Kumin Chirippu - The Smile of Siva

Staged by S.B. Creations, the play Kumin Chirippu is based on the issue of idol thefts. The stage opens with newspaper clippings of several idol theft cases. It is a racket where unsuspecting people are drawn into it, and a bigger cartel passes on our precious idols outside the country. Well-known archaeologist, historian and scholar R. Nagaswamy had testified in a legal battle, and some idols were fortunately restored.

Drawing inspiration from these occurrences, the playwright Sujatha Vijayaraghavan has woven a story around the theme, which has been told powerfully by the director, S. B. S Raman. One scene moves seamlessly into the other, and every act has been well thought out and presented precisely.

The cast is perfect, as though each person was made for the role. The digital backdrop for the scenes, the village, the farmland with the well, the jail, and the courtroom has been perfectly created and visualised. Two identical Nataraja idols were sourced from Giri Traders.


The story is set in a small village, Rajanallur, where a bronze Nataraja idol is recovered while a well is dug. Kumaraswamy, the owner of the property, is overjoyed with this divine blessing and takes the idol to the stapati Manickam achari,  for it to be cleaned and restored. On hearing about this, Roger Williams, an art historian, visits the village stage to see the icon and takes photographs of the original idol. His passion for pieces of art brings him to the remote village. This is an aspect to be noted as much of our art remained undocumented, and while we appreciate them in our temples and museums, we never realise their true worth until idol thieves start playing their role!

There are unscrupulous people waiting for opportunities, and the achari falls into the trap and lure of money. He is asked to create a replica to give it to the owner and part with the original. The achari creates a look-alike, and he sees the icon as a piece of art. However, he is not fully satisfied with his own work, as he has not been able to recreate the ‘kumin chirippu’ – the smile of Siva.

While the storyline is simple, Sujatha’s narrative draws our attention to social structure as well as the behaviour of the people. The stapati belonged to a traditional family of idol makers, learning the art from his father, who was a master craftsman. He talks of the idol being a Chola bronze that is more than a thousand years old and was probably created by his ancestors. The writer subtly brought out this concept of traditional arts being handed down through generations. Social issues of family strife with remarriage are also dealt with in the conversations between the stapati and his daughter Chellama. Manikam Achari receives a huge amount with the idol deal and buys his second wife a heavy gold necklace with the gold value being 70 rupees for a sovereign!

There is some anachronism here as the play is set in the 70s when gold prices were much higher. The achari also wants to give his daughter and son-in-law a share of his newly found riches, but she refuses and does not want to be part of his ill-gotten wealth. She also makes snide remarks about her stepmother.

The achari is later shown suffering a stroke, suggestive of the law of karma; one must face the consequences of one’s actions. At every stage, the stapati is remorseful, and a feeling of guilt is gnawing deep inside. Fast forward, there is a legal case, and the museum that purchased the bronze is asked to return the idol. Roger Williams testifies as a witness and shows his photographs of the original that he had seen at Rajanallur many years ago. It was his documentation which ultimately helped in solving the case.

The idol is brought back and taken to the village and temple to be consecrated. There is relief, rejoicing and celebration as crowds gather to witness this joyous occasion. The play has a combination of music and dance. The rich tone in the Tevaram renditions and the bhava-laden music of Vijay Siva and T. S. Ranganathan give it a spiritual dimension. The Nataraja idol comes alive with the Ananda Tandavam of  Nideesh Kumar. Bringing in a dancer when the idol moves is a unique concept, however, it could have been done more gently and less dramatically.

The different characters in the play act their roles to perfection. Manikam Achari, characterised as the gullible stapati who is later torn by guilt,  was played by Raja Mansingh, the landlord is portrayed by Sathya and the inspector is Sethu. Radhakrishnan plays the impressive role of the art historian Roger Williams and manages a perfect accent throughout. Dharma Raman plays the role of Manikam achari’s daughter and Mala Rajendar, the coy second wife. All the supporting actors fit into their roles perfectly.

Bharadwaj Raman, the grandson of legendary vainika S. Balachander, has done the music and sound design. Charles has taken care of the lighting, and Perambur Kumar, the make-up.

Reminiscent of the story of King Muchukunda identifying the true Somaskanda murti when Indra presented him with seven identical sculptures created by the divine architect Vishvakarma,  Sujatha’s story makes it clear that the duplicate can never match the original. The interesting twist to the story by Sujatha is how the original idol was differentiated from the replica. The enigmatic smile of Siva, the kumin chirippu, gave it away (Nataraja ultimately had the last laugh).