Yes, the weekly culture-magazine that Doordarshan viewers so looked forward to in the 1990s! I was surfing the channels one afternoon, and came across something called DD Retro, where Surabhi was airing. I scrolled down to see other programmes scheduled for the day. They didn’t resonate, but I have started tuning in whenever possible to catch Surabhi.
It was path-breaking in many, many senses of the word. It ran 9 seasons and clocked an incredible 415 episodes (as compared to 236 of Friends!). It was India’s longest-running cultural programme, and had among the highest audiences ever for a TV show of that time (without any TRP fixing!).
Long before such information was literally at our fingertips, Surabhi brought the length and breadth of the country into our drawing rooms, and introduced us to wonders selected most eclectically–from the ‘classical’ arts to the ‘folk’ arts; architecture to sculpture to music, dance, etc. etc. ; museums and individual collections; natural wonders to manmade marvels. It introduced us to parts of the country which in that era are even-less known than they are now, especially the North East and the Andamans. It went deep into the nooks and corners of the country. It made us proud of our art and craft traditions, and even more, brought home the sense that these were living traditions, not some artefacts in the confines of a museum.
It terms of format, it was not a documentary as was the wont those days for giving serious, highbrow information on culture. It was a lively magazine format with short segments covering a wide variety, with no particular discernable theme for the day. Something for everyone and just enough information to whet the appetite.
The key to the success was probably the anchors: Siddharth Kak who brought a gravitas to the proceedings, and Renuka Sahane who lit up the screen with a million-volt smile. Both spoke with so much sincerity and were backed with good research. Never flippant or frivolous, the script was informative and in pretty high-level Hindi, but never seemed to intimidate. Probably because the excitement of the anchors on each new discovery and their genuine joy in sharing it were so palpable.
Audience participation was another key. Many of the items covered were suggested by viewers and after due research, the Surabhi team showcased them. And the competitions! Each episode ended with a question posed by the anchors to the audience. And what a response they used to get. According to the Limca Book of Records, they once got 14 lakh responses in a week! And it was not about clicking something on the screen. People had to make the effort to go to the Post Office, buy a postcard, write down their answers, go to a post box and post it. The Indian Postal service is said to have introduced a special ‘Competition Postcard’ costing Rs.2 (as opposed the normal 15 paise) thanks to Surabhi!. Week after week, how did they even go through all the responses? But they did, and then all the correct responses would be piled up in the room in a special segment, and children would come in to pick the lucky winners from among them.
The prizes for the competitions were bang on in keeping with the spirit of the programme. Usually sponsored by state government tourism corporations and Indian Airlines, they went from air tickets and a few days stay at beach, mountain and tourism resorts of the states, to gift coupons to be used at State Emporia; to gifts of Mysore crepe saris and Mysore sandal soaps!
My family’s close encounter with Surabhi was a lovely one. I wrote in to them describing Raghu’s unique collection of old Indian locks, and unlike today, when one can write 10 mails to ‘info@’ and not get a response, they responded in a few weeks. After seeking more information and sending a local team to take a look, a time for the final shoot was set up, and the team including Siddharth Kak were at home! The airing of the collection on Surabhi is definitely an integral part of the story of Raghu’s lock collection!
Re-watching Surabhi, I felt it was still as interesting today (albeit a few things will look quaint to today’s viewers). Would surely be worth showing at better times and creating more publicity around it? And if there could be an easy-to-find Youtube channel with all the programmes, that would be amazing!