Fighting to Tell a Tale

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For 125 years, the families of Surabhi have been making sacrifices just to ensure that the show goes on. But now, they won’t last much longer without some help.

One hundred and twenty five years. That’s how long this family has maintained its unique tradition of theatre, passing the art form down the generations. In the style of theatre that is famous as the Surabhi Theatres of Andhra Pradesh, all members of this family—from four-year-old Pawan Satyakumar to 76-year-old Anasuya Devi—have roles: playing music, pulling curtains, getting props ready, and even cleaning the hall and issuing tickets. Five days a week, they engage their audiences with song, drama and the astounding special effects that this art form is famous for.

On 19 December last year, the Surabhi tradition stepped into its 125th year of engaging audiences. Presently camped at Public Gardens in Hyderabad, Venkateshwara Natya Mandali—the biggest of the five existing Surabhi Theatres—comes across as one big happy family of 60 members, despite the poor living conditions and a constant struggle to keep this Telugu art form alive. Nageshwara Rao, fondly called Babji, is its patriarch, and his company has set up stage abutting the AP Assembly for three years now: “We live and perform in this public space even as our children grow up and educate themselves.”

During the day, children leave in batches to schools and colleges. “Six of them leave early to attend college 60 km away. They are back by evening and straightaway get ready for our daily performance. Many generations have grown up this way,’’ Rao says proudly. The group has a repertoire of 26 Telugu plays, performing a different one every week.


That theatre is their life is amply evident from the surroundings. Backstage, divided only by a thin curtain, normal life goes on with pinni (maternal aunt, as they call Babji’s wife) busy cooking on two gas burners, while at another end of the stage a rice cooker whistle goes off. The sounds of a raw hand practising harmonium wafts through. The nuclear family units reside in tiny room-cum-kitchen cubicles separated by used stage curtains or asbestos sheets. There is very little private space. In a common area at the back, teacheramma (a family elder who doubles up as a teacher) is making sure the school-going kids complete their homework.

Surabhi Theatres are known for their spectacular visual effects that keep bringing back patrons, despite theatre losing its spot to satellite television. At every show, there are at least 80 to 100 in the paying audience. Incidentally, Surabhi was the first to introduce show tickets almost a century ago. “The ticket revenues amount to a fraction of what we spend. Outstation tours help feed our large family. We have asked the AP government for a permanent stage and housing. If these are not granted, we will have no option but to close down,” says Rao gravely.

The threat is real, as there is also pressure to keep the family intact. With education, most youngsters dream of better-paying jobs. Even 11-year-old Mohan Krishna dreams of becoming a doctor. They are in the family theatre merely because it’s their tradition. One youngster said he was getting offers from the film industry. “The lure of money is big. But I will not take a decision that will break my family,” he promises.


The Venkateshwara Natya Mandali was established by Rao’s parents. It is nearing 75 years on its own steam. “I had not given a second thought to Surabhi’s rich legacy till some foreign visitors remarked that they didn’t recall such a heritage in their countries,” he says, “It was then that I resolved to keep our tradition alive.”

Their show has gone on despite debts and accidents. Five years ago, Rao’s brother A Manohar collapsed while playing Ghatochkacha in Maya Bazaar. Another brother, Bhojaraja, immediately took over the role. Manohar later died in hospital. Two years ago, Bhojaraja too died on stage, and somebody else took his place. The audience never even got to know. Such is the commitment that makes Surabhi stand apart.

Theatre doyen BV Karanth has been a source of inspiration for them. “Karanth sir was awestruck and suggested many ways to improve. He held workshops twice for us in small AP towns,” recalls Vasanth Rao, who has grown up performing here for over 40 years. Vasanth, his wife and two daughters can change roles at the drop of a curtain. Surabhi’s greatest asset is that its women have no qualms acting with men other than their husbands. “Theatre is our life,” they say, and find it strange that such questions are tossed at them.

“We have to play any role and can’t be choosy. I’ve played my parts even when I was pregnant,” says Anasuya Devi, a leading lady of yesteryears who has played the glamorous roles of Savithri, Yashoda, Chandramukhi, Sita, Draupadi and Urvashi. Today, at 76, she needs a pair of crutches to walk around, but the gutsy lady still acts. She needs a coronary bypass surgery but prefers to live on medicines that cost at least Rs 3,000 per month. “My parents started this mandali (she is Babji’s elder sister). I will be here till my last breath,” says the feisty mother of five sons.

The script and dialogues are memorised even by those not playing any part in that play. Mohan, a budding harmonium player, is told to pay close attention to the role that his cousin is currently playing. Once his cousin gets older and graduates to more mature roles, Mohan will have to don the young characters.


Surabhi is the name of the village where Vanarasa Sanjiva Rao founded the company in 1885. Originally leather puppeteers, they first went onstage to face an audience during a wedding. As their fame grew, so did their numbers; and at one time, there were up to 60-65 Surabhi troupes. In the 1970s, there were 25 Surabhi groups. By the 80s, however, they dwindled to five as production costs shot up and patrons steadily declined.

