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Home Cover Features Family Theatre!

Family Theatre!

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Family Theatre!

Sri Venkateswara Natyamandali, popularly called Surabhi, is a family theatre institution with over 60 family members performing mythologies in Padya Natakam. Their live performances are sprinkled with colourful illusionary backgrounds, sets and trick scenes, sending immense joy to child and adult alike. Like there are no takes and retakes on the Rangmanch, there is no retirement for artists or technicians here.

Sri Venkateswara Natyamandali (Surabhi), located in the heart of the city, at Telugu Lalitha Kala Thoranam, Public Gardens, Nampally, entertains the young and old during the weekends with a show that starts at 6.45 PM and lasts for two hour and ten minutes. On special occasions, Surabhi comes forward to host special shows as the one witnessed in July. There was a special show of ‘Maya Bazaar’ for school children at 3 PM in association with Dept. of Culture, Telangana Government that lasted for one hour and forty minutes.

Family Theatre!

Surabhi is a rare institution of family groups that has a track record of 131 years. Before setting camp at the Public Gardens, eight years ago, Surabhi led a nomadic life by performing dramas in villages. “Most of the Surabhi plays are the compendiums from the Indian epics and mythologies ‘Ramayana’, ‘Mahabharatha’ and ‘Bhagavatha’,” says Padma Shri Rekandar Nageswara Rao, popularly called Surabhi Babji.

Babji says that Surabhi is an institution of family theatre with more than 60 family members performing here. “There are actors from all age groups. A child as young as 18 months is aware of her/his role and they get ready and know when they have to get on the stage,” says Babji. (While I was seated there, a toddler came to him and he told her - Poo veshan vesko). He proudly claims that there are 30 women actors who play various roles on the stage. “It is only here you can see young girls’ dressed traditionally and true family unity,” he says.

What is the success behind Surabhi? This troupe is famous for its Padya Natakam (The classical Telugu verse play) performances adorned with colourful illusionary backgrounds, sets and trick scenes. The interesting thing about this troupe is that all artists/technicians of this troupe are from one family, dedicating their lives to Rangastal (stage). “There are no age limitations or retirements for the artists of this family,” says Babji.

Surabhi members take care of their own make-up and costumes. “All artists can do their own make-up. Often they all are helping each other too,” Babji says.

Family Theatre!

He is also proud to share that children in his troupe regularly attend regular schools and colleges during the week. “Though the children’s primary education is Drama education. When it comes to general education, children attend classes in the morning and perform on the stage in the evenings. There are kids who study in the primary, secondary educations, and there are youngsters pursuing post graduations, and PhD’s., in Theatre Arts,” the patriarch says. He quickly adds that some of the young artists travel 100 km daily to attend classes at the college, but when they return in the evening, they don’t miss their practice. There are extra practice sessions for the youngsters on Sundays,” Babji says. Back of the stage are the artists’ living rooms, which are the temporary shelters. “The rooms are all attached to the stage to quickly get on to the stage,” he says with a smile. Babji adds: “As this is makeshift living quarters, when the sky opens up, rain seeps in and there have been times when creepy creatures have crawled from under our cots.”

For many years, Surabhi was simply Padya Natakam (classical Telugu verse play) until Sri China Ramayyah introduced the gimmicks and trick scenes. The family patriarch says that in the long run Surabhi kept on enhancing the trick scenes, lot of gimmicks, recreating old world charm on stage. “It is here only that the audience gets to witness Lord Vishnu coming on the stage to bless a devotee and Narada traversing through the air, rendering ‘Narayana Keertana.’ Ghatochkacha pours fire on stage, the war between Ghatochkacha and Anbhimanyu, where fire and rain are witnessed on stage. Also Lord Krishna dancing on Kaliya, the five headed snake.

