Milestone Theatre

All for the love of Sanskrit

Team Samskrita Ranga Nandini Ramani flanked by P.G. Subrahmanian and Prakash Kaushik. (Standing, from left) P. Ramachandrasekhar, Meera Janaki Krishnamurti, V. Sumithra, Sushama Ranganathan, T.S. Ranganathan and Maanasaa   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

It was passion for Sanskrit that made Dr. V. Raghavan start Samskrita Ranga, theatre group, on November 16, 1958. That was only a formal announcement he made because he had been producing plays for stage and AIR for a long time. He wanted the language to be constantly heard. What better way than drama? Drawing from classics, Dr. Raghavan, a Sanskrit scholar, created scripts, trained actors and took them far and wide. Six decades later, Samskrita Ranga is staging plays and celebrating anniversaries, thanks to the strong foundation laid by Dr. Raghavan and the relentless work by his family.

Dr. V. Raghavan

Dr. V. Raghavan   | Photo Credit: Samskrita Ranga Archives


The troupe, with R. Kalidas as president and Nandini Ramani as secretary, has organised an event this evening to celebrate the landmark of Samskrita Ranga completing 60 years. Book release, honours and performance are on the agenda. Ranga’s journey is nothing short of a saga as Nandini takes one through those vibrant chapters of history. Vibrant because the growth of Samkrita Ranga has been synonymous with that of other premier art institutions and careers of artistes, who rose to become stalwarts.

In this unparalleled endeavour, Dr. Raghavan involved his entire family — his children bearing classic Sanskrit names. His sons were trained by him while at Vivekananda College. Kalidas donned roles in the stage productions and Charudattan was involved in stage craft. Daughters Priyamvada and Nandini, disciples of legend T. Balasaraswati, played major roles in many plays. The daughter-in-law, Dharini, also was a member of the troupe. The legacy continues with Sushama and Chitkala playing central characters.

Samskrita Ranga’s inaugural play in 1958 was Kalidasa’s Malavikagnimitram and the venue was Ujjain, at the Kalidas festival. Dr. Raghavan designed the sets with the help of Kalasagaram Rajagopal, based on the representations in the Sanchi Stupa. Costume and hairdress were also shaped from ancient models. In fact, Dr. Raghavan himself fashioned many of the stage props. A garland of skulls Charudattan created is still in use.

P.G. Subrahmanian and Sushama Ranganathan in 'Sakuntala'

P.G. Subrahmanian and Sushama Ranganathan in 'Sakuntala'   | Photo Credit: Samskrita Ranga Archives


Crowning glory

Sakuntalam, however, turned out to be the troupe’s crowning glory with the production winning the Swarnakalasa at the 1961 Ujjain festival, a venue to which the team returned until 2003. Priyamvada as Sakuntala — now played by Sushama Ranganathan, Nandini’s daughter — stole hearts. The troupe also presented Vikramorvasiyam.

Priyamvada as Sakuntala

Priyamvada as Sakuntala   | Photo Credit: Samskrita Ranga Archive


Initially Samskrita Ranga was associated with Natya Sangh (theatre centre, affiliated to UNESCO). Dr. Raghavan, a renowned musicologist, an authority on Natya, with several Sanskrit treatises and pioneering works to his credit and was president of Natya Sangh, conducted workshops to train aspirants. The module included make-up, costume, lighting and script. J. Jayalalithaa, ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy, Neelu, Major Sundararajan and Srikanth were some of the actors who trained there. As the secretary of Natya Sangh, Mrs. Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy (Mrs. YGP) worked hard for the success of the workshops. “Productions like ‘Madhyama Vyaayoga’ and ‘Doota Vaakhyam’ directed by Dr. Raghavan were experimental with techniques taught in the workshops. They were performed in the sylvan surroundings of the Madras Museum Campus,” recalls Nandini.

For one of the workshops, Dr. Raghavan invited Prof. Macleod of the Theatre Department of Illinois University, the U.S. He trained the actors for ‘Tea House of the August Moon’ in which Cho and Jayalalithaa acted. It was a runaway success. Bindusaaran paved the way for Major Sundararajan’s entry.

