The house was being painted. And the painter turned out to be a real chatterbox who jabbered incessantly. Not only would he talk non-stop he would also insist on active listening. Attempts to ‘mmm…’ through his anecdotes were instantly greeted by energetic ‘Are you listening, Madam’ queries. Not to say that all of his stories were boring. He did have interesting anecdotes to narrate. After much silent eye rolling among other family members I was (predictably) designated official listener. He painted and chattered and well, I listened. All grist to the writer’s mill, I consoled myself.
One day he was particularly annoyed with his wife since according to him she had this ‘mad’ hobby of painting on tiles. He had my attention immediately. It is a topic I’m perennially interested in: how do creative women survive a middle class environment? Does their creativity flower in spite of the crushing burden such environments place on them? Do they end up in a madhouse? Or in front of some black magic practitioner who would exorcise their art out of them by beating them to death?
All my readers would have doubtless come across this You Tube video. It shows a woman singing the famous A. R. Rehman song ‘O Cheliya’. There she is, wearing an ordinary sari, sitting on the front steps of what seems to be her home, holding on to a used paint bucket as she was obviously in the middle of household chores when someone had the brilliant idea of recording her. How flawlessly she renders the difficult song! In the background children can be heard at play. A cock repeatedly crows. The improvised curtain behind her flutters in the gentle breeze. (If you haven’t seen this video, here is a link.) How did she manage to practice her art amidst all the mind numbing chores that a patriarchal society heaps on her? Did she feel guilty indulging in her art as it took time away from her ‘duties’ as a mother, a daughter-in-law, a wife? Perhaps it helped that she was a singer and it is not considered unfeminine to sing. Her story has been updated and now we are told that she had been offered an opportunity by a famous music composer in Telugu. That’s heartening.
But how do such women survive? How do they keep the lamp burning through all the drudgery and the pressures that a patriarchal society puts on them? In the midst of all the cooking and the cleaning and the looking after the young and the old of the family, how do they deal with the urge to give vent to their creative instincts? How do they practice their art? How do they cope with the desire to better themselves? The story of this woman – whose name is Baby – has taken a positive turn if the social media are to be believed. But is that the case with all women who are creative? I don’t think so. For every Baby or Ranu Mondal whose life takes an unexpected positive turn there are hundreds of others whose creativity is repressed.
The patriarchal society fears the creativity of a woman. Not just a creative woman, every creative person is feared because they are different. What is not understood is reviled and scorned. Especially, if it is not along accepted lines. A woman who is a highly creative cook may be valued and encouraged. Well, they say it is a woman’s job to cook, isn’t it? And if she willingly wants to spend hours in the kitchen experimenting and perfecting her craft it is indeed a bonus. None feels threatened. Her creativity is along acceptable and traditional lines. Or maybe she can draw beautiful rangolis or kolams. Or sing well. But what if the kolam drawing shifts to abstract paintings? What if the singer who sang traditional songs and bhajans and made everyone proud suddenly wants to experiment with jazz or grows ambitious and wants to perform in front of larger audiences and not just at kitty parties and family get-togethers? What if the mother of the family who had the harmless talent for mimicking her guests, aspires to become a professional actress?
Under these circumstances it is always interesting to know how women deal with their own creativity. It is astonishing how creativity among women is feared not just by others but also by the woman herself. Because it is feared it is repressed. Or society tries its best to build narratives around it in order to make it more acceptable. Thus an MS’ devadasi origins were sought to be erased from public memory and she had to be repackaged as a divinity. What did she feel about the whole process? What did she feel about having her husband draw out the list of songs to be sung at a concert? No one will ever know because she was so much of an enigma and rarely expressed herself about this even to her closest friends. So effective was the image building that more than a decade after her death when the vocalist T. M. Krishna wrote his wonderfully nuanced article about her, it was treated as nothing short of blasphemy. One can still read the vitriolic comments that it generated.
At this point one is reminded of a comment that Usha Uthup once made on a TV music reality show where she was one of the judges. She regretted that because she had an unconventional voice none of her musical peers on the show would compliment her on her singing. They would praise her, she said in a voice filled with sorrow, about her ability to sway audiences, about her ability to hold the mike correctly but never would they tell her that she sang well. An artist needs validation from her peers. It is important for her artistic development.
So what does patriarchy do to creative women? At best it tolerates them; at worst it completely destroys them. How then do creative women deal with their art? How do they nourish and further it within the claustrophobic confines of the system? It would be very interesting and illuminating to know.
Hence I request my readers to respond to this question in the comments section. Please write about either your own experiences or about the people you know. It would be great. You can also email me to the address in the ‘about’ page. I assure you that any information that you provide will be kept confidential. Looking forward to your responses, eagerly.
Read more articles in the Random Musings section of this blog.