FONDLY KNOWN AS ‘MAKEUP NANI’, the late BN Narayan, one of Bengaluru’s premier theatre makeup artistes and theatre mentors, had four protégés—all of them named Ramakrishna. Of the four, only one, Ramakrishna Kannarpady, stuck firmly with the art, even foraying into acting.
Kannarpady—or ‘Ramki’ if you’ve ever worked with him—stood with ease in the green room of Rangashankara on an evening in late March transforming a middle-aged actor into a much older man in quick brush strokes of clown white. It was several hours before the evening peformance of Naa Tukaram Alla was scheduled to begin and a certain calm penetrated backstage. This was the fourth run of the play at the theatre, and the cast and crew knew it well. Written and directed by S Surendranath, the Kannada comedy revolves around two elderly men as they come to terms with the realities of ageing in the city.
Ramki’s 40 years of experience in converting actors into characters has made him the city’s most loved, and most active theatre makeup artiste—and it’s easy to see why he is so sought after. His work is precise and effortless—and in a theatre milieu which hasn’t yet acquired professional status, Ramki’s fee is nominal. “I need to justify my costs in the work that I do. I ask the group I’m working for to pay me as much as they can, hoping the cost of the material will be covered,” he said in his gentle tone. As a minimum, R100 suffices.
When Ramki began his career in the 1970s, he discovered Avenue Road in the Central Business District of Bengaluru, where wholesale make-up from places like the British India Company was sold. He often bumped into colleagues shopping for costume material there, too. But Avenue Road, where he continues to shop for make-up, didn’t always have what he needed. So he often asked Nani for tips on economising and innovating. “Nani taught us how we could use empty boxes to create a series of foundation boxes of varying skin tones—before they were available,” Ramki recalled.
He had finished his work for the evening and, waiting in the green room for the show to end, continued to reminisce about his mentor: “Nani could find cheap and easy solutions for a set and cut costs drastically—something I’ve learnt.” Nani’s passion for make-up indelibly rubbed off on Ramki. “The very precise nature of make-up, its potential to evolve every day, every show drew me to it,” Ramki explained.
He had lost count of how many shows he’s been a part of—upwards of 5,000 is his best guess. Through it all, he’s witnessed a major shift in the culture of theatre. “When I first started, I did a heavy dose of Kannada mythological productions with elaborate make-up. I was still quite removed from the English theatre scene then,” he said. “Now almost all theatre groups across the board use minimal make-up. So many actors have learnt to do their own make-up—they realise the importance of having more than one skill.”
“Still,” Ramki said, “it has always been easy to get work—actors always need a basic amount of make-up under stage-lighting.”
In a career that has spanned four decades, he’s had plenty of challenging moments. Two of them came to him almost immediately: “One was some time in 1985, when I de-contoured the face of an actor called Sudarshan in a Bangalore production of The Tempest. The other was a play called Sleuth adapted and directed by Pavan Kumar a few years back. After the interval, one of the actors had to reveal his real face under a mask.” Ramki created a latex mask made to fit the actor’s face, which he could peel off at the appropriate moment. “It took a few weeks to get it right, but the audience reaction to the revelation made the task worth my work.”