Having grown up in Hyderabad, I ought to have known Surabhi Theatre Group but I didn’t even know they existed until I saw them at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. In fact, I bought the tickets solely because I had never seen a single Telugu play before. That says something about the waning popularity of regional/folk theater in urban India. While this may not true for all segments of the urban population, it is certainly an indication of how “un-cool” it has become. I had only heard of the Harikatha and Burrakatha traditions, but never experienced them. Their religious overtones didn’t help either, for as a kid I was very averse to mythology and any religious doctrine, while this aversion is partly to blame for my ignorance, the lack of a thriving college and popular theater culture in Hyderabad, while I was growing up exacerbated the situation.
Being blissfully unaware of what was going to unfold, I walked in half expecting a melodramatic, over-the-top rendition of mythological tales, much like the early Telugu epic drama cinema (again I have only seen clips of these, never the entire film).
How wrong I was.
This is one of the most technically sound and advanced Indian productions I had seen. Yes it was garish but it was spectacular and brilliant. They created spectacle after spectacle in every scene, elephants, birds & deers frolicking in an enchanted forests, hills that turned into palaces, arrows pitted against maces, fire and rain…Oh you should’ve seen it to believe it.
While introducing the play, they had mentioned that they are constantly looking out for ways to innovate through the set design and techniques and effects. They wanted to stay relevant and compete with modern VFX as best as they could. They have certainly succeeded on the effects front. But to stay relevant they will have to do a lot more.What can they do get the urban youth and ignoramuses of my ilk interested in them? How do they compete with the megastars on the 70mm and Imax screens?
One way I foresee is to revisit the text and simplify the dialogue, some of the heavy prose was too much to handle. Let’s face it not many of us understand archaic and highly poetic forms of our mother tongues.
You could argue that, doing away with the last vestiges of the klisht or pure forms of the language, is not the solution but the final nail in the coffin.
One has to walk the tight rope of fighting to stay relevant and holding on to tradition at the same time.
They now perform regular shows at the Lalita Kala Thoranam, Public Gardens in Hyderabad, try and take time out to catch one of their shows.
I, on my part intend to visit and talk to them, the next time I go home to Hyderabad.
Just as Surabhi and other traditional art practitioners need to find ways to stay relevant, we the audience need to evolve too. It was disturbing to notice that the very same crowd, that would watch a serious, ‘intellectual’ play with rapt attention, needlessly jeer and hoot. It reeked of condescension.