Surabhi, a family theatre venture, turns 125.

Almost every day a Surabhi show unveils somewhere. Over 125 years, a theatre legacy has trickled from one generation to another of a family. It sprouted in a remote hamlet of Andhra Pradesh, taking on the identity of the place — the village and the group are Surabhi. Milestones mark their way, and were weaned away from harsh times with timely succour.

Surabhi today lives on through five troupes spread over Andhra Pradesh, held together by over 3,000 family members. To mark the illustrious history of the family and its art, a festival of Surabhi theatre takes off at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts next week. Seven Surabhi masterpieces including “Maya Bazaar”, “Srikrishnaleelalu”, “Chandipriya” and “Bhaktha Prahlada” would be staged, alongside an exhibition of photographs, costumes and backdrops. The five troupes come under the Surabhi Natya Kala Sangh umbrella to embellish the festival.

R. Nageswara Rao — Babji for everyone — runs the Hyderabad-based Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali, the biggest among the Surabhi troupes. He proudly shows off the letter of appreciation from King Edward VII, received decades ago, which was reproduced in a magazine of the time. The troupe went to the then Rangoon with their plays in 1909-11. “It is not a joke,” he declares.

What began with a “Keechaka Vadham” performance in 1885 at a wedding, today survives with a bit of government help and the zest of the audience. “I belong to the fifth generation of artistes. The sixth and seventh generation family members are already part of the group,” says Babji overseeing the preparations at IGNCA lawns where a stage is being set up as they do for quintessential Surabhi shows in villages. Babji's ancestors moved from puppetry to theatre performances with “Keechaka Vadham.” An assortment of mythological, folklore and plays based on women's issues make Surabhi theatre.

Visual magic

However, mythology marks the bulk of Surabhi's repertoire. Huge sets, intricate backdrops, elaborate costumes and visual magic and tricks are the hallmark. “We are born to the stage, educated here. We rehearse, cook, sleep here.” Theatre is at the core of these lives, points out Babji. “From a three-month-old baby to an 80-year-old are here.” Together they make costumes, create sets and backdrop, play music and arrange lighting.

The mid-1900s were Surabhi's flourishing years. “In 1970, there were 60 theatre troupes with about 50-60 artistes each. By 1976-78 it came down to 40, by 1981-82 it became 16, and four groups in 1984. Another group was started in 2004. So now we are five groups,” says Babji painting a receding picture of Surabhi.

“In the old days, a dress could be made for Rs.200, today it's Rs.15,000. One tent cost Rs.300 then, now it comes to 25,000,” he recounts the obvious reasons for the diminishing Surabhi tribe. However, Babji asserts the audience never deserted Surabhi, “We depend on ticket and audience.”

Also, the involvement of the legendary B.V. Karanth proved a lifeline. Karanth conducted workshops and evolved three plays with them — “Bhishma”, “Chandipriya” and “The Good Women of Setzuan” an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play. If “Bhishma” did away with Surabhi tricks and splendour, it did not do too well. So when it came to “Chandipriya” in 1997, Karanth left it to the Surabhi artistes to select the play, have “their tricks” yet ventured into in a modern way.

“That was a success,” says Babji. He also adapted Brecht's play to Telugu. “It has 60 short songs in the Telengana slang.” Karanth took Surabhi to a broader canvas, before a national audience as they toured various State capitals and Delhi. “We are grateful to him as the Department of Culture recognised our efforts after that and provides a monthly salary to the five troupes since 1999,” says Babji. “That helped us overcome financial crisis and kept us from closing down.” The fruits of that assistance are on view when Surabhi turns 125 and stages a handful of their ventures next week.