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June 3, 1999
Master of Illusions Juggles Several Careers
Madona Devasahayam in Washington
In a small office in the multi-storeyed World Bank Building on Eye and 19th in Washington, DC, works a financial analyst who is also a ventriloquist, a magician, hand-shadow artist, caricaturist and motivational speaker.
Satyanathan Achath, Sati for short, is a man of many talents, but few words.
He is as modest about his achievements and interests as he is passionate about them.
Having made a name for himself as a skilled hand-shadow artist in the United States, Achath, 46, is now sharpening his strokes in caricature and political cartooning so he can freelance for publications in the country.
"I have started caricature after a break of four years and am currently preparing samples for a portfolio so I can freelance for newspapers here," he says.
Achath, who hails from Kerala, had been in the news three years ago for developing hand-shadow images of personalities such as Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Jackson, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich.
'Sati Achath is one of the few people in the world who can conjure up celebrities ranging from Michael Jackson to Mother Teresa with nothing more than his hands and light,' wrote Dale Hopper in The Washington Post a few years ago.
The Baltimore Sun said: 'Achath just may be the best-known hand-shadow expert in the world. He may, in fact, be the only hand-shadow expert in the world.'
He has travelled extensively, both within and outside the United States, to give hand-shadow performances. He has performed -- among other universities -- at the Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, and Lamar University in Texas.
Achath has also put up benefit shows for several organisations, including the United Way. He has appeared in the Late Show with David Letterman, CNN Live Morning News, CBS and ABC News a few years ago.
'Sati Achath is the master of hand shadows,' says Letterman.
Achath published Fun with Hand Shadows, a step-by-step instruction book for over 70 shadows, which has sold about 20,000 copies. "Since I came here, I started creating shadows of American personalities. I am planning to create Elizabeth Dole's image some time," Achath says. "Many people ask me for the image of Monica Lewinsky, but I think interest has faded in her now."
"I have got some fantastic feedback on hand shadows. I sent copies of my book to the Clintons, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich who sent me personal letters of acknowledgement," says Achath. His book will soon be released in Portuguese.
He did plan to translate his book into Indian languages, "but I can't do that sitting here", he says.
Achath also has a few tricks up his sleeve. About seven years ago, he started teaching himself the art of magic, and now he performs professionally. With him is his daughter Maya, 14, who is an aspiring astronomer. She has also given performances in hand shadow and magic at local associations and schools. "Whatever she does, she does well," he says of Maya who is also a black belt in karate and a talented classical dancer.
Being a capital-intensive art, magic has been only secondary in Achath's scheme of things. "You need props and as a career it doesn't fit in. Simple magic is what I do," he says.
A talent that Achath is shelving for reasons beyond his control is ventriloquism. "There is a mental block in people with respect to ventriloquism. The response is not that great. So it has no scope as a career option. I don't want to spend time pursuing it anymore because I think my Indian accent is hampering it," he says.
He started learning this art when he met professional ventriloquist and magician Steve Myers four years ago. Achath and his wife Mini took classes with Myers who worked out of Baltimore, Maryland.
Ventriloquism helped Achath develop his musical skills, though. He played the tabla, keyboards and harmonica to supplement his act. He may have given up ventriloquism, but the harmonica is still around. He is seriously learning to master this organ and spends some time everyday practising it. "I have kept it near my computer at home, so when I am downloading something, the time I have to wait I spend it on playing the instrument. So download time is harmonica time," he says.
How does this man manage all this? He gives credit to his sense of time management and a concept he has developed himself, called incrementalism.
"We often wait for the right time and place to start something or learn something new. But if we take a few minutes everyday to learn something, in two or three years we will become good at it," he says.
Being a motivational speaker as well, he has given talks on the subject at various universities and schools in the country.
"I want to pursue art. What keeps me going is that I look forward to learning something new everyday, and that is inspiring," he says.
Achath was always interested in pursuing art since he was a child. He picked up the art of hand shadows from his father, C K Menon, as a child. An undergraduate in chemistry, he has three post-graduate degrees, in literature, international relations and business administration (finance).
He spends a lot of time reading self-development books "because these books have something to offer you". Achath hangs out in the worldwide web only to connect with people. "One can end up spending a lot of time on the Internet, but it may not be productive. It is more of a distraction, but a good medium to network," he says.
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