German visual artists Sabine Haubitz and Stefanie Zoche have compiled photographs of theatres in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The exhibition begins on Saturday

Empty buildings with peeling paint do not inspire us to reach for our camera, unless it is a monument. But German photographers and visual artists Sabine Haubitz and Stefanie Zoche insist that these buildings that certainly belong to another age are monuments that reflect popular culture and tastes.

So enamoured were they by these structures that they decided to document a cultural scenario by focussing only on those buildings and the stories those aging edifices guard within its walls.

“We are taking about theatres, cinemas that have such an important space in India. It was in continuation of our work on architectural structures and their place and space in an urban milieu,” explains Stefanie.

Facades of theatres are of special interest to the duo because they feel that “facades are like faces of people. They tell you what the building is trying to convey. Theatres in India, we found, have elaborate facades, but, sometimes the interiors are quite prosaic. It is almost as if the facade is a screen that sets the stage for people to come inside and be transported to different spaces. In some theatres, the theatrical effect is carried inside the theatre with the use of sculptures, Stucco art and so on,” adds Stefanie.

To learn more about theatres and their place in modern India, they planned a journey in South India to get a picture of the situation.

Between 2010 and 2013, they travelled all over Tamil Nadu and Kerala to click photographs of theatres and only theatres. The theatres covered a period from the Thirties to the Seventies in both the States.

“Most of these structures still retain the style of the period they were built in. In Germany, such buildings would have been “renovated” or changed four to five times. It was nostalgic to find buildings in the art deco style, a style that went of Europe and the United States in the twenties and thirties. We were pleasantly surprised to find that style still maintained in many theatres in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A few of the theatres had a mix of modernism and art deco and even kitsch,” says Sabine.

Angular structures embellished with cylindrically shaped towers, niches (for idols of various gods and goddesses) and ornate work on the walls piqued their curiosity as to why the owners adopted a particular style that was quite different from traditional architecture. Picking out two of the photographs she points out the strip-like work on the facades of the theatres that are meant to resemble reels of film. In some places they met the owners of the theatres, some of whom were determined to keep it going despite the odds.

In Tamil Nadu, they took the help of Kartik, a local photographer to locate the theatres to be snapped. “Even places such as Thirumangalam in Tamil Nadu, no metro by any stretch of imagination, have theatres. In contrast, in a country like Germany, you will not find theatres in villages. Theatres are very much an urban phenomenon there,” explains Stefanie.

From theatres that resemble a child’s paint box in Madurai and Chennai to stately ones in Salem, they have covered an interesting range of cinemas to throw light on the importance cinema has in our culture.

“In Kerala, we took a taxi and told the driver to take us to theatres,” says Sabine. They explored cinemas in Thrissur, Kochi, Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram districts. Garishly painted match box-like theatres in small towns share space with ornate structures that seem to need a facelift.

Their photographs depict vignettes of a society in transition and capture the sociological and economic changes that have transformed urban spaces. The photographs capture the transformation of theatres from major centres of entertainment to shabby halls desperately struggling on the sidelines of a booming entertainment industry that has moved away from the grandiose theatres of yore to intimate spaces in multiplexes. They point out that most of these theatres once occupied prime property in the centre of growing towns. Once the theatres became uneconomical, there was pressure on the owners to demolish the theatres and make way for malls and multiplexes as the property escalated in value.

Natraj Theatre in Chennai, for instance, was earmarked for demolition the next day after they snapped photographs of the cinema. Some of the cinemas had been turned into wedding halls while some had been demolished and a huge theatre replaced by a multiplex within a mall.

Wistfully the two say: “We have lost such theatres in most of Europe and the United States. We hope that our photographs will sensitise people to cherish and preserve this valuable link of their cultural heritage.”

The two are now planning to visit Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to collect the material for a coffee-table book on theatres, which they hope to publish next year. They have clicked photographs of posters of Indian cinema for the book.

It was in these dark spaces that many of us began a lifelong romance with the magic of the marquee. In the company of star struck fans of movies, we laughed and cried, raged and raved along with our favourite gods and goddesses of the silver screen. It was in cinema theatres, which could range from humble thatched sheds to plush theatres, that we made our acquaintance with stars of the screen. Time we saw the bigger picture that these theatres have in our urban spaces.

Theatres old and older

The city has special significance for the photographers. “New Theatre was the first cinema theatre that we photographed. It actually triggered our interest in doing this project. In its architectural appearance it is an interesting witness of its time. Rumours are making the round that it will soon be a multiplex. In that case, the photograph has archival value,” say the two artists.

Sree Kumar, Sree Padmanabha, Sree Bala and Central are some of the theatres in the city that feature in the collection. “The photograph of Sree Kumar is one of the few pictures in our collection that feature people. Located at a bustling centre of the city, it presents an interesting contrast. The theatre belongs to another age while the modern city flows all around it. I had to get on top of a bus to get that view of the theatre. We requested a bus driver to stop, clambered aboard the roof of the bus and clicked the photo,” explains Stefanie with a wide grin. The snap of Sree Padmanabha was also taken from the top of another bus.

However Sreebala, which they insist, is “such a nice theatre” gave them some points to ponder on . “As we were going into the theatre, some of the people nearby tried to dissuade us saying that the ‘picture is bad’!” says Sabine.

The curtain goes up on...

‘The Stage is Set – Movie Theatres in Tamil Nadu and Kerala’, an exhibition showcasing 24 photographs snapped by the two, will be on display at Kanakakunnu Palace from December 10 onwards.