Articles / Interviews on Mistress

The Asianage (9/27/2005)

When art is a metaphor for mistress

Bangalore: Fiction and research go hand-in-hand in Mistress, Anita Nair's latest book, which is scheduled to be released in Bangalore on September 30. At the outset, what is most conspicuous is Kerala, Nair's home state, followed by a coloured plot.

With a 90-year timeframe, Mistress is an absorbing story of two plots that run parallel, almost at the same pace. Shyam and his wife Radha run a riverside resort in Kerala and the plot thickens when Christopher Stewart, a writer, steps in to study the world of Kathakali from Koman, Radha?s uncle. The inevitable happens. Call it chemistry or a sense of longing, Radha and Christopher fall in love.

While this love triangle takes on interesting twists and turns, at another level, Koman's life unfolds itself, layer by layer, where the Kathakali mask itself is a metaphor, suggesting a veiled existence. Kathakali, the exacting, vibrant dance form of Kerala, may seem to appeal to a niche segment. But the author has given its colour and character an appeal that cuts across geographical boundaries. No doubt, training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music gave Nair cultural exposure, but when she began to appreciate the sonorous notes of Kathakali music, it set the tone for her novel, which she describes has many firsts to its credit.

The ambitious project, which took four years in the making, is her most satisfying and longest and book, spanning 426 pages. Through Mistress, Nair has offered readers a glimpse into the world of Kathakali. For the first time, Nair actually studied the art form by enrolling for a short-term course at Kerala Kalamandalam. Which justifies the true-to-life instances and Kerala Kalamandalam facilitated her pursuit.

The enrolment was done with an intention to study the art form, its subtleties and the green room where the magical-mythical transformation takes place. To that extent, there are exact references to a turmeric-indigo paste that makes a passable green. Of decoding the green room mantra, where faces are recreated ? which could be a god or demon. Of classroom scenes set in sylvan surroundings. And page 272 clearly defines the nuances of Kathakali. The eye practice session is for strengthening the eye muscles.

Kathakali is for men, it needs a man's strength and conviction. It has no place for static emotions. Even when you perform the coy Lalitha or the gentle Damayanti, your eyes will have to remember the rigours of all you have subjected them to and from that tutelage learn to be a woman?s eyes.

While the words are well chosen, a lot of thought has gone into the layout. It is categorised into three books, each containing three rasas, culminating in the ninth rasa ? Shaantam. Even this has a role to play, as the characters express a kaleidoscope of emotions associated with the art form ? right from the strong sentiment like love to detachment, which arguably is a state of philosophical sublime. In fact, even the storytelling technique has overtones of Kathakali, which enacts the drama of life. The uninitiated, however, is led by a Kathakali lexicon while Kerala becomes the inevitable canvas.

"Despite having written extensively about Kerala, one can still take a fresh perspective of most recognised locales," says the author. Kerala is the backdrop and the ambience comes through images like fireplaces, mullioned windows and antique furniture, and culinary references like murukku, fried chicken, tapioca chips and Guruvayur pappadum.

The world of art progresses, readers are then exposed to adultery in a contemporary marriage, of Shyam-Radha. Issues like low sperm counts which leads to dissatisfaction, are discussed threadbare. It leads to unrequited desire, what follows is a Radha-Christopher entanglement.

Perceptions of other couples, like Sethu's parents, are sharply altered. Sethu?s mother had never been a wife. She shared nothing of her husband?s life, except his bed. The title then comes as no surprise. "Art is considered a jealous mistress. For a man, a mistress is a validation for his self-worth, besides providing physical pleasure. At a literary level, a mistress is what Kathakali denotes for the artiste?s self-worth," she says.

Figuratively, Radha is a mere accessory thrown into Shyam's life," she says.

As the book is about relationships and straddling different worlds, mistress lent itself to the title," she explains.

Mistress raises a question about the Shyam-Radha relationship, which the reader has to comprehend. And this manner of leaving things unanswered at the end of novel is typical of Nair, as evident from earlier novels.






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