Arts Illustrated

April 29, 2020

Short Shorts
Manoj Nair

The Butterfly Girl

Butterfly headdress of hand-painted turkey feathers, Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, La Dame Bleue, S/S 2008, Model – Alana Zimmer, © Anthea Simms

Growing up in the city, Tanya had been suitably denied that which would have afforded her had she been born in the countryside. Bees, birds and butterflies. She was a modern child leading a modern life. Among things terrestrial she was familiar with automobiles; among things that swam she had seen boats and ships; among things that flew she knew airplanes. She was looking for all that she had never seen being confined to the precincts of her plush penthouse that looked out into the river, and from where she had seen them all. There was no way to move around the fact that her parents had a fair idea of what was best for her: dolls, drills and a douche bag. All she yearned for was butterfly wings. She wanted to glide, float or fly. What can be better for her than this environment, her parents thought, whenever they tried to ascertain whether she was more fragile or more brittle. She would drown their drumming disagreements by pulling the chair to the window and stand on it. It was the deck from which she could get a view of that which was distant: water flowing down below and the clouds above. Somewhere in between, she thought, lay the residence of her dreams. Till the day when she fell off from the chair with her skin falling off like glass flakes. ‘It is because of a group of disorders that share a prominent manifestation of extremely fragile skin that blisters and tears from friction or trauma,’ the specialist doctor told Tanya’s parents. ‘It can result in disfigurement, disability, and early death.’ Tanya’s father recounted the doctor’s words as he rearranged the butterfly headdress on the mantelpiece above Tanya’s bed. They had bought it for their daughter on her birthday. ‘He said it’s Epidermolysis Bullosa — The Worst Disease You’ve Never Heard Of?’ ‘Does it mean our little one is a Butterfly Child,’ Tanya’s mother blurted out as she saw her sleeping daughter growing iridescent wings like that of a sunset moth.

Case of the Maudlin Mannequins

Installation view of ‘Romantic Primitivism’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A, 2015, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The three who stood in the cave-like enclosure made of faux-bones wondered if it would have been any different if they were monochrome portraits hanging on the wall, each so airbrushed that they verged on anonymity. ‘No. Not the facelessness,’ said the one in the middle. ‘But the demeanour surely would.’ Her words stayed suspended in the panoply of vanity before it vanished behind a brume of banality in the room. The collection had gathered to admire the collection, while the three who have travelled all the way from yet another exhibition in yet another city had collected enough regret and remorse over time to even notice. In fact, they had also developed a silent, invisible spectre of infallibility amongst themselves. They stood next to each other, inside each other and for each other. Their masks, notwithstanding. That was an add-on stuck on to them by the designer of their get-ups. And the more they didn’t want to talk to each other, the more determined they were to break through to each other. There were times the three would imagine themselves passing a cigarette back and forth, arguing the merits of being uninhibited against being image-conscious like movie stars did at celeb parties. Their creator, however, had rendered them faceless; rightly so because their identity did not go beyond the attire they had. ‘It’s only our clothes that are holding our lives together,’ the one in the middle said to the other two. Otherwise they were one among the lifeless heap of pink plastic bodies waiting at the back of a dumping truck either to be recycled or rejected. Their life-span couldn’t be retroflexed though, like the case of bones within which they stood for the time being.

In the Nick of Time

Installation view of ‘Romantic Nationalism’ gallery, Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty at the V&A, 2015, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When she saw her standing on the steps to her house donned in her red dress and rouge, she looked to her like a femme fatale – just like the mannequin she had seen inside a high street couture shop window – but she was actually a private detective investigating the disappearance of her neighbour Nick, who has been more than an enigma ever since he had moved in two years ago. The only slight and strangely insignificant interactions she had had with him, she told the detective, who surely seemed to believe her, was to pick up the parcels that she duly received on his behalf when the courier guy appeared with them at her doorsteps when his house was locked or he was not present. ‘What do you mean when you say his house was locked? Do you mean he was present inside even when his house was locked?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘There would be someone inside. I had a hunch that he would often lock some of his visitors inside before he went out for work.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Well,’ she continued hesitantly, ‘I have always seen some movement behind the window of his house.’ She had, in fact, seen more than that. She had often been intrigued by the kinkiness of his life – visible through the space in his window whenever she sneaked a peak from the corner of her garden; and perceptible from the regular stream of suitors, solicitors and service providers who went past his front door at regular intervals through the week.

The sleuth left, most of her swank dress unruffled from the interrogation, with the promise that she would return soon with more questions, and the curt instruction: ‘keep an eye on the door and the window’.

Yes she would, she thought. ‘What a wanker!’ she said to herself. Words she said aloud in disdain everytime she had had to receive his packets. That derision had now turned into dread. The sound of the door knob sounded like a death knell to her ever since Nick went missing. That was a long time ago. And the mannequin-like investigator never returned. But the parcels kept coming. And each time there was a knock at her door she would shudder imagining what if the neatly wrapped package meant for Nick contained his remains?

