the bugs biting us must have become unconscious with the constant slapping of our thighs!
Bal Gandharva and Ganpatrao Bodas
Image courtesy http://theatreforum.in/static/cache/56/cd/56cd88ceae55d740436314e559a3cd8c.jpg
Joshi died soon after, but I was able to see Bodas a number of times on the stage. He had a very clear voice which he could raise to any volume, to any decibel, yet he knew how to control it so that it dropped to a tiny whisper. His acting depended less on actions and more on facial expressions. He could draw attention to himself even when he was in the midst of several actors. He had the ability to arouse our emotions the moment he stepped on the stage, even before a word was spoken. It was because of such qualities that his acting held us entranced.
When I speak of these actors, I feel the need to bring up the subject of voice control. For various reasons, actors today, whether amateurs or professionals, lack both a good voice and the art of modifying it. Microphones cause this unfortunate situation. We spend crores on constructing large theatres instead of building smaller ones which will do away with the need for mikes. This, according to me, is tantamount to destroying the theatre. It is because of their voices and their voice control that Ganpatra Joshi and Ganpatra Bodas were such great actors. They excelled equally as heroes and as comic actors. The truth is, there is only one category – a great actor. You can’t have different categories like the heroic and the comic.
The Marathi stage at the time had some pure prose dramas as well, and a few drama companies performed only these. Music had no place in these dramas. Some of these were historical, relating the past glory of the Maratha Empire. These plays influenced me in another way. Bijapur was the capital of the Adil Shah Kingdom – a Muslim kingdom. The Marathi dramas I saw depicted the struggle of nationalistic Hindus against Muslim kingdoms. Inevitably, I, a resident of Bijapur, identified myself with the patriotic Hindus of the past. The town was littered with ruined forts. And I remember that it was here that I, along with some friends, enacted scenes I created out of my imagination. (I never wrote these pieces.) This was done in the daytime, without costumes, spectators or even any expectation of spectators. My early interest in watching dramas, the aatas and the influence of individual actors – all these took a different form after I saw the historical dramas. The shape became clear after I saw a sparkling performance of “Narangi Nishan” (“The Saffron Flag”), a drama that was the combined effort of some Marathi writers and actors. It was then that I discovered myself. I was a dramatist.