Articles / Interviews on Mistress


Sunday, November 6, 2005

On integrity in art


Anita Nair on her latest novel and the `sweat and blood' behind writing...

"IT was around 2000-1, while working in an ad agency that I saw this Kathakali dancer who was being taken around in a Tata Sumo to various agencies. Like some kind of performing animal. My heart went out to this man and the humiliation he must have felt after giving eight to 10 years to learning this complex art. And I was provoked into thinking — What are the compromises that an artist makes in order to survive? That question was, in a sense, the catalyst for Mistress, and a recurring theme in it."

It is an issue Anita Nair feels deeply and strongly about. Just turn to pp. 416-417 in Mistress to hear an echo. Of the sense of betrayal Koman feels when he sees the pure traditions of Kathakali being corrupted to give it popular appeal. "I can live with the notion that an artist has to do other things in his own field to keep his body and soul together. Like a classical musician singing film songs for a living. But if he compromises on the classical music traditions to make it popular, that is sad, it isn't integrity. Don't dilute an art form; instead cherish and nurture it."

Financial compulsions

You encounter this in every art, including writing, she says. "Here it takes the form of lowering standards to make it saleable. A writer may write a book that's naturally saleable — by the book's karma, by a certain magic it unconsciously brings into being, say, it sells well. Second, some writers choose to work within a genre with a large and ready readership like romantic fiction or thrillers. The genre has certain formulaic elements, tried and tested in their saleability. There is an honesty there and more power to their pen and their bank balances. I myself have had a long stint in the ad world that I frankly disliked but it gave me the freedom to write my fiction the way I wanted it. But I would have found it hard to live with myself if, to ensure publication or greater acceptance, I chose to write in a way that wasn't mine. If I allowed myself to be persuaded into introducing certain elements that might make my books more saleable or change the storyline to make it more acceptable. Whatever form one chooses to write in, artistic integrity demands we retain honesty and not masquerade it as something else."

But there is an impression gaining ground that it is both an easy and paying proposition to be a writer today. All those emerging writers, the front-paged news about huge book advances, Page 3 pictures of book launches, TV interviews, the celebrity status and attendant aura of glamour... "Yes, more writers are getting published today thanks to more publishing houses, and writing is also more paying, given the slick marketing (often on an international level) and larger audience for English writing in India. The increased media reviews also mean more exposure, if not fame. Also, if you get published abroad, thanks to the exchange rate and wider readership base, you earn substantially. Speaking for myself, I would say it is possible to make a living out of writing. But then my books have had international releases and sold well everywhere."

"However, many of these new impressions about writing can be deceptive," she points out. How? "You see all that the average reader gets to read about it is the supposedly huge publishing advance. As people in the trade know, sums tend to be exaggerated and who is to know the truth except the writer, the publisher and the agent? And often, that money may be for worldwide rights. Second, the reader sees the writer as having entry into a hitherto inaccessible world surrounded by glamour. It creates a false impression both to the aspirant writer and the average person who sees writing as akin to the world of high fashion/ TV. What is perceived is the glamour and not the sweat and blood that goes into the book, and thereafter, any disappointments that may follow. With writing becoming so fiercely competitive, the wide-eyed indulgence that greeted writers about 10 years ago is now replaced with eagle-eyed caution. Believe me, it needs a great deal of courage to send what is so very personal a creation into the public domain. There is no knowing how a book may be received."

Hype has its limits

She continues: "Again, marketing hype and ploys can at most sell the first book for you. Readers are not sheep, they are good judges. The readers will not return to the author a second time, unless that author has spoken to them. Lastly, a few big successes get publicised but for every successful writer there are 150 struggling ones."

Finally, the inevitable question at the end of any interview. Is she planning another book? "Of course," she laughs. "What else do I do with my life?"

Future projects

She is working on two books, and conceptualising the third. "The first is the second part of World Myths and Legends. The second is a children's book about a shy, introverted, pre-teen boy who strikes up a friendship with an elephant who comes to live next door. It actually started as a story I used to tell a nephew of mine. Everyday I had to continue the story and thus it evolved. And one day I thought, why not turn it into a book? The third will be a novel but very different from Mistress. Not as complex or expansive. Something light, frothy and bubbly. I like to experiment with different genres. And I need to recoup my energies after such a demanding book as Mistress!"

Clearly, her own art of writing too can be a demanding mistress.





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