Identifying Krishna was easy! Obviously he was the one with the blue body and trademark gold crown with peacock feathers. By association, we assumed that it was Arjuna standing next to Krishna. They were both dressed in their mythological finery with gold crowns, assorted jewelry, silk costumes and gaudy, garish makeup! I was about 10 years old and this incredible (and indelible) scene played out near my house in SVR Colony in Hyderabad. It was part of the Rama Navami celebrations in our colony – which used to be celebrated with much pomp and ceremony, on a grand scale, over several days! There was a huge Shamiana (tent) and a stage setup on our street in front of Sriram Murthy Uncle’s house. Earlier in the day there were elaborate poojas and other traditional rituals (Seeta-Rama Kalyanam) on that stage, which was beautifully decorated with garlands of chrysanthemum and jasmine as well as mango leaf ‘thoranams’. The rituals ended with the distribution of yummy Prasadam, which was always the highlight of my day! Each night, there were wonderful cultural programs on the stage that regaled us late into the night. The highlight for that particular evening was a mythological drama – an episode from Mahabharata. While everyone was waiting patiently for the drama to start, a few of us sneaked “back stage” – which was really the road in front of Chandraiah uncle’s house! We just stood there wide eyed – gawking at these larger than life actors! When I saw the “Arjuna” actor take a couple of puffs on a cigarette – it just blew me away! That image has been burned into the 10 year old’s memory forever! Before we could recover, a couple of aunties from the colony stopped by to do “hArathi” for the actors. They spotted us and yelled at us to go back and sit with the rest of the audience.
That night’s performance was my first significant exposure to actors and acting and it made quite an impression on me (along with the incongruous ‘Smoking Arjuna’, of course)! Those guys did a superb job of conveying the story through songs and powerful dialog. It did not matter that they had minimal set decoration or musical accompaniment (just a Harmonium) to work with! I was totally mesmerized and transported to a different world altogether! Such was the power of their acting and storytelling! Right then and there I decided that I wanted to be an actor!
This should be Child’s play.. right?
I got my first shot at acting the following year on that same stage – thanks to Smt. Ganga Bhavani – who used to run the colony’s Baalananda Sangham. She was a kind-hearted and patient lady. She probably saw something in me (or it was a case of affirmative action – and mediocre kids needed to be represented as well)! I was given a role with a grand total of 2 lines. I was extremely thrilled. I practiced these lines over and over again. The play was called “InTi mandhu sOnTi kashaayam”. On the D-day, when it was my big moment – I clearly remember taking one look at the audience and panicking! I totally froze and barely whispered the lines! Luckily for the play and the rest of the cast, it turned out that my lines were inconsequential anyway!
In spite of my less than stellar debut, Ganga Bhavani garu did not give up on me! She gave me yet another acting role – in fact several of them – in a serial Radio Drama that our Baalananda Sangham performed on the Baalanandam program (with Nyayapati Raghava Rao and Nyayapati Kameshwari as Radio Annayya and Akkayya) at All India Radio, Hyderabad! This drama aired on several Sundays and I went around boasting to everyone that I was a star on the Radio. It didn’t matter that I was only playing bit roles – as a servant of the side-kick or part of crowd scenes! That’s how all big stars got their start anyway… right?
During school days, final exam time meant three things – scheduled power cuts, Rama Navami celebrations in the colony and drama competitions at Dad’s office (AG’s office). Telugu Nataka Samithi was the cultural organization at AG’s office and they had their annual drama competitions almost always in April. I was so addicted to these that even during exams, I would walk all the way to the office (2-3 kms), watch every single drama and then walk back home late at night (even if no one from the family came along). I have fond memories of many wonderful performances that I experienced in that open air auditorium. I got a chance to watch amateur thespians as well as seasoned veterans perform on that stage. Paruchuri Venkateshwara Rao – who went on to make his mark as a writer in the movie industry was from AG’s office and was a regular at these competitions. I saw multiple performances by Rallapalli, before he became a successful movie actor. I saw gripping and hilarious performances of “Kanyasulkam” by J.V.Ramanamurthy (as Gireesham) and J.V.Somayajulu (before his successful crossover into the movie industry via “Sankarabharanam”) twice in that year – once at AG’s office auditorium and again at Ravindra Bharati. I was so obsessed with this performance that I used to go around repeating the funny dialogs from Kanayasulkam for weeks!
Breaking a leg (again)!
When I was in 8th grade or so, I found out that they were looking for actors for the school play! I jumped at the opportunity! Once again, I got a role with barely a few lines. I guess my notoriety of excelling at such minimal roles had spread far and wide by then! This Hindi play called “Mrityu Mantri” was to be performed at the school Annual day function. It was an off campus event – at Indira Priyadarshini Auditorium in Public Gardens. Back then it was the 2nd most impressive stage in Hyderabad (after Ravindra Bharati)! So, as you can imagine, it was a fairly big deal! During rehearsals, I received compliments from our Hindi teacher (who was the director of the play).
Obviously he had high expectations – because he had heard (mostly from me) about my amazing performance on the Radio Drama! On the day of the performance my entire extended family was there to show support! Some of them helped me with my makeup! From backstage, I could hear the bursts of laughter from the audience! Finally it was my turn to make a grand entrance – for which I got a couple of laughs (as expected)! When I turned to face the audience to deliver my precious dialog – my knees started shaking! I froze and just mumbled my lines. The other guy on stage had to repeat my lines! Luckily, it was publicized beforehand that this was a rip-roaring comedy! So, the audience thought all this – including my incoherent mumbling was part of the play!!
I was beginning to see a pattern. Maybe acting wasn’t really my forte! While I loved being a theater junkie – I had decided that I should look elsewhere for better career (and even hobby) options!
My Regards to Broadway!
My first exposure to Broadway style performances was when I saw the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” in New York. It was a mind blowing experience! The scale of the performance – the number of performers involved, the amazing split-second set changes from a street scene to ornate palace to an ice skating rink was nothing short of miraculous. The entire live orchestra (pit band) of about 30 performers moves from below the stage to the stage level and then is moved 6 feet above the stage level – all while continuing to perform (without missing a beat)! A few years later, we experienced the magic of musical theater – when we saw “Thoroughly Modern Millie” – a Tony award winning musical on Broadway! I wish, if at all possible, that everyone who is in the vicinity could experience at least one Broadway show! It will be an experience that you will never forget!
If you are in the US, there is an easier and cheaper way to experience ‘almost’ Broadway – by checking out your local high school performances! Our local high school, where both of my daughters graduated from, has a wonderful theater program and they put on amazing plays, twice a year. They spend months planning these shows. There are a couple of rounds of auditions to pick the entire cast. Other than the guiding theater staff – the entire show is by the students – including set decoration, costumes, music, choreography etc. I had the opportunity to experience the following amazing performances over the past few years – Music Man, Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast, Crucible, Children of Eden and Brigadoon. For $10 you get to sample almost Broadway like shows, which in NY would end up costing you ~$200 and up!
While a career in the performing arts did not work out for me, I am still crazy about the theater and do hold stage performers in very high regard! Each year, I sit down with chips, salsa and other assorted unhealthy appetizers to enjoy the Tony awards show on TV, the way most people do for Super Bowl! When I watch those amazing live performances, after I applaud and admire the actors – I always end up with self-pity – “if it weren’t for the crippling stage fright, lack of any discernible talent or a face which was meant for Radio – that could easily have been me on that stage!!”
(This article was published in the “TANA 20th Conference Souvenir” in July 2015)