He is calm, she is animated. He is shy, she is outspoken. He loves his own company, she is always the centre of attraction. He is calculated, she is spontaneous. He always dresses down, she dresses up. He enjoys reading, she hasn’t picked up a book in a long time. He is noted for his austerity, she fancies luxury. Yet, the companionship between theatre personalities Rakesh Palisetty and Nisa Shetty reveals more than their glaring paradoxicality.
They belong to the next generation of the creative world’s uber-couples for whom power comes from being together and leveraging their common backgrounds. Their identity lies in embracing their unique individualities, despite being in a marriage and pursuing different paths. Unlike their counterparts from the last generation and before, these couples are brazen in their expression and delight in their idiosyncrasies. The arts are not a career, it’s a calling. It’s not a profession, it’s a passion.
Then and Now
Theatre actor Nisa spent a lot of time in the company of her grandparents—theatre veterans Jalabala Vaidya and Gopal Sharman. She closely observed people and ideas change. Back then, ‘power’ had different meaning. It didn’t denote an aggressive display of proficiency. Rather, it was a subtle display of virtuosity, played down with elegance. Today it’s all about money and influence, she believes. What constitutes power has stretched to include those beyond influential business houses and faces of popular cinema. “The most important change has been the advent of social media that’s given the new generation a potent platform to express themselves,” Nisa says, adding, “Perhaps the most welcome change is seeing both sexes treated equally.”
Communication among power couples has become more open today. The practice of giving and receiving immediate feedback has helped them reduce conflict and gain more from their lives.
Jab They Met
Nisa remembers meeting her husband Rakesh for the first time. He had walked into Akshara Theatre hoping to find a job. Instead, he found love. Nisa and her team were looking for somebody to play Lakshman for their upcoming Ramayana, the legendary production started by Gopal Sharman. Rakesh was in the theatre, hoping to find a job as the lights person. He didn’t know that the perky receptionist had been eyeing him, before calling the green room and saying, “There is a tall and handsome boy at the reception. I think your search for the perfect Lakshman has ended.”
The connection between Rakesh and Nisa deepened while playing lovers in the intensely romantic depiction of Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara. “I fell for her voice,” says Rakesh.
There is a preamble to their love story. Delhi-based filmmakers and Nisa’s parents, Ajay Shetty and Anasuya Vaidya Shetty, are not ones who overtly express what and how they feel about things, but beneath their mature and perspicacious demeanour lies a tale of young love.
Ajay had arrived on the sets of a television programme called India Alive as a cinematographer in Episode 3, that Anasuya was filming. They had fallen in love by Episode 7 and decided to make it permanent by Episode 13. “Subsequently, we travelled a lot for work, sometimes for 36 hours at a stretch. That initiated the discovery between us,” says Anasuya.
Several years later they started their own production house SaaReeGaa Productions, and have made many television programmes and documentaries together since. Anasuya feels happy that wives have an equal voice today.
Today’s power couples in the art world have big shoes—or Kolhapuri chappals—to fill. With doyens such as Paramjit and Arpita Singh, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, Jitish and Reena Kallat, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Paresh Maity and Jayashri Burman dominating the art scene, the younger ones are challenged to strike a new path.
When Samit Das and Mitu Sen met, the energy that brought them together came from their individual commitments towards art. They fell in love at the Bolpur railway sta
tion in West Bengal. While studying at Shantiniketan, they would frequent the bustling station to sketch, though separately. The principal of the school became concerned for Mitu’s safety, knowing that she often stayed back after dark. She advised that Mitu should get someone to accompany her. She couldn’t think of anyone besides Samit, whom she was used to seeing sitting quietly in a corner, sketching.
“I went up and asked if he would escort me back to the campus. He agreed. And just like that, we started cycling together daily though there was no romantic involvement. Until one day, when he disappeared,” she says. Those being pre-cellphone days, Mitu became anxious. It was unnecessary. Samit, who hailed from Jamshedpur, had only gone home. He returned a few days later. Mitu met him at the station. She couldn’t contain her excitement. For the first time they talked for hours, because somewhere inside they both knew things had changed for them. “I told her, ‘in sab baaton pe dhyaan mat dena. Just focus on your art’,” shares Samit. Neither followed the advice. And they are glad they didn’t.
