Kaveri Lalchand’s official bio notes that she is an ‘actor-dancer-cook’ but a more comprehensive description might read ‘actor-dancer-cook-designer-publisher-entrepreneur’ and if you were looking for more nouns to describe her they wouldn’t be hard to find. Traveller is one – she was in Mumbai when she did this email interview with the Sunday Times but is now in Sri Lanka, just in time to perform her one woman show, the hugely successful off-Broadway hit ‘Laughing Wild’ by Christopher Duran, at Colombo Scope today.
“There were many things about the play that resonated with me,” Kaveri says of the piece that introduces a woman living in modern, urban America, a life that for her is populated with rude taxi drivers, inane talk show hosts and the selfish people who block the aisles in supermarkets. “I grew up in urban India, lived in New York in my early twenties for a few years…it didn’t matter what part of the world you were in but the insecurities that arise, the confusions, the turmoil that the woman is going through are quite universal in urban living.”
This won’t be Kaveri’s debut on Sri Lanka’s literary scene – she’s been here before, representing the very unconventional, very interesting Blaft publishing house at the Galle Literary Festival. Their first book ‘The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction’ complete with an appropriately eye catching cover was a success that led to a series of publications, most recently a title of Hausa pulp from Nigeria called ‘Sin is a Puppy that follows you Home.’ Kaveri, who clearly nurtures an eccentric streak, loves the name. “Blaft started out of a passion, an excitement and a genuine belief that popular fiction written in Indian languages should also be translated into English,” she says, explaining that she and co-founders Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Devadasan are all “gung-ho about Tamil popular culture.”
Rashmi is a filmmaker and has worked in the commercial Tamil film industry for years. Rakesh, an American mathematician from U.C. Berkeley is South Indian at heart and likes all things local. “I am a North Indian, born and brought up in urban South India and very proud of being from Chennai,” finishes Kaveri. A weakness for pulp fiction unites the trio. “The stories are fantastical, improbable, clever and crazy written by extremely prolific writers who were almost cult figure heads amongst their readers,” she says explaining that Blaft would often expend a great deal of energy in signing these authors and then bringing the books to press.
The books themselves are works of art, very much in the model of the originals. The challenge they rose enthusiastically to meet was translating not just the text but the whole cultural experience into English. “We have included advertisements, drawings, cloth ties, colour pages of images and book covers, appropriate book marks etc.” says Kaveri. “We tried to be as authentic as possible.” (They recently tied up with Tata-owned publishing house, Tranquebar and now co-publish most titles with them.)
Absorbing though it is, Kaveri has an active life outside Blaft. For a while she ran The Madras Terrace House in Chennai, a perfect hybrid of cosy boutique store, gallery space and event venue, café and community centre. The heritage building which housed the store was recently torn down forcing Kaveri to close up shop but I detect a note of lingering attachment when she describes it: “there were high red-tiled roofs with sky lights, thick walls, beautiful doors that lead from one room to another, that made for a very interesting walk-through gallery space, performance platform, venue for book and film clubs and book launches.” (She once staged an exhibition of artwork created by Tamil children in refugee camps.)
The store stocked, among other things, a line of clothing designed by Kaveri herself. With a father who worked in the garment export business and a mother who was fascinated by Indian textiles, Kaveri says the love of fabric and design is in her genes. “I grew up in a home hearing about pattern cutting, warp and weft, fabric, embroideries and designing was something that came very naturally to me,” she says. As a teenager, she designed her own clothes: “I would cut up bed covers, wall hangings, break apart and reattach jewellery pieces. Use wire in my hemlines and collars of my shirts so that they would stand out in different directions…” Now her label K exports garments to Greece, Australia, America and Germany and is available at Cotton Collection in Sri Lanka.
“I feel clothes should be comfortable. That is the main philosophy behind my clothes,” says Kaveri who recalls more than once looking on pityingly as a girl at a party complained of holding in her tummy as her clothes were too tight or worried about her top riding up too high or slipping down. “How can you have fun when you are worried about things like that?! The clothes I make sit well, fit comfortably, are funky, stylish, ‘intelligent’ clothes. They are different, yet not over the top and very user-friendly,” says Kaveri.
She loves to work primarily in linen and describes her designs as “contemporary in form, the silhouettes are inspired by traditional costumes from across the globe – China, Japan, India and Mexico.” The patterns are as varied as their designer’s interests: everything from dragonflies to Mayan symbols. Kaveri designs her garments so they’re easy to customise and likes to add touches that make each piece unique.
Though Kaveri is clearly adroit at juggling her many passions (she counts old buildings and meditation among them) the first line of her bio reveals something of the joyous curiosity that seems to fuel her success. It begins: ‘Searching for signs of the dramatic in life…’ Now, you know the rest.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on March 24, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Kaveri Lalchand