Unique style of drama struggling for survival in Andhra

The Dum Maaro Dum fame Daggubati Rana has donned the role of a grandson of a drama artiste played by Kota Srinivasa Rao in his latest Tollywood flick Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum.

A techie by profession, the protagonist leaves the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in the US to stay back and fulfill his grandfather’s dream of reviving the dying art of drama.

Less dramatic though, in Andhra Pradesh, where dramas are still staged and appreciated by select group of audience, one can find the zeal, reminiscent of Rana’s character to protect one particular style of drama padyana­ta­kam.  It comprises many padyams (verses) but very few dialogues.

In dramas or natakams, as they are called in Andhra Pradesh, the emphasis was more on acting and dramatisation rather than rendering padyams with elaborate aalapan of ragas. However, in padyanatakams, the stress is on rendering padyams in a lucid way to enable audience to understand the words and meaning of  padyams.

“On stage, main characters of Sri Kri­shna, Sri Rama, Duryodhana and Harishchandra had to sing about 60 to 80 short verses in place of dialogues. One has to practice every day to remember the stanzas and also the raga that goes with it,” said J Jaganmohan Rao of Nataraja Natya Kalamandali, one of the groups trying to popularise this style.

Past Glory

In the past few decades, tickets were intr­oduced to meet the production costs and the actors had to sing the padyams with elaborate ragas (dhirgaalapana) to stay in the race for audience appreciation. Contr­actors took over the running of the dram­as and to make profits, started the practice of casting three or four artistes to do the main characters who could sing for a long period to cater to the taste of the audience.

There used to be hero worship for stage actors. Audience, paticularly in the coastal Andhra Pradesh, used to buy tickets for dramas if their favourite artiste and singer of padyams was in the star cast. The contractors and some artistes made a lot of money.

“As a result, the dramatic element started to take a back seat. The performance on stage became a sort of fight between popular actor-singers to outwit one another with prolonged raga alapana in the highest pitch possible without any regard for content of the verse and action and bhava,” said Mandali Budha Prasad, the newly appointed Chairman of Telugu Bhasha Sangham, and an avid fan of padyanatakams.

One peculiar aspect, a later addition to the tradition, was the “once more”. Audience will shout once more and some of the fans came to the stage and offered cash and the announcer interrupted the show to announce the reward. “The once more has become so viral that when an artiste who is supposed to die after singing his padya with full raga, wakes up sings and dies again as the audience shout,” Suthi Velu, famous Telugu comedian and once a drama artiste, recalled.

He said that a few groups that are still trying to keep the style of dramas alive are surviving on these small token of appreciation on stage donations.
“One has to spend Rs 50,000 for a single performance on transportation, food, make up, payment to artistes and musicians, rent for costumes and so on.

Therefore, we sing repeatedly if the audience demand. As there is no one to buy tickets to watch padyanatakams, this helps us,” Anji, who is an electrician by profession and drama artiste by choice, reasoned out.

Some of the actors who are famous for their prolonged breathless singing of the ragas, were Abburi Varaprasada Rao, Eelapata Raghuramaiah, Shanmukhi Anjeneya Raju, Prithvi Venkateswarlu, Sampathnagar Lakshmana Rao, A V Subba rao, G Jayraj, Abburi Kamala Devi,
T Kanakam, DV Subba Rao and Pisapati Narasimha Murthy and the last named was the most notable villain.

The famous padyanatakams whose scripts are still available and circulating are Gayopakhyanam (1890), Pandava Vijayam (1903), Pandava Udyogam (1911) Satya Harishchandra (1912), Chitra Naliyam, Sati Savithri, Shankunthala, Paaduka Pattabhishekam, Bhoo Kailaas, Thara Sasankam, Sri Krishna Thulabharam, Venkateswara Mahathya, Veni Samharam, Bhaktha Prahlada, Sri Ramanjaneya Yuddham, Myravana and Balarama Vijayam.

To protect the art of padyanatakams, the Andhra Pradesh government instituted Nandi Nataka Parishath in 1999. The Andhra Pradesh State Film, TV and Drama Development Corporation conducts competitions. Ten padyanatakams are selected for the parishath's final competitions. The best performance gets cash award of Rs 15,000.

 Cash amounts and Nandi plaques coated with gold, silver and bronze are given for artistes. Nandis are awarded for other categories such as best production, best actor, actress, villain, comedian, character actor/actress, director, script-writer, child actor, make-up, sets, lighting are awarded after scrutiny by a committee.

Sri Venkateswara Nataka Kalaparis­hath has been giving away cash awards from 1955, at Tirupati and it is sponsored by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) and others.

This parishath encourages mono acting, an act of one-hour duration based on historical, mythological or folklore themes. TTD Public Relations Officer Ravi said that full length padyana­takams (two and half-a-hour  duration), should be based on mythological and devotional subjects only.

Pantham Padmanadham Memorial Nataka Parishat of Kakinada was started in memory of Pantham Padmanabham, former MLA and a popular leader.
Full-length padyanatakams were given cash awards.

Srinivasa Natya Mandali (Hyderabad) was founded by Emani Uma Maheswara Rao, a registrar in Andhra Pradesh High court, and his co-artistes. He acted in the main roles in all dramas, which were staged throughout the state, and in competitions.

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