Theatre lovers in France will witness Ghatotkacha’s antics on stage and Krishna dancing on Kaliya, as Surabhi gears up to present three of its plays at the Passages 2013 festival.

Geeta Sri was 21 days old when she made her stage debut, as baby Krishna. “It’s as though I was born on stage. In fact, that’s the way most of us are initiated into theatre. As children we’d go to school, get back home and finish our lessons and then rehearse for the plays. On days we perform, we’d be on stage from 8 or 9 p.m.,” says Geeta Sri, with a beaming smile. She is part of the 44-member team from the Surabhi theatre group (Sri Venkateswara Natya Mandali) travelling to France to stage Mayabazaar, Bhakta Prahalada and Sri Krishna Leelalu.

For the first time in the 128-year history of Surabhi, the group will be performing outside India as part of Passages 2013. This festival will feature performances by traditional theatre groups from Europe. Surabhi is the only group invited outside of Europe.

“Our ancestors have done so much for Surabhi. We feel blessed such an opportunity has come our way,” echo Geeta Sri and her contemporaries R. Pratima, Sai Teja and Chinmayi Chandralekha. Pratima will play goddess Lakshmi, Sai Teja will be Krishna and Gita Sri will reprise the iconic part of Sasirekha in Mayabazaar. “We have amongst us fine arts graduates, M.Phil and Ph.D scholars. We all could have opted to move away from theatre and immerse ourselves in corporate jobs. But the joy of performing in stage and keeping a tradition alive is unmatched,” says Pratima.

The Surabhi group, in its 128th year, is a fascinating story of one family that’s dedicated itself to Telugu theatre. The mythological plays staged by this group, complete with awe-inspiring technical finesse, powerful performances and arresting costumes have become an irreplaceable part of Telugu culture. “We learnt so much from our elders. There’s not a single instance when our grandfather (Padma Sri awardee R. Nageswara Rao or Babji as he is referred to) has not encouraged us to do our best,” says Sai Teja. Gita pitches in, “More importantly, we’ve kept pace with the times in our costumes, makeup and visual effects.”

Two-step translation

As you read this, the group will be on its way to France to perform in Metz Paris. The Alliance Francaise, which is helping them with this festival, has given them basic French lessons to help them pick up cues when the over-titles are beamed in French.

Jean-Manuel Duhaut, director of Alliance Francaise, says, “The plays will be staged in Telugu. For the benefit of the French audience, there will be over-titles beamed on a panel above the stage in French.” The translation was a two-step process — from Telugu to English and English to French. “We sought the help of someone who had good command over Telugu and English for the first level of translation. My wife Nita and I worked on the English to French translation. We were careful that the essence of the play shouldn’t be lost in the two-level translation,” he adds.

Nita Jain Duhaut, meanwhile, is filming a documentary titled Surabhi, the fragrance of theatre for a French television channel. “Urban India has forgotten the art of handing down oral traditions from one generation to the other. In this group, a newborn as young as 15 days old makes a stage appearance as baby Krishna. The lives of the Surabhi family members revolve around theatre. To me, this group is the perfect example of moving ahead with the times while not letting go of tradition,” she says. Nita has completed two-thirds of the documentary. The remaining portions will be shot in France.

The stage backdrops and costumes for the plays have been shipped to France two months ago. “About half a container of equipment was sent by ship,” informs Nageswara Rao. The doyen is humbled by the invitation from France: “One of the festival organisers came to witness our performance. He couldn’t understand what we spoke but he was in praise of our work,” he smiles.

For the festival, the group has edited each of their plays, to bring down the run time to 90 minutes. The audience will also be given a booklet on the plays and Mahabharata, to acclimatise them with the context of the play.

Surabhi in France

l Passages 2013, to be held in France (Metz and Paris) between May 4 and 18, will feature works of traditional theatre groups from Europe. Surabhi is the only non-European theatre group invited to perform in the festival.

l Surabhi will stage Mayabazaar, Bhakta Prahalada and Sri Krishna Leelalu in France. Each play will be of 90-minute duration. Mayabazaar will be staged on May 7,8, and 9; Bhakta Prahalada on May 11, 12, and 13; Sri Krishna Leelalu on May 15, 16 and 17; later, Mayabazaar will be staged in Paris from May 22 to 24; followed by two shows of Sri Krishna Leelalu on May 25th.

l The plays will be staged in Telugu, with over-titles beamed on a panel above the stage in French.

l Neeta Jain Duhaut is filming a documentary on the group for a French television channel.