Laughters, claps, whistles, tears and the excitement in the eyes of the audience is what the artistes of Surabhi Drama Theatre, a company with a 136-year-old legacy, are missing these days.
The country’s oldest and largest surviving group of traditional theatre has gone online to survive in the COVID-19 pandemic and there is enough uptake for their online plays. Although they are performing just as before, the Surabhi Kaḷākārulu have no access to the most endearing aspect of their life — the ability to revel in the reactions of the audience. And they are certainly sad about missing them!
The delightful expressions from the audience have been converted into digital reactions of emoticons and comments.
Stagecraft and acting is the bread and butter for hundreds of these artistes, whose ancestors served in the army of Maratha Emperor Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. In the age of OTTs, they are aware that a strong presence online is their need of the hour, and they’re doing everything they can to adapt. Last time they performed on stage was in November 2019. Now, they must perform or perish.
“These days when entertainment is just a fingertip away, we find it very difficult to save and carry forward our tradition, which is the only source of income for us,” said 26-year-old Jayanand Rekandar, a eighth generation Surabhi family member.
In September last, Mr. Jayanand came up with the idea to go online for their survival, after the students of a private university in Guntur asked them to perform virtually in the International Cultural Festival, which got over 3,000 views and was well received.
“The play was shared widely and we were happy to read all comments and reactions to the video. We tried it for the first time and were successful,” he said.
Ever since the group has performed 28 plays on the digital platform, mostly for Telugu population settled across the globe, including the United States of America, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Singapore and Qatar among others.
“With a few plays on digital platforms, the NRIs are approaching us in large numbers to perform for their audience. On May 30 we are performing for South Africa Telugu Association,” Mr. Jayanand, who is making efforts to bring back their former glory, said.
According to him, each play engages at least 60 artistes, who double up as lightsmen, make-up artists, singers, musicians and voiceover, and these days there is not much patronage.
In the early 1880s the Surabhi group began with puppet shows at Sorugu (renamed as Surabhi), a tiny village in Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa district. Gradually, the leather marionettes were replaced with humans when Krishna Ji Rao along with his fellow artistes presented their first play Keechaka Vadha (The Slaying of Keechaka) in 1885. Since then several generations of this theatre family have performed a great number of shows in India and abroad. Their popular plays include Maya Bazaar, Bhaktha Prahalada and Ramayana.