Watching street plays in Andhra and Telangana villages may still be fresh in the memories of those who were born in the '80s and '90s. As the moonlight streamed in, people from different walks of life would slowly gather to watch the plays, sitting on the ground perhaps under the village banyan tree. While the play unfolded in front of their eyes, the audience would encourage the live performances of the artistes with smiles, claps and whistles. Though not as common in the past, street theatre and stage dramas have somehow survived the test of time.
But now, those expressions of delight from the audience have been converted to comments, emoticons and other such digital reactions. As one of the largest surviving groups of traditional theatre artistes, Surabhi Drama Theatre, a company with a 136-year-old legacy, has started putting up plays virtually in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artists from the Surabhi Drama Theatre
The members of the group are still unsure if this development is a positive one. While going virtual has helped them stay afloat financially, they sorely miss their live interactions with the audience.
"When we perform in front of the audience, they would encourage us with the excitement in their eyes and their claps. The appreciation used to boost us. We miss it so much now as online, the response is cold. Whatever comments we receive during the play, we show it to the artistes after the show. They feel somewhat happy," says Surabhi Jayanand, who proposed the idea that the Surabhi Drama theatre group go online for their survival.
Off screen whie the drama is being played
26-year-old Jayanand takes on different roles in the play and also operates the Zoom session, replies to comments and runs the show online.The virtual shows are being watched by audiences from across the globe, including the US, London, Australia, and Qatar among others.
Surabhi Jayanand while managing the drama and in real life
These shows are arranged by the Telugu cultural associations set up by Non Resident Indian (NRI) groups spread across various countries. Apart from this, the theatre group is also performing for various organisations and college fests for payment.
Previously, the theatre group would spend their time in one village after another, camping at a venue for months together and making it their home. Interestingly, all the artistes from the theatre company belong to a single family called Surabhi. Their permanent residence is at the Surabhi Colony in Serilingampally of Hyderabad. Currently, there are about 60 families in the Surabhi Drama theatre group, with some leaving it for private jobs and others juggling between professions.
Surabhi Drama theatre stage
Landing online shows was not a cakewalk for the Surabhi Drama theatre group. Since social gatherings were prohibited in the lockdown, all the plays and stage shows were halted, resulting in the loss of livelihood for several such artistes. For a couple of months, the performers survived with donations from various sources, but they knew that it could not last forever.
Artists being given groceries during lockdown
â€œInitially, it was very difficult to convince people or organisations to give us a slot. We were told by people that they couldn't afford to pay and that the audience wouldn't be interested in watching such plays online," says Jayanand.
Each play requires the effort of about 50 to 60 people, including the actors and others managing the lighting, sets, costumes, makeup and food, which is an expensive affair.
A still from the drama
However, the theatre group has made modifications and has come up with shows of differing durations, from 30 to 45 minutes to an hour. They have also reduced the number of people involved in a production.
They began their virtual shows on September 4, 2020. The event was organised by KL University in Guntur for their International Cultural Festival. Their first play got over 3,000 views and was shared widely. This gave them the confidence to proceed further. Since then, the group has put up over 24 plays for various organisations across the globe.
Drama being played online
The Surabhi group began with puppet shows in 1885. Gradually, the puppets were replaced with actors from the Surabhi family and the tradition has survived till date. Some of the popular plays put up by the group include Maya Bazaar and Bhakthaprahalada.
The group is hoping that since movie theatres have opened with COVID-19 protocols, they too can go back to normal soon. However, they are still open for online shows. If you would like to get in touch for the same, please contact: 8686556631, 9346559456.