Tag Archives: artists

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

Standard

The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Don’t Compromise

Standard

Nearly a decade ago, I took some of the worst advice I’ve ever received. It was in the form of this unforgettable, but retrospectively mystifying, line – “You have to decide – do you want to be a full woman or a writer?” The person who said it was encouraging me to quit my job and be footloose and foolish, both nice and sometimes rewarding things for a young person to be. It was superficial advice without logistical backing, conveyed by someone not only with tremendous privilege, but who knew exactly what the effect on a vulnerable, hopeful person would be. It was cruel advice designed to ensnare: I would either choose “writer”, and suffer without grounding, or choose “full woman”, and simply leave the playing field. Either way, very little art would be made.

She knew I’d choose “writer”. I was fortunate to eventually be able to walk back some of my choices, and recoup some losses. But to this day, I’ve no idea what was meant by “full woman”, but an old note I found trying to work it out begins on an eerie and absolutely revealing line. “I don’t believe in sisterhood.” Certainly, the advice-giver wasn’t a fan of other women. So when she told me that it was alright to be financially dependent for the sake of art, what she was really saying was that it should not be possible for women to have full lives.

While I was still young enough to be living out that advice with relatively little consequence (there’s a finite period of time during which you can still do this; the trouble is that once you’re in the hold of that floating life, you won’t recognise when its expiry date has passed until your life blows up), I received completely contradictory guidance from someone who had equally wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t make art. She was not as eloquent as the earlier advisor, which is why only one line remains in memory – “You were younger then. You’re a woman now.” Funnily enough, this advice too had to do with being a woman. The advice was to “choose” to compromise making art for the sake of the security of a full-time job, and to also give up any hope of leaving a situation that did not feel like home. I was a little older, true, and so I recognised: the advice-giver, stuck in a painful place of not being creative, just wanted company.

These two encounters were far from the only ways in which people I’d cared about or respected tried to thwart my growth as an artist. They are good examples, though. The first encounter was with someone powerful, the second with someone who was also struggling artistically. Both harboured bitterness. They are also archetypal, and many promising artists meet them in the forms of mentors and friends along the way. They may be gatekeepers, artists or peers. Such an influence is partly why so many promising artists also disappear. When they offer you a trap that implies that making art is a sacrifice, self-indulgent or an obligation, remember: it’s not, and you don’t have to choose.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 14th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Even The High Priestess Has To Hustle

Standard

In the classic Sex And The City episode, “A Woman’s Right To Shoes”, Carrie – a successful, single writer – attends a birthday party for the child of an old friend. She is requested to remove her shoes at the door. When she goes to retrieve them as she leaves, she finds that someone with the same size and very little impulse control has strutted off in them. Specifically, in $485 Manolo Blahnik heels.

After a few days, Carrie sheepishly goes back to check if the shoes may have turned up. Her friend offers to pay for them, balks at their cost, tells Carrie she finds it ridiculous and gives her less than half instead. She thoroughly shames her for what she calls her “extravagant lifestyle” and compares it unfavourably against her choices: kids, houses and the like.

Carries leaves, feeling awful, and eventually comes to her senses: if she has spent large sums of money on gifts for this friend at all the “milestones” of her life (most recently, her child’s party), why does her friend begrudge the achievements of hers, just because they don’t involve matrimony and mortgages? She finds an ingenious way to prove her point that plays right into her friend’s bourgeois worldview.

I recently watched this episode again after many years and found myself quite emotionally invested in it. I identified with Carrie’s shame and indignation, and wished for myself her audacity in fixing the situation. Instead of stewing in a pot of polite resentment, as I’ve been doing.

In October, I had not one but two new books published: The High Priestess Never Marries and The Ammuchi Puchi. My social media feeds right now alternate between the evocative red of the first’s cover and the vibrant jewel tones of the second’s pages. But each time I talk or share about my books, I feel guilty and apologetic.

Because you see, ultimately, devotion to art is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of most of society. It’s the thing you do because you’re selfish. It’s the thing you do because you snub approved goalposts. It’s the thing you do because a girl like you with so much time on her hands needs a hobby.

I don’t believe any of that. But I’m affected by it. What a catch-22: if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have made the labours of love that I have made.

Why should I feel like I’m hustling when all I’m doing is showing you my heart? And my heart isn’t composed of hashtags, it isn’t crowdsourced attention, it isn’t app-friendly. My heart isn’t the hubris of overnight success, it isn’t borrowed or bought.

