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Monday, June 24, 2024

Surabhi, a unique Telugu drama tradition  

The theatre of Telugu can be divided majorly into Folk theatre, Padya Natakam, Parishath natakam, Gadyanatakam or social plays, the prayoga natakam or experimental plays and the Street theatre. Nannaya, 11 th century Telugu poet popularly known as Adi Kavi in Telugu, mentions in his introduction to Mahabharat (the first version of Mahabharat in Telugu penned by three poets- Nannaya, Tikkana and Errapragada collectively and Nannaya was first among them) that he has seen several dramas (Kavya Natakams) in his life. 

Telugu poet Vinukonda Vallabharaya wrote “Kreedhabhiramam” a street play (Veedhi Natakam) in 15th century (1400-1450). Some scholars claim this street play was written by Kavi Sreenadha (1335-1360-1441) another 15th century Telugu poet. In 16th century Kuchipudi Bhagavatars brought popularity to street plays in the form of Chindu Bhagavatam, Yakshagana and Veedhi Bhagavatam. Korada Ramachandra Sastri is considered to be the father of modern drama in Telugu (1860 AD) who wrote Manjaree Madhukareeyam (His grandson with the same name Korada Ramchandra Sastri was the science master of this author in his school days 1974-1977).

Origin and growth of Surabhi Drama

The folklore Shadow puppet theatre tradition in Andhra Pradesh is considered to be in vogue since 3 rd century BCE. During the wedding ceremonies at rich land lords’ families, it became a tradition to have puppet shows. In 1885 there was a wedding ceremony in a rich landlord’s house in the village Sorugu, near Jammalamadugu, Kadapa District, Andhra Pradesh. Vanarasa Govinda Rao who comes from a family of artistes known for performing puppet shows, experimented in adapting the shadow puppet show into a theatrical performance by replacing the puppets with the live actors and his “Keechaka Vadha” – a tale from the epic Mahabharat won accolades from the audience at that wedding ceremony. 

This transformed his puppetry family into a classical theatrical family. Sorugu village over a period of time came to be known as Surabhi. As the earlier plays of Vanarasa Govinda Rao staged in and around Surabhi village became very famous and most of the artists of those plays lived in that area, Vanarasa Govinda Rao’s drama troupe came to be known as Surabhi drama troupe.  The origin of this Surabhi artists is traced to the people who were part of the army of Maratha leader Chatrapati Shivaji and later migrated to the Rayalseema region of Andhra Pradesh.

Singing poems in Telugu dramas (Padya Natakam) gained popularity during the period of Tirupati Venkata Kavulu. (The twin poets – Chellapilla Venkata Sastry 1870-1950 and Divakarla Tirupati Sastry 1872-1919). Plays like ‘Satya Harischandra’, ‘Kurukshetram’, ‘Gayopaakyanam’ are the well-known plays where the artists used to sing poems which attracted the audience.

The journey of transformation of Surabhi Drama

Vanarasa Govindarao, founder of Surabhi Theatres, had a family of 3 sons and 10 daughters. Except the eldest son, all the others spent their lives in the theatre and were trained for it. When the family started growing in numbers, the daughters with their husbands started establishing their own theatre groups. The fifth daughter, Smt. Subhadramma and her husband Sri R. Venkatarao established Sri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali (Surabhi) in 1937 in Jimidipeta village of Srikakulam District of Andhra Pradesh. Smt. R. Subhadramma has specialised in doing male roles, particularly characters like Duryodhana in Mahabharata.

She was awarded the title of ‘Kala Praveena’ by Sangeeta Nataka Akademi of Andhra Pradesh. Both the husband and wife also received many honours from various organizations of the state. Their son R.Nageswara Rao (popularly known as Surabhi Babji) continued the tradition and took Surabhi Theatres to the next level and was awarded Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2011 and the Padma Shri in 2013.

Under the guidance of Padma Shri B.V. Karanth, Surabhi Theatres learned three plays: Bhishma (1996), organized by the National School of Drama (New Delhi), Chandi Priya (1997) by Alarippu (New Delhi), and Basthi Devatha Yaadamma (“The Good Women of Setzuan” written by Bertolt Brecht) (1998). B.V. Karanth not only directed these three plays for the group but also provided music for all three plays.

Surabhi Babji headed Sri Venkateswara Natya Mandali for 42 years and also served as Secretary of Surabhi Natya Kala Sangham, a collective banner for five Surabhi federations for 24 years. He directed several Surabhi plays like- Ramarajyam, Sri Krishna Leelalu, Balanagamma, Lavakusa, Maayabazar, Bobbili Yuddham, Chintamani, Rangoon Rowdi, Veerabhramam gari charitra, etc. Under his stewardship Surabhi artistes staged several plays across the country and also at France where they staged Surabhi plays for two months.

On 9th June, 2022 Rekandar Nageswara Rao popularly known as Surabhi Babji passed away. In his journey to take the Surabhi drama to greater heights, Babji was guided and supported by Garimella Rama Murthy for several decades. B. V. Karanth with his guidance made Surabhi drama to evolve contemporarily and stay relevant to the modern times. 