A scene from Anarkali

A scene from Anarkali   | Photo Credit: From Samskrita Ranga archive


Nandini’s initiation happened when she was nine, in ‘Mrichchakatika,’ for AIR. She went on to play lead roles in many of the troupe’s productions. “I grew up in an atmosphere, where music, dance and theatre thrived with Sanskrit as the connecting thread. Our house was the hub, its garden yielding a scenic backdrop to our rehearsals. Mother, who had a sound knowledge of music, was the perfect, supplying endless plates of snacks and hot beverages. The troupe members would assemble at 6 p.m. and it would be well past 9 when they left. Many were even served dinner,” says Nandini.

“Travelling was not easy — taking all those sets to far away places. But it was fun. We would sing and dance all the way as mother would pass food packets. To reach Ujjain, we had to alight at Itarsi, shift the luggage to another train, bound for Bhopal. There, a bus from the organisers would pick us up,” reminisces Nandini, who assisted her father in every department, until his demise in 1979.

Dr. Raghavan himself wrote many Sanskrit plays on both classical and modern themes which were staged by the troupe. He would enact the scenes for the actors, down to the finest detail. While he always played the Sutradhara on stage, he donned several roles in AIR productions, memorable among which are Sage Kanava in Sakuntalam and Buddhist monk Upaali in Tagore’s Natir Puja, translated into Sanskrit by himself. His play ‘Vimukti’ is a farce with deep philosophical connotations.

The Samskrita Ranga with the Swarnakalasa trophy won in 1961 for ‘Abhijnanasakuntalam’

The Samskrita Ranga with the Swarnakalasa trophy won in 1961 for ‘Abhijnanasakuntalam’  


“Music for Malavika’s dances (Malavikagnimitram) was scored by the late T.N. Swaminatha Pillai (in Malavi, Useni and Vasanta) and choreographed by T. Balasaraswati and Nattuvanar K. Ganesan. Some of the verses of the play were extracted to be sung in the style of Bharata’s Dhruvagaana from behind the curtain. Veena, flute and mridangam accompanied the vocalists. Ragas were chosen and executed with an eye on the context, sentiment, season and time of day. In short, despite the absence of authentic descriptions of Sanskrit theatre 1,500 years ago, Dr. Raghavan created a grammar, which was not reluctant to adapt even while retaining its classical richness,” asserts Nandini. This has been the hallmark of Samskrita Ranga’s acclaimed style of production, meticulously maintained.

The accent is on dialogue and acting because Samskrita Ranga productions are not dance-dramas. They stand for all the four aspects which constitute Total Theatre — Vaachika, Aangika, Aahariya and Satvika Bhavas using appropriate Natyadarmi and Parikrama (movement technique). “Dignity and grace were the founder’s watch words. He followed this even in the adaptation of Matta Vilasa Prahasanam and Aascharya Choodamani, both of which belong to the Koodiyattom repertoire,” says Nandini, who singles out these two plays as personally rewarding. “I assisted Dr. Raghavan with Choodamani. Matta Vilasa is special not only because I directed it but it was a departure from the refined classics the troupe was handling. Actors had to adopt a different body language and dialogue style for Matta Vilasa... The play was well received by the audience,” she adds.

Orchestra has been the strength of Samskrita Ranga. Veteran musicologist B. Krishnamoorthi has been with the troupe since its inception. Another star, who enriched the music department with her voice and knowledge, was vidushi R. Vedavalli. “They would render songs and slokas setting the tone for the plays. Both were fine actors too,” says Nandini. Veena Ramani continues to render support to the team. V. Sumitra, Vedavalli’s disciple, has been the troupe’s vocalist from age nine.

The present

What has been Nandini’s approach to keep the troupe relevant?

“Without changing the core, I have deployed Natyadarmi technique to add visual appeal to the productions — all within the grammar as defined by my father,” explains Nandini. What follows is a delightful demo — from Anarkali. An integration of North and South, the scene has emperor Akbar engaging in a dialogue with Pundarika Vittala, a court poet. Enters beautiful Anarkali, her gungroo heralding her arrival, to present a dance. “Here I have incorporated Natyadarmi to make it more lively,” she points out.

