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Surabhi past re-visited

GUDIPOODI SRIHARI

A book on the 125-year-old-theatre group is an attempt to trace its roots and what can possibly keep it going.


The Surabhi Theatre of Andhra

A Living Legend

Written by Dr. Modali Nagabhushana Sarma and Published by ‘Ranga Sampada'.

Contact:

040-27624765,

98490 26386

Surabhi is the oldest professional family theatre group in India whose history dates back to 1885. Vanarasa Govinda Rao was its patriarch. Modali Nagabhushana Sarma, former head of Theatre Arts Department of Osmania University, has attempted to fill the void of knowledge about the group with his book. Based on family records, personal documents of actors over a period of time, the book traces the theatre group through six generations: the emergence of rural theatre, life of Surabhi people on and off stage and why Surabhi is relevant even today.

PHOTO: SATISH H.;Author Nagabhushana Sarma

ALL ITS GLORY A scene from a play staged by Surabhi artistes.

The author Dr. Sarma is a playwright, theatre historian, director and a folklore specialist, with a number of books on these subjects to his credit. He records that Surabhi theatre earned the reputation of being the only `one family theatre' in the world surviving for 125 years. In order to pen details in his book, Sarma said that he travelled with Surabhi troupes to distant places like Vizianagaram, Srikakulam, Bellary and Bengaluru, where the reminiscences of Surabhi's past still exists. He said he visited the Surabhi's native village (of the same name) at least eight times. "I visited Bengaluru and contacted their relatives settled there and recorded information from them. Rampati Subbadas, a Harikatha artiste, was the first teacher of Surabhi people. He later ran a `Hathayogasramam' in Ananthapur now being looked after by his adopted son.

Sarma also collected information from Aveti Nageswara Rao, Baba Rao and other contemporaries.


A landlord, A. C. Chenna Reddy was a patron of Surabhi in its early days. Among the many letters Surabhi received from various persons, the letter written by Chenna Reddy, commenting on the show is quite moving. This is carried in this book. Chennareddy's grandson Jayasena Reddy, living in Bengaluru, was another source for Sarma. This letter and some newspaper clippings of reviews dating back to 1900 also find a place in the book. It describes the typical rural setting, a makeshift hall covered with zinc sheets providing space to carry on a variety of trick scenes, for which the theatre was well known. Dr. Sarma gave visual picture of how all the basic structural form of the theatre and encircled by their living spaces, with structural plans. The author also discusses the birth and rise of verse theatre in Andhra in parallel to the Surabhi that traced back to the times of Vanarasa Sanjeeva Rao, the earliest known ancestor of Surabhi.

Sarma said that he was coming out with a second volume on Surabhi theatre as he dealt with only the fundamentals of the Surabhi theatre. "I intended this first book mainly for non-Telugu readers. Now I am working on an other book with more information on many Surabhi companies, plays, actors and so on." Can we revive Surabhi to its past glory is the question now. "Yes we can, provided all the Surabhi families come together and cooperate by stopping their performances for two months to gear them up to take to modern day theatre, especially folk, potent enough to entertain the rural and urban audience alike," was Sarma's recipe of hope. "Borrow the backstage techniques of Brecht or any modern theatre that facilitates rendition of verses and songs, that Surabhi people specialised in, harping on good story line." He recalled the earlier attempts made persons like B.V. Karanth in this arena to bring it to the mainstream of contemporary drama. But they didn't yield good results as they were more appealing to urban audience.

"Surabhi is a museum piece now. We have to adapt a technique that entertains rural and urban audience," Sarma says. "And folklore will sure mesmerise them when presented with their technical wizardry and musical skills. We have also to take note of how the younger generation of Surabhi artistes are replacing the old.

Besides, there is a craze for Surabhi drama in villages. It will be better if the state government showed interest. Recently TTD picked up three teams of Surabhi artistes and sent them to Rayalaseema, Coastal Andhra and Telangana to stage divine themes. The response was good," Sarma observed.

As to his other plans he said he was writing an English-to- Telugu theatre language dictionary, `as we are used only to English words like `curtain' to `proscenium', `back stage' and so on`.

other book with more information on many Surabhi companies, plays, actors and so on." Can we revive Surabhi to its past glory is the question now. "Yes we can, provided all the Surabhi families come together and cooperate

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