Mithran Devanesan, veteran theatre personality, tells Priyadershini S. that theatre in India is getting better though regional theatre is getting a brush of Bollywood
Mithran Devanesan, a veteran in the English theatre world, believes that theatre across India incorporates a lot from Kerala art forms. And though he has not used much of it in his work hitherto, his next production, Brahma’s Hair, with 125 children, opens with Kathakali. “Kathakali lends itself to epic grandeur,” he says confessing that one will see more of kalari and kathakali in his coming productions. The veteran director was in the city to stage three comedies that addressed different aspects of love.
His stage journey, he says, started at the age of five when he forgot his lines on stage and asked the audience to “wait a minute, till my brains get back! It was such sense of comfort with stage and audience, such love for the art that made him give up his three years in medical college later to pursue this field. “It was unheard of in those days but my parents were very supportive,” he recalled. Poetry club, theatre group, drama class have all been part of his growing years and then when he finally got on stage it was to sweep the stage for Madras Players! It was a dream come true for the young man who just wanted to be close to where the action was. It was only natural that he turned mainstream, sooner than later and was sent by the British Council to train in England. He trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company and with Cicely Berry, the ultimate goddess of voice training, who gave Peter O’Toole his alluring voice. He also trained at the Goethe Institute in Germany and finally on Broadway.
Forty years in theatre and having worked in 400 productions, with school kids, amateur actors, professionals and even slum children has seen Mithran evolve in his directorial style and skills. He has ventured into new ways of lighting and stage design, introducing almost avant garde in design, the minimalist. Dance lighting is his forte, having “brought theatrical lighting to dance, which is not there in classical dance.”
He has lit the stage for dancers Anita Ratnam, Lakshmi Viswanath, and Lata Pada.
He has done away with retro style completely. “I am my own set designer. Less is more is true in theatre.” He believes that less detailing on the stage pushes the audience to imagine more, thus resulting in intellectual participation. “When I started I thought that the ultimate was a box set, with lot of details. I used to pride myself in doing Victorian style to the extent of buying spinning tops and painting them as door knobs. It had its charm,” he reflects nostalgically.
It was while staging, ‘Shadow Box’, a Pulitzer winning play in Chennai (1978) that he claims changed the way theatre setting was viewed . “I had see- through walls.” In The Winter’s Tale, which had 14- 15 scenes, all that Mithran had used as stage setting was a cupboard. “The actors entered and exited through the cupboard.” Sliding doors, doors with glass are some of the innovations he has brought to stage craft. The use of neutral and Indian accent for foreign plays is another of Mithran’s introductions. “We are what we are,” he says strongly and affirms that audiences loved the change. “They accepted it immediately.”
Theatre in India is getting better certainly, he feels but regional theatre is getting the brush of Bollywood, sadly. “I feel sad to see Kathakali dancers in ad films. The Yakshagana in Karnataka and the Therukoothu in Tamil Nadu are turning filmy.”
But it is only natural as theatre continues to search for patrons. “You can’t make a living out of theatre still. My bread and butter do not come from there,” he says hoping for theatre to get its due in India. He loves directing musicals and his dream production, Midsummer Night’s Dreams, is scheduled for next year, “where the royals will do Bharatanatyam, the fairies will do jazz and the rustics will do the Therukoothu.”. Mithran’s philanthropic activities like his Anjar project is very much a part of his theatre as proceeds go towards the 2,000 children that the project supports.
Mithran Devenesan may not live by theatre but makes sure that it reaches out to the people in more ways than one.