All Surabhi plays are about mythological subjects and are enacted only in Telugu. But language is no barrier to understanding these plays—the visual effects are enough. No wonder they are in demand beyond AP as well.

When Surabhi started performing, their actors spoke Telugu with a Marathi accent. So, they took a bold decision to abandon their mother tongue and speak only in Telugu.

Surabhi families belong to the Aare Marathi community, a warrior class. They migrated to Rayalseema after Shivaji’s death and took up puppetry for livelihood. Even then they used to do everything themselves: setting up thatched pandals, designing sets and costumes, writing scripts and staging plays as a travelling troupe. They even toured Burma and Malaya in 1908.

And even today, it is family members who manage all aspects of the theatre.


But stage duty is no excuse for neglecting the household. Even moments before applying their make-up, the actors could have been washing utensils and clothes, studying, cooking, playing or hemming dresses to make colourful mythological characters ready to take the stage.

And for those who want, life goes on beyond theatre as well. RJ Varma, or Bobby, who plays Abhimanyu, is currently pursuing a distance-education MBA programme.

Surabhi stages plays in Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Varanasi, New Delhi and cities in Goa and Rajasthan. On one of their tours to Delhi, the group suffered severe losses—both financial and emotional. “I vividly remember holding four profusely bleeding boys in my arms, as a slow-moving train crushed the stage props in front on my eyes,” says the 73-year-old patriarch. On that fateful day, an attendant pushed their loaded trolley a bit too close to an oncoming train. Its engine flipped the trolley towards the boys, even as its contents spilled across the tracks. One of the boys and the attendant were killed on the spot. All the survivors now wear dentures.

In another accident on a Tirupati-bound train, Surabhi members escaped unhurt as their bogie was the only one that did not derail. Twenty-two passengers died and scores were injured.

The Venkateshwara Natya Mandali family numbered over 100 just a decade ago. There are only 60 now, as many have joined other Surabhi groups. “We survived through so many decades solely due to our womenfolk. If they act in other productions, they can earn Rs 3,000 per show. We can make money by lending props too, but maa tradition ni kapaadukovali (we have to safeguard our tradition),” says Rao, whose family women also marry exclusively within the community.

Even as he speaks, a TV set blares out news of the Telangana agitation. Various groups have had to cancel shows at short notice, leading to crippling losses. TV is the only modernity that has invaded their lives. “It’s only to catch up on news,” says Chinmayi Chandralekha, who has started attending college this year.

M Nagabhushana Sarma, who has written a book on Surabhi Theatres, says that Surabhi has been a pioneer in many respects. The group performed Maya Bazaar in 1955, complete with furniture, food items and an assortment of articles flying on stage. Based on their play, a movie with special effects was produced in 1957. It was one of the biggest hits of Telugu cinema, and their play is still a big draw.

Sarma says that Surabhi Theatre is akin to Bombay’s Parsi Theatre. It dates back to 1846 and was set up by members of just one community. Their main attractions were the ‘trick’ scenes, which Surabhi borrowed, says Sarma.

The first play by Surabhi founders was Keechaka Vadha, an episode in the Mahabharata where Bheema kills Keechak in a nocturnal duel. In this first Surabhi play, for the first time, a woman played the role of a woman; traditionally, a man would have, since men playing both male and female roles was the practice then.

‘They would never stop a play for any reason and it is said that Surabhi Kamalabai was even born on stage,’ Sarma writes.

Backstage, on a small cement platform, four-year-old Pavan Satya Kumar is practising some dialogues. Asked what character he plays best, he says without hesitation: “Deyallu (ghosts).” In a scene from Pathaala Bhairavi, he wears a white sheet and face mask, and makes an entrance from the top of the stage, flying all around it—a typical Surabhi special effect. Pavan aspires to be a singer-actor.

Inside one of the partitioned rooms, Ram Prasad is busy tailoring a new costume. He is the groups’ official master tailor. All his three daughters are stage performers.

At Surabhi, life is a continuous cycle between being on stage and off it. Although Rao doesn’t act himself anymore, he has played all the roles in Surabhi’s repertoire. He fondly remembers his mother, Subhadramma, playing Lord Yama with great élan in the early 80s.

“Surabhi’s special effects are a visual treat. On stage, there are birds flying, bows and arrows that crash into each other, rain and thunder, and other spectacular effects normally associated with movies,” according to Hari Krishna, a regular Surabhi-goer.

Living and breathing theatre for so many years has given Rao and his family the resilience to adjust themselves to life’s harsh demands. They find it hard to believe that governments can spend crores for a cricket match or cinema function, but don’t donate even a paisa for this beleaguered form of performance art.

After the play, as the audience troop out, actors wash off their make-up. While the women melt backstage to light up stoves, men help the others pack all equipment. Soon, dinner is served, and they retire to their own small quarters for another day ahead.