A lifetime of theatre

Theatre is the vocation for three generations of Davangere’s Chindodi family. Apart from professional folk artistes, it is rare to find such instances in theatre. It is indeed an adventure to run a drama company, through hard and good times for long. However, the Chindodi family has run the company successfully, for a very long time, after Gubbi Veeranna’s Company.

The Sri Karibasaveshwara Sangeeta Nataka Mandali, founded by Annigeri (Shanta) Veerappa in 1928 had gained a place in the hearts of many, staging several musical and mythological plays. Impressed with Shantaveerappa’s singing and acting talent, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the King of Mysore, felicitated him with the title Gayana Gandharva and a golden bracelet (todevu). From then on, people began addressing Shantaveerappa as Chinnada todevu Veerappa which slowly became Chindodi; the family name Annigeri was almost forgotten.

A family affair

Chindodi Veerappa had five sons, including eldest son Chindodi Veerappa, the well-known comedian and singer of Kannada theatre.

After their father’s death, theatre became the profession of all the five sons. After a few years, in 1953, they changed the name of the company to Sri KBR (Kari Basava Rajendra) Drama Company. Under the elder brother’s guidance, Dodda Karibasappa mastered the art of painting drama scenes, Sanna Karibasappa took over the company’s management.
Shivaraj took up the responsibility of the Company Mess (boarding) while the youngest brother Shantaraj, who learnt the harmonium is responsible for publicising the plays. Acting and singing is an invariable part of their engagement with thetare.

 Their youngest sister Leela donned the grease paint when she was just five. Leela, who grew up to receive the Padma Shri award and is nearly as old as the company itself, played the lead till about two-and-a half years ago. KBR became a prestigious drama company by staging such well known plays as Gunasagari, Shakuntala, Pathani Pasha and Brahmachariya Maga from 1950s right through 1970s.

The play Halli Hudugi, written by Davangere Kola Shantappa, which proved to be a superhit was staged around 6,000 times between 1960 and 1970, a record.
When Halli Hudugi was staged in Hubli, the collection of Raj Kapoor’s Jis Desh Mein Ganga Bahti Hai had dwindled! (B R Pantulu, who watched Leela’s bold performance in the play, offered her a role in films. (Leela acted in more than 50 films before returning to the world of theatre).

Halli Hudugi, an effective portrayal of the contrasting impact of modern education on a joint family had Leela playing the village girl’s role, while one brother played her husband and another played her lover. Leela’s performance was considered bold for those days. People were also mesmerised with Veerappa’s singing and the light comedy.

Most of the family’s next generation have dedicated their creative skills to the world of theatre. Chindodi Bangaresh, Chandradhar, Shambhulingappa, Madhukesh, Vijayakumar, S R Radha, Nirmala, C B Savitramma - the list is long. Eight to ten family members essayed 10-15 roles in a play alongside several famous artistes.

Wider reach...

Given the spectacular rise of the company, it was but natural for the company to spread around some more.

Bangaresh, Leela and Srikantesh all opened branches of the company from time to time. Now, the touring wing of the company is under Chindodi Shambhulingappa while the main company is looked after by Srikantesh.

After Chindodi Veerappa, Leela managed the entire KBR group from the 1980s and the company was feted for its achievements recently by former President APJ Abdul Kalam.

Leading from the front

Led by Leela, the KBR Drama Company camped at Belgaum for 10 years continuously (1980-1990), kindling the Kannada fire. The Marathi-speaking people troubled them no end, ensuring they didn’t get a place to camp.

But all the pro-Kannada activists, advocate Bellad, Union minister B Shankaranand, journalists and writers supported Leela, who took the battle to the Supreme Court and emerged victorious. She then staged ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji’ and won over Marathi hearts.
She even became a Municipal Council member, contesting from a Marathi-dominated area. (The ward from which she contested had 1,600 Marathi voters and Muslims 600, while Kannadigas numbered only 600). 

Leela proved a worthy heroine, not only in dramas, but also in real life.

Padma Shri Leela, who evolved into an actor par excellence and a fighter, has been accorded many honours including the prestigious Gubbi Veeranna Award, the Centre’s Sangeet Natak Academy Award, Rajyotsava Award etc.

Leela has built an auditorium each in Belgaum and Davangere. The one in Belgaum, Kannada Samskruti Kala Kendra is available to Kannadigas on lower rent. The Chindodi Leela Rangamandira in Davangere was recently inaugurated.

Leela was made the Nataka Academi chief in 1992 by then chief minister S Bangarappa, the first time such an honour was extended to a professional artiste like her. Leela streamlined both professional and amateur theatres during her tenure, to the admiration of many.

At the same time, her Polisana Magalu play staged in the Gubbi Veeranna Rangamandira, Bangalore entered the Guinness Book of World Records for an unbroken run of 1,132 shows.
A theatre company staging 100, 200 or 300 shows of a single play is nothing new in theatre history; several companies emulate each other in this aspect. But staging 1,132 shows at a stretch is awesome indeed.
(Translated by B S Srivani)

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