Renuka Shahane on ‘Surabhi’: ‘The osmosis that defines India can never be stopped’

The actress and filmmaker on the phenomenal success of Siddharth Kak’s cultural show, and why it cannot be repeated.

At a time when the country is locked in fierce debates over the definition of history, culture and identity, a Doordarshan show from the 1990s is a welcome blast from a more tolerant past.

Surabhi, the phenomenally popular cultural show produced and co-hosted by Siddharth Kak along with Renuka Shahane, ran on Doordarshan between 1990 and 2001 with a year’s break in 1991. Every Sunday, Surabhi introduced viewers to people, places, traditions and natural and man-made wonders. The show evoked patriotism tempered with the joy of discovery, and was set in a more innocent, analogue world where Google did not have all the answers.

Surabhi holds the record for being the highest rated and longest running show on Indian television. Among its achievements: it resuscitated the postal system by asking viewers to send in answers to questions through postcards.

Shahane’s effervescence and infectious smile made her a star. She had already starred in the television series Circus in 1989, and Surabhi cemented her popularity, leading to roles in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994) and Tunnu Ki Tina (1997). She directed the Marathi movie Rita in 2009. Known for her strong views on social and political issues, Shahane is still regarded as a cultural icon. Surabhi’s message of inclusiveness is important in our divisive times, she said in an interview.

Considering how popular ‘Surabhi’ was, do you think it could be revisited today?
It would be very difficult to do a Surabhi today. The format cannot be repeated because there are too many niche channels that specialise in food, travel, culture and history. The kind of variety that Surabhi as a weekly magazine offered is now offered by multiple channels, Besides, we covered every aspect of Indian culture. Art, music, dance, sculpture, a way of living, cuisines, traditional crafts. That concept in today’s time is untenable.

Moreover, what made Surabhi possible was the massive support we received on the ground from the common people. We travelled a lot to remote areas and urban centres where people spontaneously came forward to help us. Television was not yet the commercial activity that it is today, and the largesse we survived on would not be there anymore.

I guess YouTube has taken over that space, and so has the mainstream media. Anything from your neighbourhood can be put out there and can go viral.


The inclusive view of history and culture that ‘Surabhi’ represented would be severely contested today, would you agree?
Absolutely. Please remember, Doordarshan at that time, by nature and mandate, had to cater to all of India. Which is why we got a holistic view of what India was all about. Until then, there was no other show that joined all of India, across languages, ethnicity, culture, cuisines and religions.

Culture and history are something we have inherited, and we cannot change that. People have come and stayed and contributed to our culture, changed a few things. We have also absorbed many ideas from them. This osmosis can never be stopped.

We need to remember that we have arrived at this way of living because of this osmosis, and it makes us different from any other country in the world.

Culture and history were not as politicised as they are now. Today, everything – art, culture, history – is viewed through a political prism. When you look at your world through this prism, you will never get a balanced view. Politics will, and does, colour every aspect of history and culture. Why can’t we revisit our history and celebrate what we have inherited in a proper context? I hold the raucous electronic media for this unfortunate trend.

Did you have to deal with censorship issues at all?
We were free to talk about certain aspects of our lives without any caveats. And we spoke to a wide audience. We simply wanted to present a holistic view of Indian culture in the correct context. We certainly had a lot more freedom at that time and a more comfortable, indulgent view of history. Unlike now, when people are dying to make a political point about everything.


How were the episodes put together? What was the role of the research team, and how did you handle the logistical challenges of travelling the country in the days of no mobile phones?
We had a fantastic research team. Sunil Shanbag [the theatre personality] was our research director, and he had a very good group of people working under him.

We took a long time to set up the first few episodes. Each one had been well thought out in advance. We needed to travel for long periods of time with little or no communication. But the logistics were handled very well by the main centre.

By the time we arrived at any location, every little detail would have been taken care of. But given the format of the show, and the fact that a lot of these places were absolutely unfamiliar to us, we also absorbed a lot of ideas while filming the episodes. So even if we had a comprehensive brief provided by the research team, we were flexible enough to improvise a story on the locations.

We tried to present a balanced view of our culture, so we tried to give equal weightage to every region. Eventually our viewers too started contributing, and that really fuelled the show.

The show ran for 10 years, created and broke its own records, and revolutionised the postal services. Did you feel a change in quality of viewership or engagement levels towards the end of the decade?
Yes. For starters, mobile phones and the technology boom had just started, and that was diluting the niche somewhat. We also realised that people were moving towards more entertaining, human interest stories and cared less about history. So we had to tweak our content accordingly. We could also feel that the intellectual depth of our earliest viewers was somewhat fading over the years.

You became a household name and an icon for young girls who wanted to sport your haircut, wear your smile and dress like you.
Ah yes. If you remember, until then our anchors were newsreaders who were impeccably turned out but were not supposed to smile. I think that was Siddharth’s master stroke. He wanted an anchor with a wide smile.

How did the show affect you as a person?
It was a life-changing experience for me. Being born and raised in Bombay, I had a very myopic view of my country, even though I was a very proud Indian who refused to study abroad. The show took me on a journey of discovery and self exploration. We travelled all over the country and abroad as well, in the footsteps of our great civilisation. For generations, I have had people come up and tell me how it is still one of the best narratives of Indian culture, and I feel proud to have been part of the movement.

Guftagoo with Renuka Shahane.
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