Tonight, I had one of the best evenings in a long time. Zena Edwards, performing artist and poet, performed at the British Council to an indifferent audience. (Exempt me from this please! I was nodding my head and moving my hands and feet to the Carribean beat!)
AquaM couldn’t make it to the show so I had one spare pass and no one to go with. Since this was such a niche thing, I knew not many people would have liked it. So asking just about anybody would not okay. Then it occured to me that Anupama might be interested and called her. And I am so glad that she made it. We reached so early in the evening (18:46 said my cell phone: the performance was stated to start at 19:00) that though the Courtyard was ready there were no people in it or even nearby. So, Anu took me on a tour of what she called the “bookless library.” The reason was that the British Council in a frenzy to modernize itself, had left out the important part of stocking up on good books. Which was true as I saw for myself. In the old BC, there were high bookshelves full of books. Now, I saw more space, all around and light weight moveable shelves! Well, BC was kind of a very moody collector of books. Long ago, I wanted to read “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth and couldn’t because they didn’t have it. Apparently this moodiness has become a very permanent affair. They have, according to Anu, taken to throw away classics because they are “old”!
After walking around spending 10 minutes looking at the booklessness of the library, we saw people in the Courtyard. So we headed there and found a place for ourselves. And then I looked around and found a rather young-at-heart crowd with silver hair and Kanjivaram sarees who had come to enjoy the young international artist from London. I was wondering, where were the young people for whom this was meant? Her poetry was like an heady combination of spicy ingredients from around the world in coffee. Would the filter-coffee drinking crowd appreciate her? Slowly, very slowly, and much later the young people trickled in.
The seating arrangement was with round tables surrounded with chairs. hardly had we sat in when Renuka Rajaratnam and Tai Chi George joined us. George is such an interesting character! Six-foot George, it seems, had pretended to be an 8 year old boy and gotten himself to attend the workshop that Edwards held for kids from 2 to 5 in the afternoon. And proceeded to regale us to the percussion-focused workshop which he could “observe.” I couldn’t believe it! My jaw literally dropped. Hell, why can’t I be an “observer” the next time!
Edwards, of Carribean-American-British heritage, started with an easy familiarity asking everyone to respond to whatever she said. She said “hi” and a murmur of hi’s spewed from the audience. Adjusting the two mikes placed in front of her, she said she wanted the energy to flow from and to the audience. Rightaway, I liked her.
Her tall frame, her straight dreadlocks (I know it sounds like an oxymoron but I swear she had straight dreadlocks!), her model-like body all created as much poetry as her words did. She would start with telling us a little about the poem she was about to read and then plunge into it like an expert diver. The cadences of rap, jazz, rock, hip-hop, salsa flirted with rhymed words to surprise the listener. I couldn’t make out exactly where her explanation stopped and her “reading” of the poem began. It was all so fluid.
She read out long and short poems but both were characterised by the use of repetitions and the music of words. She started with the party at “Amy’s house” providing all the sound effects herself. But one piece particularly stood out: it was the one about the old man who on a hot day while wiping his forehead with his kerchief remembers one passionate salsa dance with a rather hot-looking woman. When she was doing the part of the old man her entire demeanor changed, her husky voice slowed down, her body took on a different character than when she was doing (I cannot use “reading” she was retelling as well as acting from memory!) the young man in his prime who put his hand gently on the woman’s waist “like caressing the neck of a swan made of porcelin” and stirred up passions heating up the hot dusty pavement and planting envy in every one of the onlookers who wanted a tiny drop of that kind of passion, her voice was young, peppy, and sassy. I was transfixed. And as far as I could see so was everyone else.
Edwards also touched upon the musical tradition of her African roots by breaking out into a soulful number which blended music with poetry. In one of the performances, she simulteneously played the kalimba (or as the Europeans call it the thumb piano) along with opening up her voice touching high notes in her poetry. In yet another rendition, she talked about the two sisters who come together after a period of separation. Somewhere in between she also sang “She’s got the whole world in her hands” but adding her own twist it dedicating it to the women of the world. Finally, she did a Carribean creole number where she used different kinds of laughter as a recurring refrain. That surely was an outstanding climax to the whole evening.
After I received a memento, one among the 5 chosen ones of the evening (an accident, I assure you) from Zena, Anu spoke to her for a while. Actually, Anu was not that keen but Rati Jafar, the BC Art coordinator insisted. A little chitchat later, I said that I felt that she should have been on the same level as the audience but Anu thought that by being on a platform, she was visible. A few people were waiting to talk to her so we left her alone. Apparently George said that she had just flown in from Sri Lanka at 5:00 in the morning! What stamina!
On the whole, it was a great evening, with great company, and a great performer!