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Prefects of the backstage

SHALINI SHAH
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FASHION At the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week three professionals were busy restoring order to the most disaster-prone place at the venue — the backstage

BEHIND THE CENTREThe task of a backstage manager extends beyond one departmentphoto: reuters
BEHIND THE CENTREThe task of a backstage manager extends beyond one departmentphoto: reuters

It is to their credit that not many outside the industry know they exist. Even in the high-visibility world of fashion, there are people whose job is to shun the limelight to ensure that those in front of the flashbulbs look picture perfect. Within popular perception, the tasks that make-up artistes, set designers and choreographers perform are, relatively, well-defined. The backstage manager's role — chiefly as the link between the designer and choreographer — is a little more complicated, though. It starts days before a show kicks off, with things boiling down to ensuring a certain sense of order during a very chaotic 20 minutes that a show generally spans. Things might look smooth, but it's because they've been made to.

At the just concluded Fall/ Winter 2012 edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in New Delhi, backstage managers Vahbiz Mehta, Pujan K. Sharma and Nazneen Parakh have their hands full.

As Mumbai-based Vahbiz details, a backstage manager doesn't just handle one department. It starts off with matching the models with outfits during the fittings sessions, making sure the designer's vision is interpreted as he or she intended and then involves cueing the models on stage. “We work in tandem with the choreographer,” says Vahbiz. So if a choreographer calls a model out too soon, the backstage manager intervenes to see that the model gets more change time. This besides, of course, managing the entire team backstage.

Each of the backstage managers is in charge of a different pool of models and they are assigned their shows according to the designers the models are assigned to. This time, Vahbiz managed the backstage for Rohit Bal, Abraham & Thakore, Rahul Mishra and JJ Valaya's finale show, to name a few.

“We arrive four days before fashion week. We do all the fittings for all the shows in those four days. When the show starts, it's basically hair and makeup, a quick rehearsal and show-time!” says Vahbiz, an industry veteran of 17 years who's been working with the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) since its inception.

Delhi-based Pujan K. Sharma too has been associated with FDCI right from the beginning and besides WIFW also works with the couture and men's weeks organised here. The former school teacher joined the industry in 1995, when she was hired by choreographer Harmeet Bajaj. “I worked exclusively for her for five years. That taught me what it is to be a backstage person, because I had no background, I was not associated with the fashion industry in any way…,” recalls Pujan. Pujan was behind the scenes at the shows of Manish Malhotra, Rocky S., James Ferreira, Anupama Dayal, Shantanu & Nikhil, Monapali and Charu Parashar, besides Valaya's finale with Vahbiz.

Worst-case scenarios come in many forms. “What goes on backstage during show-time — between the green room and the stage — there's no accounting for it. A zipper could go off, a button could pop open, pants could not go on, alterations may not be done correctly, a model might refuse (during the show) to wear them because she doesn't want to go out and have a wardrobe malfunction on stage. The possibility of anything going wrong is endless,” says Vahbiz. Experience, she says, ensures that disasters are anticipated and dealt with.

Pujan has her own list. “Worst-case scenario is if a model has entered in the wrong outfit. There cannot be a bigger disaster than that for me. So the alertness level is very high. You're on a headset, you're cueing, you're constantly in tandem with the choreographer who's talking to you on the headset. Everybody's on their headsets. There's a lot of noise going on in your ear. At the same point your eyes have to be monitoring the cue sheet, making sure you send the right person because the choreographer is only saying, ‘Next, next, next'. If you have sent in the wrong person — if my team members have not been briefed properly or if I have not monitored my green room — then you have ruined the show!” she says. “Sometimes,” she adds, “with the pressure if the choreographer has had some issue on the console with the music not played or the light not going on, you're suddenly left on your own and you realise that you must send the next person in.” With the headset providing the crucial and lone link between the backstage manager and choreographer, a headset malfunction proves a big enough nightmare. “Your link has died out and the choreographer is not even close by. So if you've not paid attention at rehearsals it becomes very difficult. You can't peep out and see what's happening. Then you have to base yourself on a judgement of timing and the send the model on. You're multitasking right there, just before the entry point. So it's serious, it's tedious,” says Pujan.

Mumbai-based Nazneen Parakh, who's been in the field for 13 to 14 years now, this time worked on the shows of Tarun Tahiliani, Kotwara, Anju Modi, Vineet Bahl, Preeti Chandra and Dev r Nil, to name some, at WIFW. According to her too, ensuring that a model doesn't walk out in the wrong garment is the thing to look out for.

The general anonymity is never an issue, they say.

“I'm glad not many people know about it because it's a lovely job to do. Especially for me, because I'm married and have kids, and the job involves me physically out of the house only three days and then I can be home. I get to devote time at home, and I get paid very well for the time I'm out of the house. I can carry out all my work through phone calls, like when I'm doing the bookings. It's flexible. I get to choose the days I want to work,” Pujan explains.

“The only thing is, for the younger people today, it's not a job you aspire or grow into because you don't get the fame, you don't get the name. You're the unsung hero at the back. Of course, within the industry people love you and they give you a lot of respect and everybody is your friend but outside the industry people don't understand what a backstage manager is. So, if you have a chip on the shoulder it's not a job for you. But I love my job… love it.”

Also, as Nazneen, points out, backstage managers are there in other fields too — theatre, for example. Vahbiz echoes Pujan's belief. “I know what my work is. The designers want us, choreographers demand for us. They know how much they need us, and that is gratifying enough for me.”

SHALINI SHAH

Worst-case scenario is if a model has entered in the wrong outfit. There cannot be a bigger disaster than that...

Pujan K. Sharma

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