Working it Out
The jury is out on whether couples are better off following the same professions or not. But many are victoriously cashing in on the Power of Two. Painter and sculptor GR Iranna and Pooja Iranna affirm that. “As artists back then, we had little money. The art market hadn’t exploded like it has today; so we accepted our humble situation and the burden of living with the tag of jhola chaap. But we stood by each other and it all seemed okay,” says Iranna, smiling. Today his studio floor speaks a different language, a very colourful one at that. The times are a-changin’ for them.
The only difference lies in their mediums. Iranna works with paint and canvas, creating sculptures and installations, while Pooja works with toothpicks, wood, textiles—with digital elements interspersed often. They had met at the Delhi College of Art while pursuing their master’s degree in Fine Arts. They married in 1997. “I was slightly hesitant to speak to my parents about Pooja. I come from a small town in Karnataka, and here I was asking them for permission to marry this girl from North India. But everything went off smoothly,” smiles Iranna.
Collaboration often increases the risk-taking ability of couples, making each individual’s abilities shine right through. Decision-making is more error-proof and liability is shared. Authors Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha were able to dream up this ‘impractical life’ of writing at the cost of everything else, keeping at bay (only barely!) anxiety about the future.
Along with her husband, Devapriya has co-authored the critically-acclaimed The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat. She remembers how the unresolved angst about modern-day life and its imperatives compelled them to start this risk-filled but fulfilling journey. Putting their meagre savings into the research for the book, they set off. “At another level,” Saurav points out, “hearing studio experts debate the changing nature of India is futile, given that many of them belong to the highest levels of society and are often divorced from ground-level truth. We wanted to see the land for ourselves, meet those whom we might ordinarily not have met, chat with them, swap stories and document it all on the pages of our book.”
They’re already working on a sequel called Man. Woman. Road., which will document the couple’s bus journeys from Delhi to Kanyakumari. After that will come a third part set in the eastern part of India.
Diversity brings about a pleasant ambiguity, allowing various interpretations to exist in harmony among art’s power couples. In the presence of creative differences, there is a certain maturity in accepting other points of view. Artists Prasanna Nagarajan and Benitha Perciyal exemplify this principle.
Their personalities are as different as their mediums of work. Benitha works with sea shells, seeds, fossils, wood, mud, and often, sarees, curtains and pieces of cloth serve as valid surfaces for her to manifest her vision. Nagarajan works with mixed media and photographs. In this difference lies their strength.
For other couples, love alone is not enough. What is needed is a burning desire for a life of artistic glory. They are, in fact, fond opponents, showing the mirror of creativity to each other. “We’re each other’s fiercest critics,” says artist V Anamika. It is a habit that she and her husband, N Ramachandran, picked up when they were studying together at the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai. Ramachandran had arrived to study art from his village Paramakudi in Tamil Nadu. That’s when he met Anamika. For a couple who said marriage was incidental, it is ironic that they had three ceremonies. “A court marriage, followed by a ceremony for my family, and then one for hers,” says Ramachandran.
Ideas Worth Sharing
Syed S Pasha and his wife Mahiraa Jaan do not stand on ceremony, pursuing their creative hearts. Mahiraa met Pasha when she came to assist him in his therapeutic theatre production for persons with multiple disabilities under
Ability Unlimited, the world’s first professional dance company to innovate classical dances on wheelchairs. She could have been just another woman to have walked into his studio, had she not worn her compassionate heart on her sleeves. Pasha and Mahiraa today play parents to their differently abled artists. “She is called ma and I am called pa,” says Pasha, unaware of the alliteration.
The couple has wheeled in a multitude of concepts on stage. From yoga presentations, Sufi dance, Bharatanatyam and martial arts, they have stretched their imagination to incorporate ideas that challenge deformity. After staging stellar productions such as the Bhagavad Geeta, Durga, Shiva Tandava Stotram, Bollywood and more, they have also extended their purview to human resource training programmes for corporates.
For Pasha, Mahiraa is the breath in his work. When shows stopped coming their way and they incurred financial losses, she sold her jewellery to pay salaries for their differently abled students. “I can’t forget that ever,” he says.
