Sunday, 20 April 2014

Tracing a hundred years of cinema through costumes and masks

If actors and actresses bring a story alive before an enthralled audience, any performing artiste would agree that it is their costumes and make up that gives life to the actor in the story.

Of all the memorabilia that are replete in the Kodambakkam area a.k.a Kollywood reminiscing a hundred years of Tamil Cinema, the non-descript two-storey building located off Arcot Road in Kodambakkam which houses the costume hiring firm Nathrang and Co, is a rare gem that has been pivotal in bringing life to generations of characters that are now part of Tamil cinema folklore.

For the last 114 years, this firm owned by four generations of a family has been supplying wigs, masks, prince suits, crowns, swords and all other costume accessories for street plays, theatre productions, blockbuster movies, and even to tiny tots for their playschool programmes.
Dilip Kumar Babu with his extended family at Nathrang

“Whether you need costumes for playing the role of Dronacharya in Mahabaratha for a historical play or Hindu god Siva for a mythological cinema or as pumpkin for a school competition, we have it all here,” says Dilip Kumar Babu (68) who runs Nathrang and Co with his two younger brothers Rajendra Prasad Babu (66)and Narendra Babu (64). “It is a family business. Our children Satish Babu and Vikram are also involved in creating costumes for renting out to clients,” he says.

It all started in the year 1900 when Dilip’s grandfather Nathamuni Naidu, a tailor by profession, began stitching costumes for street-corner plays locally known as therukoothu in the Sowcarpet area. “Most of the plays were based on mythology requiring heavy make-ups and colourful costumes. Artistes would recite couplets from literature to narrate the story and plays would begin at around 10.30 pm and go all the way into early next morning,” Dilip Kumar says.

Over the years, therukoothus evolved into theatrical productions with the construction of the Ottravadai Drama Theatre by the Chennai Corporation on Wall Tax Road.  During the 1940s and 50s, this theatre used to be the epitome of theatrical productions in the city where matinee legends of a later period such as MG Ramachandran, MR Radha and even Sivaji Ganesan enthralled a crowded audience on stage.

“Theatre legend Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai’s adaptation of the story of Lord Ayyappa still remains fresh in my memory,” says the veteran costume maker who watched the play at the theatre a young boy. “Theatre productions were so authentic those days that Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai made the character playing Lord Ayyappa walk towards the stage on a real tiger. Before the play was staged, the deity was not so famous in this part of the country,” Dilip recalls.

Along with phenomenal growth in popularity of theatre and mythological movies during the 50s, 60s and 70s, Nathrang’s costume business too boomed to new heights. “Our father Rangababu Naidu who took over the business from his father even brought home a leapord cub and raised it for six months intending to rent it out for movies,” says Rajendra Prasab Babu. Betty, which was the leapord’s name, soon grew too wild to be used in movies and had to be handed over to the zoo.

During those days when mythological film productions ruled the box office, film makers would come to Nathrang and sit with its proprietors for days designing costumes even for Telugu matinee idols such as NT Rama Rao. “We look at our job as an art form,” says Prasad still fixes the minor details of the costumes that the firm rents out every day. “Each prince suit and accessory was designed to precise detail to suit the mood of the character. We had full time tailors, wig makers, carpenters and other staff who prepared entire sets for movies,” he says.

As South Indian cinema moved away from history and mythology to crime pot boilers, romantic drama and social movies over the past few decades, business dwindled for the costume rental business owners. The advent of specialized designers in film units signalled the end of an era.

While Nathrang and Co still rents out costumes for mythological and other offbeat characters in films, a bulk of their business has now moved to schools, colleges and other educational institutions which make elaborate preparations for their cultural programmes and rent costumes in large numbers.

“It is a changing trend,” says Narendra Babu. “We are busy these days renting out costumes to schools and colleges with occasional requests from theatre groups. But, we believe that this will pass too and filmmakers will return to our puranas and mythological legends,” he says.

While the thousands of costumes ranging from three-piece suits to leopard-skin shawls that abound Nathrang narrate the story of a bygone era in cinema, the presence of all three brothers in the shop every day from dusk to dawn along with the children, and even grandchildren, is reminiscent of another vanished era of the joint Indian family.

“All of us live in in different portions of the same house and work together. It is our strength,” says Dilip Kumar Babu.

1 comment:

  1. Nice story sir.. love the closing lines ... conveys a mood of a time long gone by.. waiting for your next article eagerly