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Doing wonders with space

For over three decades, Mithran Devanesan has been delighting theatre buffs with his exquisite sets and light designs. ELIZABETH ROY reflects on the brilliance of this craftsman.

From Tara... weaving magic with light and shadow

``I DON'T know if it is the years of exposure or the years of training, but I have an ability to sum up what a play requires in terms of the space it uses. For me, the set is the geometry of the play. It is the space within which the action is going to take place. Whether it is two-tier, three-tier or just plain flat on the ground, it defines the space within which the actors have to explore themselves." The confession pretty much begins to explain the fascinating world of Mithran Devanesen's theatre designing.

Chennai has had the privilege of watching the designer in Devanesan evolve over the last 30 years. His sets and light designs have always delighted and surprised his audiences and he has used them to nurture an ongoing relationship with them.

In a time of mediocrity what sets Devanesen apart, is the nature of his creative spirit. He journeys where his fancy takes him, where his curiosity leads him. This sense of freedom and detachment has made him a `neutral' person in a theatre world crisscrossed with the fault lines of personalities and ideologies. .

Mithran first went to America when he was 17 and for the next seven years he soaked in Broadway and it's off and off-off productions. When he came back he fancied himself an actor and the Madras Players gave him his first `job,' to sweep the stage! He was then promoted to walk-on roles.

Soon he realised that his place in theatre was perhaps in production design and direction because there one has a wider vision. ``I always say that actors think in 8 mm and director's have to think in 70 mm. The sweep, the colour, the choreography, all that comes in and I think I had a flair for that."

Mithran has had almost no formal training in theatre. Neither has he indulged in too much of technical reading. ``My training was completely hands-on, on the job." In fact it began in the 1970s with the Cambridge Theatre Company, when they toured India. He grabbed the chance to work with a professional company. He volunteered his time and travelled with them at his own expense. ``It was such a learning curve for me, it really taught me professionalism. Just by asking and learning and working with these professional troupes my own perceptions and understanding of theatre changed very dramatically and very radically." More reputed companies followed and soon they came to depend on Mithran for their local technical support.

Mithran acknowledges architect and set designer Nikki Bhagat for helping him hone his eye for and control over perspective on a set. ``The set is only some plywood propped up with a few sticks. You learn to create the illusion of height and depth by varying the angles of the slope and by choice of colours. The darker the colour, the deeper the stage. And, light definitely adds to the perspective. I love shadows that add to the depth. These are bits of the designer's trade that you learn as you go along." Mithran's early designs were elaborate, close to realism, the traditional three-walled situation simulating the setting. He did box sets with umpteen doors and exits for umpteen bedroom comedies. Then he developed an aversion towards box sets and shudders even now at the thought of some of his past work.

Then came his sets for Shadow Box, a landmark production for Chennai. His concept of set design had undergone a major change. He came up with his famous `grid' with see-through walls and raking sets (creating perspective by varying the angles of the set). And that evolved into minimalism, the last refinement of design. ``I realised that by giving the audience less, I was forcing them to use their imagination and striking a chord in them." Wearing simultaneously the hats of director, production designer and lighting designer makes possible an amazing coming together and synergy and enables the audience to step effortlessly into the created world of make-believe and become a part of it. And Mithran moves seamlessly between the roles, making magic.

The Mithran I met last week and that audiences will meet next week in the production of Mercy has pushed the envelope further.

In directing a one-person theatrical rendering of Sivasankari's novel, he has further minimised sets and is challenging his audience by allowing colour and movement of light to create space and mood. His design has begun to be defined by the foci of energy chakras he creates on stage.

When productions are big budget he tends to be more lavish. And when he is put on a shoestring budget, he is at his creative best. ``In Indian theatre nothing is impossible, but some things are not feasible. If we are willing to live with that, then the way becomes a little smoother, it becomes a little easier to handle difficult situations and frustrations."

Has he ever considered exploring more conducive environments abroad? ``No. Above everything else, above being a director, designer, I have always considered myself to be an Indian first. And that means living and working in this country. It also means living with a social conscience. I made a conscious decision to work in theatre, despite its pitfalls, poor economics... In my mind that is my contribution to this city, to this country."

* * *

Tamil novel adapted

P. C. Ramakrishna, Sivasankari and Mithran Devanesan discussing a point.

ON FEBRUARY 24, 25 and 26 The Madras Players, in association with MTC Productions (a theatre production company that Mithran Devanesen started eighteen years ago) will be presenting Mercy at the Museum Theatre. Mercy is an intensely compressed, 70-minute stage adaptation of Sivasankari's novel ``Karunai Kolai," literally, mercy killing.

P. C. Ramakrishna, who wrote the script for a one-person performance, first translated the novel into English from the Tamil original.

Both the translation and the script sound superb. While listening to the words in English one actually hears the cadences and nuances of the Tamil language. Sathya is in conversation with the audience about his life with wife Janani, who is no more. Ramakrishna says that the challenge in the writing and the acting is that the hero of the play is not Sathya but Janani who is not there, and the only way to see Janani is refracted through Sathya's eyes. At the preview organised earlier this week the gathering sat spellbound watching Ramakrishna's intense, poignant performance against the backdrop of soul stirring Carnatic singing from Gayathri Venkatraghavan. If the short, tantalising glimpse we had is anything to go by, we might yet have Ramakrishna's best ever performance. For Mithran Devanesen, who directs the play, it is a dream come true. He shares an emotional personal journey with an old, trusted friend, Ramakrishna.

He has the complete artistic freedom to weave into fine fabric, direction, choreography and sets, lights and sound design. He will be exploring his new colours of black and white. He is lifting the bar a little higher on the production values and taking further risks building sets with the use of lights.

Sivasankari who came to the preview was deeply moved by what she saw. If one can't read Tamil or the 20-odd languages (other than English) she has been translated into, the next best thing to do is see ``Mercy."-E.R.

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