This morning we were taken out of the claustrophobic confines of the city to the broad expanse of fields, streets and squares of villages. Three speakers Meegada Ramalinga Sastry, Arimalam Padmanabhan and Balakrishna Bhatt spoke and demonstrated the music of the theatre styles of Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The first speaker Meegada Ramalinga Sastry came in traditional Andhra costume of panchakaccha, kurta and a lovely angavastram that I would do anything to possess. He also wore ear studs, todas on the wrists and several rings. And when he sang, what music it was. Beats several of todays classical musicians hollow. He had gamaka shuddham, sruti shuddham and could sing wonderful bhrigas. Beginning with a verse that asks people to come and pay homage to the Telugu mother, he stated that out of the 500 or more Padya Natakas available in Telugu, only five are presented regularly. These are Satya Harischandra, Gayopakhyana of Chilakamarti Lakshminarasingaiah, Pandava Udyoga Vijaya of the Tirupati Venkata Kavulu, Sriramanjaneya Yuddha and Chintamani.

He sang verses from Harischandra first. These had the themes of Gangavatarana, the philosophy of life and death and also several moving verses from the cremation ground scene in the play. It was amazing that those of us not familiar with Telugu could also understand. Dr Pappu Venugopala Rao explained at certain places. Then followed several dramatic verses from Sri Krishna Pratignya when He visits the Kauravas for the last time before the war and tries to negotiate for five villages for the Pandavas. Lastly, at the request of Prof TR Subrahmanyam he also sang Adigo Dwaraka which is a verse describing Krishna’s capital city. An amazing offshoot of this was Dr Pappu singing two verses one romantic and the other a Telugu version of Subadhra Kumari Chauhan’s poem on the plight of flowers (vaguely remembered reading this in school) called Pushpa Vilapa Kavyam.

Arimalam Padmanabhan spoke on music in the plays of Sankar Das Swamigal (1867-1923), the man who pioneered the concept of the Boys Companies in Madras. He began by singing Kayada Kanagathe, the song for Valli Tirumanam which was composed by Swamigal over a 110 years ago and which is still sung in theatres all over Tamil Nadu. Swamigal was trained by his father and by Vannasarabham Dandapani Swamigal who made him a master of the chandam. In fact after Arunagirinatha, it is Sankaradas Swamigal who is considered the next master in that field and Chandam Sankaradas is a frequently used expression. Several of the Boys Company greats made it big in films and most of them could sing well (The TKS Bros, Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, TS Baliah and others could sing really well). The speaker mentioned that among the last few of the Boys Companies were MN Nambiar who died recently and SS Rajendran is perhaps the sole survivor. He said that SSR knew of several of the drama songs by heart.

Swamigal used songs in place of dialogues and composed them in the styles of kritis, javali, tillana, Parsi mettu and ghazal. He used Tamil verse models such as venba, kalippa, kalitturai, chandam and vannam as well. Swamigal was the first man to write scripts for Tamil plays. Till then it was all an oral tradition. He used the Rama Natakam of Arunachala Kavi and the Nandan Charittiram of Gopalakrishna Bharati as his models and subsequently, while he wrote plays on a number of themes, he never touched these two subjects, such was his respect for the two authors.  Swamigal’s scripts brought about standardisation in Tamil drama which enabled two actors from different theatre groups to come together and act in a play at short notice without any prior rehearsal. The speaker compared it the Carnatic tradition where a singer, a violinist and percussionists from different schools come together and successfully perform a concert.

The most famous star from Swamigal’s troupe was SG Kittappa and he wrote several songs exclusively for Kittappa. One among these which was demonstrated was Eno ennai ezhuppalanal in Bhimplas which is a dialogue between Satyavan and Savitri. It was originally notated in Malkauns. The speaker said Swamigal was familiar with the songs of Tyagaraja and Syama Sastry and demonstrated how the tune of Birana varalicchi brovumu (Kalyani) was used for Enna Vidi Vandadu in Pavalakkodi. There were similarly entrance songs for stars and while Kittappa frequently appeared singing the lines Shivudano Madhavudano from Evarani (Devamrtavarshini, Tyagaraja), Jayajayagokulabala of Narayana Teertha was also popular. He said that less than tens years ago he heard a theatre artiste in a village make her entry singing Bhaja Re Gopalam (Hindolam, Sadasiva Brahmendra). It was this kind of music said the speaker that drew artistes such as Ariyakkudi and Maharajapuram to witness theatrical performances. (I am not so sure about Ariyakkudi for he was derisive about theatre. However, Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar were both mad about theatre).

The speaker then sang snatches of a tillana in Todi composed by Sankaradas Swamigal which is not in any written script of the playwright but is remembered by 0ld theatre artistes. This one, “Pom, pom purattukara muniye” is part of an argument between Valli and Narada when she questions his right to suggest a suitable match for her. An early instance of women’s rights.

Then followed a song, “Vela Samayamide” structured on Bala Kanakamaya Chela (Athana, Tyagaraja). Finally a song in Dhanyasi from Alli Arjuna, “Ettanai Neramaga” was presented. It was amazing how music, which purists today consider the exclusive property of a chosen few, was practised by theatre artistes and therefore made popular. Padmanabhan sang very well. (In a subsequent conversation with me, he informed that he had brought out on the lines of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a full folio of Sankaradas Swamigal’s plays. I plan to get a copy asap).

The last demo was by Balakrishna Bhatt who had stepped in gamely in the last minute as replacement for Jayshree Anandaraj, granddaughter of the famous Gubbi Veeranna. He said that Yakshagana, traditionally performed in the fields after harvest and also known as Bayalatta was an amalgam of dance, costume and song with an epic parable as its core. The central theme was good triumphing over evil. The dance to propitiate Ganesa was demonstrated with music played over a laptop/CD connected to the PA system. This being a last minute arrangement there were glitches in the music with the PA system making many digestive noises aided in full measure by the mini hall’s sound man. But still it was a wonderful performance.

Bhatt then showed the various elements of aharya (costume) for the dance. He then demonstrated sections from Kamsa Vadha and also Tara Sashanka. In the second, his miming of the doubts and temptations that beset Tara as she espies the beauty of the sleeping Chandra was outstanding.

The time was clearly not enough. Each speaker needs at least an hour and a half to do full justice to his topic. But the Academy needs to be congratulated for making a beginning and opening a window. We will hopefully have more of this. Jayalakshmi Santhanam said as much in her comments.

BM Sundaram asked about the musical instruments used in Yakshagana. Bhatt replied that the jalra, maddala and chenda were used. All were percussive in nature and this Arimalam Padmanabhan noted was different from the Tamil Terukoothu which is the equivalent of the Kannada Yakshagana. In the former, the mukhaveena is also used.

Dr N Ramanathan wanted to know how old Telugu drama was. Ramalinga Sastry said it was from the 1860s. Dr Pappu Venugopala Rao was of the view that it was much older for theatre (he decried the use of the English word drama) which along with dance came under the term Natya, is classified as such even in Bharata’s Natya Sastra. The Dasarupaka (what is that) is even older than Bharata he said. Dr SAK Durga said that theatre did not come from the Dasarupaka but from the Uparupaka (now what is that). These were deep waters and I preferred turning to Prasanna Ramaswami and discussing Sanjay’s concert of yesterday at the Sri Parthasarathis Swami Sabha. AKC Natarajan who was beaming with delight right through the lec dems came forward and honoured the speakers with the covers. The more I see AKC the more I love this man. He is childlike in his expressions.