It’s a happy family affair
With splendid sets and scintillating special effects, Surabhi group wows the audience wherever it goes.
“We like to perform plays only in Telugu for we are the only surviving beacon…”
Photo: K. Pichumani
MESMERISING: A scene from Maya Bazaar. (Below) The artists of the Surabhi drama troupe.
“Surabhi” is synonymous with spectacular theatre. This Telugu theatre group, also known as Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali, is remarkable in many ways. It comprises 60 members of a single extended family who live together, eat together and perform together. The youngest actor aged three and his cousins belong to the seventh generation of the family.
The performing tradition of the group, which was in the city recently, goes back to 125 years. With splendid sets and scintillating special effects, the group’s plays wow audiences and speak the language of our folk arts and culture. They tell stories from the myths, folk lore and the epics, laced with drama and humour and sprinkled with song and dance. The music is live. The grand backdrops and the sparkling rainbow-coloured costumes are designed and fashioned by the members themselves. And above all, Surabhi is remarkable as it puts up a play almost every single evening!
The young theatre group Evam presented two of Surabhi’s plays “Pathala Bhairavi” (an Indian Aladdin tale) and “Maya Bazaar” at the Music Academy recently. The audience watched enthralled as dragons breathed fire, palaces rose in the air and epic battles were fought on stage.
“When we saw Surabhi perform at the Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru recently, we felt we should provide the younger generation an opportunity to witness these spellbinding works in order to acquaint themselves with their roots and heritage,” say the members of Evam which had organised the event with meticulous care.
“We have staged our plays almost everywhere — in the deserts of Rajasthan, on the lawns of the Red Fort, on the banks of the Ganga and the sands of the Goan seashore,” says R. Nageswara Rao (Babji), patriarch of the family who heads the group and directs the plays. “But our permanent venue is the Public Gardens in Hyderabad where thanks to the Department of Culture, Government of Andhra Pradesh, we present ticketed shows (Rs. 25 ) every evening except on Tuesdays. We live in the area provided by the Government near the railway station in Hyderabad. Theatre is a 24- hour occupation for my family.”
Babji’s grandfather, who hailed from Maharashtra, married a girl from the village of Surabhi in Cuddapah district and moved there. The family was initially into leather puppetry. The performing tradition began with Vanarasa Govinda Rao and Chinaramaiah. “In 1885, there was a wedding in the village and the family was asked to perform a play,” recounts Babji. “The puppeteers simply moved from the back of the stage to the front with their ‘Keechaka Vadha.’ My grandfather Vanarasa Govinda Rao established Surabhi Theatres. There are five Surabhi theatre organisations today. The Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali was founded by my parents Venkata Rao and ‘Kala Praveena’ Subhadramma Both were wonderful actors. The strength of the troupe has always been the special effects.”
When Surabhi plans a production, the script is woven round the sets and the special effects to be used. Scripts are developed by a team from the mythological and folk stories present in manuscripts. “It takes six months to prepare a play for presentation but then it is time well spent for the play has to last for generations,” laughs Babji. “We like to perform plays only in Telugu for we are the only surviving beacon of light for plays in the language,” says the patriarch complimenting the women of the group for taking care of the family, cooking as well as acting in the plays.
Babji is grateful for the support and encouragement offered by K.V. Ramanachari, an IAS officer who was Director, Department of Culture in the State and the late Garimella Ramamurthy. “The Government of India has also helped us by giving monthly salaries to 20 of our members.”
A happy intervention for Surabhi was when they came under the guidance of B.V. Karanth in the 1990s. The veteran theatre personality conducted a National School of Drama production workshop for the group. “We have 26 plays in our repertoire notable among which are Sri Krishna Leela, Lava Kusa, Bala Nagamma, Sati Anusuya, Maya Bazaar, Bhakta Prahlada and Pathala Bhairavi. Roles are interchangeable and most of our actors are equipped to play the major parts. There is no room for one-upmanship — the artiste knows if she plays the lady-in-waiting today, she will be the princess tomorrow,” chuckles Babji.
It is time for puja and Babji is restless to wind up the interview. After all, it is only through total discipline that the troupe has been able to successfully encompass both the earth and the heavens in its shows.
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