Artiste RK Chithan: In a stage of contentment

Veteran artiste RK Chithan recalls his days in theatre and working with stalwarts
Veteran artiste RK Chithan
Veteran artiste RK Chithan

CHENNAI: Not for nothing RK Chithan had the tag of the ‘stormy petrel of Tamil stage’. His aggression was good enough to match strides with the legend of stage plays, ‘Nataka Kavalar’ RS Manohar.

A much-mellowed octogenarian, Chithan nostalgically recalls the good ol’ days of Tamil theatre, where his mere presence was enough for the drama buffs to buy the tickets. Starting on stage with MR Radha, Chithan was pitchforked in an age when his friends were making their mark in schools. “Being the eldest child of the family, the onus was on me to pitch in the support. The early lessons I learned from Radha were to not just rely on the theatre and added lessons like make-up and electrical work. The roles were in driblets where the job of the fringe artistes was to lend wanton support. There was no monetary gain but shelter and food were taken care of,” he says.

Chithan worked alongside Radha for three years. He fondly remembers the character of a cook he dished out in the evergreen Ratha Kaneer. That the play is being remembered even today and staged by the members of Radha’s family is a pointer to its impact and reach. “Brick by brick, Radha sculpted his character which found a repeat audience. The highlight of the protagonist asking his cook to read the evening papers and voice his opinion on the prevalent political scenario was the clinching factor. I’m happy to have played a small but significant part in the success of the play,” he shares.

Soon he moved over to National Theatres. Meeting and working with RS Manohar was one of Chithan’s best moments. Interestingly, he joined as a make-up artiste. “But as dame luck would have it, Manohar presided over an amateur drama Malar Manjam where I played the lead character of an individual determined to win his love against all odds. I let out a shriek of joy when he came to the stage and said my talent deserved a permanent place in front of the stage,” he says, adding “Manohar, was not just a father figure but a Godfather. Even before the sweat eased out,  payment would promptly land in my pocket.”

Tragic route to fame

An association that began then stood the test of time for Chithan, spread over 21 plays and over 4,000 shows all over the country and beyond the shores. A poignant moment during his sojourn then was when Chithan lost his six-year-old son due to a bout of food poisoning. The show Soorapadman was slated late in the day for Krishna Gana Sabha. “Observing that the time was too short for someone to step in my shoes, Manohar said the tickets had been sold out and cancelling the show was not an option. The livelihood of my fellow artistes was the bottom line in my decision to go through with my act as he left the final decision to me. Barely a few hours after the cremation, I had to don the role of Lord Murugan. The Lord had to sport a smile all through while scuttling the wicked acts of Soorapadman,” he shares.

Audiences were prostrating at his feet after the play, little realising the tragedy that occurred right before. “During the play, after every scene, Manohar touched my hands to relay the message that all is fine in my body language and execution. After the play, he said he would forever remember my gesture and had my name at the top of the list in every play. In the same play, Manohar underplayed his character to ensure that the Lord was the ultimate and he was a human after all, not infallible,” he recalls.

A particular scene etched in Chithan’s memory is the cat-and-mouse game between Soorapadman and the Lord. “That was the showpiece of the play where the Lord comes up with all the answers to the intelligent probings of the poet. Stealing the thunder from Manohar was a rarity and the media graciously pointed out that,” he says.

Another play that Chithan vividly remembers is Dhronar where he played Lord Krishna who ensured peace in a kingdom renowned for its aggressive ways to home in their messages. “A scene had me playing the Lord up against Saguni, Duryodana, and Sooran. The ones enacting those characters were veterans SR Gopal, Heron Ramaswamy, and Peeli Sivam. As in the script, the Lord has the last laugh and my character scoring over the others found a prominent place in the media reviews. Manohar, who was not part of that scene, graciously asked the audience to watch out for me in future plays. I guess, that praise was the equivalent of Oscar in movies,” he says humbly.

The play which brought Chithan to the spotlight was Kadaga Muthreyan, a personal favourite of Manohar’s.  “As Parthiban, the onus was on the character to beat his opponent in the mind game to unearth the secrets with a political connotation. In the pretending act of love, I found the avenues to find another face to my arsenal of acting. When the media observed that even Gemini Ganesan would have been proud of my love-stealing acts, it was the ultimate compliment,” he says.

Chithan portrayed a range of characters during his stint. And the richness with which Manohar shaped the characters was a winning factor. “To ensure perfection, Lord Murugan was adorned with a few sovereigns of pure gold in an era where plated ones were available. Where else could you find artistes donning the real costumes in rehearsals? The idea was to set up the right mood for the artistes to go hammer and tongs in the all-important execution act,” he shares.

Awards and more

Besides Manohar’s plays, Chithan also worked with his childhood friend KP Arivanandam who penned Indrajit. It had its fair share of controversy in the way Lord Rama’s character was devised. Was Rama a Lord or just his avatar who lived his life like a normal human? This was a moot point debated in the drama circles. “Manohar devised the character in such a way for easy connection with the audience. There were a few issues which Manohar brought to light showcasing the acumen of the Lord blessed with all the powers but using it judiciously to rung in peace all around, a prime motive.”

Happy with the impact he could generate on Lord Rama, Chithan recalls a moment when playing Lava (Kusa) MR Radha’s Ramayanam brought him joy. “The then chief minister, CN Annadurai, who was the chief guest at the inaugural play, made a special mention of my dialogue delivery, unfazed at the presence of a large gathering. In the formative years, those words meant a lot to lift the sagging spirits in the off days,” he shares.

Chithan has played his mite in the success of scores of movies. One of the most unforgettable moments was with Sivaji Ganesan in Rajarishi. “Even in a small character, a drama artiste should find the means to leave his mark was his words of wisdom. The other words of advice were not to be overawed by the reputation of any artiste,” he says on learning from Sivaji. His years on the stage have gotten due recognition along with the Nataka Selvam Award presented by late chief minister M Karunanidhi. Yet, the Kalaimamani award is conspicuously missing. Veteran drama buffs note that when it comes, it will be a moment of pride for the award.

Having seen his world in theatre, Chithan did not have to look for fulfilment elsewhere. “Now only memories remain but no other profession would have given me the satisfaction as theatre, my undefying love. My bank balance or the lack of it will not reflect the insurmountable happiness of the profession. The audience approbation still reverberates in my ears, even if the intensity is less,” he signs off.

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