They walked together, against the setting sun, into the picturesque Portuguese villa that houses Sunaparanta in Goa. William Dalrymple led the way, posing animatedly for the shutterbugs, while Olivia Fraser smiled demurely. With William leading, they made their way to the intimate courtyard, the perfect setting for this edition of the Shanghvi Salons titled, “The Muse and I.” Before a packed audience, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi engaged the couple in a candid conversation that explored their relationship and the impact of love on their creativity.
The beginning was brimming with poetic prose as William confessed that for him it was love at first sight. “Olivia and I were invited to an event in London by an Indian friend. There I saw her across the room and I was instantly smitten.” At that event, William realised he knew one of Olivia’s cousins and on the pretext of borrowing a ‘hideous scarlet jacket’ from her cousin, he tried to find out more about Olivia. But the storyteller couldn’t weave a convincing tale, and it soon became clear that it wasn’t the jacket he was after. “It unravelled embarrassingly, and I also found out that Olivia was not available.” But that didn’t stop William from courting her. In fact, the author moved in next door to Olivia, and when her relationship didn’t work out, he swooped right in.
The writer adds drama to the story when he says, “If my parents were to arrange my marriage, it would not be with her – because we belong to different gotras. In fact, our ancestors had been at war for over a century!” “She would be the equivalent of a pahari, a wild hills woman; while I belong to a more civilised lot.” quips William, even as Olivia playfully reproaches him.
Watching the couples engage with each other, it was easy to feel the stage disappear. Shanghvi then steers the conversation to the influence they have on each other’s works, despite the fact that their art forms are markedly different.
William elaborates, “Some creative couples start out together, but move away. In our case, we’ve grown together despite moving through continents.” Olivia adds, “I followed William here and at the time I chose watercolours as my medium because they were easily portable. When William was researching Nine Lives, I travelled with him and that’s when I caught my first glimpse of Indian miniatures on a large scale. I was fascinated, and decided to learn the technique and trained under well-known masters of this art-form.” The result is that today, Olivia specialises in this technique and post the Salon, she unveiled her exhibition of miniatures at the Sunaparanta gallery.
But aren’t marriages of artists filled with the usual clichés of being tortured and tragic, enquires Shanghvi while citing the example of William’s ancestor Virginia Woolf. A celebrated author, Woolf committed suicide despite being in a loving relationship because she couldn’t fight her depression. William explains, “In our relationship, neither of us is broken or needs fixing. We are equals and view each other as such, both personally and professionally.”
William adds of Olivia’s contribution to his professional success, “My books would be profoundly different had it not been for her inputs. She can be merciless when she takes a red pen and strikes off entire paragraphs because she finds them dull or boring.”
Olivia adds, “William has a deep engagement with the visual culture. He makes me see things differently and that gets me thinking about my work in a whole new direction.”
Yet while they seem the epitome of domestic happiness, there are a few instances when their creative energies seem to clash. William says, “Sometimes my writing just flows and at those times, which can span months, I live in another world. I disconnect from the outside, but Olivia keeps me sane, by giving me space, but not allowing me to disengage completely from the family.”
As the Salon comes to an end, we ask Shanghvi how he manages to offer an intimate peek into the hearts and minds of the artists’ without crossing the fine line into voyeurism. He says flippantly, “As I penned my questions, my benchmark simply was – will my mother reprimand me for asking this of the duo in public!”