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Superstar of Tamil theatre

By Lakshmi Viswanathan, The Hindu,  Published in 2000

R. S. Manohar has held sway over theatre-goers for over five decades. LAKSHMI VISWANATHAN talks to the doyen.

DRAMA HAS been his life for nearly 50 years. His National Theatres was founded in 1954, and to date, he has put onboards nearly 8,000 shows of his 29 productions. He looks a rather young 75, and but for his knee problem which hampers his walk, he is full of ener gy, as he speaks of his work, hopes, and the present drama scene.

R. S. Manohar has received many awards. Yet, the latest from the M. A. Chidambaram Trust brings a smile to his face. “This is the first time they are giving this award for Fine Arts. It carries a cash award of Rs. 50,000 and a silver casket with the citation”. He points out the lucky co-incidence in the fact that he recently started a comparative study on the stage-craft of the West and the East, and this support from the award will further his research.

An “amateur artist” of the 1950s, Manohar was lured into the world of cinema by “Gemini” Ganesh. From acting Shakespearean characters in Pachaiyappas College, Manohar moved to social dramas of the film world. “The stories had moved from mythology.. they needed actors who could sport a Western suit and do convincing characters.”

It was either a hero or villain, and Manohar did both. But he never left the excitement of the footlights, and in fact, used the obvious high profile that only cinema can give to good advantage in furthering his plays. Sixty persons made up his entourage. Unfazed by illustrious predecessors like TKS Brothers, and Sahasranamam, he went ahead, and indulged his passion for drama. Social themes pre-occupied him first. And his magnum opus “Lankeswaran” which played 1,800 times made him a super star of Tamil theatre. Projecting the heroic and better side of Ravana, he made a whole generation of theatre-goers, fans of the character. Gone was the rather unimaginative stereotype villain. Manohar became a …. hero, as Ravana.

Much later he staged “Chanakya Sabadam”. The company had become full-fledged, he used the most elaborate sets and props, and the character of Chanakya mesmerised thousands at each show.

Manohar believes his forte has been classical themes based on the Puranas. For those who never got to see his work, one can only point out that he presented mythology with pomp, splendour and gripping theatrics, in an era unfamiliar with television mega serials. Can’t his expertise now be adapted to reach vast numbers through the small screen, I ask. Yes, he is in the process of giving finishing touches to a script. Although he does not seem to think that the support for a mega serial is available in South India, with all the modern gadgetry, it is possible to bring to life a rich heritage with appropriate settings.

Manohar is one who truly believes in the make-believe. How can you ask the audience to merely imagine a king’s palace. You must recreate it on the stage, use rich props, special lights, and transport them to that world. Only then will drama be convincing.

His “Thirunavukkarasar,” shone with all the glitter of a genre of theatre which has now taken a back seat and may take a lot of time to become popular and viable again. The crux of the matter lies in the economics. Nobody today wants to take the risk and invest in drama, which demands not only research and writing but also extraordinary acting skills, as well as a commitment to classical drama. The audience is there, and will come. But there are no organisers who can pay a fee that will cover the costs of such big productions. Manohar points out that even in his prime, he went on tours to make ends meet. He points out that drama is essential for the development of character actors. Even in Hollywood, the finest stars have enacted Shakespeare. Manohar has this deep-felt desire to initiate a drama course as part of the film institute’s curriculum.

Students must know theatre arts and crafts as an extension of film. “I ask him,” why not a drama course in big schools which have adequate resources. Indeed why not, he says. For with students at the school level, one can create an interest which will go a long way in tapping their talents and in the process give them an opportunity to have hands-on experience in something which will enrich their lives in the future.

While Manohar sees the future of staging dramas as rather bleak, he is hopeful that a re-generative process can be initiated by many who have the resources to make it part of education on the one hand, and mass entertainment on the other by tailoring drama to fit into the small screen. Manohar himself would not compromise by watering down his technique and concept.

But he is willing to teach his craft, so that with the tide of time, a resurgence of classical drama will take place in the future. In the meantime, this actor, respected for his contribution to a century of unforgettable theatre, is busy working hard on his new production. “I believe in perfection. Rehearsals are important. Every detail must be worked out smoothly…”

Many lessons can be learnt from this outstanding theatre personality.

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