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Another love of P.J.Cherian was theatre for which he devoted his life money and time. Very early in his life while in Madras in 1912 he was interested in plays, and frequented the plays performed by the drama companies of T.S. Parameswara Aiyar and G.S. Munniswamy Naidu, like ‘Harischandracharitham’. Parameswara Aiyar was Harischandra and Munniswamy Naidu, Chandramathi.
On his return to Kerala 1913 he kept up his interest in theatre even while practicing painting. While in Thrissur on the occasion of the annual celebrations of the Gokhale Memorial Association, the English play ‘Julius Caesar’ was performed and Cherian enacted the role of Mark Antony in this play. Apart from this, to collect money for the war fund, he put up a cultural programme in the government training school at Thrissur . This programme was held under the supervision of the abdicated king and the king of literature Appan Thampuran. Besides these two dignitaries, the Kochi Diwan Sir Joseph Bore and the Police Commissioner M.A. Chacko were among the audience. He was able to donate a substantial amount to the war fund through their programme.
On returning to Njarakkal from Thrissur in 1919 Cherian built a temporary theatre in the compound of his house. With the co-operation of the main actors in Malayalam, Cherthala Govindankutty Nair, Platton Kuttan Pilla and Swaminathan, plays like ‘Saadaram’, and ‘ Naishadam’ were enacted with tickets. Even though there was not much profit, yet the benefit was that the common people were able to see excellent actors and see good dramas at a low price.
He broke new ground by initiating permanent theatre in Kerala with artistes being paid monthly salaries. The fact that he pioneered the concept of permanent theatre was not only for excellence and professionalism, but also to ensure that the artists and employees get monthly salary to take care of their needs thereby guarantee their commitment and livelihood which ensured the success of the venture. He considered all artists and actors his own family members. All their family issues were shared and taken care of. Women did not hesitate to join his troupe as they were treated with respect and almost as a family member. Mostly the drama practice was conducted in his own house where practice for music and dance will start early morning. The family members would be serving them snacks and coffee and also help in which ever way possible.
While in Madras to establish a painting studio, in 1924 his passion for theatre made him organize a cultural programme in the Madras Museum Theatre as the convener of the drama wing of the Malayali Club in Chennai for flood relief in Kerala. Later due to his efforts many Malayalam plays “ Viruthan Sanku’, ‘Indulekha’ and ‘Kalahinidamanakam’ were enacted in Madras during short intervals. Thus the Malayali Club was able to increase its capital. His love for theatre made him join the Tamil Drama Troupe Suguna Vilas Sabha under the tutelage of Rao Bahadur Sambanda Mudaliar, Sri.V.C. Gopalaratnam and others around 1926. Thus he acted in English and Tamil Plays.
He established the Royal Cinema and Dramatic Company - a permanent drama theatre in 1929 with his nephews as partners. V.S. Andrews was playwright and many renowned actors like Sebastine Kunjukunju Bhagavathar, Ochira Velukutty, Palaniappan Mathappan, Ochira Chellappa Pilla and Thiruvambadi Pachu Pilla was permanent employees with monthly salary with costumes, props, stage settings and background curtains which was painted by Skandan pillai his student who later became a famous set designer. This was the first ‘sthiram nataka vedi’ (permanent theatre) in Kerala. They enacted plays like ‘Parudeesa Nashtam’, (Paradise Lost) and ‘Gnanasundari’. Also did musical plays like ‘Nalla Thanka’ , ‘Kovilan’, and ‘Savithri Sathyavan’. The plays were performed three times a week regularly in a city and then move to another city thus covered entire Kerala. During those days, there were very few native drama troupes. There were almost no such troupes under Catholic ownership. This dramatic venture in 1929 was a bold and adventurous step. With the staging of these plays Kunjukunju , Velukutty and Mathappan became popular names in theatre. They rented a house for the actors to stay and learn their parts, and a small hall to stage the play. In the drama camp, Andrews master had the job of teaching and rehearsing the play and Mr. Skandan Pillai had the charge of arranging the scene settings and background curtains in the hall.
