“Theatre for the people, of the people and to BUY the people”
Chatla Sreeramulu is the only man to have taught at all four universities that have a department of theatre arts in Andhra Pradesh, also, the first artiste from the state to receive Emeritus Fellowship from the Human Resources Department of the Government of India. He was awarded the certificate of ‘Producer and Teacher’ by the British Drama League, London in 1970. He has been awarded ‘Best Actor’ twice by Andhra Nataka Kala Parishad and has received the State Natak Akademi Award (1982). He has been the chairman of the Nandi TV Awards Committee (2001) and member of the Nandi Film Awards Committee. He is a Member, Board of Studies of four universities in A.P. He is associated with the theatre group, Rasaranjini.
Q. Where would you place the theatre scenario in Andhra Pradesh in general and Hyderabad in particular?
A. Theatre is vibrant in Andhra Pradesh and Hyderabad. That can be said now as opposed to before 1950. Theatre began and flourished after 1950 as Hyderabad emerged as a central city for A.P. I am against the sweeping statement made by M.S. Sathyu that theatre is dead. There are around 200 theatre groups in the twin cities and of them about 60 are active; and I am speaking solely of Telugu theatre. Kanadda and Marathi theatre haven’t done as much yeoman service to theatre as much as Telugu theatre has. There is theatre in places like Vijayawada, Guntur and Bapatla as well. Rasaranjini, of which I was a part, did over 2000 performances in 17 years. Crores roll into the industry.
Q. Is that enough?
A. We are happy but want more. I say ‘vibrant’ only to the tunes of drawing ‘a section’ of the audience to the plays. The audience is all above 40 years of age. Telugu theatre fails to attract new energy to it. Also, the fact that television and cinema offer glamour, fame and money doesn’t serve the cause of theatre. There is a cultural corruption in our society and the arts. Economic sufficiency has made us poor. A.P. is second in terms of economic prosperity after Punjab, but second last when it comes to cultural richness.
Q. But, there is theatre for the rich and it offers good money.
A. Yes, they are the rich and the gorgeous. That is highbrow theatre. Where on one hand, theatre is facing a lack of sponsorship; this is a theatre for the people, of the people and to BUY the people.
Q. Would you blame the Government for the current state of affairs?
A. No. For a play by Manju Bhargavi in Nuvid on May 9, 2008, the Department of Culture sponsored Rs. two lakh. A single performance costed 2.6 lakh! Further, the government’s Nandi Awards is a great initiative in competitive arts, but sadly fests in the name of competition are no good. We have gotten used to it. Nandi has become a mania: ‘I want to participate in the Nandi Awards and win a prize!’ Since its inception a decade back, the Nandi has been given to so many people that soon there will be no one without a Nandi award! It becomes cheap then. Not everyone can be an Academy Award winner.
The government can do some good by providing more theatres for performances. You can’t construct a theatre on burial grounds and expect the audience to go there. Not everyone can go to a ShilpaRamam. If a Lubini Park and an NTR Park is possible; why can’t we have a place where 300 – 400 people can sit in a tranquil atmosphere and enjoy a production? We don’t want a 600 or more capacity hall: a play would then become a mere song and dance spectacle; theatre is all about connecting with the audience.
Q. What else plagues the industry, then?
A. Theatre has four P’s: the Play, the Players, the Playhouse and the Playgoers. The plays are bad, the players aren’t up to the mark, there are no playhouses to properly market the plays and the playgoers are undisciplined. By directing a play or acting in one, I am the loser. The audience never loses. The artistes today do. Not just in A.P. or India, but throughout the world, there are no good plays being written.
Q. What is a good play?
A. A good play is one that reflects life’s truth; it is an imagination based on observed fact. Playwrights today are ignoring the peripheral aspects of theatre like photography, dance, martial arts, music, magic and sculpture. Especially Telugu theatre is stuck with the spoken word and suffers from verbosity. Gurajada Apparao, who may be called the first Telugu theatre director, and Kandukuri Veeresalingam, who may be understood as the first producer for Telugu theatre, felt the dire need for a good play. (Gurajada Apparao later wrote ‘Kanyasulkam’, a celebrated Telugu play set in the Andhra region exploring the conditions of Brahmin widows in the 19th century). Various art forms have to be brought into the folds of theatre for it is a medium of live communication. It is a person to person experience of one great art that encompasses all performing and visual arts. Watching the play ‘Satyavadi Harishchandra’ made the father of our nation Mahatma Gandhi vow allegiance to truth all his life. A good play is an intimate correction process.
Q. How would you comment on the theatre education scene in the state?
A. There are four universities giving theatrical instruction in the state: Andhra University, Central University, Telugu University and Osmania University. People from Kerala and Tamil Nadu also come here for training. However, unfortunately, theatre education has become adult education. Most enrolments to these courses are people in the age group of 35 – 45. It doesn’t serve the purpose of giving new lease to the industry because the youth is absent. Education must start at the roots. Along with games and other co-curricular activities, theatre too must be introduced at the elementary school level and the child must be able to decide whether or not s/he wants to take to theatre professionally.
The National School of Drama spends Rs. five lakh per student per annum for three years in a row. In their second year, most students go to Mumbai and meet their contacts in the television or silver screen industries. They meet other NSD graduates and ‘book’ their places in the industry. They pass out in another year and go straight to TV or movies. What of all the money spent by the government on them? It should be made mandatory for every NSD graduate to devote three years to community theatre. Only then will the youth awaken to the power of theatre.
Q. What is the social function of theatre?
A. Theatre emotionally and mentally elevates man to larger self-awakening. When a man grows intellectually and is enlightened, he translates into being a strong axis for nation building. Theatre personality J.P. Priestly once famously said in 1947 at UNESCO: ‘The theatre is particularly important in the field of international understanding. A well written play finely acted may do more than fifty speeches by well meaning politicians. It shows the people, their hopes and fears, doubts and dreams.’
To propel such an intellectual strengthening is a great service to mankind.