But Mohammad Ali Baig remembers it all. Being born into theatre but running away from it all. Idolising his father, Qadir Ali Baig, theatre veteran. Reliving the pace and the temperament of ad films, which obsessed him the most. On his father’s 20th death anniversary, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and some theatre luminaries got together to pay a tribute.
At the ceremony, there wasn’t a single dry eye, recalls Baig. “They spoke about Baba with such respect that it compelled me to realise that the work I was doing for global brands, was only glamourised, minus any depth,” he says.
Later, Baig was invited to form a foundation in his father’s name with the purpose of reviving theatre in Hyderabad. Today his theatre is a blend of art and commerce. He has performed at some of the most reputed theatre venues and art festivals in Edinburgh, Herisson, Turkey, the US, Canada and Pakistan—in forts and palaces, stadiums and five-star ballrooms, open arenas and intimate circles. His wife, Noor Baig, is his greatest admirer. He’s also her mentor.
The thing that glues the two together is their inherent value system, common interests, ideological and Sufi leanings. From music from Algeria and Morocco to Barmer and Nagore Sharif, to cuisine such as Mediterranean, Neapolitan, Thai and Deccani, and love for nature and affinity towards unpretentious people, they share a lot in common.
Challenges are plenty
Sharing does not always come easy to power couples driven by their muse. Creative conflicts might seem the most common bone of contention but lack of personal space, power struggles and emotional tussles are rampant. “We tend to micromanage each other’s deadlines, anything to distract one from their own deadline,” jokes Saurav.
Ego is the biggest villain for Ajay and Anasuya. If you don’t learn to control the ego, it will control the relationship, shares Ajay. You also tend to take work home and never go back ‘home’ from work, points out Baig.
It is quite natural to forget boundaries while being extraordinarily involved in a project.
Flautist Nathalie Ramirez, who comes from the green and humid southeast Mexico city Xalapa, is in the process of working out a balance between work and personal life. Her musician husband, Nikhil Mawkin, and she travel a lot. “It’s easy to get sucked into the routine of work and we end up too tired to go out when we get time off, that too rarely,” says Nikhil.
Had it not been for Nathalie’s parents coaxing her into learning an art form, she wouldn’t have become an accomplished musician. She started learning transverse flute when she was seven. After getting a bachelor’s in art, she moved to India to study North Indian classical music, particularly the bansuri. “I started performing with different ensembles,” she says, adding, “I was surprised to meet Nikhil, who played drums and sang his own songs, some of them in Spanish.” When they met, he suggested she play in his projects and she happily took up the offer.
No Holding them Back
Such offers taken up are turning them into record-keepers. Saurav is working on The Nexus and the New Normal, a book on the connection between economic growth and the nexus between energy, food and water. His wife, Devapriya, is doing a graphic novel on the life of Indira Gandhi, along with artist Priya Kuriyan, for the former prime minister’s centenary year. Saurav has also just launched the new venture Delhi Defence Review, an online publication covering and analysing military matters.
“We’re at the apex of our creative energies, and as we work on our products individually, we gather strength from the other’s presence,” says Devapriya. Baig and Noor’s lives on the other hand seem more dramatic than the rest.
They are on tour with their production, 1857: Turrebaz Khan. Baig’s debut Tamil film Aruvi, in which he plays the lead of an NSG commando specialising in anti-terrorist operations, premiered at Shanghai International Film Festival in 2016 and won an award for Best Film on Gender Equality at MAMI Mumbai in the same year. “Guest lectures at foreign universities and interactive sessions for civil services officers are lined up, after which I will start curating the annual Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival—now in its 12th edition—June onwards,” he says. Noor, in the meantime, is completing a biography on the life of Rajasthani painter Satyapal Varma, along with working on a millennial comedy.
For Nisa and Rakesh, it’s all about being the students of the year. There will be more work than play. The Ramayana for Our Times will be their big new production scheduled for the coming months. And by the end of the year, Pasha and Mahiraa will take the stage with 100 artists, including many differently abled using both wheelchairs and crutches as part of Inspiring Wheels, a celebration of cultural equality. This production will make public places and auditoriums accessible for persons with disabilities through visual graphics and animations. And just like them, for each of the other couples, their art is a triumph of their spirit, and the heart.