In memory of Ruth Rendell

Spring/Autumn Collection

We had got past our Sunday walk and ambled into the museum show of a fashion designer. ‘You must have looked like that 30 years ago,’ he said, as a young model walked down the ramp wearing a tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers. The designer indubitably had a desire for the wilderness of the forest and yearned for the power of womanhood. ‘I mean the strength and grace that the silhouette projects. It would suit you perfectly as you are anything like as fierce as I thought you would be,’ he was holding my hand tight. I didn’t know how to react. After all, it was only our third meeting out and we had only dined out once. It’s hard to place what he said with that sniffing snicker and disarming swagger of his. The heart leapt with joy thinking it is veridical and the mind poured cold water on it saying it is piffle. It was frabjuous, of course, though despite being in the fifties we had not gone beyond talking about cheese. So far. And I didn’t know why I had been a schlemiel when it came to relationships and then I always suspected the elegant Atticism in words like ‘a bourbon waiting in his bar or burgundy chilling in his fridge’. Anyway, I was logy from the sun and my mind was sticky and slow when we sipped on wine in a pub. There wasn’t a cloud burst, but there was a saunter through the droplets of a gentle drizzle. He said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to…?’ and I said not now, avoiding the blinking bolide. He walked me to the metro, and it rained, and we stood under an awning, kissing. Two teenage girls ran past with their hands covering their heads. One of them, who seemed to be wearing the antelope dress and looked like me from 30 years before, said, ‘Did you see those two old people? That’s real passion. I want that.’

Tulle and lace dress with veil and antlers, Alexander McQueen,
Widows of Culloden, A/W 2006–07, Model – Raquel Zimmermann,
Viva London, Image – firstVIEW

These stories are based on the retrospective show titled ‘savage beauty’ of late designer alexander mcqueen, which showed the visionary body of work and was inspired by nearly everything, but most importantly elements of nature.

Queen, McQueen and the Freak Queens

The Horn of Plenty, A/W 2009-10 Model – Magdalena Frackowiak, Image – firstVIEW

‘Hey, we need to go to the McQueen show,’ Cary told Linda as she eased into the passenger seat of Cary’s car. She had come to pick Linda up from the airport. ‘Yes, it has been a while since we went to see a show together.’

‘This McQueen show is phenomenal.’ Linda nodded in agreement without knowing whether she would wish to plunge headlong into a bit of cerebral tour after a night-long air-travel. No. It wasn’t jet lag. It was just that she was just not in the mood for things that were more than the visible. At the moment she was happy to take in what she could see outside the car window. She was watching two Chinese girls giggling away into their cellphones wearing what she thought was spare. ‘Isn’t a short skirt and bare legs in December madness?’ she asked Cary though she was only thinking aloud.

Knowing Linda had a thing for sartorial sojourns she thought this was a good moment to engage her. Cary winked. ‘Bare legs are doable if the rest of you is toasty,’ she said without taking her eyes off the road.

‘But then the Chinese have no qualms about showing some skin, with no fear of getting hypothermia unlike Indians,’ Linda quipped throwing in a bit of her knowledge of social studies.

The two were used to social commentary about the clothes people wore on the streets as they drove past them often. The reason why Cary felt the two should see McQueen together. So she insisted: “So when should we go for McQueen?”

‘Not now, Cary. McQueen can wait. Looking at his work is a complex business.’

‘But you will love it, Linda,’ Cary continued persuading. ‘I have been waiting for you to come back so that we could go for this one together. How can you make McQueen wait?’

‘Not now. Steve McQueen is intense. It needs concentration.’

‘Who is talking about Steve? It’s Alexander McQueen!’ Cary said as she waved the invite for the show.

‘Oh! Then I am in,’ as she raised her hands for a high five looking at the invite that flashed a sliver of feminine mystique wrapped in a duck-feathered dress. ‘That’s intimidating,’ she yelled.

‘Well, you see what you see. You swear when you hear. But you fear what they wear,’ Cary replied as they drove off into the delight of a rejuvenated female bonding.

Sometimes She Sits and  Thinks, and Sometimes She Just…

Installation view of ‘Romantic Naturalism’ gallery, Artist – Alexander McQueen, Savage Beauty at the V&A, 2015, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

She had seen it with the caviling. She could have done any of those designs. She would sit there in the gallery watching the people who shuffled in to watch the models in the display windows that seemed to be watching them. She was watchful. She was aspiring to be an artist but now she was manning the displays. She was sitting there at the entrance of the door thinking. A series of questions flashed past her mind like the flickering tickers on a giant screen. What do these people know about her? Do they know who she was or what she was capable of, her talent, her abilities? Do they really care about what she did other than what she was seen doing here and now? Or are they even aware of her presence except for when she went up to one of them to politely remind them: Don’t touch the exhibits or take photos or talk loudly on the cellphone. And then she would return to her seat and think about the exhibits and their creator. This guy talks about conflict diamonds, human hatred and contract killings and is a self-appointed naturalist. But his works reek of bling, bitchiness and business at the expense of nature. Does anyone wonder why he fails to even whisper about the ugly truth about our hideous present?

And then she would sit there and think again: Is she being jealous of all these happy people who are here to watch what is there? Is she bitter about her failure? Is it even her job to cast any calumny? So let’s not bring it. A child runs to her asking where he could find drinking water. She loosens up a bit and sends the child in the right direction.

And then she would sit and think about her boyfriend. He’s not the handsomest fellow. They had met over the Internet, handicapped as she was as far as her social skills go. He was bland in his profile, friendly in the chat messenger, lively at the pub. And when they met, she thought, she tried to put it across to him how she was the best in what she did. Was she right in doing that when they first met? But that’s what men do all the time.

Sitting there she thought that knowing you’re the best isn’t arrogance, and knowing what’s right doesn’t require a vow of righteousness. And then she shook herself, stood up and looked at all the models lined up in the glass classes. Mute, but desirable.

And then she just sat down banishing all thoughts.

Title inspired by Courtney Barrera’s album of a similar name


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