Hyderabad-based photographer Swarat Ghosh has been documenting the plays of Surabhi, a local theatre group, since 2015. The century-old group is known for its repertoire of plays that draw from Indian mythology, staged every weekend at the Lalitha Kala Toranam in the Public Gardens in Hyderabad. The troupe is known not only for its unique presentation, but also because all its members hail from the same family.

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Earlier this month, Ghosh received a message from Surabhi’s secretary, Jayachandra Verma. “He told me that almost 50 families and over 200 artistes were struggling as their only means of livelihood was taken away due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Ghosh says. “They weren’t staging shows since February which has added to their troubles.”

On 12 April, Ghosh shared a couple of photographs on his social media accounts, highlighting the plight of the theatre group.

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The outpouring of support in the time since has been swift and heartening. Several well-wishers stepped forward to raise funds for Surabhi. Baahubali producer Shobu Yarlagadda and actor Rana Daggubati shared Ghosh’s post on Instagram, amplifying the message, while Tollywood director Harish Shankar’s support also helped in raising Rs 60,000 in two days.

“I’ve always heard that pictures can be instruments of change. And in the last couple of days, I have realised the importance of the photographs I clicked a long time ago,” says Ghosh.

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Sri Venkateswara Natyamandali, later called Sri Venkateshwara Surabhi Theatre, was started by migrants from Maharashtra to Sorugu village (Cudappah district), who performed leather puppet shows. In 1885, at a wedding between the families of village heads, the story of Keechaka Vadha was adapted by Vanarasa Govind Rao with family members enacting the roles. The first play was a huge success and thus, a tradition was born. Over time, the village was renamed Surabhi, becoming synonymous with the travelling theatre groups that originated there.

In its heyday, there were at least 2,000 performers in about 50 groups. But due to rising costs and dwindling audiences, many theatre groups have discontinued the practice and only six of them remain today. The plays enacted are based on epics and mythology as well as folklore and legends, some of the more popular ones being Mayabazaar, Sri Krishna Leelalu, Bhaktha Prahlada, Jai Paathala Bhairavi and Bala Nagamma.

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Surabhi’s plays are still steeped in the rustic roots they sprung from. What they lack in sophistication and finesse, they make up by engaging audiences with their compelling performances and comfort of routine, which comes with staging the plays hundreds of times over generations. Colourful costumes, eye-catching sets and the earthy dialogue of Telugu classic literature have helped them stay relevant. There is no age limit for the performers — newborns to octogenarians have been part of these plays.

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Over 50 technicians and actors are engaged in each play and they use different backdrops like gardens, caves, ashrams and palace interiors to great effect. What makes a Surabhi play so delightful is the way the special effects are meticulously planned backstage by technicians and executed to perfection during the performance. While the actors perform on stage, the other crewmembers work to ensure the next scene is ready with a minimum delay. The transition between scenes is effected in a matter of seconds.

Frequently performing abroad as well as in other cities of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, members of the organisation have been feted and celebrated, such as Padma Shri awardee R Nageswara Rao. While the audience has been dwindling over the years, members still make around Rs 10,000 each a month.

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A theatre group which has survived the World Wars, Independence, television and internet finds itself at a crossroads with the coronavirus crisis. Secretary Jayachandra Varma, who has also acted in many of the group’s most popular plays, says that the inactivity is unprecedented: “The older members of the group say that they have never faced a situation like this in their lives. Our entire livelihood is dependent on staging plays and no one knows when we can get back to the stage. We used to perform at least a dozen shows a month, so the loss of activity is perceptible.”

A recipient of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from Sangeet Natak Akademi, Jayachandra says that while the outpouring of support has been wonderful, he is fearful of the long term consequences of the ongoing crisis. “Most of our members may have to find alternate careers. We don’t know when people will return to theatre and the future looks bleak,” he says.

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The focus currently though, is supporting the 50 families residing in Surabhi Colony in the Serilingampally area of Hyderabad. Actively raising awareness and funds on social media keeps Jayachandra busy though he longs to get back to the make-up and magic of the stage.

Ghosh says that it is vital that a tradition as old as Surabhi continues. “It is a unique form of storytelling which has kept alive the indigenous art traditions of India. It is important that they survive and thrive and pass on their skills and stories to further generations.”

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— All photos courtesy Swarat Ghosh