You are sitting in a packed auditorium, facing a stage masked by a shiny, colourful curtain. On the curtain you can see images of Tirupati Balaji and Alamelumanga. Below that, in Telugu, is written “Aade Bommalu Memu, Aadinche Sootramu Neevu", meaning “we are the puppets who play, you are the eternal puppeteer". The excitement in the audience is palpable. In front of the stage, a live orchestra starts playing.

The curtain rises. Narada, the mythological sage, comes flying down from the skies, suspended by invisible ropes. He lands comfortably, sings a song and flies off into the skies. At another point, weapons fly in from the wings, colliding in the centre of the stage with a blast of fire.

It’s a regular play, not a film set.

Welcome to the magicians of the Surabhi Nataka Mandali, India’s only surviving example of Company Theatre. The term Company Theatre first came into use around the early part of the 20th century. In the second half of the 19th century, from 1850-1900, scores of drama companies were set up across regions of what are now Maharashtra and Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bengal. What is today the state of Telangana was part of the nizam’s Deccan and today’s Andhra Pradesh was part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Large drama companies would tour these places with grand productions, some of which played for months together. In the 21st century, however, the only company that has stayed afloat is Surabhi in Hyderabad.

The Surabhi Nataka Mandali was established in 1885 by a community of Maharashtrians who spoke the Aare dialect, which doesn’t have a written script. They are known as Aare Marathis or Aare Kshatriyas in Andhra Pradesh. They migrated centuries ago, settling initially in the Mysore region before moving permanently to Andhra. The first references to them can be found in the 12th century book Vrishadipa Shatakam, written by the famous poet and scholar Palakurki Somanatha. By the late 18th century, many Aare communities had settled in Andhra’s Rayalaseema region. Under royal patronage and with gifts of land from the British, one such family, headed by Vanarasa Venkoba Rao, settled in Surabhi village.

Most of the families within the Surabhi community stuck to the performing arts for a livelihood. Travelling and touring with puppet theatre, street theatre, mythological and historical dramas, they would cover virtually the whole of south India with their shows. Vankubai, the fourth wife of Pedda Krishnaji (who belonged to the fourth generation of the Surabhi family), was a well-trained classical vocalist. When she sang Ragam Jhenjhuti, it is said that audiences would go berserk demanding an encore. The title “Jhinjhoti" Venkubai was bestowed upon her by Dharmavaram Gopalacharyulu, a prominent lawyer and art lover and the brother of Dharmavaram Krishnamacharyulu, who is hailed as the Andhra Nataka Pitamaha, or the grand old patron of Andhra theatre.

The original name of the Surabhi Nataka Mandali was Shri Venkateshwara Natya Mandali. The family first began staging dramas some 130 years ago, under a temporary shed.

They were one large family: aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, cousins, grandparents, brothers- and sisters-in-law, mothers- and fathers-in-law. Today, over a hundred members of one family across five generations act on stage. Possibly nowhere else in the world is a family-run professional theatre company so successful. Telugu cinema’s first heroine, Kamalabai, was from this family as well. And several members of the family have contributed to the growth of Telugu cinema since.

All Surabhi productions are large-scale mythological and musical plays, based on stories from the Ramayan, Mahabharat and Shrimad Bhagavatam. Some of their seminal productions include Maya Bazaar, Sri Krishna Leelalu, Sati Savitri, Dashavataramulu, Veerabrahmendra Charitra, Bhakta Prahlada and Satya Harischandra. Each play has been staged several hundred times. An orchestra is attached permanently to the drama troupe. And almost all the actors in any play know singing and dance.

Surabhi’s plays are known for their special effects, live music and pyrotechnics, flying characters, larger-than-life sets and colourful backdrops. It is said, in fact, that one viewing of a Surabhi production is never enough.

Today Surabhi is probably India’s only large-scale Company Theatre. They’ve had their share of troubles. Maintaining such a large production house, the hundreds of stage properties, backdrops, getting new costumes from time to time, handling Surabhi—it’s like managing a big factory. The current director, Nageshwar Rao, 67, affectionately addressed as Babji, works to ensure the company’s survival.

They still tour with truckloads of props, costumes and other paraphernalia, the way old companies did. They manage their finances with care—in the recent past, writer Sudha Murty of the Infosys Foundation has given generous grants. The youngest actor gets the same pay as the oldest. Since they are all from one family, there is an unwritten understanding that no work or role is inferior or superior. Backstage workers, of whom they have a large number, get the same pay as actors.

It’s a great case study, for this doesn’t happen even in modern theatre groups.

The entire cast is well versed with the full script of every play. If someone falls ill, they are never short of replacements, since they are ready to deliver the dialogue of any character in a production.

Despite the financial and logistical challenges, what keeps them going, decade after decade? A great deal of hard work, sacrifice and commitment is needed. And each performing artist and crew member is committed to the cause of keeping the Surabhi flag flying high.

Surabhi has been an inspiration to scores of theatre practitioners. In this day and age, it should be considered part of the “living heritage" of Indian theatre. Hopefully, it will be able to continue its work.

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