South Bay’s Naatak Debuts Its 100th Theater Production: The Epic ‘Ramayan’

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A playful row of human heads, all from the same actor, depicting multiple facial expressions.
Rajiv Nema plays Raavan in Ramayan, the 100th production of the South Bay theater company Naatak. (Photo by Kyler Adler / digital art by Vikas Dhurka)

The Bay Area is home to one of the largest Indian American communities in the countryand, as it happens, one of the largest amateur Indian American theater companies. Naatakwhich means theater, or drama, in Hindi—is about to stage its 100th production.

In this COVID-era world, where small arts organizations continue to struggle, it’s worth taking a moment to note the remarkable resiliency of a theater troupe launched by a couple of college students back in 1996. One of them was Sujit Saraf, who is still today the artistic director of Naatak.

“A close friend of mine and I were doing our Ph.D.s at Berkeley and Stanford. We had done a fair amount of theater as undergraduates in India, in Delhi. We thought it would be wonderful to recreate those days,” he says at a recent rehearsal in the modest warehouse space the theater rents in Santa Clara. “And we held an audition, and the first audition was held in my dorm at U.C. Berkeley.”

27 years later, Naatak is still going strong—as a volunteer operation. There’s nobody on payroll. Ticket sales go to covering costs.

Three Indian dancers in bright orange costumes pose together
Medha Acharya, Archana Kamath and Sushmita Shrikanth will perform in 'Ramayan,' the 100th production by South Bay theater company Naatak. (Photo: Courtesy of Kyle Adler )

“I run a little software development company. I do this [Naatak] in my off hours,” says Saraf. “I’m a techie, I’m an engineer, like, I would say, 90% of Nataak members and perhaps even 80% of Naatak’s audience.”

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In other words, Silicon Valley has provided the free labor, and also the audiences, for a host of productions over the years that include original work, Western classics with Indian American flair and Indian classics.

Naatak’s 100th production will be Ramayan, attributed to the poet Valmiki (who may be a composite of several poets, not unlike the ancient Greek Homer). The version Naatak will be performing is known as the Tulasi Ramayan by the poet Tulsidas, an abridged version crafted by Saraf himself.

“We chose one of our two great epics which have permeated into the Indian consciousness over 2,500 years,” says Saraf, who added you cannot grow up in India without being exposed to Ramayan.

It’s about a prince’s quest to rescue his beloved wife from the clutches of a demon king with the help of an army of monkeys and bears.

Two men in classical Indian costume pretend to fight each other
Abhishek Sharma and Dinesh Rao will play the brothers Bali and Sugreev in 'Ramayan,' the 100th production of South Bay theater company Naatak. (Photo: Courtesy of Naatak)

“I grew up with stories of the Ramayan,” he adds. “My mother recited one of the seven chapters in Ramayan every day of her life, from the age of 12, when she learned it, to the age of 61 when she died.”

Saraf says the story resonates with Indian and Indian American audience members alike, who have demonstrated an appetite for a wide variety of works in a wide variety of of languages; in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, as well as ancient Awadhi. “However, the vast majority of our plays are in Hindi,” Saraf says.

And pre-COVID, he observed that, the bigger the Naatak production, the bigger the audience. “People like musicals.” People also like to perform musicals, and as the troupe has become more experienced over the years, Naatak is game to produce ever more ambitious works. “This play would not be possible at this scale 15 years ago,” Saraf says.

Soumya Agastya, the producer and dance director for this production of Ramayan, says that, here in the South Bay, there’s a wealth of classically trained musicians and dancers to call upon.

A row of singers and musicians rehearses in a warehouse
Ambhranee Yakkundi, Tanmayi Rao, Savitha Gayathri, Nachiketa Yakkundi, Anitha Dixit, Surya Saraf, Amit Shenoy, Ajay Sundar Raj (partially cut off) rehearse 'Ramayan' ahead of its performance in September 2022. (Photo: Courtesy of Naatak)

“I host the dance auditions and I always ask them to be six years classically trained, in Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi,” she says. “Those are the two dance forms of classical dance that we’re using today.”

By day, Agastya’s an account manager in sales for Synopsis, a software company in Mountain View. Nights and weekends? Her heart belongs to Naatak. For the last 25 years, in fact. “When you do all of this hard work, and you put out a product and you have, like, 3-4,000 people who watch it and they come to you and say that was an outstanding production, or you guys did a fabulous job. Oh, it’s so rewarding. So satisfying. It’s really worth it, every bit of sweat that we put into this I think is all worth that,” Agastya says.

Nachiketa Yakkundi would agree. The Oracle software engineer has performed all over India and North America, and runs a music school in Cupertino. And he’s also in charge of the music for this production. “It is so fulfilling. It touches the heart,” he says. “It is very much what I love doing, and applying what I love already to something that is so tangible. And we have all these youngsters who are so enthusiastic.”

An estimated 1,000 people have worked with Naatak over the years. “Our musicians and dancers are very well trained,” Saraf says, adding most of Naatak’s actors are experienced too, having performed in dozens of plays over the years. “You obviously acquire certain skills. We’ve done this many, many, many times, so we do feel that the quality of our productions is superb.”

A headshot of a middle-aged, Indian-American man
Sujit Saraf is co-founder and artistic director of the South Bay theater company, Naatak. (Photo: Courtesy of Naatak)

The pandemic has been hard on Naatak. Like other theater companies, they switched to Zoom for a year and a half. Even after a year after lockdowns lifted, Saraf estimates ticket sales are off by about 30%. But there’s nobody on the company’s payroll and no overhead except for the warehouse space in Santa Clara. “When we shut down, our only loss was the useless rent we were paying in these two spaces,” says Saraf. “Also over the years, we have been extremely frugal with our money. So we are not in any danger of shutting down.”

As other live entertainment operations wheeze on their last legs, Saraf says he can see the volunteer-run Naatak outlasting two or three more pandemics, and maybe even his own retirement, when that day comes.

“Well, I’ve become older, but the average age in Naatak has not increased much,” Saraf says. “Some of the new people call me ‘sir’ because they see my gray hair, and they are aware of my age, so they feel a certain distance from me. I’m waiting for the day they call me ‘uncle.’ That’s when I think it will be the time to hang up!”

But not quite yet.

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Naatak performs Ramayan at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto September 4-25, 2022.