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K. Sethumadhavan - Make-up Artiste

Oct 2000

K Sethumadhavan has been the man behind the beautiful faces of many dancers. Hailing from Watrap near Srivilliputhur, he made a humble beginning as a make-up artist 48 years ago. Today, he is a much sought after make-up man. He has dabbled in politics and acting too. Sethumadhavan shares his success story with Narthaki Online.
How did you get into this field?
I initially came to Chennai with a desire to act. But I couldn't succeed. I came into contact with make-up men like Gajapathy and Seetharaman. I started helping them and slowly learnt the art of make-up. I didn't have any formal training. I learnt the technique only by observing my seniors.

Which was your first experience as an independant make-up artist?
I was assisting senior make-up men, so I was known in the drama field. Once Mr.Y G Parthasarathy asked me to do the make-up for him. This was my first experience as an independant make-up artist. After that, I continued to be a full time make-up artist. In the 60's, I used to be the make-up artist for Mr.Y G Parthasarathy's play "Dial Mr.Sanjeevi".

How did you enter the dance field as a make-up artist?
The first dancer for whom I did make-up was Yamini Krishnamurthy. Later I started to do make-up for other dancers also. From dancers of yesteryears to dancers of today, I have done make-up for almost all of them. It's a long list.

Were there any special make-up artists for dance in olden days?
There were make-up artists within the troupe. They used to take care of make-up, costumes and presentation of the artiste. But the concept of a specialised make-up artist came after the advent of cinema.

What is your idea of make-up?
Make-up in Tamil means "Oppanai", which means making the artiste suitable for the character. 'Opputhal' in Tamil means agreeing, so 'oppanai' means making the artiste's face agreeable to the character. This is what you call make-up in English. Make-up is basically of three types, stage make-up, photo make-up and society make-up. Based on the requirement, make-up is done.

Can you tell us the difference between stage, photo and society make-up?
Society make-up is very simple. You apply a foundation, then powder over it, Kohl, lipstick and finish the make-up. But Stage and Photo make-up are a bit demanding. Lighting plays a major role. If the lighting is heavy, you can use heavy make-up and can use shades. But if the lighting is less, you can use only light make-up. For photos, the cameraman plays an important role. The angles and distances he chooses influence the nature of make-up.

How was make-up done in those days?
Make-up was also called "Aridharam" in Tamil. On the day of the performance, if the performance was in the evening, the artistes used to start preparing themselves from noon itself. In those days, lighting was confined to petromax lights only. So turmeric and castor oil was first applied to give a yellow tint to suit this type of lighting. After sometime, the oil and turmeric was removed. Then a mixture of zinc white, glycerin and sindhuram was applied. Zinc white mixed with sindhuram gave a good tone and glycerin gave a good shine. This make-up used to remain for hours.

How do you decide on the type of make-up for an artiste?
Basically the technique is the same. Based on the tone of the skin and the body heat, we decide on the make-up. When we put our hand on the head of the artist, we can feel the body temperature. Make-up tends to darken if the body heat of the artist is high, so we prefer light make-up for such people. The face will start looking shiny after sometime if the face is oily in nature. We consider these factors and do the make-up.

Do the artistes give any suggestions?
At times they do. I take it. Sometimes, if I feel that their suggestions might not be suitable, I tell them so and they accept it. The final result must be good. That is my desire and that of the artistes too.

Is there any difference in make-up for different dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Contemporary dance, etc?
Make-up technique is the same. Costumes differ according to the style. And so do the hair styles.

There are certain mythological characters like Rama, Krishna and others. People associate certain features with them. For instance, N T Rama Rao was famous for his portrayal of Krishna. Is it possible to do make-up for anyone to portray such mythological characters? Or should a face suit the character to be played?
Any person can be made to look like Rama, Krishna or any mythological characters. As you mentioned, there are certain features associated with them. Rama's eyes will be like a lotus, there will be a mischievous look in Krishna's eyes..Such features can be depicted on any person and anyone can look like Rama or Krishna. In Therukoothu, we see different people do many roles. Do we have N T Rama Rao everywhere?

On an average, how long does it take to complete make-up?
To complete the make-up, costume and hair dressing takes 1 to 1 ½ hours.

After the initial make-up, touch-up might be needed during a break in the performance. Is it difficult as the break will be short and within that time, you will have to do the best?
I don't touch-up during breaks. It is a wrong concept. All I do during the break is to remove the sweat and oil by wiping off with a towel. If there is a costume change and if hairstyle is to be changed, it takes 7-10 minutes, so it is not difficult.