When are the children enunciated into the theatre? “They are born actors,” says Babji adding that children, as they watch their elders’ perform, they pick up and they are ready to play the role anytime. “Almost all artists are technicians too. Women not only play the female roles, but male characters too. It would excite the audience that they can watch different age groups of artists in the same play that the babies, children, youth, middle aged and the old, are all from one family,” he says. The patriarch reveals that till 1885, the contemporary drama groups used to come up with the male artists performing female roles because of society restrictions. “However, since Surabhi is a family system, women were motivated to perform the women roles on their own stage,” he says. Surabhi does not outsource its theatre requirements.

Family Theatre!

“The family members are involved in different roles concerning the theatre. Making the stage, curtains, stitching, painting, making of the wigs, ornaments, designing costumes, electrical works, lighting works, etc., all these works are performed by the family,” Babji says with a twinkle in his eye. “There is no doubt that the credit of success of the exciting plays is the team work. While watching the show, audience can see only two artists performing on the stage; but behind the screens, there would be the whole family that is working to make an instant set for the next scene,” he says.  Watching all these on screen in a two-hour movie is lapped up, but watching the same thing in a live show is a visual delight. Here there are no takes or retakes. Every day, the actor has to sing and perform.

Indeed one must credit Surabhi, it is a small world in itself. “With in-built democratic principles and administration it functions without any hindrance. All of them living here know their roles. The families of artists live on the other side of the theatre structure in small apartments built for them,” he says.

Babji takes pride in sharing that it was Surabhi which introduced ticketing system. “The early plays staged by the group were Harishchandra, Sarangadhara and Sakunthala. The troupe started ticketing system in early 1900s, and the gate collection too was good in those days. However, though the ticket is as low as Rs. 30 today, there are not many takers,” he says.

Apart from showcasing mythologies, Surabhi has proved its merit in addressing social issues in the rural areas. The troupe has performed at several National and International theatre festivals. In 2014, the troupe had performed at Theatre Festivals in Mainz and Paris staging 22 plays during their 41-day trip. “The French government bestowed us lot of respect and honour. Our sets and material required for the performance was shipped. They took great care. Even after the performances, same care was taken. As we had no performances here during that time because of our material in transit, the ministry paid us our salaries too,” says Babji. After the performances in France, Neeta Jain made a documentary on Surabhi for a TV channel in France.

Family Theatre!

Students from across India and abroad come here to learn the nuances of theatre. From time to time, students from NSD, IGNCA and Sangeet Natak Akademi are here training under Babji for 15 days to three months. Even students from Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London, come here for learning the ropes of stage.

Sharing people’s preferences of plays here, Babji says that mythologies are preferred. “Top on the list is Maya Bazaar, followed by Patal Bhairavi, Sri Krishna Lellalu and Bhakta Prahlada,” he says. Others include Lava Kusa, Brahmam Gari Charithra, Balanagamma and Chandi Priya to name a few.

Protecting this kind of theatre is the need of the hour. The State Government and many voluntary organisations must come forward to encourage this family theatre where they are self-sufficient in every department. There is lot to learn. Even the Telugu poetic verses are dying now. Babji states that he has curtains and dresses of the Olden era, some as old as 120 years, and need to be housed properly that future generations can learn from it. If not watching a movie, this weekend, step into the Surabhi theatre and watch a play staged by them. It is clean and wholesome entertainment.

The Theatre

As you step into the make shift auditorium, one gets the feeling of a village life. Except for brown sofas in the front row, all the others are plastic chairs. One show can accommodate nearly 400 people. One would be amazed to know that Surabhi performs brilliantly on a stage with Width: 17ft + 26ft + 17ft (total = 60ft), Height: 15ft + 3ft and Depth: 35ft.

Babji shares that the roof of the stage is equipped with horizontal and vertical rulers strong enough to bear 1.5 tonne weight. “The curtains and other trick scene equipment are hanged to the roof,” he says.