In 1931 they enacted the role of Kuruppu Asan in the play “Keralaputhran” on the occasion of the annual conference of All Kerala Sahithya Parishad in Maharajas College under the supervision of Appan Thampuran. In this drama the king’s son, Emayakumaran is kidnapped by Adikaman, the sea pirate as per the orders of the Pandi kings. The army chief goes disguised as a fisherman and floating on a log of wood, goes into the sea, sinks the ship and rescues the prince. The stage arrangements that Cherian made to show the army chief floating into the sea on a log of wood, astonished the audience. Many literary luminaries like Ulloor, Vallathol, Mavelikkara Udaya Varma Raja, Dr.L.A. Ravi Varma were present among the viewers. Cherian was complimented by all including Lakshmikutty Naithyaramma, an art lover, for his acting as well as stage setting.
A new drama company called ‘Sanmargavilasam Nadanasabha’ was started in 1934 again with V.S. Andrews as playwright and tutor. They presented plays like ‘Paduka Pattabhishekam’, which was staged at Thripunithura and Chertala . It was also performed in Maharajas College, Ernakulam, under the supervision of Diwan C.G. Herbert for raising funds for Bihar Flood relief. Many family members including Cherian’s daughters acted in these dramas. Sri. P.R. John, who was the senior correspondent of “Malayala Manorama” in Thiruvanthapuram, an excellent actor and expert in dramatics, became a major actor in the troupe and also its secretary.
Regarding their performance, the literary writer A.D. Hari Sharma wrote in the ‘Malayala Rajyam’. “A special feature of this drama troupe is that except for one or two members, all the others are the members of the same family. This has been done deliberately to disprove the notion that only those who stray away from the path of morality and goodness join drama troupes, and to enrich the dramatic tradition in Kerala. …. the dramatic sensibility is innate in the Cherian family. Mr. Cherian’s and his brothers’ four daughters aged between six and ten, appeared in the scene in Dasarathan’s court without any stage fright and enacted their roles beautifully which enraptured everyone. Mr. Cherian who is the owner of the famous Royal Studio has been focusing on his drama troupe for some time … Their main intention is to enhance the sense of morality and righteousness among the public. Mr.Cherian who has even neglected his profitable studio work for such a noble purpose should be complimented.”
‘Nasrani Deepika’ also wrote a complimentary article about the play. “This play which portrayed the admirable aspects of the Indian culture like the importance of truth, affection for children, respect for the father, love for brothers, care of the husband, chastity and patriotism in a crystal clear manner needs to be admired. ‘Sriramaranyayatra’ is a Hindu story; the actors enacting it are members of a Christian family. If their first attempt at acting is so great, can there be any doubt that their future will be glorious?”
The next drama chosen was ‘Mishiha Charitam’ in 1934 enacting the Life of Christ with Cherian donning the role of Christ and many members of his family as part of the cast. Many Christan religious leaders writers and artists including poet Vallathol praised the very touching portrayal of Jesus Christ by Cherian this drama. In this drama too along with other family members four girls below the age of twelve—his own and his brothers’ daughters--acted as angels. Till then only men had taken part in our plays. The participation of these little girls was a deviation from that practice. Their acting was much praised by the viewers. Their compliments proved that playacting is an informative and delightful past-time. The stage settings matched the story and was very innovative. Apart from religious leaders, many writers and artists also encouraged this venture. After seeing the play, the great poet Vallathol who had the authority and the knowledge to utter a verdict on drama wrote to us saying, “ I have read the holy story of Lord Jesus Christ in the Bible. I have also seen pictures. But today I saw His Holiness Christ himself in real life on the Kalamandalam stage. Artist P.J. Cherian is an dexterous painter as well was an actor and his portrayal of Christ will make everyone feel that it is Christ himself and make them kneel in prayer. If anyone asks me who is the foremost drama actor in Kerala, I will say without doubt that it is Sri. P.J. Cherian. His son is also a good artist following the path of his father. I wish all success to this drama troupe.”
