‘Today, my whole family thrives because of the drama business... Drama has not let us down.’

When M.C. Kalappa was a small boy, he used to visit Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer’s house in a bullock cart. “My father was a tailor, and he made khaddar clothes for C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer’s family. Usually, a bullock cart was sent to fetch my father from Chitrakulam where we’ve always lived, to Eldams Road. Being the only son, I went everywhere with my father. Do you know, all around CPR’s house – now the very crowded Alwarpet – there were just sugarcane and banana fields?”

And so began 83-year-old Kalappa as he reminisced about Madras of the 1940s and 1950s. He talks about trams that came to Luz, blue and green buses (“People referred to them by colour; blue bus to Mambalam; green bus to High Court”) and drama companies with a single make-up box.

“My father died when I was in the fifth form. I was studying in P.S. High School, but had to drop out. Instead of taking up tailoring, I joined a drama troupe, and got interested in make-up and costume. Those days, plays were all about mythology; and I learnt my trade on the job.”

Sitting outside his shop, Kalaivani Costumes, in South Chitrakulam Street, Kalappa discusses his long association with drama and troupes. “I was usually invited to act as Saneeswara Bhagawan or Yamadharmaraja. The men shared one make-up box, with pancake, grease, lipstick, sponge and spirit-gum to paste fake facial hair. We did our own faces; we looked fine from afar, and under the stage-lighting. But up close…,” he shakes his head and laughs.

“Soon, I began designing costumes. I supplied everything for the troupes – dress, light, sets. Once, I made nearly 30 costumes for a single play; there were so many gods, each with a specific outfit. Now I have no use for the scene-settings, and plan to sell them. I’m getting old,” he smiles.

Kalappa’s company supplies costumes for theatre groups, schools, dances and fancy-dress competitions. He shows me bejewelled crowns and golden bows; he points out to cloth ‘Hanuman tails’ and dance dresses. “People seek us out from all over the city. A man just came from Tiruvottriyur to book a ‘Nehru costume’ for his son, for Republic Day.”

Besides mythological and religious costumes, freedom fighters, especially Bharatiar and Pt. Nehru, are popular, he says. “Since we deal with children’s costumes, we’re particular about hygiene. All the clothes are washed well, and ironed before they’re hired out. Also, the accessories these days are light weight, unlike the crowns we wore back then; those were really heavy, made of metal.”

Costumes also throw constant challenges, Kalappa tells me. “Recently, we were asked to design a gas cylinder costume. A small boy wore the red cloth dress, stood on stage and said ‘Don’t rely on me, my price keeps increasing’,” he laughs.

As we speak, the street lights come on, and we hear, in the distance, Lord Kesava Perumal’s evening procession, accompanied by drummers. “Back then, people asked me, ‘Nadagatha Nambarayae da, Unnala Vazha Mudiyuma?’ But today, my whole family thrives because of the drama business. My son is a make-up artist, and my daughter-in-law runs the shop. I can’t sit idle, so I stitch. Drama has not let us down!”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)