Not your baby’s first poop, but my baby’s first reader. Not my selfie of the day, but my selfhood, woven in words. Not a smile plastered on in hungover honeymoon photos, but the tears I wasn’t afraid to let anyone see. Not a posh new address on Papa’s money, but the sanctuary I am building with my own hands and the gifts and curses life gave me.

I cheer on the choices you make. Why can’t you cheer on the chances I take?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: All Scene, No Art?

Standard

I tried not to judge, but wouldn’t you roll your eyes at the words “colouring book workshop for adults”? Then came the real kicker – the fee. It was the cost of a nice 3-course meal for two at any midscale restaurant. And if that restaurant happens to be family-friendly, you’d probably get table mats to not just colour, but also do crosswords and matching puzzles on. Totally complimentary.

Of course, other people’s time and money are not my concern. The off-putting feeling was really about what passes for leisure-cultural activity in Chennai. “But this is interactive” is no defense: when listening to an orchestra, doesn’t one participate right down to the goosebumps on one’s arms?

Some time ago, at the launch of a very good book, I looked around at the meagre audience and felt deeply annoyed. Just a couple of days prior, there had been another reading by aspirant writers, and their absence meant a conspicuous lack of support for someone who had stayed the course and worked hard to gain their current success. I’ve noted this often, over the years: the desire to be read, heard, watched, admired, applauded – but a reluctance to offer the same.

So many burn out because they fuel only their ambition, not their sense of awe. Whenever I discourage someone from self-publishing a collection before sending even a single poem to a poetry journal, or chide them for not reading enough, it’s because I’ve seen a little farther down the path than they have. I speak from just the distance I have come so far, but this I know:  the journey is full of disappointment, rife with treachery, and one keeps on it through tenacity, humility and something I can only name as grace. If you demand an audience while refusing to be in one, you become the proverbial frog under the coconut shell. And so does the art you make.

But when I was asked when I’d last been to an arts event not directly related to my own field, i.e. literature, I couldn’t pinpoint one within the last three months. I posed the same question to other Chennai-based artists – when had they last had a cultural experience outside their turf? A musician was unsure – there’d been a photo exhibit in the last month but he couldn’t recall its name. A dancer knew distinctly that at least a year had passed since catching Ponniyan Selvan onstage. A theatre practitioner had attended a concert early this year. The person who’d asked me the question, also a musician, couldn’t remember. My own answer had been a cheat: I’d visited two heritage monuments in Karnataka.

This highlights the next level of the problem: professionals who don’t frequently cross-pollinate locally. Even if most of us privately, compulsively, consume culture through books, films and music, this doesn’t necessarily influence our collective milieu. As tempting as it is to blame Chennai’s sparse arts scene (with a few concentrated festivals a year, not a continuous buzz) I’d prefer to turn the onus on us: those in, and who want to be in, the arts. Let’s colour outside the boxes a little more, shall we?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tribute To Veenapani Chawla

Standard

One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”

As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight”, she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.

VP died on November 30th 2014, at 67 years old. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus. “There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti – certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was extraordinarily powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.

The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only twenty minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, my bones, those pepper vines, that soil.

I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied performance under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her – an offer she made me each time I saw her going for her laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible – both in its transmission and its nature. Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30 only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz – the answers to all of these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.

How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Launch of the Karadi Tales Audiobook, “A Quiet Courage”, Chennai

Standard

When I was living in Kuala Lumpur, my mother sent me a few books from India for my 21st birthday. One of them was “A Poem To Courage” by Manohar Devadoss – and I knew as soon as I saw the cover why she had chosen it. To my eye, and to hers, I resembled the woman in the line drawing on its cover. That woman was Mahema Devadoss.

The story of Mr. and Mrs. Devadoss is not unfamiliar to many in Chennai. Mr. Devadoss is a visually-impaired artist and author. Mrs. Devadoss became a quadriplegic following a car accident, but continued to draw and paint for several decades afterward.

It was truly meaningful for me to be asked to record the part of Mahema Devadoss in Karadi Tales’ new audiobook on the much-loved artist couple. “A Quiet Courage” will be launched in Chennai on August 7th.

mdd-1.jpg

The Tragic And Talented

Standard

Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.