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Home Personality Interviews Surabhi Rayulu

Surabhi Rayulu

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“Television killed theatre totally”

“The Surabhi folk art movement in Andhra Pradesh is losing audiences to films and TV, if it is not already lost”. A profound statement coming from a man, who has been part one of the oldest theatre troupes in the world.

With new forms of entertainment evading the scenario and leading to a shift in the taste of the masses, folk theatre faces an uncertain future in India. One of them is the age-old Surabhi theatre. For people in Andhra Pradesh, the mere mention of its name instantly brings to mind popular plays like Mayabazar and Chintamani.

One of the oldest in the world, it was founded in 1885 by three brothers - Ramaiah, Krishnaiah and Venkaiah - the theatre was named after their native village, Surabhi, in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh. It had over 50 drama troupes -- all in the same family -- in its heyday but over the decades due to financial difficulties only five `Nataka Samajams' survived and had been carrying on the tradition. It is unique in that it is the only theatre in the world that has been run by descendants of a single family for over a century!

The three brothers initially started with puppet shows and toured from place to place. Their first stage play was Keechakavadha (Mahabharata) which they presented in their own village, Surabhi. All the members of the family shared the same stage and performed different roles. This marked the beginning of the Surabhi movement. Most of their activities are now conducted in and around the theatre. The troupe performed in a makeshift auditorium built on a school ground.

The show would begin with the singing of invocatory verses to Ganesha and Saraswathi. The singers were the actors themselves. Surabhi is known for its innovative stage tricks and special sound effects complete with arrows that explode in a mid-air collision emitting fire and smoke et al! Stagecraft and tricks have played a major role in the success of Surabhi plays. Rural audiences find it exciting to see artistes float in air, a waterfall emerging right in the middle of the stage, or a mace and arrow fight enacted in front of their eyes.

Sadly, over time, audiences have dwindled. Though it has become a constant battle for survival, this has not dampened the enthusiasm of Surabhi artistes and the family that runs it. It is a way of life with them. During the 60s and 70s, Surabhi theatre enjoyed immense popularity. It had 50 companies then. Today the number has dwindled to four, comprising 45 artistes per company. Earlier, Surabhi theatre managed to overcome the challenge of cinema to some extent. But the advent of television and videos has proved to be their undoing. They have stopped enacting plays in urban areas, to a large extent.

An interesting facet of Surabhi theatre is the use of colour. Whether it is the make-up, stage curtains or even the lighting, everything looks bright and colourful. Make-up is exaggerated, primarily in order to be noticed by those watching the plays from the last benches. The colours create a magical effect and transport the audience to a make-believe world.

Here, we speak to Surabhi Rayalu, one of the descendants of the founders of Surabhi.

Q. Is theatre alive, right now?
A. Television killed theatre totally. There were about 40 troupes before the mid-eighties, now we have only four left.

Q. According to you, how has the government’s support been?
A. It has been good. They gave Surabhi 200 houses here. The four existing groups are been supported by them, but they should do more. They should construct halls and recognize art when needed.

Q. How has theatre changed over the years?
A. To a large extent it has and the ticketed audience is less. Modern theatre is been adapted now.

Q. Do plays need to have a message for the society?
A. Yes, of course! If there is a message in the play, it is worth it. If you tell people normally, then they will not understand. Conveying a message through a play is important, in fact compulsory! This is why we show mostly mythological dramas, with a message. Our specialty is our special effects, we show all kinds of special effects on stage, which no one has seen earlier.

We need to revive old scripts. Nobody is coming to see the new plays; they still want to see the age-old traditional plays. Art imitates life, plays make them realize; and we need to do that.

Q. How about sponsorships, how difficult is it to get sponsorships?
A. It is a constant problem. People will sponsor only established and famous artistes, and back out when they have sponsor us. Its only artistes who help artistes, in the time of need. There is also lack of support from experiences artistes.

Q. How has the youth’s response been?
A. Youth is not coming in at the right time. Interested people are coming in only at a later stage, like in their 40’s. The main reason is no sponsorships, lack of support and proper guidance. Not many are very enthusiastic and supportive when it comes to supporting youth in theatre, and thereby doubting their talent.

Q. What is the solution to this?
A. The solution is, for youth to come forward and take the challenge. They should have the courage to survive in this field. Another reason is the lack of money in this field; they get lured to other fields, which should be hindered. They should be able to break away and stick to theatre.

Q. How are people in Surabhi sustaining themselves?
A. Earlier there were 10,000 people in Andhra Pradesh, currently there are only 200. They perform in Surabhi, while pursuing other professions on the side. We cannot survive on theatre alone!

Q. What does theatre mean to you?
A. Life is theatre. You have to true, you cannot lie. Theatre is not cinema!

Q. How has the media treated you?
A. Media has supported us well in all areas.

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