The theatre in Telangana is witnessing a positive trend, courtesy booming theatre groups in various multinational companies and emergence of enthusiasts from different professions. With the State’s support through the Department of Language and Culture, theatre arts in Telangana received the much-needed thrust. Regular plays at Ravindra Bharathi and events like ‘Telangana Yuva Natakothsavalu’ are giving an impetus in taking the theatre forward in Telangana. The turnout to this bi-annual event is steadily increasing which goes to showcase a clear picture of the furtherance of theatre culture in Telangana.
Albeit, there is not much documentation about the history of this art, references by theatre artists point out to a period as early as 1920 when ‘nataka mandalis’ began budding. The theatre art or plays in those times were mainly dominated by plays based on ‘padya kavithalu’. However, new theatre techniques which were prevalent in neighbouring States like Karnataka and Maharashtra weren’t focused on much.
An introduction of new theatre techniques in erstwhile Nizam State can be credited to Molugu Bangla Hanmanth Rao Deshpande. A first generation Telangana dramatist, Deshpande invited ‘Surabhi’ theatre artists to make his village – Veloor in present Siddipet district – their home.
Surabhi artists were pioneers in developing a new theatre technique and brought about a professional look to the art. The techniques Surabhi family introduced then in their plays can be compared to present-day computer graphics used in movies. It was such a path-breaking invention during the pre-Independence era that made the audience flock in large numbers to the play.
Deshapande’s grandson artist Laxmi Kiran, a recipient of Nandi award in Television and Theatre arts, says, “My grandfather’s love for theatre arts was from his father Molugu Venkata Lakshmi Narasimha Rao, who was a member of Nachagiri Lakshmi Narasimha Nataka Mandali which started performing plays in the early 1920s.” He adds that their family also patronised traditional art forms such as ‘yaksha ganam’, ‘golla suddulu’, ‘oggu kathalu’, and ‘burra kathalu’.
Interestingly, Deshpande’s quest to bring a professional theatre group to his home State was due to an encounter he had with Dharwad Nataka Samajam in Bangalore. Impressed by the then modern techniques, Deshpande invited Dharwad artists to his village, but to no avail. This incident made him reach out to Madapati Hanumantha Rao, a poet and noted politician. Camaraderie between Deshapande and Rao began during the Andhra Maha Sabha in Jogipet in 1930.
Rao directed Deshpande to a renowned theatre artist Sthanam Narasimha Rao who was based in Madras, but even he refused Deshpande’s invitation citing distance as the reason. Noticing the resolute man’s interest, Narasimha Rao told Deshpande about the Surabhi artists who were from the Vanarasa clan – nomadic tribes staying in Cuddapah then. They derived modern theatre techniques from Dharwad Nataka Samajam who were already professionals in the field. By mixing Dharwad mastery with local folklore and ‘padya kavithas’, a new method called Surabhi technique was born.
Deshapande’s pursuit to show something new to his people came to an end with this meet. He was successful in inviting the Surabhi troupe to Veloor. Deshapande provided the artistes with a big house which later became popular as ‘naatakolla illu’ (drama artists’ house).
Thus, Deshpande pioneered in giving a professional and modern outlook to drama in Telangana. The first play in Nizam State with the new technique was staged in 1930. The mesmerising techniques employed by Surabhi attracted everyone to their plays. Deshapande has organised workshops in his village for theatre lovers and took theatre to the next level. He also donated some part of his land to the Surabhi artistes settled in his village.
As Deshpande’s health condition deteriorated due to paralysis, so did the theatre scene. “Plagued by World War II and the Razakar movement in Telangana, the modern theatre lost its glory,” shares Laxmi Kiran who is continuing his grandfather’s legacy and striving to uncover his grandfather’s efforts in launching a new theatre movement in Telangana. Having spent a major part of his 87-year life for theatre arts, Deshpande breathed his last on September 12, 1969.