Though not a uniquely Indian experience, the business of living statues is a thriving one in a country that finds eager models among foreigners looking to engage in local culture
Oh right! I have also played Queen Elizabeth. How could I forget that?" wonders Nadezdha Bazhenova, 29, when we meet her at the Andheri West office of Red Entertainment, a 13-year-old artist management firm that provides Bollywood and international acts to wedding and corporate events in the country. Nadezdha, or Nadiya, as she is called around the office by those who find her Russian name convoluted, is a weekend away from leaving India where she has, besides working as a pianist, also served as a living statue.
In April this year, Nadezdha dressed up as Queen Elizabeth I for the launch of a construction project in Kharghar
Living statues are a common sight on the streets of Europe, but they have also found their way as entertainers at Indian weddings and corporate galas. Some times donning the garb of gladiators, at other times turning into Grecian goddesses. However, a pianist trained at Ukraine’s Kharkiv National Kotlyarevsky University of Arts (or the Kharkiv Conservatory), Nadezdha says, of all her travels, India has been the first time where a job has required her to don costumes and stand in a pose for two hours at a go. She smiles, as she crosses her legs, her very Indian kurta falling over her thighs gracefully, "It’s all part of the Indian experience. And I love India, as you can see."
A shot server entertainer from Red Entertainement
India, of course, is not the sole claimant of the ‘living statue’ experience (an Internet search will tell you it’s a popular trend worldwide, especially in the UK). But, here, you can take your pick from water fountains (which has women in Grecian or Venetian garb fitted with water pipes and heavy make-up which make them look like statues with water spouting from their backs and hands), mermaids, Venetian women who will greet you at the entrance, male gladiators and elusive Martians. At a minimum of R15,000 per artist (in a Gujarat firm it went up to R75,000) for a two-hour performance, you can take your pick.
Nadezdha’s Queen Elizabeth — she wasn’t sure, but we later confirmed that it was Elizabeth I, not II — was among a slew of other characters, such as a gladiator and Queen Isabella who had to create an ‘international’ ambience for the launch of a property in Kharghar this April. It was among her toughest and most interesting assignments, she thinks.
Nadezdha Bazhenova Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
"The gown was heavy and it had a long cape. It came with the inner skirt (crinoline) which adds the poof to the gown," she says. What’s tougher than donning a heavy costume for two hours is having to sit in it with heavy make-up while being ever-smiling. Often, the guests at the event want to come up and take pictures or, worse, selfies. "At some events, the crowd is controlled and will even ask you for your permission to step near you or take a selfie, but sometimes they get curious about you," says the 29-year-old.
When the crowd gets too close for comfort, the firm’s managers and security step in. "We rarely have a problem on hand. However, once in Jaipur, when the crowd at a wedding went out of control, we had to cancel the show," says artist manager Ritika Gupta. Which is why the artists are always accompanied by a manager, a make-up artist and added security personnel. It’s this team that also ensures that the artists manage to get a water and loosening up break. Is there a scheduled time? "When the managers see that you’ve lost the sparkle in your eye," Nadezdha chips in.
The Elizabethan assignment was particularly tough because of the heavy costume and make-up. It required sitting outdoors and battling mosquitoes. "If you focus on the mosquitoes, you don’t end up smiling, and then you are not offering joy to the people who have come to see you," she adds. Nadezdha sees herself as an entertainer and whether it’s her piano playing or act as an Egyptian royal, she thinks her her job is to bring joy to her audience.
The audience, she says, is almost always overjoyed when she dons the shots dress.
The server, typically a woman, is fitted with a metal skirt i.e. a set of metal hoops in increasing diameter held together by rods and made pretty with a lace trim (always a saviour). The hoops are essentially testtube holders that balance tubes with alcohol. "The skirt has to be fitted tight and it is heavy with all that liquid you are holding up. When I wore it, I also had to wear an uncomfortable wig and walk in heels. The smile had to be on. As a shot server, your job is to create atmosphere at a party," she says, explaining the deftness with which test tubes of booze have to be handed to guests. "I remember once," says Nadezdha, who has played this role four times during this stint, "a woman who was very drunk fell on me. Fortunately, the shots in my kitty were over." She pauses and laughs, "I must have been having a good day because I politely asked her if she was fine."
But, unlike the seedy nature of the job as suggested in 2014 by a blog, later republished by a popular website, Nadezdha seems to have bagged a good deal. Her contract lists her duration of stay, pay and accommodation in an Oshiwara flat. Food and travel for work are also taken care of. A contract typically lasts for eight months, and the wedding season at the end of the year sees the maximum number of applicants from Europe, largely Russia. Since the artists seldom fly down before the season starts, how does the firm ensure that the fits are right?
"Well, the artists hired are usually a certain body type. Those are the ones we hire and the ones the clients want," says Gupta. So, thin, tall and white works.
Dharmesh Surana Jain, of the Andheri West-based EventsYug Worldwide, which started providing living statues as part of its acts catalogue last year after seeing the soaring demand, says costumes are difficult to make in India because of the material and stitching and are sourced from abroad.
Client demand is also why trained harpist Jessica Browning from America was never called upon to be a shot server or Queen at a Venetian carnival. At less than 5’5", she was too short for the job. Men are rarely hired, but when they are, they are also usually white. On the rare occasion when a man’s face can be hidden with a mask, an Indian model can be hired.
While Nadezdha and her colleagues are contracted for specific roles, whether pianist or harpist, their contract specifies that they could be asked to fill in for other performers if the need arises. They can however, say no. We ask her if she has ever refused.
"When else will I get to play Queen Elizabeth?"