The stages for most of Kerala’s celebrated professional plays have been designed by Artist Sujathan. He revisits fifty years of creating backdrops

Artist Sujathan’s studio is a profusion of elements—a tin-roofed shed strewn with plywood cut-outs, tables and cans of paint and walls plastered with gaudy posters of plays. The sweltering heat is a constant presence, albeit intangible, a companion to one of Kerala’s foremost and senior-most set designers for professional drama as he works.

The studio is part of the Artist Keshavan Smaraka Auditorium at Pathinaarilchira in Kottayam. The auditorium with its spacious compound pops up like a surprise, rather unexpectedly, on a narrow lane dotted by tiny houses. The auditorium is Sujathan’s tribute to his father, Artist Keshavan. Among the sets his father designed are Kerala People’s Arts Club’s (KPAC) epoch-making play Ningalenne Communistakki and Mudiyanaya Puthran.

Sujathan, who has been working for close to 50 years, began his journey as his father’s assistant in the mid-60s. Days spent in the company of stalwarts such as Thoppil Bhasi, Ponkunnam Varkey, P.J. Antony, N.N. Pillai, K. T. Mohammed, Vaikom Chandrashekharan Nair at ‘drama camps’, as they were called, shaped his creativity.

“I was very young when I began assisting my father. My father might have seen a spark in me to get me involved in his work,” he says. Lounging in a lungi and a shirt, white shoulder length hair and matching beard, in the auditorium’s green room he looks more like a brooding poet. Over glasses of hot tea Sujathan takes a stroll down memory lane.

Choosing a career

As he starts talking he revisits his struggle with himself and self-doubt, of how he did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and later how he, hesitantly, as an obedient son did. “I had finished my Class 10 in 1967 and fared pretty well. I was keen on getting a technical diploma. But I couldn’t as my father told me to join him full time. I didn’t want to, but those days were different,” he says. The next few years until 1973 were tough as he couldn’t come to terms with the course his life was taking. “I wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to do.” He adds that if he had technical education, his work which requires engineering-like skills, would have been easier.

The reason he offers for the lack of confidence is “I wasn’t sure if I could match up to him, be as good as him.” The game-changer, in 1973, came in the form the set design for Nishasandhi by National Theatres, Kottayam. With this play, for which he designed two sets, of the Shoranur railway station and the Railway quarters, he went solo. There was no looking back after that. Drama committees from across the State turned to him for set design. He has also designed sets and painted backdrops for magicians Muthukad and Samraj, ganamelas, stage shows held in West Asia and even the United States.

Awards

He has won 15 State awards, been awarded fellowship of the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in 2011 and the Chamanlal Memorial Award (2006). Having designed sets for 4,000 or so plays, Sujathan jokes, “close to four generations have heard my name announced on various stages.” But never the silver screen, because cinema has no charm for him. He says he would rather do something he knows.

The last five decades have seen many changes. Set design, in professional drama, has moved centre-stage from being an accessory to the script he says. “Earlier the story was the hero. The two or three set plays of yore have given way to 17 sets. Clearly visuals have gained importance. The method of creation has changed, but in the 60 years of professional drama, very little has changed by way of presentation…there is still the limited space onstage and generally, only one mike.” Gimmicks attract more crowds, which in turn makes professional drama viable.

Sujathan works the old fashioned way of creating backdrops—paintbrush on cloth. Digital printing is not feasible, economically and practically.

Unlike amateur theatre, where there is space for all kinds of experimentation, professional drama has its limitations. “The crowd which goes to see professional drama is very different from the ‘amateur drama’ or the ‘drama festival crowd’. It is not the intellectual but the man-on-the street who patronises professional drama and he expects reality. There is hardly scope for fancy experimentation.” But he has managed to incorporate changes in how a play is staged. His sets are known for being innovative, visual extravaganzas that audiences look forward to. He has, for instance, convinced some directors to abandon the curtain at the start of the play and opt for lights off for scene changes. “Times may have changed but some things haven’t.”

Changing times is why neither of his sons has joined him. His sons Jijo and Jithin are not, for now, following his path. “I want my sons to do what they want. Isn’t it more in keeping with the times?”