Friday Review

A kitchen katha

FLUID: Padmavathi Rao puts out a stunning performance  

The Kitchen enters the work of Dhiruben Patel’s work like a tree of lights. The dark patches borrow from the shadows of light. The tree is rooted in memory -- of mothers, aunts and grandmothers. It is open to change, yet, smells, sights, love, warmth and desire to nurture form its journey, its continuum.

The Kitchen Poems is no metaphor, it is itself. There’s no shying away from the excitement of the bhakri, the mango, fenugreek, mustard, fresh vegetables, and the annual pickle making ritual – it is a world in itself, and it makes for the world too. Dhiruben Patel -- the 90-year-old outstanding Gujarathi writer – in her English work Kitchen Poems, pays a quiet tribute to the women who love their kitchen, and subsume their selves becoming caregivers and nurturers. With its unmistakable Gandhian overtones of community taking precedence over the individual, Dhiruben, without fuss or feminism, makes the everyday woman an activist in her own right. She keeps homes together.

In what could be called a perfect transition to stage, Padmavathi Rao’s solo performance of the Kitchen poems, directed by Naushil Mehta for Aantarya Film and Theatre House, was striking to say the least. The stage metamorphosed in our minds to become kitchen, dining and drawing rooms of different time periods, Padmavathi Rao glided smoothly in and out of these time frames to being the old woman, the little girl, a young woman, married woman and mother. Playing different age groups, she captured different perspectives on food and kitchen – something that changes with age and context.

Sample these lines:

I was a child no longer

I was growing fast

I had to raid the kitchen

At all unearthly hours

How a kitchen changes its colours

When the day ends and night begins

It is a different sort of place

The literary text, as well as the performance text, is subtle and textured. It creates a vast canvas for various kinds of feelings and responses, without romanticising or being hard on any of these many women. You could be this, you could be that, you could be a hybrid of this and that – defying types, Dhiruben creates a complex melange of emotional landscapes. Underlying all these is a vulnerability of the instinct to nurture. Her emotions are often conveyed by what her kitchen dishes out.

You almost begin to think that Dhiruben, in the initial parts, is holding aloft the “quintessential woman”. Read these lines:

Cooking is a wonderful thing

If you know it well

You need no words

To tell someone how deeply you love

Eyes widen with surprise

There is a flicker of a grateful smile

When he says “How nice!”

Communication is instant and complete

With no misunderstandings

No hurt feelings

The pleasure is plain and mutual.

However, you revise your opinion not just about the literary text, but also about many straight-jacketed ideas within you, when you encounter:

Why don't I ask him the same question

With an enticing smile?

Let us see what he says

Whether he realises what he wants

Three square meals a day

Every day of the week

With hardly a break

How many human hours does it mean

Of toil and moil without respite?

I think I'll say ‘No’ to his innocent question

Asked with an audacious smile

And scream till I'm all red in the face

“I don't know how to cook

Nor do I want to learn!”

The strength of the performance was clearly how the poems were rendered. Structurally, the poems are in free verse, but the actor was at remarkable ease with the text that it flowed unhindered by the form. Padmavathi, through her fine rendering, blending it fluidly with performance, not only captured the textures of the text, but also the inherent drama of the mind. She could with amazing precision capture the multiple selves of the woman. There are dark moments, ups and downs even in this believer, the kitchen woman.

This man of mine

His eye wanders at times

Enticed by a pretty face

I am not anxious

He is sure to come back

He cannot resist my food

Yet sometimes I wonder

Should I open the door for him?

Or just whisper

“Please go away?”

Sadness, sarcasm, irony and wit form the contours of the play. There is no “sthayi”, a fixed emotion, Dhiruben seems to say, for, the very manner in which the kitchen woman defines herself is by what she does for others. And so, the kitchen woman draws strength from memory, goes back to the kitchen of her childhood, a good old recipe, a hand-me-down sari so on and so forth. Like nature, there is that natural instinct to further, but the kitchen is also her inner space, a freedom and joy that exists on its own.

Microwave Ovens

Two-minute noodles

Pre-cooked food

Frozen fruits and greens

Man's never-ending crusade against time

Squeezes the skill out of my fingers

And solace from my heart

The performance, studded with old Hindi film songs work beautifully with the narrative. Kitchen Poems makes a deep impact on you because it refuses to intellectualise. It very quietly celebrates the ordinariness of the life of the kitchen woman and her inconsequential victories, so to say.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 12:35:03 PM |

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