Pulling on, with love

LEADING LIGHT R. Nageswarara Rao (centre): “As we perform across the State, the 65 of us have to travel along with lorry-loads of costumes and props, and our incomes have risen only marginally.”

LEADING LIGHT R. Nageswarara Rao (centre): “As we perform across the State, the 65 of us have to travel along with lorry-loads of costumes and props, and our incomes have risen only marginally.”   | Photo Credit: Photo: K. Murali Kumar.


The 120-year-old theatre group Surabhi has come a long way. Things have only got more difficult says R. Nageswara Rao, the director of the 65-member team

The actual and biggest cause is burgeoning production costs

When Chenna Reddy and Ram Reddy, village elders of Surabhi hamlet in Cuddapah, Andhra Pradesh, invited a family of leather-puppeteers in 1885 to stage a show for a family wedding, they could not even have imagined this event would be remembered and commemorated a century later. The artistes who, until then, were only staging Tholu Bommalatas (shadow-puppet shows) came up with the drama “Keechaka Vadha” for the occasion.

This was the birth of Surabhi Theatre Group which henceforth began to write and produce plays under the patronage of these Reddys (incidentally, their great-grandson A. Jayachandra Reddy currently lives in Bangalore). Over the years, Surabhi’s repertoire increased and so did their reach; as they began staging plays to appreciative audiences across the State. Soon, the family split up, resulting in 60 Surabhi Samajas. However, later, the numbers declined and, today, there are only five survivors. Of these, the most successful is the legendary Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali, wherein 65 members of the same family constitute the cast and crew of the group’s plays, under the leadership of the director R. Nageswara Rao aka Babji. The group’s reputation for professionalism, especially punctuality and discipline, and for highly watchable theatre are both big and richly deserved.

From 1885, along the way, a great deal changed, but their commitment has remained a constant. The initial castor-oil lamps gave way to petromax lights and later to electric ones. Cardboard boxes and jute-ropes are now substituted with more sophisticated props like the wooden and metal crates, and pulleys. Everyone from a five-day-old infant (for playing the newborn Krishna) to a nonagenarian gets a role to play. In the drama Lava-Kusha, for the song depicting the twins’ growing-up years, seven sets of brothers of different ages were used, all drawn from this family-pool of artistes!

The family’s respect for their ancestors and roots in unparalleled. Each time the Mandali visits Surabhi village, they collect mud from the point where the first-ever show was staged and carry with them to wherever they travel. Before each show, they mix it with water and each artiste applies a tilak of the paste to their forehead, while the rest is sprinkled lightly across the stage.

“Maya Bazaar” is the most popular of the 26 plays in this group’s repertoire. Of the Mandali’s 422 shows last year, “Maya Bazaar” alone accounted for 200. Nageswara Rao attributes the popularity to the numerous gimmicks and special effects, and the high humour quotient in the play. However, irrespective of what they stage, they are crowd pullers and repeat invites from organisers.Venkateshwara Mandali is constantly struggling to keep its head above water. Is it decreasing public patronage, or competition from TV and cinema? Nageswara Rao replies: “Could be… but they are not all. There are, as always, theatre-lovers who flock to stage-shows. The actual and biggest cause is burgeoning production costs. Electricity, costumes, make-up material, lights, curtain-fabric, musical instruments, and transport especially has gone up and our incomes have risen very marginally. ” So, this increased financial burden has forced many groups to shut shop, while Venkateshwara Mandali carries on through will and an unquenchable love for theatre. Compounding this is the pressure to maintain high quality levels. Since most shows are ticketed ones, they need to maintain high standards, or the crowds will stop coming in, explains Nageswara Rao. There has been substantial help from Andhra Pradesh IAS officer K.V. Ramanachari, theatre personality B.V. Karanth and the Mandali’s guru and mentor Garimella Ramamurthy, he acknowledges.

They not only helped financially, but ensured wider exposure and regular platforms for performances, and also gave useful suggestions for improving performances.

However, much more needs to be done, the Mandali members explain –– like scholarships/free education for the younger ones in the group, medical-aid for all artistes, help from big industrialists to cover their production costs…etc. Hopefully, someone is listening.

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