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PETTEE: Storybox - What do you carry?


PETTEE: Storybox by Deepak Unnikrishnan and Karthika Nair. Choreography and performance by Saju Hari, Wanjiru Kamuyu and Ali Ben Lotfi Thabet.

In April 2024, I was engaged in a project called PETTEE: Storybox as a choreographer/ performer. This project has its seeds in the book, Temporary People, written by Deepak Unnikrishnan, which discusses the migrant lives in the Middle East, especially in the UAE where Deepak lives and works. People from Kerala, where I'm from, make up a large portion of migrants in the Middle East.


Karthika Nair co-wrote the project. Karthika is many things. An Indian/ French poet, dance producer, dramaturge and curator. I met Karthika when she was the producer for choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Eastman company.


In languages that are home to hundreds of millions of people (Malayalam, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi), PETTEE embodies words such as casket, crate, and suitcase. But the meaning that almost everyone recognises instantly is container – containers we carry, containers that contain us. The word is also a spirit animal for human beings with rootlessness and displacement in their blood; those dreaming of possibilities.



The project had three choreographers/ performers who breathed life into an already written script/ dramaturgical structure by Deepak and Karthika. I loved the process - it was surprisingly organic considering many of us had never worked together!


Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates of UAE, was interesting. In the UAE, the indigenous population makes up about 20% of the overall population; the rest are all immigrants and there is a big presence of people from Kerala.



Kerala is helped financially by the workers sending their hard earned money back home. This has been going on for years - even in my childhood, I used to hear of people going to the Middle East. When they came back, they brought big cardboard boxes back with them! Inside was a treasure trove of items, including shiny gold ornaments, perfumes, soaps, dates and other sweets, silk garments, shoes - you name it.


PETTEE: Storybox discusses this in a metaphorical way. It could be that you are the box and you carry your dreams, your wishes and aims, and your stories.


I wrote the following as a preparatory text, reflecting on my own story of migrations...


 

What do you carry?


When I was a child of around five-years-old, I was ‘kidnapped’ by my mother’s family. This was my first experience of migration.


The process of my parents' separation was a painful one. Books and pencils were always in my possession, I remember, during those days. When I was taken by force to my mother’s land, I only had what I wore, my previous name ‘Damu’, and my Bruce Lee hairstyle as possessions. As soon as I arrived in my mother's land, I was given a new name ‘Saju’ and a new haircut, as well as new clothes. A process of washing away memories of my father.


My nuclear family included my single mother, me and my little brother. For us, the joint family home was big, like a new country full of people. The doors were never shut. We made our little kingdom out of a trunk petté (a big wooden case). This trunk petté was strong - it could take the weight of a mother and her two children. In the trunk petté were all our papers, possessions and my mother’s wedding saree. She used to bring the wedding saree out any time she felt the need to curse my father. For her, the wedding saree looked like the one widows wore in films. A cheap looking white saree with a black border design. The saree’s border design looked like fullstops and exclamation marks to me, I remember. This saree was a big statement for my marxist father but for my mother, the relationship ended before it began. After all, it was an arranged marriage.


My mother couldn't fathom the fact that all the other ladies in her family had golden sarees for their weddings and she had this widow style one! But for my father, this was a display of everything he absorbed from the party intellectuals; the idea of ‘no excess’ for the individual and that the communist party is more important. He stood high amongst the other comrades but my mum diminished in front of the ladies from the family.


In Palakkad, I bought my first suitcase on my way to study Electronics Engineering. This was small and soft, unlike the trunk petté, and it contained my certificates, a diary that I used to write in once in a while, and clothes. Electronics couldn't kill me.


I lived out of this suitcase in Bangalore during my dance days. Those days were very tough. I acquired an umbrella during the Bangalore dancing days. Only practical possessions had any meaning during these days. Living out of a suitcase on borrowed money and training my body to be like a European dancer. A process of re-writing memory that is etched onto me over generations - an impossible task! Memories were fading and I was disappearing.


During these days, letters came from my father expressing his shock at my life choices - leaving a promising career in IT that was carved out for me. He expressed his conviction that I would die of Aids eventually, as I must have been in the grip of some American/ western drug gang! I can't blame him for his ignorance. I didn't know dance could be a profession either! Anyhow, these letters nearly killed me...


Word arrived that I had a chance to dance in London. I needed more papers. The British Embassy in Chennai liked photocopies. I had supplied them with many, sometimes still warm having just been spat out of the photocopy machine. I was sweating. My friend gave me a better pair of shoes to wear for the appearance at the embassy. They were too big for me; visibly not mine! But they didn't look down - they were focusing deep into my eyes to see any opportunities for rejection. But I had to migrate.


First night in London, I had my Palakkadan soft petté. Inside were location maps, phone numbers, email correspondence, visa, work permit, dance photos in strong poses to fight off any attack from the immigration officers, and most importantly, photocopies of all of those. I had temporary accommodation arranged. I had to venture out for any permanence.


I must have looked odd! People in the streets of Kentish Town seemed to be running away from me as I approached them asking if they had a spare room! It was my first night in London and the first time out of my motherland. Ignorance is bliss.


Later in the night, hunger took me straight to a kebab shop - I remember the smell of burning meat. I had already asked enough people in the street and I was not taking no for an answer yet. The kebab will give me power. I saw kindness in the eyes of the man who took my order; he called me brother. I recognised the Pashtun hat. I guessed right - he was from Afghanistan and his voice was as kind as his blue eyes. He said he didn't have a spare room but he had a phone number. I spent some time grappling with accents in the red telephone box with a good supply of 20 pence coins, an Afghan strategy…


Doris Shepherd, an 85-year-old lady, answered the phone. A frail but rooted voice, dog barking in the background. Finding 17B North Villas in Camden, from the paper map, was easy enough - the kind Afghan man marked it clearly. Pebbles the dog was very unwelcoming. That night I cleared Doris's spare room as per her instructions, made space for me and my soft petté, and left with the keys to 17B. The agreement was rent-free living for as long as I wanted and no photocopies needed! Doris wanted security and I wanted space and savings. Doris was my home and Pebbles was my best friend for the next six months.


The high definition now. No more papers. A British passport replaced the photocopies. A phone with a broken screen and digital wallets. The QR code was enough for the lady at the airport to lead me to the aisle seat. I have learned to travel with less and less possessions. My face will unlock the apps. A book, a tongue cleaner, the teeth guard to help me breathe while I'm asleep, a tracksuit and t-shirts are now my most important possessions while traveling. Everything else you can buy at destinations...


 

Music was one of the main attractions of PETTEE and was created by Sarathy Korwar together with Tamar Osborn and Al MacSween. All three musicians performed with us on stage and that was special. It was fun to create together.


In April 2024, we performed at the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Arts Centre, which was amazing as it had state of the art facilities and a great crew! Bill Bragin is the director of NYUAD Arts Centre.



Our illustrator, George Mathan, aka Appupen, created the visual world transforming cardboard boxes into cities, lives and emotional beings!


For now, the first rendition of PETTEE is over but we have become the carriers of that memory...


 

Photos courtesy of Waleed Shaw.

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