Savithri’s early life, before her stardom began in earnest can be divided into three distinct phases: 1) Childhood, 2) Dancer, and 3) Stage Actress.
Savithri was born on December 6, 1935. Born Nissankararao Savithri, Savithri was the second daughter of Subhadramma and Guravayya. Her parents were from Chintalapudi, a village which is in Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh. Savithri had an older sister named Maruthi.
Savithri was hardly six months old when her father passed away. At the invitation of her older sister Durgamba, Subhadramma moved to Vijayawada. Venkat Ramayya Chowdhury, Durgamba’s husband, was a car driver for the wealthy Gogineni family.
After making Vijayawada their home, Subhadramma decided to send both her daughters to school. Savithri was eight years old. On the way to the school from their house, there was a dancing school, which twice daily the 8-year old used to walk by. She used to see the little girls learning to dance and used to wonder whether she would ever be able to be like one of them. While at home, inspired by these young dancers, Savithri started singing and dancing on her own.
A year passed by. Understanding her interest in dance, her uncle sent Savithri to the dancing school. Her teacher at the school was Sishtla Poornayya Sastry. Sastry was an excellent observer of talent and a great teacher. It was immediately evident to him that Savithri was an extremely talented girl. It took less than a year under his tutelage for Savithri to become a skilled dancer. Almost all the dances she learned involved the stories from the Puranas. Sastry used to have his students around perform at all festive occasions.
“Arunodaya Natya Mandali” was a professional dance company that used to tour all over Andhra Pradesh. On one evening when Savithri was giving her performance that was organized by Sastry, “Mandali” folks took notice of her. The very next day they visited Sastry at his school and wasted no time recruiting Savithri to be part of their dance troupe.
Savithri soon became one of their stars. As word spread about Savithri’s talent, people flocked to see her performances; and Natya Mandali’s profits surged.
Young and handsome Jaggayya, who himself became a famous Telugu actor later, had his own drama troupe. He was looking for a female dancer to perform in a play he was about to stage and came looking and stopped by at one of the “Natya Mandali” shows. Impressed with Savithri’s performance he signed her on for the role in his play, thus starting her stage career as an actress.
The Anniversary photograph of the artistes of “Arunodaya Natya Mandali”. In the second row seated from the left starting with the second person is Jaggayya, Sunkara Kanaka Rao, Acharya Atreya, and to the right in glasses is Chowdhury. Savithri is third from the left in the front row.
During this part of her career, Savithri performed in several plays, traveling to many different cities. The following photographs show Savithri from two of her stage plays.
In the photo on the left Savithri as Krishna and on the right Savithri in the play "Buddha"
One performance took the now 12-year old Savithri to Kakinada in 1948. For one of the performances, the great stage and film actor Prithviraj Kapoor was the chief guest in attendance. He took time to compliment Savithri for her accomplished dancing.
In the above picture Prithviraj Kapoor is in the center and Savithri is sitting in the front on the left.
As a stage actress Savithri didn’t stick with only the Jaggayya’s company. She performed for other drama companies, notable among these were “National Art Theater (NAT)” and “Excelsior Club”. N.T. Rama Rao, another great Telugu actor, was in-charge of NAT. Dukkipati Madhusudhana Rao, who later made several hit movies for Annapurna Studios with Savithri in the lead, was with the “Excelsior Club”.
Chowdhury, Savithri’s uncle, was grooming her to be the centerpiece of anything she was involved in. He also acted as Savithri’s agent; companies had to contact him to have Savithri perform with them. As Savithri’s popularity grew, Chowdhury decided to establish his own company, “Nava Bharatha Natya Mandali” and started staging touring shows.
At just about this time movies were becoming very prevalent. More people were going to the movies instead of spending their time watching plays. Also, there was a talent drain from the stage as many good performers were migrating to find fetching careers in the movies. Chowdhury decided that the time was right to take Savithri to Chennai in search of an opportunity to act in the movies. The members of Gogineni family, with their film contacts in Chennai, were instrumental in providing Savithri an opportunity to enter the film industry.