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Surabhi, the DD show that changed the idea of Indian culture as one entity

Over more than 300 episodes, Surabhi traversed the length and breadth of the country to showcase India's diverse cultural heritage.

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Today, the words sanskriti (culture), parampara (tradition) and riti-rivaz (customs and rituals) can instantly conjure up two kinds of images. The first is of something archaic, conservative, and well, old. The second, thanks to the current polarised political discourse with its militant ideas of what is truly and authentically Indian, evokes an idea of something that is puritanical, narrow, and normative.

India, Bharat or Hindustan — whatever you may choose to call it — has always prided itself on its plurality and complexity. But this pride is, more often than not, a theoretical principle rather than a lived reality. Back in simpler times, aka the Doordarshan era, an ambitious arts and culture television show called Surabhi set out to discover what diversity actually looked, sounded, tasted and felt like.

The result was a super-hit show with an astounding run of 11 years and more than 300 episodes. On air from 1990 to 2001, the show was the screen version of a visual arts and culture magazine — an idea far ahead of its time.  

Right from the very first episode, host Siddharth Kak explained that surabhi meant sugandh or khushboo (fragrance), which like tradition, culture and talent, wafts into various aspects of life and enriches our sense of identity and heritage.

Together, Kak and his co-host, the young and vibrant Renuka Shahane, split wide open what “culture” could entail. Cutting across class, caste and religion while traversing the length and breadth of the country, they explored everything from music, craft, dance and sculpture to cinema, history, ecology, food and more.

A singular episode could explore anything from Kerala’s ancient martial art form Kalaripayattu to ceramic glazing, from Ladakh’s most famous monastery to even long-held techniques of beekeeping and honey-making. The list was truly endless, which explains why the show had such a long run — there was just so much to cover. 

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A unique format

If made today, such a show would probably find a spot as a lifestyle show on an English language channel. But the fact that Surabhi was backed by a public broadcasting network like Doordarshan instantly meant everyone was the audience. Indian culture had always been represented as “serious, dry and even elitist”, according to Shahane. But Surabhi drew in viewers with its casual, humorous tone, often disrupting ideas of high and low art. It demonstrated, as Shahane tells ThePrint, that “culture is, in fact, ‘us’”.  

Siddharth Kak, a documentary filmmaker, had initially conceptualised the programme to be a documentary-style show that explored the lineage of classical musicians and dancers. But the then secretary of information & broadcasting department suggested that the show travel, and cover various parts and facets of India like a rainbow.

The pan-Indianness of it made the show a super-hit as exploring different parts of the country not just made the show a more entertaining watch, but guaranteed fans far and wide too. Kak once recalled, “I knew we had made an impact when, deep in the forests of the Andaman Islands on a shoot, a woman picking firewood pointed at us saying: Surabhi?”

The show, aided by a skilled research team, also put a premium on in-depth and nuanced engagement with people and places.

An episode on Odisha, for instance, not only explored the state’s famous monuments and natural history, but its visual culture and cinema practices. Digging deep into the trajectory of Odia cinema, Surabhi discussed the history of the first Odia film, who the biggest stars of the industry were, where and what the production studios looked like, what the audiences today consumed and what the lowest strata of society was consuming.

Special segments of the show would feature visits by famous personalities, like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, A.R. Rahman or Magsaysay award-winning dramatist K.V. Subanna.

An iconic show 

The series, which bagged sponsorship from the most quintessentially Indian company — Amul — and even made it to the Limca Book of Records for the fact that it received 14 lakh fan letters in a week, earned its iconic status thanks to its format, vivacious hosts and accessible tone.

The catchy opening track was part of this appeal, which is probably why, exactly 30 decades after it first aired, a fan chose to pay homage to the song and visuals that are etched in the memory of many. Mumbai-based Priyanka Payal-Joshi, who was only seven when she first saw the show, remembers being initially drawn to it because of its opening theme that was complemented with an animation. The software consultant who moonlights as an artist created her own rendition of the track, which caught the eye of Shahane herself. 

“I believe it [the show] was a very novel idea at the time, when we didn’t have exposure to anything other than our own bubble in our small towns/cities — to expose us to art and culture across India. Its quiz and audience letters made it interactive and added to its popularity,” Priyanka tells ThePrint. She most fondly remembers “the feeling of being introduced to new perspectives and a world outside” her own, and how the show taught her to appreciate the plethora of art and craft practices in India.

The show successfully piqued the curiosity of its viewers for over a decade. But more importantly, it provided an intimate exploration of the country we are so conditioned to love, but are only partly familiar with.

As the hosts once said, “People of our country were proud of India, but didn’t know what for. Surabhi offered them an opportunity to connect deeper with their own nation. It gave them a reason to be proud of India.” 

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