A one-room space on the terrace of a building in Chintamani is where the Pudhiya Udhayam Kalaikuzhu conducts rehearsals for upcoming stage dramas. While the artistes don’t need a dress rehearsal, kitschy costumes, gilded swords, papier-mâché crowns, golden gadais (maces) and masks of animals, form an integral backdrop to the scenes being enacted. Though the characters and the costumes may have had twin fates, owing to the diminishing interest in plays, these costumes and properties have managed to find newer takers and audiences.
Handmade to readymade
V.P.C. Sekar, who has been in the city’s drama circuit for three decades, has been renting out stage costumes and properties for the past 10 years. 'Earlier, troupes in the city generally hired costumes from Salem and Vallam, which was proving to be very expensive,' he recalls, adding, 'back then, the number of materials available for making stage costumes was also limited.'
Artistes mostly depended on sarees and jute sacks to create their get-ups, and crowns and swords were fashioned only out of cardboard, according to Sekar.
Today, there are readymade versions of the various costumes and a large variety of embellishments that complete the character.
However, they are more expensive and don’t fetch enough returns through rentals, rues Sekar. 'For the past three years, I have had to start renting out the costumes to schools and colleges to prevent them from gathering dust,' he says.
While Sekar’s focus on schools and colleges is fairly recent, there is a small shop in Singarathope that has been in this business for around 80 years.
Mali Drama Dresses, run by brothers Abrar Sheriff and Akbar Sheriff, stocks almost every imaginable mythological, historical and social character in the book.
'The original shop, which was owned by Mali, a distant relative of ours, is still open in Allimaal Street,' says Akbar, adding that the slumping business was rejuvenated by the introduction of the fancy dress contest.
The fancy deal
'Business picked up only about 18 years ago, when a parent asked us to dress their child as a rail engine for a fancy dress contest,' he recalls.
Ever since, the brothers have created a gamut of fancy dress get-ups including mobile phones, chocolates, animals, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and of course, human characters like national leaders, policeman, doctor, lawyer and the like.
Today, they source materials not just locally, but from north India and even China.
'Our biggest effort till date is Gandhi Jayanthi in 2012, when we dressed up around 520 school children as Gandhiji within 45 minutes,' says Abrar. The feat, he adds, was inspected by the Elite World Records (UK) Private Limited, Asian Records Academy and the Indian Records Academy.
While the brothers create most of their costumes themselves, Sekar says he stocks a few readymade sets that were stitched by tailors in Madurai or Pudukkottai who specialise in stage costumes.
The most commonly used materials are cotton, satin, China silk, velvet and the embellishments include gold and silver zari, stones, ribbons and glitter. Replacement of the costumes varies between six months and three years, depending upon the number of times they have been hired.
Re-invention and retrospection
At both ends of the spectrum, the businesses have had to supplement their income - while the brothers have incorporated working models (for use as teaching aids and project demonstrations), Sekar continues to stage plays in Tiruchi and surrounding districts.
Veteran artistes like Tiruchi George and K.V.S. Vijayavanan feel theatre’s reduced status today has more to do with the death of street plays than with the influence of television and cinema.
'Even around 35 years back, the smallest temple festivals also included street plays and the temple authorities were very competitive about how many street plays each organised,' says Tiruchi George. However, over time the streets became narrower and temples ran out of space to erect stages large enough for plays; fewer organisations could afford the cost of staging a play; and gradually, only a paltry six or seven troupes survive today.