Why we need the spirit of Angelou
Akshara Theatre’s latest interactive weekend session was a breath of fresh air and reason enough to look back at history, says Saurav Kar
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
These lines are from Caged Bird by poet Maya Angelou, who was remembered lovingly by impassioned members of the Akshara Theatre over the weekend. Angelou’s 86-year life span is a dramatic arc of surviving as a Black woman in America, from times of oppression, poverty and discrimination to being hailed as America’s foremost poet. Thespian Jalabala Vaidya took the lead in reading excerpts from her biography and works, ably supported by Kanika Aurora and Sunit Tandon.
Sharing her views about how Maya Angelou is relevant in the Indian context, Vaidya says, “I think Maya Angelou is very relevant to us in India because we do indulge in and experience racism on a day-today basis and sadly I have to admit that. I think she is a shining example of overcoming discrimination by being a person of pure character, an excellent writer and loving the world. I think it is very necessary to love the world in whatever shape, size and colour it comes in and that is what we can learn from Angelou.”
Talking about the lack of acceptance of Angelou’s works in our academic and social discourse, she says, “I am sorry but I find that there is not enough of her in school and college curriculum. I think there should be much more appreciation and understanding of her so that we can analyse our own emotions and responses in our cultural context. I don’t know why again there is racism behind it. But I hope that the programme we have done today will help get her the curriculum on different platforms.”
Lending the event a euphonic aura was Vaidya’s grand daughter Nisa Shetty, who belted out various songs of the legendary Ella Fitzgerald from the 60s. Be it Summertime or her hilarious piece of Stone Cold Dead in the Market for all the husbands at the event, the songs added a lively dimension to the tribute. Along with that, Shetty went on to showcase her phenomenal voice with Caged Birds and Natural Woman.
The tribute was not just about memories. It was intended to invoke the phenomenal spirit of a person who beat all odds to stand tall. Imagine a tender girl raped by her mother’s boyfriend overcoming the trauma to be heard as a distinguished American poet, memoirist and civil rights activist. She became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub dancer and performer, cast member of the opera Porgy and Bess, coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and journalist in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonisation of Africa. She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies and television programmes. Angelou still reflects the boldness of what today’s women can acquire in their lives.
Kanika Aurora, one of the artists, brought out a lesser known but important aspect of Maya, which was that she was a cook too. Cooking her two favourite dishes on stage, she displayed how easily women can get into the shoes of any profession.
These interactive weekend sessions at Akshara are indeed a fresh breath in claustrophobic times. As Angelou summed it up so well, “I deal very little in facts, facts can obscure the truth, you can tell so many facts you never get to the truth, you can tell the places where, the people who, the times when, the reasons why, and never get to the human truth which is love and pain and loss and triumph.”
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