One year after the Njarakkal Sanmargavilasa Nadanasabha was started, it split into two. One part under the supervision of Cherian’s elder brother, Abraham, performed to the north of Ernakulam, and the other under Cherian, performed southwards. Cherian’s drama company learnt four plays—“Vedaviharam” (the Old Testament), parts one and two and the two parts of “Mishihacharitram”. Both these plays were written and taught by Andrews master. He travelled with the troupe as a member. In “Vedaviharam”, the fall of the angels as Parudeesa Nashtam,( Paradise Lost) , Cain and Abel, Abraham’s sacrifice, ‘Purvajoseph’( Joseph, son of Jacob), Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, Solomon, Virgin Mary’s wedding--these were the main subjects.
During this time on hearing about the singing abilities of a young worker in a coir company in Kochi named Augustine Joseph, (father of the renouned singer K.J.Jesudas) Cherian went there and accepted him in their troupe as a singer-actor. While rehearsing the play, another young singer-actor Vaikom Manikuttan Nair expressed his wish to join them. Thus they got two excellent singer-actors. Thus, during that time, Augustine Joseph and Manikutan Nair became famous as singing actors. They performed the plays innumerable times at all the major towns between Ernakulam and Nagerkovil and in all the coastal villages between Kollam and Nagerkovil. The plays were performed continuously from December 1st to May 31st. They received much accolades and compliments while it was also a financial success.
In 1937 Cherian made an attempt was made to make a drama based on Mahathma Gandhi’s struggle for freedom for which E.V. Krishna Pillai, the first editor of Malayala Manorama Weekly prepared the script but he passed away before being able to complete it. In 1939 when Appan Thampuran wanted to convert the novel Bhutharayar into a film under the direction of Nottani, Cherian was chosen as one of the actors along with Komalam, heroine of ‘Balan’, S.P. Pillai, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair etc. but this venture failed due to lack of finance. Another attempt was made to make a film out of the story of C.V.Kunjuraman called Srikovil , under the name Kerala Puthri which too became unsuccessful due to problem in funding by a Coimbatore based financier.
Around 1944 Cherian fell into financial difficulties again when the functioning of the new studio slowed due to the war and the income from the property at Njarakkal dwindled. Many of the instalments to be remitted for the loans taken from the Government lapsed and there was pressure to repay. The government was threatening to use the Revenue Recovery Act to recover the loans. To placate the Government personnel, Cherian staged a political drama “Samara Samrambam” at Ernakulam Maharaja’s College for raising money for the war fund with a hastily gathered group of actors. It was performed in the presence of and under the responsibility of the Diwan of Kochi, Mr.Dixon. The Government gave an extension of four more months to remit the money. By that time, at least Rs.2000/- had to be remitted in the treasury. During those days, it was unthinkable to raise Rs.2000/- within four months.
At that time ‘P.J.Cherian and Party Sanmargavilasan Nadanasabha’ under the management of his son Joseph Cherian enacted plays Fabiola (St. Sebastine) with script written by Keshavadev and Yogeendran ( St. John the Baptist) written by Ponkunnam Varkey and Mishiha Charithram, in which Cherian’s daughters Achamma and Thresiamma enacted the main roles of Virgin Mary, Mary Magdeline, Fabiola and Sarah. Many shows were staged successfully in towns like Alapuzha, Kollam, Thiruvanathapuram, Nagercoil and nearby villages in the coastal areas. The drama troupe got good support and encouragement. The audience enjoyed the roles of St. Sebastian, Judas etc played by Joseph Cherian. Under Joseph Cherian's hard work, the performance of the drama troupe was a huge success in the southern region of Thiruvithamkoor. With this success they were able to raise the amount required to repay the loan and astounded the officials who were waiting to use the Revenue Recovery Act, by remitting Rs.2000/- in the treasury in two to three months.
