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Mithran Devanesen (May 2, 1949 - August 9, 2010)
Compiled by Lalitha Venkat

August 11, 2010

"I don't know if it is the years of exposure or the years of training, but I have an ability to sum up what a play requires in terms of the space it uses. For me, the set is the geometry of the play. It is the space within which the action is going to take place. Whether it is two-tier, three-tier or just plain flat on the ground, it defines the space within which the actors have to explore themselves."
(Mithran Devanesen in The Hindu, Feb 18, 2005)

Eminent theater director and scenographer Mithran Devanesen, passed away in Chennai on August 9, 2010 after a battle with lung cancer. He was 61. Blessed with a positive attitude and a sense of humor, he remained cheerful and hardworking till his end.

His was a life devoted to philanthropy and the stage. Son of Late Professor Dr. Chandran Devanesen, the first Indian principal of the Madras Christian College, and Savithri Devanesen, Mithran was born in Srilanka on May 2, 1949. It was at Bishop Cotton's, Bangalore, where his love for theatre surfaced. He joined the Madras Players in 1974 and went on to become one of India's top English Theatre directors and internationally as a dance lighting designer. He brought theatrical lighting into dance and has lit the stage for dancers Anita Ratnam, Lakshmi Viswanathan, Sudharani Raghupathy and Lata Pada to name a few.

Mithran directed 150 plays and was involved with more than 350 stage productions in some capacity or other in India and abroad. In a career spanning 35 years, he delighted audiences with his wonderful sets and light designs. Mithran worked with almost every professional theatre company that toured India, trained in voice with The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford and with Cicely Berry, the ultimate goddess of voice training. He also trained at the Goethe Institute in Germany and finally on Broadway.

"My school teacher in Bangalore made Shakespeare come alive. He taught even Julius Caesar, which I found boring, so well. Shakespeare's only stage directions are "Enter" and "Exeunt" and this gives full scope for the director's imagination. You can restructure his plays and leave your impression on them. I did an Indianised production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, including features such as a puli vesham. In A Winter's Tale, we rolled a cupboard around to show different locations and set Father Time's speech to rap music. I did the sets and lighting for Romeo and Juliet and King Lear with professional companies from the UK, and college productions of his other plays. I attended a workshop on theatre voice based on Shakespearean texts at Stratford-upon-Avon. My love for Shakespeare has influenced my work-in characterization, understanding the sub-text and ensuring clarity of lines." (The Hindu, July 26, 2010)

According to Mithran, his stage journey started at the age of five when he forgot his lines on stage and asked the audience to "wait a minute, till my brains get back!" His love for the art made him give up his three years in medical college later to pursue theater. In 1969, Mithran joined the Charles Morris Price School in Philadelphia for a course in advertising and marketing. However, it was in Jamaica that Mithran made his mark on stage, winning the gold medal at the Jamaican Carnival for his production of Julius Caesar.

In India, Mithran wanted to be a stage actor, but the Madras Players gave him his first job as a stage sweeper, before promoting him to walk-on roles. He soon realized that his place in theatre was perhaps in stage management, production design and direction because there one has a wider vision and he felt he had a flair for that. In 1978, he quit acting and took up directing and set designing. The following year saw him change the entire outlook to sets, adopting a minimalist approach that was to become his trademark.

He started work with the Cambridge Theatre Company, when they toured India and travelled with them at his own expense, but it was worth it as he learnt a lot about professionalism and his understanding of theatre changed dramatically. Soon, Mithran made a name for himself as an expert for local technical support.

In 1986, Mithran directed a Pulitzer prize-winning play called Shadow Box, which gave theatre acting in Chennai a new style. He founded his own theatre group, MTC Productions in 1987 after taking to theatre full-time. His famous productions include Dog's Hamlet, Funny Money, Brahma's Hair, Arturo Ui, Anna Weiss, Midsummer Night's Dream, Seven Steps Around the Fire, Dance Like a Man, Midnight Hotel, the mega hit Mamma Mia, and A Woman Alone.

Mithran was capable of lavish productions as well as those on a shoestring budget, where he showed his immense creativity. For him, nothing was impossible in Indian theatre, though some things were not feasible. He felt that if one was willing to live with that, then the way could be a little smoother, making difficult situations and frustrations easier to handle. A proud Indian, he was more interested in living and working in his country and he dedicated his talent as director and designer to it. He was a theatre guru to the younger generation of avid theatre enthusiasts. He believed that youngsters could infuse fresh ideas and therefore encouraged them to take up the cause of theatre.

