The stage is bare, the lighting is low. Rocky, my wild raccoon buddy, turns to me and says, in a loud whisper, “Is it going to be scary?” I tell him to shush. Art has to be allowed to take its time.
We’re at a performance of Stories by Hand by Preeti Vasudevan, presented by the Prakriti Foundation for their New Festival 2018. The Prakriti Foundation is a Chennai-based platform for a broad spectrum of the Arts. Its creative director is the remarkably dynamic Ranvir Shah, a long-time friend. Today he’s invited Rocky and me to join him at this evening’s event, at the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts. Alongside us is Ana Lamata, art historian and milliner. Rocky wants to know what a milliner is, but before I can tell him, the show begins.
She appears out of darkness, a slender woman wearing black-on-black tights and top, sitting on a bench with her back to us under a single spotlight. She brings both her arms behind herself and, with the palms facing one another, claps her hands. The effect is mildly surreal: A flesh-coloured lotus bud opening and closing? A headless person clapping? “I’m scared!” Rocky whispers again. “Don’t be,” I tell him.
Vasudevan is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer who uses some of the gestures of the form to tell contemporary stories. It’s a very bold enterprise, building an entire hour’s performance out of just her own body, her voice, the drama of light and darkness, the music, the bare stage and her deft on-stage costume changes. The stories she tells are personal — of a grandfather fading into eternity, a grandmother released from a long marriage, a young woman transiting between marriages, Ganpati-puja festival-dancing and, finally, a cousin in Los Angeles who chose a shocking path out of his private anguish.
It’s a powerful performance, riveting from start to finish. Rocky is totally captivated. He adores the costume changes, especially: “She’s so beautiful!” he gasps. Vasudevan appears with a long plait behind her and a crown of jasmine flowers atop her head and then, with the assistance of two young women, casually transforms herself into a classical dancer. She ties on a few pieces of silk-brocade, adds the bells (silenced) to her ankles, make-up from a make-up box held open by an assistant and, ta-daaa! She’s transformed into the familiar gorgeous figure we associate with classical dance.
“I loved every bit!” Rocky exclaims. He can’t wait to attend Lamata’s talk, part of the Festival, the next day. It’s at the Park Hotel’s Agni Restaurant and bar, for a small, intimate audience. “A milliner makes hats,” I tell Rocky. Lamata’s hats are “bespoke”, one-of-a-kind pieces. She talks about x-rays and their effect on the art world of the early 20th century, accompanied by slides. “Brilliant,” sighs Rocky contentedly, as we leave. “You understood all of it?” I ask. “No,” he says, “but I enjoyed it anyway!”
Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column
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