In February 1961, a historic fringe theatre in New York staged Rabindranath Tagore’s play The King of the Dark Chamber. In the cast were a young, upcoming Madhur Jaffrey, who would go on to become a doyenne of food writing, and Brock Peters, who later played Tom Robinson in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. But the scene-stealer among them was the female lead, Surya Kumari.

Reviewers called Surya Kumari’s performance “beautiful” and “convincing”. She was the play’s “chief adornment”, they said – she was the “lovely jewel of the east”, “India’s best ambassador”.

The play ran for a successful ten months, and Surya Kumari’s distinguished turn as Queen Sudarshana won her an Off-Broadway Theater Award or OBIE. It was the first time an Indian actor had received the prestigious honour and it proved a landmark in the career of a woman who was no stranger to plaudits.

Even before her triumph under the spotlights in New York, Surya Kumari was famous. She had starred in over 25 films in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. She was a well-known singer, with several records to her name. And her dance performances were lavished with praise. That she chose to fashion a new path for herself in a different country makes for an intriguing story. A story pieced together from newspaper references, a “memorial volume” produced soon after her death in 2005, and firsthand accounts from her Texas-based nephew, Devaguptapu Rao, who shares her love for the theatre.

Surya Kumari greeting Nehru in the late 1950s. Credit: Suryakumari-Elvin: A Memorial Volume, compiled and edited by G Krishnamurti, Videsandhra Publications, 2007.

Life Of Glamour

Born in 1925 in Rajahmundry, then part of Madras Presidency, Surya Kumari (also spelled Suryakumari) was first noticed for her amazing musical skills. As the story goes, a young Surya Kumari would accompany her uncle, the freedom fighter Tanguturi Prakasam (who later became Andhra Pradesh’s first chief minister), to political events and perform patriotic songs in her mellifluous voice. The singing was overheard by someone in the Tamil film industry, and suggestions and recommendations soon turned into something real.

After Vipranarayana (1937), her debut film, she went on to star in several movies, first in Tamil and Telugu and then in Hindi. The hits Adrishtam (1938, Tamil) and Raithubidda (1939, Telugu) were followed with Deena Bandhu (1942, Telugu) and Krishna Prema (1943, Telugu), in which she played the male mythological character Narada. In the late 1940s, she performed as part of a cultural organisation raising money for the indigent.

Suryakumari (sixth from left) along with other contestants at the 1952 Miss India pageant in Bombay. Credit: Ministry of Information & Broadcasting/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

There was a change of direction in the early 1950s. After winning the Miss Madras title and placing runner-up in the Miss India pageant, she was invited to the US as part of a 14-member Indian film delegation by the Motion Picture Association of America. Among the other delegates were actors Prem Nath, David Abraham, Nargis and Bina Rai.

Celluloid Dreams

The delegation met such eminences as Eleanor Roosevelt, Cecille DeMille, Frank Capra and Cesar Romero. As accounts of the day have it, there was anticipation that filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, greatly charmed by Surya Kumari’s grace and her fluency in English, would offer her and Prem Nath a film. But the expectations came to naught in a set-up where studios and actor guilds negotiated and decided most production matters. Nevertheless, Surya Kumari stayed in touch with Hitchcock, and on her second, longer stint in the US, she ended up working in his story research team.

Surya Kumari with Alfred Hitchcock. Credit: Suryakumari-Elvin: A Memorial Volume, compiled and edited by G Krishnamurti, Videsandhra Publications, 2007.

In the intervening period, from 1952 to 1960, she acted in more movies, notably Watan (1954, Hindi) and Uran Khatola (1955, Hindi), co-starring Dilip Kumar, Jeevan and Nimmi. In Uran Khatola, she played the disdainful queen of a secret kingdom dominated by women. A notable East-West movie production, Bombay Flight 417, partly produced by Shashadhar Mukherjee of Filmistan and Hungarian-born director Alexander Paal, never saw the light of day after it ran into controversy with the Indian film censor board. It starred Alex D’Arcy, Surya Kumari, Vyjayanthimala and Ashok Kumar, among others.

After this, Surya Kumari moved back to the stage. As G Krishnamurti, editor of Suryakumari: A Memorial Tribute, writes, the praises for her performance in Tagore’s Arjuna-Chitra encouraged her to travel out. She wanted to showcase her stage performances and explore opportunities in the emerging world of television. Her nephew Devaguptapu Rao agrees. She gravitated to the “immediacy” of the stage, he said: “the remoteness of a celluloid screen didn’t quite appeal to her”.

For a while in the early 1960s, Surya Kumari lived in New York, sharing an apartment with two other working women. Besides working in Hitchcock’s research team for the long-running TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, she taught courses on Indian theatre and dance at Columbia University. She was part of the research team for Mark Robson’s film, Nine Hours to Rama, based on Stanley Wolpert’s novel.

Surya Kumari and Prem Nath in Hollywood. Credit: Suryakumari-Elvin: A Memorial Volume, compiled and edited by G Krishnamurti, Videsandhra Publications, 2007.

It was a life more austere than the one she was used to. But soon her role in the Krishna Shah-directed The King of the Dark Chamber changed her life again. She travelled with Shah and the play’s choreographer Bhasker Roy Chowdhury to Apartheid-era South Africa on the invitation of an arts organisation called United Artists.

A second play directed by Shah, entitled Kindly Monkeys, prompted Surya Kumari to move to London in 1965. The play, co-starring Saeed Jaffrey and written by eccentric American playwright Milton Hood Ward – his only play to be professionally produced – was set in an Indian temple that is besieged unexpectedly by American visitors. The indifferent response to it meant there was little chance of it travelling to the US, and Surya Kumari chose to remain in London. It was here she would find renewed success, and love too.

An old friend from her days in the Hindi film world, the Russian-born costume designer Ludmilla Primakoff, helped Surya Kumari find her feet at the time. She found a flat and roles in BBC plays and TV serials. These included, among others, playing a maharani in an adaptation of E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet; and a doctor in possession of a stolen cholera vaccine in an episode of the series Interpol Calling. She also had bit roles in television plays, such as Drums Along the Avon and Hard Labour.

In 1973, she married the writer, poet and painter Harold Elvin, who was 18 years her senior. In the early 1940s, Elvin had been a nightwatchman at the British Embassy in Moscow. He also spent some time exploring the Soviet Union on his old Raleigh bicycle – an experience that he wrote about in A Cockney in Moscow. His other books included Once Upon a Time in Siberia, The Gentle Russian, Elvin’s Rides: Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and The Ride to Chandigarh, which was about his travels in India in the mid-1950s.

Surya Kumari's husband Harold Elvin. Credit: Suryakumari-Elvin: A Memorial Volume, compiled and edited by G Krishnamurti, Videsandhra Publications, 2007.

It was in replicating something that had brought her success in India that Surya Kumari became a more familiar name to the British public. In 1971, she formally set up the India Performing Arts Society to train students and give Kuchipudi and Bharatnatyam recitals. Until 1990, it became a tradition for Surya Kumari to stage annual performances in London’s Southbank Centre. The team that accompanied her included Keshav Sathe on tabla, Vemu Mukunda on the veena and Anand Pillay on sitar. In 1973, Surya Kumari released an album, entitled Songs of India, that included her renditions of Tagore songs and a Thyagaraja composition. She also performed to poems written by her husband Harold.

Her last television appearance was in an episode of The Jewel in the Crown (1984). She died in 2005, aged almost 80. Towards the end of her life, she was engaged in collecting material related to the medieval Sufi saint Kabir, who searched for common ground between religions, and insisted that for all their differences, all human beings had a lot in common.

This is the fourth part in a new triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.