Babji, Man with innovative ideas

Rekandar Nageswara Rao (Babji) is director, actor and leader with innovative ideas for the consolidation and purposeful continuity of the troupe. Babji took over the reins of the group in 1973 and has successfully brought the troupe into limelight. Ready to help people in need, both inside and outside Surabhi has earned Babji the name of benevolent manager.

Well-known for his performances as Srirama in Lava Kusa, Sri Krishna in Maya Bazaar, Sri Maha Vishnu – Anasuya, Veera Brahmam in Sri Veera Brahmamgari Charitra, Nakshatraka in Harishchandra, Vengalaraya in Bobbili Yuddham, Karyavardhi in Balanagamma, Bhavanishankara in Chintamani, Jai Ram Singh – Rangoon Rowdy (Social drama). He has directed major plays Lava Kusa, Sri Krishna Leelalu, Veera Brahmamgari Charitra, Balanagamma and Jai Pathala Bhairavi. And he has lent assistance to Padma Shri B.V. Karanthji as Asst. Director for the play ‘Chandi Priya’.

Winner of many accolades, Babji was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2013 and Sangeet Natak Kala Academy in 2012.

Surabhi Origination

Babji proudly recalls that Surabhi’s first stage production was ‘Keechaka Vadha’. Remembering the roots of Surabhi, Babji says that the puppet team of the Vanarasa family had become very popular and their shows were part of any important functions or festivals in their village. “From a village near Jammalamadugu, there came a call to enact a puppet show during a wedding ceremony. The village was Sorugu, which is now called Surabhi, and the landlords were known in the taluqa for their patronage of puppet shows. Here, Vanarasa Govinda Rao found an opportunity to convert the puppet show ‘Keechaka Vadha - A tale from the epic Mahabharatha’ to a theatrical performance. That was the beginning. With the huge success of the show, the puppetry family changed into a classical theatrical family. As the early plays of the group were staged at Surabhi village and since most of the artists lived in the same area, the group came to be known as Surabhi,” he says.

The Tale of Demon King Ghatochkacha

Maya Bazaar is regarded as the master piece of Sri Venkateswara Natyamandali (Surabhi). The 2 hour and 10 minute show has been scripted by Sri Malladi Venkata Krishna Sharma, while the dramatization is by late A. Manohar and direction by R. Nageswara Rao (Babji).

Family Theatre!

This production narrates the love story of Sesirekha, (daughter of Balaram) and Abhimanyu (the son of Subhadra). The king Balaram wants to marry his daughter to his nephew Abhimanyu, but Balaram’s wife Revathi, under Narada’s influence, plans her daughter’s marriage with Lakshmana Kumara (son of Duryodhana). Due to the pressure from his wife, Balaram rejects the proposal to marry his daughter to Abhimanyu.

Dejected, Abhimanyu with his mother Subhadra goes to meet his father Arjun in Agnathavasa (exile). While Abhimanyu and Subhadra are passing through a forest, they come across the demon king Ghatochkacha (son of Bhima and Hidimba). Ghatochkacha invites Abhimanyu for a fight, but through an intervention by Subhadra, he comes to know that Abhimanyu is his cousin and he takes them to his house. Ghatochkacha finds out about Abhimanyu and Sesirekha’s love and the reluctance of Balarama to the marriage. Ghatochkacha takes a vow to get them married. He goes to the city Dwaraka and requests Krishna for assistance. Now, with his magical powers, Ghatochkacha kidnaps Sesirekha and disguising himself as Sesirekha, marries Lakshman Kumar.

Later, Balaram repents marrying his daughter to Lakshman Kumar instead of Abhimanyu. On Krishna’s suggestion, he goes to meet Ghatochkacha and apologises to Abhimanyu, Subhadra and Ghatochkacha. Then he gets his daughter married to Abhimanyu.

The Surabhi troupe has incorporated all gimmicks that come to one’s mind. Be it the little banter or the distancing between Sesirekha and Abhimanyu. Even Ghatochkacha’s magic has been shown in detail.

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