Do you travel outside Chennai?
If I get an offer, I do. I have travelled throughout India with Yamini Krishnamurthy. I have also gone to Singapore and Malaysia with Anita Ratnam and Srinidhi..
Have you done make-up for foreign artistes?
I have done make-up for foreign artistes who come to India. Once I remember assisting a Russian ballet troupe visiting India. Foreign students of Nirmala Ramachandran, Meenakshi Chittaranjan, Kamala and others who perform in Chennai, come to me for make-up. Of course their skin tone will be different. Since most of them have large foreheads, I try to Indianise their features. But even that can be done to a certain extent only.
Which is your most busy period? Are you busy throughout the year?
At times, I have work continuously for three days, at other times not. During the December season in Chennai I get more offers. I adjust my timings and accept up to 5 offers a day during season.

Can you tell us about the changes in the field over the years?
I have been in this field for 48 years. There have been changes in attitudes of the artistes. New techniques of make-up have emerged. These days, make-up has become simple. Artistes apply an oil base and then powder over it. But I still prefer water base pancake as it merges with the skin. Nowadays, I find people use poster colour to get the yellow tint. The work of a make-up artist is getting recognition now. Dance has become one among the other multifarious activities for most of the performers now. In earlier days, dancers concentrated more on dance.

Have you trained anyone?
I have trained many people. They have all started on their own. But I don't want to mention their names. They may not like it. Nowadays I work alone.
Can you tell us about the awards and honours that you have received?
I have received honours and appreciation. I don't remember the years. Once, Pakkirisamy Pillai honoured me with the title "Oppanai Ratnam", Sudharani Ragupathy has honoured me with a certificate in appreciation. Generally, at the end of performances, I am honoured with mementos. It is a sad thing that neither the Central Government nor the State Government have recognised the make-up field. ICCR does not recognise us as artists and we are treated as technicians. So we do not receive concessions for travel abroad. I wish the government recognises our field.
Does frequent make-up affect the skin?
No. It does not affect the skin. The ingredients used for make-up like Sindhuram, Zinc white are harmless. The white colour used for Thiruman and the red and yellow used for Srichurnam are all derived from natural products and these are used in make-up items. So they do not harm the skin.

Do you prefer foreign products to Indian products?
All products are indigenously available. In fact, some Indian dancers living abroad do not get the shades they want. For some of them, I prepare kajal, gum, pancake to suit their skin tone and other items.

Can you tell us some interesting anecdotes from your career?
Every experience is interesting. I cannot pinpoint a single incident. I consider doing make-up for Chandrakantha's troupe and Sivakamiyin Sabadham drama very interesting. I had to do make-up of Naganandhi, a male character in Sivakamiyin Sabadham, for a female. So I had to cover the lady's long hair. Also the female role of Sivakami was done by a male. I had to make adjustments for that. Once, after seeing my make-up skills, Kelucharan Mohapatra expressed his appreciation.

Which was your most challenging task in your career?
Once at Peravoorani, the drama "Sivakamiyin Sabadham" was to be staged. I was there to assist the troupe. The make-up artist did not turn up. The artistes were in a fix and asked for my help. I had only the foundation, no other make-up item. So I went to the shop to buy zinc white. There I saw jute threads and suddenly an idea struck me. I bought the jute threads and converted them into beard and moustache. They looked like original ones and I was appreciated for this. I managed to do the make-up for the entire troupe successfully. This was a challenging task.

What is your date of birth and star sign?
I was born on 18th July 1934. My star sign is Cancer.

Can we have your list of favourites?
City - All the places in India.
Costume - Nothing in particular.
Food - Simple food. I take food only once a day. I don't eat during nights. This habit started when Lalbahadur Shastri introduced Miss a Meal concept where he requested every citizen to forego a meal once a week.
Color - I live with colors. I need all of them. So all colors are my favourite.

A colourful person indeed! A simple straightforward approach and dedication to work have made Sethumadhavan a much sought after person in the make-up field. As a make-up artist, he has raised a wonderful and successful family. He has two sons and a daughter, all excelling academically. His eldest son will be pursuing his Doctorate in Nuclear Physics shortly. At 66, Sethumadhavan continues his profession enthusiastically with success and contentment.

Sethumadhavan K
36, 13th Trust Cross Street
Mandaveli, Chennai 600028
Ph: (044) - 4613597

(as told to TNC)