'My mother never asked for even a sari for herself': Artist Sudarshan Shetty

On Women's Day, Shetty on his relationship with his mother

56-Sudarshan-Shetty Artist Sudarshan Shetty
mother Jaji mother Jaji

My mother left us about 16 years ago, but her reassuring presence in my life still lingers on. It is difficult for me to objectify this relationship. She was soft and mild-mannered, yet strong inside―able to hold the family together with our meagre means of survival. My father was a Yakshagana artist. Like some of the mythological characters he played, he was a larger-than-life figure for us. He had a certain fame within the community as a Yakshagana artist. I remember going to many of his performances and seeing people’s adulation of him.

My mother was always shy and seemed to be lurking in the background of my father’s presence. My father was quite tall, and she was diminutive in stature, but was really the gravitational core of the family; she held us all together as long as she lived. She could absorb a lot of our tantrums as children. She was never demanding, and I don’t think she ever asked for even a sari for herself.

While my father was always inquisitive and questioning, she was quietly encouraging of whatever I wanted to do. When I joined art school after studying commerce, my father would ask me all these questions about my future, but my mother’s acceptance was unconditional. This must have strengthened my faith in what I chose to do.

My mother had only studied till the fifth standard. however, she was deeply intelligent.

My maternal uncle―my mother’s older brother―was a friend and an admirer of my father’s performances. My parents met through him, as he suggested that my father marry his sister. My father’s ancestral home is in Udupi district, and my mother’s is closer to Mangalore. We have heard stories of how my mother and her family travelled overnight in bullock carts to Udupi for the wedding.

I stayed with my parents till I went away to Delhi when I was 30, and came back six years later. Then I stayed with them for another seven to eight years. I was well into my late 30s and still struggling to make ends meet. Besides a few light-hearted arguments over it with my father, I was never made to feel unwelcome at home. They were different and more liberal than the parents of all my friends. This might be because my father and mother were exposed to the world of an artist and the perils that come with it.

My mother had only studied till the fifth standard. However, she was deeply intelligent. My father was a voracious reader. He would read the translated Mahabharata and many versions of the Ramayana to hone his skills as a performer, almost till his passing in 2003. She outlived him by about five years. My mother was a light reader. There used to be these magazines in Kannada―like Sudha, Prajamata, Kasturi and Mayura. She used to read them back-to-back in the evening after finishing her household chores. There were a lot of these modernist writers who were writing at the time, and she had a problem with some things they wrote―like man-woman relationships which were very different from her own ideas of what they should be. However, she was not conservative by any standard.

She was also a great storyteller. She could tell the story of a Yakshagana performance that she may have watched decades ago. I grew up listening to her stories, and I think it has greatly influenced what I do today. I remember the Tulu legends she used to narrate. Of Siri―the patron deity of the Tuluvas (people who speak Tulu)―and others like Siri’s grand daughters, Abbage and Darage. And another about the original superman of Tulunadu― Agoli Manjanna. He needed to eat so much that there was a famous saying of him wanting to turn the Netravati river to milk and the stones on its banks to meat to satiate his hunger and thirst.

I was close to my mother, although I did not tell her everything, or I did not have to. In many ways, our relationship was gestural. We partly communicated in gestures that is specific to a culture of communication . One did not have to say much to know what state one was in. It got communicated through one’s mere being. I feel today we are losing many of those gestural ways of communication.

I have four sisters, two older and two younger, and I am the only son. Unjust as it was, I was given the freedom to do whatever I chose unlike them. They do complain about it often, even now, as a joke. It was obvious that I was my mother’s favourite.

I loved watching movies, so my mother used to save up from whatever money my father would give her for household expenses, and take me to matinee shows, occasionally on Sundays. We watched a lot of rubbish as well, but I remember watching Mughal-e-Azam and Phagun amongst others in black and white, and discussing them later with her. I remember watching some Rajesh Khanna films, too. I still don’t know if my father knew about our secret outings.

I feel my mother’s quiet presence in my life almost every day. She was always in the background. She was never assertive about anything she wanted. It might be true of many women in her generation. Most never had the opportunity to even say what they wanted, but they seemed to always have a pleasant presence, which is perhaps rare to find now. As they say, ‘they don’t make people like that anymore’ .

Like most of us who don’t live with our mothers, I miss my mother’s cooking. She was a good cook. I remember her walking to the market a few miles every day to buy fish, vegetables and other necessities.

Only towards the end of her life did I begin to sell some pieces and make some money. It was then perhaps that she felt that I had found some sort of social success. However, I think she was always proud of me. Sometime later, when we got a house in Lonavala nestled among trees, she loved coming there. Somehow, it reminded her of her village in Mangalore. She was also very fond of animals, which we could never keep as we always lived in small houses in Mumbai.

As told to Anjuly Mathai