The man who creates shadows
He makes Donald Trump's face as effortlessly as he carves Indira Gandhi's. Meet noted hand shadow artist and ventriloquist Sati Achath, who believes in having fun with faces
It's a rare occasion when Donald Trump and Mother Teresa's shadows are cast on the premises of Le Meridien Dubai. A sprawling lobby transforms into a setting for a hand shadow performance. Minutes into unpacking his equipment, lights and props, Sati Achath recreates various public figures for us. Donald Trump, he says, is the current favourite among his audiences. Banking on the American president's flyaway mop and big nose, Achath creates a shadow that is unmistakably Trump. "Basically, his distinctive features are puffy hair and a sharp nose. To create his hair, I put three or four fingers of my right hand in a way that gives the impression that these are protruding. For the nose, I put my left thumb, facing down, and manipulate the chin." Achath makes this seem deceptively simple. He spends hours looking into his subjects and devises ways in which audiences can identify his protagonists.
Achath, who originally hails from Thrissur, Kerala, and currently works for the World Bank, is not new to the world of hand shadows. More than 20 years ago, he had opened America's eyes to the forgotten art by performing on Late Night with David Letterman (and, a decade later, on America's Got Talent). Stunned at his finger manipulation, Letterman told him that he is the master of hand shadows, a proud moment that remains etched in his memory.
American publications, such as Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, echoed the view as they anointed him one of the few practitioners of the art. Many years later, that space may not be as crowded as Achath would have liked, but he continues to play a leading role in raising awareness about hand shadows through his performances. In fact, he has even written a book on the subject, titled Fun With Hand Shadows.
At a time when entertainment is, literally, at one's fingertips, Achath's hand shadows transport one to nostalgia. It's a reminder of a time when an empty mind led one to fantastic places. It surely led Achath's father C.K. Menon, who was an Indian government employee, to realise the potential of the art. Stationed away from his family for a couple of years, his father developed a nightly pastime of making hand shadows with considerable help from the light that came from a street lamp outside. Soon, the said pastime began to command an audience as he began to perform at public events. At one such event, a young Achath saw his father perform alongside famous Malayali singer Yesudas in front of an audience of 800-1000 people and was left bedazzled. It created a memory of a lifetime.
It also meant that Achath would be wedded to the art for the rest of his life. Learning hand shadows from his father was easy because he was already drawing illustrations. Growing up, as he loaded up on degrees (bachelors in sciences, followed by masters in literature, followed by another masters in international relations and several more), the artist in him flowered too. In fact, a part of him wanted to become a professional cartoonist. "It didn't work out because you could not make a living out of it," he says. "Since I was good in studies, I followed a different path."
The shadows, however, refused to leave Achath. It was during his World Bank stint in the US that he began performing. Those were the times when his American audiences would be left in splits at the silhouette of another American president - Richard Nixon, he of the pointed nose and receding hairline. Back home, it was the shadow of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi that drew applause. For someone who maintains that his work does not have political overtones, it's the shadows of political figures that have inspired maximum accolades (even though he routinely recreates animals, the rabbit being quite popular among his audiences). Achath acknowledges that he has never even tried being consciously political, owing to his early years in the Indian Revenue Service when he was also drawing illustrations and caricatures. Being a government employee, his work couldn't be seen as representing a strong political statement. Thus, he brought the same ethos to his shadows.
Today, it's the silhouette of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi that audiences have grown to love. "I have also been showing hand shadows of Bollywood actor Dev Anand smoking, which is a big hit. He wants to quit smoking, but cannot."
Can any face lend itself to a hand shadow? Not really, says Achath. There are various factors at play. The angle of the light is the key, as are small details that can make or mar the image. "It's a constant process of improvising," says Achath, who has been in this journey for more than 30 years.
Achath with his puppets Shilpa and Kishore
Ordinarily, Achath's work in hand shadows has been a talking point in the media. But meet him in person, and you will know that it is difficult to box him into neat categories. Thus far, he has dabbled in caricatures, motivational speaking, writing books on various subjects (including one on Hollywood celebrities). These days, he is in Dubai with the aim of promoting ventriloquism. He learnt the art much later in the States and took to it the way he had taken to hand shadows many years ago.
At our photoshoot at Le Meridien, Achath comes with four companions - his puppets. It is Achath's imagination that injects life into these lifeless objects. He has given each of them their own characteristics. Toms is an elderly bachelor who flaunts his friendship with Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Shilpa Kulkarni is a Bollywood singer, who represents all that is 'sensational' in the Hindi film industry. Kishore, the youngest of them all, has a sarcastic tongue, while Smiley Sam (as the name suggests) finds humour in everything. How much of Achath himself can we hope to find in his puppets? Not much, he claims. The puppets are a result of Achath's interactions with, and observations of, the world outside. Almost all of them take him on during a performance. At a deeper level, this is Achath's way of engaging with a worldview that is distant from his own, but one he is thoroughly curious about. While the audience gets to laugh, Achath gets to reflect. "The best part is that when you are sitting with a puppet, you feel as though you are with a person and nearly forget that it's you who's giving them a voice," he says.
Ventriloquism works on a basic principle. When lending a voice to the puppet, one needs to use alphabets that don't require them to touch their lips. "There are five or six alphabets where your lips touch, like B, M, P. All you have to do is make sure that you use those words where you don't touch your lips. You can replace any word in any language, using this principle. It's not a difficult art to pick up. I was teaching ventriloquism to little children and, within a few months, they picked up."
A modern audience that is exposed to the latest technology might respond to ventriloquism differently. But Achath says, sometimes, the audiences come up with their own understanding of the art. "I don't think they are cynical. Perhaps, there is ignorance," he says. The ignorance manifests itself in several claims - some feel the puppets are battery-operated, others have told Achath that they are being remotely controlled, yet others simply see it as god's gift. Achath is happy to burst the bubble. "It's a very simple art and anyone can learn it. I tackle it in humorous ways. I often ask one of my puppets, 'Kishore, many people think you're lip syncing.' Then Kishore gets irritated and invites the audiences to ask him questions."
For now, it is this very awareness about ventriloquism that Achath plans to bring to schools and universities in the UAE through a series of talks and performances that are being planned. Will he be able to break the mental barrier about the art? "Yes," he says, "I am an incorrigible optimist."