Raja Ravi Varma, in the late 19th century, showed us what our gods and goddesses looked like—heavy silks and pearls in place. A century later, the whole theatre of Ramanand Sagar’s TV series Ramayan—and of the equally cultish Mahabharat—perpetuated Varma’s imagery. It went on to define the popular culture aesthetic of a generation that was coming of age in an India transitioning from socialist policies to economic liberalisation. Perhaps it is a nostalgia for who we were when these were our reference points, or perhaps an old charm we associate with them, which makes the dance ballets of Prabhath Kalavidaru as popular now as they ever were. The group celebrated its founder Gopinathdas’ birth centenary with a week-long music and dance festival in Bengaluru this year.
Prabhath Kalavidaru is a cultural point of reference, a pioneer in more ways than just being a good theatre group. For the last 84 years, it has influenced technical innovation on the proscenium, inspired changes in performance forms and come up with new narratives for popular culture in Karnataka and elsewhere. It is well-known for producing dance ballets, some history-based like Karnataka Vaibhava, others fairy tales like Cinderella. Several, such as Bhagavad Gita and Shri Rama Prateeksha, are “mythological”, continuing the look and sound of the pop art-heavy 1980s and 1990s. The members of the group are also famous for the way they married classical dance forms with Western performance ideas and local folk traditions—an idea once so radical that Gopinathdas was ridiculed by the puritans. This derision continued to follow him, right through the technological innovations he introduced, the fame the group accumulated and the entertainment empire that ensued.
I am in the drawing room of a modern, middle-class home speaking with his son TG Venkateshachar and grandson Harish Prabhath, who is also the group’s lead performer. Once upon a time, Gopinathdas, his three brothers and co-founders Karigirachar, Jayasimhadas and Dwarkanath, and their extended families lived together in an old sprawling bungalow. Their other related enterprises—a recording studio, costume and equipment rentals—were run from rooms that were added when new ventures were started and families expanded. Today, the businesses and families are divided and spread across Bengaluru.
A large portrait of Gopinathdas on the wall bears witness to our conversation. It was in 1930 that he and his three brothers, all proficient in harikathe—a traditional style of religious storytelling—started the Gururaja Vadya Vrinda, a group that staged live theatre productions. Having moved from their native town, Tumkur, to the big city, they opened the Prabhath Shishuvihara in 1947—the first of many ventures Gopinathdas would go on to found. The school, in the Basavanagudi neighbourhood, taught students theatre, music and dance. A permanent platform was built to stage the plays they devised.
With the brothers’ harikathe sessions drawing large crowds, a rudimentary microphone system was no longer enough. Mumbai was the nearest place from where they could rent a Chicago amplifier. Sensing a potential business, the family scraped together the princely sum of 3,000 rupees to import an RCA amp. When they weren’t using it, they rented it out to other theatre groups. Today, they rent out a whole range of equipment. Once, at the last minute before a show, the costume supplier backed out. This gave birth to Prabhath Vastra Vaibhava, which continues to make all the costumes for the group’s productions. These are also available for hire.
To help those actors who couldn’t sing very well, pre-recorded music was introduced—a near blasphemy in theatre circles then. “It was the first time anyone was doing this in south India. There was a lot of opposition, with people saying that this was not theatre. But we recorded songs with singers like Yesudas, SP Balasubramaniam and Vani Jayaram. People would come to the studio to record jingles to be broadcast on All India Radio too,” Venkateshachar told me.
While these businesses were thriving, Prabhath Kalavidaru—named so from 1942 onwards—was introducing many changes in the theatre world. Plays were being shortened to two hours instead of five, or the then prevalent all-nighters. Unrelated comedy scenes showing while the painted screens were being changed in the background were done away with. Spotlights were brought in: a green light beamed a backdrop for a forest scene, blue for a river. “People laughed,” remembered Venkateshachar. “One side of the stage there is light, one side there is no light! ‘What is this?’ they mocked.” Gopinathdas stuck to the traditions of harikathe to stage his productions, while borrowing liberally from the technical experiments theatre groups were making elsewhere. When they began touring outside the state, songs and dialogues were recorded in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, English and even Sanskrit.
Prabhath Kalavidaru’s repertoire has about 20 productions today. Their Cinderella was staged for the 1000th time recently, and made big news. But Harish says it is the only play where they track the number of shows. “It needs very specific space dimensions and is technically very difficult, so we have kept count. Some of our other productions would have been staged some 5,000–6,000 times over the decades. We haven’t counted.”
Their popularity—and relevance—in the face of newer entertainment avenues lies, claim the father and son, in how they fall somewhere between the styles of company theatre and modern plays. “The entertainment quotient should be very high in our productions,” said Harish. “That is what will bring in both the pandita (the intellectual) and the pamara (the common man),” added his father. Audiences are more discerning these days, they explained, but almost all shows run to full houses. Those who loved Prabhath Kalavidaru’s plays in their youth come back with their children and grandchildren. Reading a story from the Ramayana might stay with a child for a fortnight, but seeing it visually will last a decade or even a lifetime, Harish’s grandfather believed. It is this premise—or perhaps the world is just big enough for all entertainers—that continues to keep Prabhath Kalavidaru’s aesthetic relevant and the group thriving.
Deepa Bhasthi is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru. She writes on various issues for publications in India and elsewhere.