In 1945 gramaphone recording was done of the historical parts of plays like Yogeendran, Mary Magdalene, Passion of Christ at H.M.V. recording studios at Madras for commercial purposes. They received good profit from these recordings for two to three years. Religious leaders like the Varapuzha Archbishop, Dr.Joseph Attipetti, the Ernakulam Archbishop Dr. Augustine Kandathil and the Thrissur Bishop, Dr. George Alappat commended this venture.
Mean while in 1951 Cherian’s eldest son Joseph Cherian, besides his studio work, started a drama company named ‘Joseph Cherian Nataka Company’ and enacted social plays like Hridayabandhanam, Dambathyam and christian historical plays like Mishihacharitram, St. Xavier. Cherian’s other sons also actively participated in this venture. While his second son Cherian, portrayed the serene dignity of Christ and the role of a haughty, short- tempered high Portugese official in “St. Xavier” with equal virtuosity, third son Paul also helped with acting, management and scene setting. His fourth son Alex enacted the role of St. Xavier with great originality and also entertained the audience by performing comedy roles. This company was joined by several famous actors and actresses from Kerala and the performances of this drama company were great success. The fact that these plays were well received everywhere, and in press reviews in Kerala, pleased Mr. Cherian who was in Madras making ‘Kanavu’ a Tamil Cinema.
In 1957 Cherian’s nephew, P.A. Thomas started a Drama Company named ‘Keralakala Samithi- Ernakulam’ enrolling famous actors and actresses. That same year they performed two plays, “Rajaputrakankanam” and “Sampoorna Misiha charitram”. Cherian was requested to play the role of Christ in “Misihacharitram”. Thus after a gap of 12 years, he appeared on the stage again as Jesus. The part of Judas was played by his son Joseph Cherian. The scene where the greedy and deceitful Judas after betraying Jesus, appears depressed and insane, and tries to commit suicide, created waves in the audience. In 1959, In the play “Tipu Sultan”, Cherian enacted the role of Nana Phernavis.
During the Vimochana Samaram of Kerala in 1959 against Marxism and Communism, he established a drama troupe called Save India Theatres and performed a political play by Sri Mathew Edamattom called “Anayatha Deepashikha”. In 1961 he enacted a drama “Thee Pidicha Chitrangal” about art and artists, during the annual function of Chitrakala Parishad. This play was performed again in 1964 to raise funds for an art gallery in Ravi Varma Painting School in Mavelikkara. Cherian was nominated in 1961 as a finance committee member of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Member by the government where he was to prepare a budget for the akademi and to recommend grants to the Kala Samithis of Ernakulam District.
In 1962 Cherian directed a play by N.P.Chellappan Nair titled “Kshirabalasahacharadi Kashayam” which was enacted in under the auspices of Kerala Fine Arts Society for Onam celebrations. Over and above the directorial work, he enacted the role of the old, stingy, wealthy Vikramanunni and became the object of everyone’s appreciation. Cherian wanted to encourage young children to take part in theatre. In an article titled “Vinodathiloode Vigjnanam” (Knowledge through Entertainment) published in Malayala Manorama (10-06-1962) he mooted the idea of integrating education and art which he believed goes hand in hand n building character of children . But the education system does not support this and there aren’t any Kala Samithis in Kerala which take interest in training the small children in stage acting in the proper way. It was to find a solution for this that he published an article in ‘Malayala Manorama’ where he advocated imparting knowledge through entertainment.
