Theatre

A family in art surges ahead

A still from Neeta Jain's documentary on Surabhi theatre group  

Neeta Jain Duhaut has lived in different parts of the country, absorbing what each region has to offer culturally, as her husband and present director of Alliance Francaise, Hyderabad, worked in different cities. In each of these places, she explored local art and culture, sometimes documenting them on film.

A few months after Neeta and Jean-Manuel Duhaut moved to Hyderabad in 2011, they were introduced to Surabhi theatre group. “I was exploring the city and at Lalita Kala Thoranam, came across a board. I couldn’t read what was written in Telugu and could only decipher the name of the group in English, Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali - Surabhi,” says Neeta Jain, talking to Friday Review on the eve of screening her documentary Surabhi family – in life, in drama on the theatre group.

She was drawn into their spirited performance despite the language barrier. Srikrishna Leelalu was in progress. “Since I know the story of Krishna, I could understand the episodes involving the rakshasi and kaliya,” she says. Neeta was fascinated to discover that 65 members of one family kept theatre thriving. “Their form of art and content are traditional. The members design the sets, props, costumes and take theatre to a new generation of audience without losing their identity,” observes Neeta. She explored this meeting point of tradition and modernity in her documentary.

She did a recce for two months, observing the group at home and work. She understood how the younger members balanced studies and theatre and how the men and women were not only actors but divided all the production work between them. “Their stage setting and costumes all have a rustic quality, hand made by the family members. They live in humble conditions, untouched by the urban lifestyle in Hyderabad,” says Neeta. She was intrigued at how the group resisted the trappings of a modern lifestyle that often makes people forget their roots.

During the recce, she shot with a non-professional camera, saw how the men restored a broken down generator, got acquainted with youngsters in the family who were postgraduates, M.Phil and Ph.D candidates, with the opportunity to move away from theatre and yet were bound to art.

This was the beginning of Neeta’s association with Surabhi. In summer of 2013, the group set out to perform in France for the Passage 2013 festival, with the help of Alliance Francaise. It was their first ever international performance, in Paris and Metz, and the team was filled with both excitement and trepidation. Neeta’s documentary introduces viewers to Surabhi, the plays they perform ( Mayabazaar, Bhakta Prahlada and Sri Krishna Leelalu), their famous visual effects and how they responded when placed in a new cultural context in France. “At the end of filming, I had 150 hours of footage and had to reduce it to a little less than an hour,” she smiles. The French version of the documentary includes an introduction to Hyderabad, Telugu, Surabhi and Indian mythology.

The film doesn’t trace the genesis of 129-year-old Surabhi group but offers an insight into the people who keep it thriving. “I am not looking at Surabhi’s pedagogy. I wanted the film to be real enough for viewers to be able to understand them better. Of the 65 members of Surabhi, 45 travelled to France. It wasn’t possible to include every member into the documentary. Some of them become voices for the rest. I felt Babji (R. Nageswara Rao) plays an important role in taking Surabhi ahead,” observes Neeta.

She saw how the family designed new props and costumes and shipped them to France two months ahead of their performance. In France, she helped ease the culture shock the members experienced during their first international visit. “I haven’t included how they responded to a sudden change in food and climatic conditions in the film. Perhaps I will have a separate CD on ‘Surabhi in France’,” she says. The group had its share of travails, dealing with non-masala food and Neeta mentions how the women took to the kitchen to dish up rice and dal and at the end of the tour, served up a delicious meal for 100 plus contingent.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 3:33:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/a-family-in-art-surges-ahead/article6419500.ece

Next Story