And of course, the question arose, why don’t we have something like this in India?
I got the answer to my question in February this year, when Vijay and I discovered Surabhi, a unique 121-year old traditional Telugu theatre group from Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh. The ‘theatre’ was a make-shift structure with an asbestos roof with kacha flooring with wooden benches to sit on. The play we saw was Maya Bazar, a mythological from the Mahabharata. It is the story of the romance between Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu and Balarama’s daughter Sashirekha, and how they are united against all odds by the rakshasha Ghatotkachaa (see photo) using his magic powers.
We had heard that Surabhi plays were spectacular, but we really did not know what to expect. And were we in for a surprise! In Maya Bazar, arrows fly on stage, meeting in mid-air, in a display of fireworks; one arrow causes a wall of fire, another brings down rain to put out the fire; a romantic song in a garden has real pigeons flying around; Narada actually descends from the clouds, singing. And when Ghatotkacha makes his appearance, the magic seems to begin all over again—carpets fly, laddus magically ascend into Ghatotkacha’s mouth; brooms rise up to give a beating to the baddies; a couch on which Sashirekha is lying down actually rises up and flies away!!
As more and more special effects unfolded before us, we were mesmerized...and kept exclaiming in wonder and disbelief at what was happening on stage. At the end of the play, both our children asked us if they could go to the play again! We went home and called up about 25 people, family and friends included, and invited them to the play the next weekend. The same reaction from them too... "That was out of this world...why didn’t we hear about Surabhi earlier?"
If people hadn’t heard about Surabhi, it is because this group of skilled performers have no means to get the right kind of publicity. They performed in Hyderabad, 5 days a week for six whole months, thanks to government patronage, but there was hardly any crowd despite the low priced ticket of Rs 15!
Surabhi was essentially a travelling rural theatre. Its decline began with the advent of cinema, and then TV. In its heyday, Surabhi had over 50 drama troupes, all in the same family—now it has just five. Threatened with closure every passing day, the Surabhi family struggles to make a living.
It is a typical story of simple, genuine people, with huge talent, being forgotten, while all the attention is on those pseudo-intellectuals with their ‘nothing-on-the-stage-you-have-to-imagine-it' kind of theatre, which corporate giants patronise, and for which people spend Rs 500-Rs 2000 per ticket, and clap even as they wonder why they are clapping!
Surabhi should not be allowed to die. They need patronage. If you live in India and want to help, please invite Surabhi (98485-80211 / 98490-26386) to perform in your town or city. And if you find them performing nearby, please spend Rs 15 per ticket for an awesome theatre experience.
For this is the India one must see, and be proud of.
Other interesting facts
• Surabhi was started in 1885 by Vanarasa Govindarao and Vanarasa Chinaramayya in Surabhi, a tiny hamlet near Rayachoti (another version mentions a remote Kadapa village—Sorugu), now in Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh.
• Surabhi is unique also because it is a one-family theatre group in which every member of the family acts, including toddlers who are made to put on some make up and costumes, and walk up and down on the stage. There have apparently been cases when an older family member died on the stage, but the play went on without stopping.
• The name Surabhi comes from the Sanskrit shloka Shushstu Rabhathe Janaanandam, Ithi Surabhi, which literally means, "...because in Surabhi, people’s joy is easily obtained".
• In addition to Maya Bazar, they do other plays such as Sri Krishna Leelalu, Lava Kusa, Balanagamma, Bhakta Prahlada and Sri Veerabramhmamgari Jeevita Charita.
• The hugely successful movie Maya Bazar was inspired by Surabhi, and has the same kind of special effects that the Surabhi play has.
• At the time of writing, there has been a positive development—Surabhi has been invited by a cultural foundation to perform in Vishakapatnam, from 1 to 22 November (The Hindu, 18 October 2006).