When Manikantanagasai H. Illuri kneels down for prayer on UC Santa Cruz’s Mainstage, he’s no longer a second-year computer science major. He’s Tenali Rama, a 16th-century Telegu poet and scholar.

‘Tenali Rama: India’s Hidden Gem,’ the Indian Student Association’s (ISA) 21st annual production, brought friends and family together for a night of song, dance, and samosas on April 22.

“[It’s] a really good way for all of us, as Indian students, to connect back to our culture and for other students at UCSC to get a glimpse at what we’ve grown up with,” said ISA’s Cultural Show Director Reva Samant. “What are the stories that we have grown up with as children?”

The historical approach to the production is new for ISA, as their annual shows typically speak to elements of present-day Indian student life at UCSC.

Samant and ISA President Tanushri Akula, last year’s show director, wanted to do something new by focusing on Indian history, along with students’ cultures and backgrounds.

The show, broken into two acts, aims to bridge together parts of Indian and Indian American cultures: from north to south, east to west. Students trained in different dance forms worked together to bring thrilling numbers to the audience, and singers stretched their vocal chords across lyrics in multiple languages.

“As I went on to read the script and go through more practices, I slowly learned more about Tenali Rama,” emcee and cast member Gautam Gupta said in an email after the show. Though Gupta’s family is from New Delhi in north India, he says his parents both knew of Rama. “Being a part of this play has introduced me to a new subset of tales from Indian culture that I am excited to learn more about.”

Tenali Rama was born in the modern day Andhra Pradesh region along the southern coast of India, generally known for its folk tales about Rama’s wit.

This tale of Tenali Rama is a reminder that answers are not meant to be rushed and that wisdom is often unconventional. These lessons are not just relevant to UCSC’s Indian student population, but to everyone.

Emcees Shreedhar Jangam (left) and Gautam Gupta (right) narrated Tenali Rama’s story, which was equal parts amusing and educational. “It was important to be respectful to the story and to the characters,” Jangam said in a phone interview after the show. “Overall, it’s very satisfying to have finished the show and to have done it well.” Photos by Mia Pabros.

In the first act, audience members are introduced to Tenali Rama, played by Manikantanagasai H. Illuri. According to most retellings of his story, Rama experiences the loss of his father at a young age, and this mourning period serves as a powerful catalyst in his pursuit of knowledge. Photos by Yitong Lei.

From left to right, Maitreyi Patel, Laiy Joshi, and Nikita Shenoy. The trio performed a fusion Kathak-Bharatanatyam thillana, a combination of two types of Indian classical dance originating from Uttar Pradesh in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south, respectively. Photo by Yitong Lei.

Patel and Shenoy dance to Bho Shambho, a song composed by Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Photos by Yitong Lei and Mia Pabros.

Shaveta Nuvvuri and Laiy Joshi, who both performed at ISA’s culture show last year, took the stage again. “Most of our performers are returning performers, which I was really, really happy to hear,” said ISA President Tanushri Akula. “You know, they did it one year, and they’re willing to come back and do it again.” Photos by Mia Pabros.

In the first act, Rama travels far and wide in search of a mentor. Later, he meets a sage who bestows him a scarf to bring to the royal court to recognize Rama’s wisdom. King Krishnadevaraya, played by Prathik Kallepalli, both shocked and impressed, invites Rama to join the royal court, marking the end of Act I. Photo by Mia Pabros.

In the second act, Shaveta Nuvvuri plays a visitor who has traveled far in search of an answer to her question: what is her native tongue? Members of the royal court each make an attempt, some basing their guesses off of the visitor’s favorite foods, but none are able to answer the visitor’s question. When it is Rama’s turn, he asks for more time. Photo by Yitong Lei.

Sim and Bani Badhwar, who came to support Raas Rangeela dancer Priti Kumar, sat in the front row and cheered as the garba team performed. The Badhwars, who Kumar introduced as her sisters, came from the University of San Francisco and CSU Monterey Bay to watch the performance. Photo by Mia Pabros.

While the visitor sleeps, Rama plots to scare her awake by wearing a tiger mask. Caught by the element of surprise, the visitor shrieks. The next day, Rama has an answer for the royal court — the visitor’s mother tongue is Telugu. Photo by Yitong Lei.

Taza Tal is a South Asian Fusion acapella team at UCSC. Anirudh Raja (left), Aneesh Komaragiri, and Pratheeka Budamagunta (right) are all new members of the group. Photo by Yitong Lei.


ISA’s culture show was the first of this year’s Productions of Color, which also include performances by Bayanihan and Los Mejicas.

Bayanihan’s 32nd Pilipino Culture Celebration will be held on April 28 and 29 at UCSC’s Mainstage. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets can be preordered ahead of opening night here.

Los Mejicas will be hosting their 51st annual spring show on June 2 and 3. Check out their Instagram at @losmejicas to find out when ticket preordering opens.

Anna Zou and Keith Gelderloos contributed additional reporting.