More important is her effort to identify talent and train them. The rigorous regimen adopted by Dr. Raghavan is faithfully followed. Samskrita Ranga has Sanskrit teachers and scholars as actors. Among the veterans are Sushama Ranganathan, Prakash Kaushik, P.G. Subramanian, V. Sumitra, T.S. Ranganathan, Dr. P. Rama Chandrasekhar, B.S. Sriram and Dr. Santosh. These artistes will be honoured in the function today. Less senior are Saikrupa Prasanna, Meera Janaki Krishnamurthi, Maanasaa (P.G. Subramanian’s daughter), and Shyamala Srivatsan.

Among well-known persons who were part of Samskrita Ranga plays are Neelu, S.V. Chalam, Raman, Ramani,T.R. Halasyasundaram, Sanskrit pandits Vazhuthur Rajagopala Sarma and Gopala Sarma, Vaishnavism scholars Prof. Tiruvenkatathan and Dr. M. Narasimhachari, Dr. K. Ganesan, former principal of Vivekananda College, Prof. Tyagarajan, HOD, Sanskrit Dept, Presidency College, Dr. V. Abhiramasundaram, HOD, Sanskrit, Vivekananda College, G. Balasubramaniam, H. Vaidyanathan, Bharatanatyam artistes Nirmala Ramachandran, Sabitarani, Kanaka Srinivasan, M.R. Meena, Nirmala Ramdas, educationist T.P. Vijayalakshmi, musicians Ranganayaki Iyengar, B. Vaidyanathan, Rajalakshmi Santanam and much later B. Balasubramaniam and Sriram Parasuram, cultural enthusiasts such as Suseela Padmanabhan, V.C. Santha, Kausalya Sivakumar and Maitreyi Ramadurai. Dr.S.S. Janaki and Dr.C.S. Sundaram, longtime secretaries were pillars of support .

Apart from Ujjain, opportunities came from Rashtriya Sanskrit Samsthan and All-India Oriental Conference. The plays were a regular on January 1 at the Music Academy for several years. Support came from Bharat Kalachar, Sri Krishna Gana Sabha and Narada Gana Sabha.

“That was a golden period. Now, resources are meagre and opportunities less. But we are inspired by the memories of Dr. Raghavan, who founded Samkrita Ranga to spread spoken Sanskrit. This milestone is an occasion for us to rededicate ourselves,” concludes Nandini on an optimistic note.

Perennial favourites

Samskrita Ranga has produced over 50 plays. Apart from audience across the country it wowed AIR and Doordarshan lovers. If Kalidasa and Bhasa are perennial favourites, winners include allegorical subjects such as Jayanta’s Aagamadambara, Palaandumadana (Harijivanamisra), which parodies the eating habits of people in various regions and Sudraka’s Padmapraabhritaka, a one-man show. Also staged were Snusha Viajyam of Sundararajakavi, Mahendra Vikrama Pallava’s Bhagavadajjukeeya and Tagore’s Natir Puja.

Illustrious associates…

The legend Dr. S. Ramanathan, the main vainika. He also played Pundarika Vittala in Anarkali. P. Viswanatha Rao, flautist, AIR artiste, his son and flautist P.V. Ramana and Lakshmi Tilakji. T.K. Shanmukham, T.K. Bhagavati, S.V. Sahasranamam, Y.G. Paarthasarathy, R.S. Manohar and yesteryear film star, Ranjan, who was also a student of Dr. Raghavan for his Master’s in Sanskrit were great admirers of the plays of Samskrita Ranga. Luminaries of the day such as Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Dr. C.D. Deshmukh C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, T.L.Venkatarama Iyer, Adya Rangacharya, Masti Venkatesa Iyengar, E. Alkazi, Sri Jeeva Nyayatirtha and Sri Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, were supportive of Samskrita Ranga’s plays.


The event on November 16

At Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore, Chennai 6.15-9 p.m.

Presided over by Mrs. Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy

Chief guests: Gopal Krishna Gandhi and Prof. Dr. V. Abhiramasundaram. Dara Shikoh’s Samudra Sangama Grantha, Sanskrit version of his Majma-ul-Bahrain, edited by Dr. V. Raghavan, will be released.

Felicitations and honours will be followed by ‘Prathama Samagamah — First Meeting,’ enactment of scenes from three of Samskrita Ranga’s plays.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 1:46:39 PM |

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