Sthanam Narasimha Rao: An
BY G. VENKATACHALAM
The Andhras, bulwarked as they are between the two big presidencies of Bengal and Madras, share in a strange manner something of the aesthetical sensibilities of the Bengalee and the metaphysical subtleties of the Tamil, apart from their own peculiar characteristics. They are emotional, impulsive, proud, and patriotic, albeit a little clannish. They have had a great and glorious past and rivalled, in pomp and power, some of the mightiest kingdoms of ancient days. To-day, in the cultural renaissance of the country, they run a close race with Bengal, Gujerat and Maharashtra, in the creation of a new literature, new art, new poetry, and new dramas. Bengal still stands supreme in these matters, but Andhradesa is intensely alive and enthusiastic, and the younger generation is bidding for leadership in cultural things. Every third Telugu man you meet is either a poet or a patriot every year reveals fresh efforts and surprising achievements in all walks of life.
The Andhra Stage, as such, has not yet shown any striking improvements on its technical and aesthetical sides and remains no better than what it was a few years ago. The little changes brought about in the production of plays and in the creation of a refined atmosphere on the stage are not such as to merit any special praise. There is yet much to be learnt in this direction from Bengal and Maharashtra; but there can be no doubt, whatsoever, that Andhradesa to-day claims two of the best actors of modern India for her own. I refer, of course, to Bellary Raghavachari and Sthanam Narasimha Rao.
It will be foolish to attempt any comparison of the respective merits of these two actors, though one discerns a certain slight similarity in the technique of their acting. This may be due either to mutual influence, as they have often acted together in the past, or to the Telugu language in which they speak and sing. I must not be understood to mean that they imitate one another; it is impossible in the very nature of things, as one acts always the part of
the hero and the other the heroine. This fact alone will preclude any possibility of similarity in tone, gesture, pose, and expression. Nevertheless, there is a subtle something in the technique of their acting. I see it, but any analysis is beyond me. Raghavachari is supreme in emotional acting, as a devotee, as a bhakta, as a frenzied lover. He has his limitations in other roles, but that is beside the point. What is interesting is the fact that two of the finest actors on the Indian stage hail from the Andhra country and both are contributing immensely and unostentatiously to the richness and sweetness of Indian life. The Andhra temperament, genius, and language are peculiarly suitable for artistic expression, and more torch-bearers of beauty and art ought to rise amidst them to lead the way.
One of the sweet warblers of the coming dawn is the talented young Andhra actor, Sthanam Narasimha Rao. His fame has gone before him, outside the Andhra country, through his gramophone records; but he is not a product of "His Master's Voice" as some are. He has no prepossessing personality, with wild wavy masses of raven hair, finely chiselled features, sensitive mouth, and dark-deep, tranquil eyes to suggest that he is an artist. These are often mere externals signifying nothing. Some of the world's greatest artists were and are plain-looking persons. Sthanam N arasimha Rao possesses no artist's pose, nor does he arrest your attention by any eccentric manners or mode of dress. He seems a simple man, devoted to his art, and quite business-like in his transactions. He is slender, and has a pleasant face, and there is a sweet ring about his voice when he talks.
He took to acting when he was quite young and had, of course, his early struggles and difficulties. His parents were opposed to his taking to the stage as a career and, for a time, he was torn between two strong dominating feelings, his devotion and duty to his mother, and his innate longing and love for acting. Circumstances, however, helped him to get over this initial difficulty, and he soon found himself a popular figure in his native town as an actor. He was in great demand for playing leading roles both at amateur and professional performances, and encouraged by this early Success he made up his mind to achieve eminence in his new career. He had not met any talented actors whom he could imitate; he was not sufficiently educated to study for himself the life and experiences of any of the famous European actors, and so he had to fall back upon himself for a fuller expression of his art. He knew the ordinary defects of the Indian stage and he tried to correct them by an intelligent understanding of Indian dramaturgy. There is an element of modernism in his acting which has an appeal to modern youths, and he is a greater Success in modern social plays than in old classical ones as he has, to a preponderating degree, more of the coquettish romantic element in his acting than the old restrained dignity.
It seems a pity to me that he plays the part of "Woman" on the stage. I do not know to what heights he can rise and to what extent he can display his genius if he played the role of a hero opposite a real woman as his heroine. He may fail for aught I know. He may be constituted mentally, emotionally, and physically such as to be an Uranian both in his life and in his art. Both physiology and psychology recognise such intermediate types. It is a phase of human evolution; and who knows the ideal human being is one who combines in himself harmoniously and in an equal degree the best attributes and qualities of both sexes? Evolution may aim at such ideal types, like Shelley and Tagore. It is inevitable also that failures and freaks are bound to be in this great mysterious process of nature; but the fact remains that some of the most sensitive artists are of the highest and best of these types, vanguards of a beautiful humanity to come.
In spite of this knowledge, I have ever been a determined opponent and an uncompromising critic of man acting the part of woman on the stage, and I do not propose to make an exception in Narasimha Rao's case. I can only regret that it should be so. But this does not prevent me from recognising the artist in him and acknowledging his fine talents as an actor. He is as great an artist as Balagandharva of the Maharashtra stage (though it is unfortunate that both play the woman's part) but as an actor, Narasimha Rao is, to my mind, superior in several respects to Balagandharva. The latter dresses much more tastefully and effectively and has an eye for beauty of his environments, which are, somehow, lacking in the Andhra actor. There is no dignity about his dresses and adornments which are just tinsels and tawdry stuffs. His torn, dirty stockings on the feet and those abominable artificial flowers in his hair are inexcusable even in the ordinary tenth-rate Indian-actors and much more so in his case.
Indian actors, as a rule, do not act but sing away their parts, and the public are pleased. But a good drama demands intelligent acting along with a little singing, of course, to interpret and express certain rasas in the play; and Narasimha Rao has happily hit the best medium of acting under the circumstances. He seldom overdoes a thing and he sings sweetly and suggestively, not just to show off his musical skill and knowledge as most Indian actors unfortunately do. There is great restraint in his acting and the moods he creates for himself are highly contagious; and to that extent it is creative work. Just as, in painting, it is not the mere technique or the colour-scheme or the drawing or the background or the subject that makes a picture great but a subtle fusion of some of the best elements of all these by the creative genius of the artist, so in acting, it is not mere pose or gesture or singing or setting that makes it great but a happy and harmonius blending of all these. Narasimha Rao has this magical quality. He can change from one mood into another with startling naturalness, and can weep and laugh, love and hate alternately without showing any conscious effort on his part in effecting these changes. There is intelligence and understanding behind his art, not merely skill and talent.
He has, of course, several obvious defects which experience will set right. He is, like most artists, a creature of circumstances and they hinder his rising to great heights. He has yet to learn to create his own environments and to dictate his own terms to producers and theatre managers. It is the tragedy of Indian life that the individual gets completely lost in the group or community, with no opportunity for striking a unique path for himself. There are circumstances and obstacles to overcome, indifference and lethargy to be fought. Artists of the type of Narasimha Rao are generally weak and helpless, and they need to be told that it is not enough they have individual talent but that they should create better and more beautiful environments around them. Sthanam Narasimha Rao, with a better cast and more suitable costumes and stage settings, is sure to leave his mark on the Indian stage as one of its pioneer-reformers.