Thrice, Mithran has been awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship. He has worked in films too, as an actor in a French production Blue Mountains and as a casting director and actor in Italian film, Gills. Mithran also offered technical support to Hollywood productions shot in India. He worked with children's theatre too. He directed 2 pantomimes and did the sets and lights for 11 pantomimes and 2 musicals for The Little Theatre.

Mithran was one of the three Chennaites chosen to address the Kargil Jawans. He worked for underprivileged children by conducting workshops, teaching English at Corporation schools, and sponsoring scholarships for deserving students. His family runs an organization called Roofs for the Roofless in 14 villages, south of Chennai. Few know that he was the co-founder of The Spastics Society of India. He was Managing Trustee of the Anjar Project, a non-govt organization that was started in 2001 in memory of 362 children who were crushed to death in the Gujarat Earthquake, and takes care of underprivileged children. He helped run Shelter, a home for HIV infected kids, and a shelter for battered women.

Mithran has collaborated with Anita Ratnam for many of her productions. Says Anita, "In Mithran's passing, I have lost a friend and collaborator of more than 20 years. His humour, love of life and all good things, his fund of jokes and wonderful sense of visual design enhanced so many of my dance and theatre works from PURUSH to MA3KA. My condolences to his wife Nanda, his two daughters Ashima and Sumita, and grandchildren. But most of all, my heart goes out to his remarkable 95 year old mother Mrs. Devanesen who has been a rock of inspiration but whose greatest sorrow must be to see her son pass on before his time and before hers."

With the passing away of Mithran Devanesan, Chennai has lost one of its best-known figures in the English theatre scene.

Smoke signals

Mithran departed the stage of life with aplomb. He worked until one week before he passed away. The last time Mithran himself performed was at a reading compiled by him titled "Smoke Signals." We need to "read" the signals of the legacy that Mithran has left behind and for us to pick up and take to the next level.

Mithran and I go back 30 years, a time when he would come to our home and the family would sit around the table chatting till late into the night. In short, Mithran has seen me from my "pigtail" days. As time went by, I was enveloped by his family and became a fabric of their household. Christmas/ birthdays/ angst/ coffee / tea or just all of us was the way the home of Mithran's functioned.

Nanda, his wife / his mother aunty Savitri (now 95 years old), all gave me much love and support and generosity that is close to my heart. This amazing household took in people anywhere and everywhere, to love and nurture during times of their need. One must say that this was evident as could be seen by the flowers and wreaths that filled Mithran's home on hearing of his demise.

Mithran, I am sure was thrilled, that he got a full house as usual at the church service and as all his plays, this too went off without a hitch. I salute Mithran and I know, "you will live forever."

- Asma Menon
(Asma Menon is a Chennai based artist and print maker)

I am plastic surgeon working in England. I happened to read The Hindu online and came across Mithran's obituary. I knew him when we went to school in Bishop Cottons in Bangalore in the early 60s. We used to play cricket together. He was a classy cricketer and was a very good wicket-keeper for the school 1st eleven (I was not good enough even to make it to the 2nd eleven!) We had some good times together.

He was a prankster and liked practical jokes. I remember the time he brought a baby python (from his home collection of pythons!) and scared the living daylights out of Loco our Hindi teacher. This chap whose real name was Lokonath was a character-a nasty piece of work. Except the class nerds, none of the other boys liked him and we used to plan tricks to annoy him. Mithran had this brilliant idea of hiding the baby python inside his desk where he kept his books after he entered the class. Imagine his horror when he found the reptile. Mithran and I got evening and weekend detention for a whole week. The next week, we placed a bottle of hydrogen sulphide which as you know smells of rotten eggs. This annoyed Loco (who incidentally was a Brahmin-they don't mix with eggs!). We were not busted but guess what, we got the week's detention again!!

Mithran invited me to his home in Madras when his father was still the principal of Christian College. I met Mithran's parents. His mother was gracious and I enjoyed their hospitality.

My highlight was seeing their pet (well, actually awesomely huge!) pythons at close range. I lost touch with him and heard later that he joined medicine like I did. I was also aware that he did not complete his medical training. It's only now I have come to realise how much he achieved with his calling. I would like to convey my condolences to his mother, wife and children.

- Krish Kumar