Currently Jayachandra Varma, the grandson of Padma shri Surabhi Babji is the Director & Secretary of Sri Venkateswara Surabhi theatre. He is striving to ensure that Surabhi drama stays relevant in the modern times in the digital world. He performed lead role in several Surabhi plays in France in Passages international theatre festival on 2013. In recognition of his efforts in promoting the Surabhi drama Surabhi Jayachandra Varma has been awarded Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Purskar from Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi and JL. Narasimha Rao Rangasthala Yuva Puraskaar 2017 from Potti Sriramulu Telugu University.   

Surabhi is a rare institution of family groups that in the initial days used to lead nomadic life by performing dramas in villages. Most of the Surabhi plays are the compendiums from the Indian epics and mythologies Ramayan, Mahabharath and Bhagavatham.  There was a time when more than 60 Surabhi troupes used to perform all over Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with close to 3,000 artists.

Special effects

 Surabhi drama is famous for its Padya Natakam (The classical Telugu verse play) performances adorned with colourful illusionary backgrounds, sets and trick scenes. The special effects in Surabhi dramas are to be seen to be believed. In Surabhi mythological plays Narada will travel by air! Ghatotkacha lits fire on the stage, Lord Krishna dances on the snake Kaliya. The unique feature about Surabhi drama is that all artists/technicians of the group are from one family, dedicated their lives to Rangasthal (Stage). Every artist is self-contained to prepare himself on all aspects as a stage artist.

From cradle to grave

There are no age restrictions or retirements for the artists of this family. There are innumerable instances of the proverbial phrase-from cradle to grave- in Surabhi troupes where many artists were actually born on the stage while their pregnant mothers were performing and also died breathing their last while performing their roles in the dramas.

Up to five decades ago Surabhi drama used to start late night and continued till early mornings. The main roles in those lengthy dramas were cast by two people one after another that was unique to Surabhi dramas. Due to unviable financial conditions many Surabhi troupes closed down their entities.

Trend setter and bridge between drama and cinema

Women and children have always been integral part of Surabhi dramas. In the olden days male artists used to play female roles in Telugu dramas. Surabhi changed that pattern and in their plays, women started playing the female roles. On the contrary, in Surabhi dramas some female artists used to play the male roles! Surabhi also popularised gramophone records, contributed actors to film industry, and took theatre beyond the geographical boundaries of Andhra Pradesh. Surabhi Kamalabai (1907–1971) from Surabhi drama troupe has the distinction of being the first Telugu actress in a talkie film with Bhakta Prahlada (1932), directed by H. M. Reddy. She also acted in Hindi and Bengali films. Her niece Surabhi Balasaraswathi was also Telugu film artist who started her acting career in Surabhi dramas.

Surabhi drama troupes hitherto used to perform mostly in villages and as nomads kept moving from one place to another. In 1991, Dr. K.V. Ramanachary, the then Director, Department of Culture, Andhra Pradesh took the initiative to bring the Surabhi drama to Cities, especially Hyderabad. Since then, many Surabhi nomads have settled down at Hyderabad at Surabhi colony, Serlingampally. During the Covid pandemic Surabhi Drama Theatre has gone online to reach out to the people. Telugu cultural associations set up by Non-Resident Indian (NRI) groups spread across various countries, tried to assist these online dramas. Surabhi drama troupes have modified their traditional pattern and condensed the dramas to 45 minutes to one hour, which hitherto used to run for more than three hours in the past.

Sandwiched between their traditional drama which is hereditary that needs continuity and the compelling need to get modern education and be part of the changing world, Surabhi artists are struggling to do a tight rope walk. It is for the art lovers to patronise the Surabhi drama and encourage the Surabhi artists to continue this tradition and adapt the same to suite the needs of the modern society.

Dr. B.N.V. Parthasarathi

References:

  1. https://www.surabhidrama.com/surabhijayachandra.
  2. https://in.bookmyshow.com/plays/surabhi-theatre-play/ET00309686.
  3. https://www.kadapa.info/%E0%B0%B8%E0%B1%81%E0%B0%B0%E0%B0%AD%E0%B0%BF/.

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Dr. B.N.V. Parthasarathi
Dr. B.N.V. Parthasarathi
Ex- Senior Banker, Financial and Management Consultant and Visiting faculty at premier B Schools and Universities. Areas of Specialization & Teaching interests - Banking, Finance, Entrepreneurship, Economics, Global Business & Behavioural Sciences. Qualification- M.Com., M.B.A., A.I.I.B.F., PhD. Experience- 25 years of banking and 18 years of teaching, research and consulting. 270 plus national and international publications on various topics like- banking, global trade, economy, public finance, public policy and spirituality. Two books in English “In Search of Eternal Truth”, “History of our Temples”, two books in Telugu and 75 short stories 60 articles and 2 novels published in Telugu. Email id: [email protected]

2 COMMENTS

  1. The Author Dr Parthasarathi excelled in presenting the glorious history of SURABHI and ongoing status . The coverage is crisp and made an interesting insight to the readers. Superb article in recent times I have come across online.

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