DRAMA G. Dharmarajan created sets with stunning effect. S. SHIVPPRASADH

G.Dharmarajan, an inimitable stage scene artist, passed away on Friday last. He breathed life into mythological and historical plays through his paintings of sets. Lovers of that genre of drama, who thronged halls to watch the plays of R.S. Manohar and T.K. Shanmugam, were stunned by the three-dimensional effect of the sets.

Gopalaswamy Pillai Dharmarajan (GD), son of Gopalaswamy Pillai and Thayalnayaki, was born on April 27 at Mannargudi. Academics never interested GD. Abstaining from school, he would wend his way to the Rajagopalaswamy temple, climb the tower and draw pictures of the scenic spread. When in the fifth form, his elder brother took him to task for skipping classes and GD left home with his school bag.

Kannan on GD

Landing in Madras, he worked in a photo studio for a brief period. The late S.A. Kannan shared interesting information about GD, when this writer met him in March 2010. He described Dharmarajan as upright and honest. In 1936, G.D. joined as a trainee and apprentice of Madhavan Pillai, chief set designer with Nawab T.S. Rajamanickam Pillai's Madurai Devi Bala Vinodha Sangeetha Sabha (Boys Company). He was paid Rs.3 a month. During 1943-1948, G.D continued to assist Madhavan Pillai for Sri Sakthi Nadaga Sabha that produced ‘Kaviyin Kanavu,' ‘Noorjehan,' ‘Vidhi,' etc., with Sivaji Ganesan, S.A. Kannan, M.N. Nambiar, S.V. Subbiah and so on. G.D. also helped Madhava Acharya, chief set designer for N.S. Krishnan Nataka Sabha (1943-45) that produced ‘Naam Iruvar,' ‘Paithiyakkaran,' ‘Karaikkaal Ammaiyar,' ‘Krishna Leela,' ‘Manohara,' etc. During 1945–47 he assisted Madhavan Pillai for K.R. Ramaswamy Nataka Kuzhu that produced C.N. Annadurai's ‘Oriravu,' ‘Vaelaikkaari,' etc. So efficient and trust worthy was he that both Madhavans allowed him to independently handle all their respective sets.

In 1946, When GD settled down at Madras with his wife Jayamani, Mr. M. Karunanidhi on his first visit to the city, stayed at G.D.'s house in Kondithope, a fact cherished by Dharmarajan. From 1948, G.D. became the solo set designer for the TKS Brothers. Particularly marvellous were his Big Temple sets for ‘Raja Raja Chozhan.' He was the solo set designer for Sivaji Nataka Mandram (1952-74) making sets for ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman,' ‘Vengaiyin Maindhan,' ‘Jehangir,' ‘Vietnam Veedu, ‘Thanga Padhakam,' etc.

Much of the credit for the success of National Theatres's productions went to G.D., who gave Manohar's plays the rich and grand look. He bought a three-ground plot on Habibullah Road belonging to Manohar's father, Subramaniam, and established his working premises there. Secluded and peaceful, it became his favourite haunt till the end. For hours he would be engrossed in his work, oblivious of the surroundings. A Gandhian, he wore only khadar.

G.D. worked with Kerala's Kala Nilayam Nataka Vedhi that produced several stage plays. He also worked for Kannada theatre. Several of his sets were used in the North and abroad.

G.D. was an expert not only in water colour painting but in oil painting. The life-size banners he made for films such as ‘Mannappandhal,' drew people's attention.

Palaces, gardens, battle fields, forests, mountains, temples… there was nothing that his brush left untouched. But recognition was late to come. It was only in the early 1990s when Manohar was secretary of the Iyal Isai Nataka Manram that his name was recommended for Kalaimamani and the then Chief Minister Jayalalitha promptly conferred the title on him.

G.D. did not want any of his children to pursue the art because demand for such plays was dwindling. Sadly, his demise also marks the end of a great art.