Folk theatre has been very popular in India from ancient times. Yakshagaana and Nautanki are well known. Surabhi theatre draws heavily from Yakshagaana, and is directly descended from medieval Marathi forms.The Surabhi theatre company was founded way back in 1899 and still manages to survive. Over the years it split up into thirty odd groups but some of them still hold shows irregularly. Most of the popular dramas are musicals, episodes based on various stories from the old books of India. Most of the south Indian mythological films are based on the Surabhi renderings of the classics. In recent times the TV versions of Mahabharata and Ramayana have been very popular and dubbed in several languages.
The TV or film versions of the old epics usually have dramatic special effects like the warriors loosing off some sort of hi tech weapons. Like the water-weapon arrow (varunaastra) which creates a thunderstorm over the enemy. Others create a firestorm, or poison gas, or earthquakes. Then there are the super whammys like the pasupataastra and brahmaastra which cause wholesale destruction of the worlds.
( According to some sci-fi minded people, the description of such weapons and flying vehicles are actually garbled memories of extra terrestrial star wars and not just primitive imagination. Whatever the case may be, audiences down the centuries have always been enthralled with the stories and performances.) I spoke to Mr Nageswara Rao, who manages a surviving Surabhi company, their ancestors originally hailed from Maharashtra and called themselves Aarey-kaapu. It appears the armourers and craftsmen of the mahratta armies settled down in various places after the empire broke up into separate pieces. The group which settled in Cuddapah district (pronounced cud-upper) took to entertaining people at village fairs and festivals. (elsewhere they took to other crafts).
In the last century the organised theatrical effort began with V Pedda Ramaayya and his brothers who staged a play at a wedding at a landlord's mansion. It was an episode from the Mahabharata, Keechaka Vadha ( slaying of Keechaka). ( Bheema who was very strong makes short work of General Keechaka who was harassing his wife Draupadi). The success of the play sparked off several other episodes. The next generation of Surabhi, Govinda and Chinna Raamayya further developed the performances, with attention to stageraft, costumes, etc. Over the decades the popularity grew and the 'family' also expanded. Baala Nagamma, Maya Bazaar were very famous Surabhi dramas which included several special effects.
The name surabhi is a corruption of "surugi" i.e. a term used to describe a route or path between two landmarks on the horizon, according to senior members of the troupe.
With the rise of films, particularly the talkies, naturally the Surabhi star started dimming. Several talented artistes of Surabhi joined films--their professionalism was highly appreciated-- and many branched off into film set supply, costuming, etc.
Some time ago I watched a performance and again met them in the morning. I spoke to the members of SriVenkateswar Natya Mandali, (one of the surviving Surabhi groups). The future of the drama company was bleak, according to them. They owned all their props, but travelling was very expensive. TV and film of course were a blow, they said. The younger members were very interested in getting proper education--difficult for a touring theatre-- but some managed to acquire some. The main burden of the work falls on the womenfolk. ( They are ALL related in some manner and can be considered a recently created 'nomadic tribe').
The hero and heroine of the evening's performance belting out passionate padyalu ( poems) and the white bearded elder statesman of the night before were busy in the morning's chores. Krishna, sans blue makeup is revealed to be a 60-year old lady rocking infants in cradles of cloth. The hero slinging magic arrows yesterday was hauling buckets of water for the tanker with a toothbrush clamped in his teeth. The heroine was cleaning rice. Others were painting the sets. Everybody learnt ALL the skills, they said, not just acting onstage. No prima donnas here, obviously.
The manager Nageswar Rao said people still come to watch Surabhi performances in Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. "In the coastal region audiences know the Sahitya (lyrics, songs and classical poems) by heart and sing along with us! But they insist on correct raaga and taala too."
Every time the Surabhi theatre comes to town ( Hyderabad in this case) the old affiliates drop whatever they are doing and rush to take part in the shows. They don't need to rehearse, they say since they have been active since toddlers. According to some of the girls sitting around behind the stage, the watchword is ' the audience is not interested in our problems. The show must go on'. Woof, agreed a dog, who plays an important part in a drama and gives a sterling performance.
And over the years, there have been several hair rising times. Some aged surabhi actors have actually died during a performance: the cast just adlibbed something and the audience never knew. Even childbirth did not interrupt the performance, said one.
It is unfortunately only a matter of time before Surabhi is a memory, says Nageswar Rao. We simply can't travel like before. Maybe if we had a permanent theatre we could do something...
© V Ramchandra Rao ..email vramrao@yahoo