In 1962 he initiated a new venture of performing biblical stories in ballet form, in the unique format of a dance drama. In 1963 in a joint venture with Shri Guru Gopinath founder of Vishwa Kala Kendram he performed Sri Yeshunathacharitham as ballet. In the words of ‘Kerala Dhwani’, “It opened a new chapter in the fields of art and culture in Kerala”.After seeing this ballet, Sri Mathew Ulakamthara M.A. wrote in the ‘Malabar Mail’: “---with the appearance of Artist P.J. Cherian on stage, the other characters seemed to become insignificant. This 73 year old artist made the viewers experience the divinity and grandeur of Christ. From now on, the musical dance drama will gain in seriousness. Christ does not dance on stage. But along with the flow of background music, with moderate movements that do not affect our concept of Christ, Cherian master was extremely successful in enacting his role.” “ --- the best of themes, great artists, praiseworthy direction, enjoyable music – all these harmonise in this ballet to present an art form that can be enjoyed by any Keralite.”
Kerala Kalamandalam is an institution started by Mahakavi Vallathol in the year 1930, to revive art forms like Kathakali, Ottamthullal and Mohiniyattam Kerala. Government reorganized this institution in the name of ‘Kerala Kala Mandalam Academy of Arts’ and Cherian was elected as a member of this Academy in 1963. The Lalitha Kala Akademi General Committee also elected Cherian as their representative Member. Thus he had the rare opportunity to be appointed a member of the three academies out of the four.
A monoact callad ‘Bhayankara Vadamvali’ enacted by Cherian, in 1964 during Indo-Soviet Cultural Conference in which he played multiple roles of a toothless old father, as the old man’s daughter and as the daughter’s Muslim lover held the audience spellbound. Mathrubhumi dated (10-01-1964) reported this thus, “Sri. Cherian, was able to enthrall the audience including the Russian delegates, and earned their special praise”.
In 1965 Cherian was awarded the Navarang Award for his contribution to Malayalam Theatre. This award was presented to him by Padmabhushan K.P. Keshavan, Chief Editor of Matrubhumi at Kottayam. In the same year Pope Paul VI bestowed upon him the title of the Chevalier the Knight of Gregory, taking into account Cherian’s services in the field of art and to society. He was invested with the symbols of the Chevalier title by the Ernakulam Bishop Cardinal Parekkatil at a meeting at the Bishop House. In recognition of his prowess in acting Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in 1969 honoured him with an award and a gold medal which was presented by the Governor of Kerala, P. Vishwanathan at aspecial function organized at Tagore Theatre in Thiruvanthanthapuram. In 1966-67 he embarked on the unique venture of creating a children’s theatre where he gathered children under the age of 14 from many families and made them enact many plays and other cultural programmes, to develop their hidden potential and aptitude for art. The parents, some of them from very eminent families, had no hesitation in entrusting their children varying in ages from 4 to 14 to him for dance and drama practice in which his grand children also participated. The themes of the performances were based on religious unity and those with a social message along with entertainment. Here again his purpose was to imbibe certain value systems in the children along with enhancing their artistic abilities. This childrens theatre group called ‘Kunjikkalukal’ (the little feet) enacted many plays including the Life of Christ in ballet form for which Sri Mathew Ulakamthara wrote the lyrics and Sri Shadow Gopinath choreographed and trained the children. His grand daughter, Rita played the role of Virgin Mary.
In 1968 Cherian established an organization called ‘Srikalavedi’ which was constituted to enact dramatic Biblical stories and the story of Christ and tell them through the medium of dance drama in different places in the state. Under the auspices of this organization, “Viswadeepam” (Christucharitham) written by the famous writer, Sri. Mathew Ulakamthara was presented on stage through dance and song. Cherian took up the post of technical advisor of the historical play ‘Vincent de Paul’ planned by Kalabhavan, Ernakulam in 1972 at the age of 82 years. He even acted the role of Cardinal Beroli in this play. In 1972 he inaugurated the Arts Club in Maharaja’s College where he learnt his first lessons in painting and acting 60 years. In 1979 two years before his death in 1981 at the age of 90, he was given the Chavara Cultural Award.
Nearly 25 years after his death Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy acknowledge the contribution he made to the world of drama and theatre by bringing out a monograph in 2005 entitled ‘ Nataka Lokathinte Dhruva Nakshathram’ written by Sri. A. K. Puthussery. In 2010 P.J.Cherian Foundation