Nandikar could never have imagined that the small theatre festival they started in 1984 would grow into one of the most respected annual national platforms 30 years on, and possibly the oldest continuous one in India. Two of their seasoned and popular invitees featured on the first few days this year.
Spandana (Bangalore) resurrected a Kannada blockbuster from the 1930s — a rare and laudable job because most people ignore our rich corpus of pre-Independence drama, assuming its obsolescence. Sadarame, based by the foremost commercial playwright-music composer, Bellave Narahari Sastri, on a folktale, became a huge hit for Gubbi Veeranna’s professional company, even filmed in 1935 by pioneer director Raja Chandrasekhar. Spandana’s director, B. Jayashree, granddaughter of Veeranna, virtually holds the intellectual rights to it — another point of historical interest.
The romance of beautiful Sadarame with a prince sounds cliched today, but the comic subplots still reverberate, so Jayashree stressed them when editing the typically sprawling six-hour script. But the production got trapped in a limbo. Rather than modernize, she revived the Company Nataka hallmark of gorgeous painted scenery and period costumes, yet for technical hitches could hang only one backcloth, which ended up a static dampener. She cast performers for their singing instead of acting abilities, so her hero left no histrionic impression; besides, the miked instrumentalists drowned the unamplified vocals. The standard rose much later, when she herself entered in male impersonation as the thief originally created by Veeranna, entertaining with perfect timing, expressions, asides to the audience and singing in various registers (see the photo of her bewilderment at the heroine wearing a man’s disguise). But she did not inculcate these skills in the rest, other than the comedians, notably Adimurthy.
Natya Chetana, the Odisha theatre commune, has participated four times in the last five years, as a result its house style of energetic ensemble work and bamboo set has become common knowledge. Suya, written by Pranabandhu Kar and director Subodh Pattanaik, described corruption in the public distribution system. Pattanaik could easily dispense with the introductory scenes evoking the British raj and freedom struggle. Corrupt merchants, police and politicians oppressing villagers, however pertinent, are also not new for Natya Chetana. Although Pattanaik’s protagonists vow to abjure the dishonest urban methods they felt impelled to adopt, he has provided enough criticism, and now needs to offer concrete models of rural autonomy and self-governance as alternatives.