Between their daily chores, women of this family get on stage to perform, before getting off to return to the nearby asbestos cubicles they call home. So do others in the family. About 30 backdrops and props change within seconds; every action on and off the stage is coordinated with precision as live music keeps the audience engaged. The output is astounding, and in the end, the entire team, including the two-year-old kid who was a part of the wedding party, take the stage to acknowledge well-deserved applause. Welcome to the Venkateshwara Natya Mandali—the biggest of the five existing Surabhi theatres known for their bright colours and mythological themes. And for the last 127 years this family has been nurturing the tradition of the art form through the generations.
“This is our life right from the birth,” says Nageshwara Rao, founder of the Mandali and recipient of the National Award 2011 in the field of theatre. “We are involved into every aspect of the theatre. One is taught to act, sing, play musical items and handle the stage. In fact, we all know each other’s dialogues, and anyone can play any part at a moment’s notice,” Rao asserts. Indeed, the artistes of the group are multi-tasking; they make costumes, create sets and backdrop, play music, arrange lighting, clean the hall, pull the curtains and even sell tickets. All of it for five days in a week when they thrill the audience with song, drama and the special effects this art form is famous for.
Despite Rao’s recognition from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, life isn’t easy for any of them. As we take a look into the dilapidated theatre and dingy rooms, harsh realities show up beyond the sensual stage persona of Surabhi artistes. The family units that make up the Mandali reside in tiny room-cum-kitchen cubicles, separated by used stage curtains or asbestos sheets. “We are born to the stage, educated here. We rehearse, cook, sleep here,” says Rao who is popularly known as Babji. Add to that the inadequate funding that continues to trouble them. Without consistent financial assistance, either from the Andhra government or the Central government, pursuing their passion is a constant challenge. “The state government has done a fair bit for us, granting space at Public Gardens in Hyderabad. But, it is becoming difficult for us to continue with the tradition as we get less audience,” laments Rao. “The overall production costs have gone up. We need monetary support for the next generation to continue. There is an urgent need to address it. Otherwise, this art form will disappear.”
However, life goes on. Children in the family grow up with theatre in their genes; women who get married into the family become part of the performing tradition. The brides are asked to come with a make-up box from their homes as a symbol of dedication to the stage art. The girls of the Surabhi family are not sent away after marriage; rather the grooms are integrated into the community. Together they make up a happy 60-member family. And it shows when the entire cast and crew sit down to dine together.
“Even though we are into theatre, our children do not ignore the studies. The present generation is well educated and a few of them are doing their MPhil in theatre arts,” Rao informs with pride.”The children go to school in the mornings and then come back to act on the stage. Many of the members have earned their basic degrees. However, children have a tough time, since they have to travel to the nearest school or college very early in the morning, then return back to perform.”
Getting back to the theatre, Rao shares the background. Surabhi is the name of the village where Vanarasa Sanjiva Rao founded the company in 1885. Originally leather puppeteers, they first performed during a wedding. As their fame grew, so did their numbers. At some point of time, there were up to 65 Surabhi troupes. And right from the start, they did everything: setting up the thatched pandals, designing sets and costumes, and writing scripts.
Initially, Surabhi theatre actors spoke Telugu with a Marathi accent, because these families belong to the Aare Marathi community—a warrior class. They migrated to Rayalseema after Shivaji’s death. Over the decades, they became popular, and during the 1960s and 1970s, Surabhi theatre enjoyed immense popularity. It had 50 companies then. Today the number has dwindled to five and the number of viewers at the Public Gardens is decreasing.
But the odds have not affected the determination of the performers who have been loyal to the tradition. In the age of digital printing, Surabhi still uses painstakingly created hand-painted backdrops. Pride and need to preserve the art keeps them going, All they need is a helping hand to wither away the uncertainties.