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Theatre is their lifeline

If Surabhi theatre were to be described in one word, it would be ‘a visual treat’, writes Sumit Bhattacharjee

Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

Special effects A scene from the play Mayabazar

He is just 18 months old and he does not hesitate to don the grease paint and do a cameo in front of a large audience. The inference is about the youngest stage actor in the Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali or the famed Surabhi Natakalu Company. The present ‘boss’ of the drama company R. Nageswara Rao (Babji) corrects, “He is not the youngest. The youngest is the 20-day-old infant who played the role of infant Lord Krishna in the play ‘Sri Krishna Leelalu’.” The Surabhi group is here on a two-week drama festival being conducted by the Cultural Foundation at the Kalabharati Auditorium.

History

The theatre group has inherited a legacy and is considered to be one among the traditional art forms of Andhra Pradesh. Many compare it with Kuchipudi, the traditional dance form of Andhra Pradesh, and say that the Surabhi genre of theatre arts has become the pride of Andhra.

The Surabhi theatre took its roots in the village called Surabhi (originally called Sorugu) in the Kadapa district of AP in the year 1885. “Till then our ancestors were into the art of Tholu Bommalatta (a shadow show using puppets made of leather). In the year 1885, they were invited to host a live drama by the village elders of Surabhi on the occasion of a wedding. Our ancestors transformed the play ‘Keechaka Vadham’ which was till then depicted using leather puppets, to a live drama. That was the beginning of the theatre movement and our family settled down in Surabhi. And that’s how the drama company came to be known as Surabhi Natakalu Company,” says Babji. The Surabhi theatre group is made up of one family and the baton of stage shows has been transferred from one generation to another. What started off in a modest way in 1885 has over 3,000 family members working in the Surabhi theatre at present. Over the years, due to logistic problems, the group has split into a number of smaller theatre groups. Today, there are about five Surabhi Theatre groups in the state and the biggest among them is the Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali which was started by R. Venkata Rao, grandfather of Babji, in 1937, in Jimidipeta village of Srikakulam.

The family-run concept makes the theatre company a unique one. A member of the family is probably baptised into the realms of stage acting on the day he or she is born, and the tenure ends with his or her death. “Everything is done within the family. One is taught to act, sing, play some musical item, prepare the sets and handle the lights. It is a family profession and everyone should be an all-rounder. To keep it as a close-knit family, even the marriages are performed within the larger family. Getting into acting does not mean that studies should be neglected. The present generation is well educated and a few of them are doing their M.Phil in theatre arts,” says he.

The Surabhi theatre is unique in its style when compared to other theatre companies. It’s a genre on its own. Its visual and special effects makes it stand out from the rest. A lot of importance is given to the sets, lighting and special effects.

“Most of our plays are based on mythological stories and Puranas. And that needs creation of huge sets. We have to effectively depict scenes like Vasudeva carrying Lord Krishna across the Yamuna to Gokulam or Krishna taming the five-headed serpent Kalindi or the killing of Kamsa on the stage. The depiction calls for effective costume designs and sets and timely synchronisation of the special effects in combination with the light arrangements,” says Mr. Babji. If Surabhi theatre were to be described in one word, it would be ‘a visual treat’.Despite inheriting a legacy, the Surabhi theatre has been struggling to make both ends meet. The expenditure has gone up by a 1,000 times, but the collection and the patronage has dwindled over the years. “At the moment, to remake a set, the minimum expenditure would be Rs.2 lakhs compared to Rs.2,000 a couple of decades ago. On the contrary, the collections have not improved. Cinema, television and other forms of entertainment have eaten into our medium. In the present day, more than the collections, we need patrons and sponsors. The success of any entertainment show depends on the sponsors. Earlier, it was the Rajahs and Maharajahs who were our sponsors. In the current scenario, we need some support from the corporate world for a decent survival,” laments he. Mr. Babji says that the Surabhi theatre received a fillip from B.V. Karanth, the former Director of National School of Drama, who took the theatre to the national and international audience by conducting national level workshops and exposing Surabhi at various theatre festivals across the country. The theatre also received a boost from the former Director of Department of Culture K.V. Ramanachary and the present Director R. Kavitha Prasad. “Mr. Prasad set up a theatre complex at the Public Gardens in Hyderabad and has allowed us to stage our shows throughout the year,” he informed.

But the ‘boss’ of Surabhi feels that the government has to draw a concrete plan for the survival of the art form, in the long run.

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