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April 1, 2012

Seated in a Mumbai hotel lobby talking to friends soon after the successful tenth performance of the Tagore inspired “AVANI-A Handful of Dust” at the NCPA, our laughter was drowned out by loud cheers and a horde of assorted people thronging around a single, short, tousled haired man. We turned and looked and in unison we all said “SACHIN”.  It was the ‘master blaster’ entering the official hospitality venue for another round of cricket madness called the IPL which starts this month. As soon as the cricketing legend entered the elevator with bodyguards in tow, our conversation veered towards his BRAND VALUE and how with his recent phenomenal record of 100 centuries, his market value, already at 2 million dollars an appearance, is set to soar even higher.

Why are dancers never considered for endorsements?  We have a longer shelf life - better staying power -engage with a variety of issues (mental and physical health, wellbeing, textiles, fashion, heritage, travel, skincare , jewellery, philosophy, creativity, time management, productive aging, multi tasking…). Is it perhaps because we have somehow been indoctrinated to believe that MONEY is an anathema to our DIVINE art? That ‘moolah’ will TAINT our mudras? Nothing can be further than the truth! Except for Shobana, and she cannot be thrown up as an example since her roots are from cinema, we are yet to see a dancer in national ad campaigns. I miss Indrani Rehman, whose legendary beauty would have floored these smart aleck ad kids of today. Diva Sonal Mansingh was photographed for a jewellery brand but the image was not suitably photoshopped to do justice to her once famous looks.  Through computer graphics, an ordinary face can be made flawless. I have seen the transformation occur in front of my eyes. The closest model we have is poet and yogini Tishani Doshi.

Why am I talking about Cricket in a dance portal? It is because of the fundamental decisions that our Cultural departments need to be making about curation and soft diplomacy that they are fond of holding up as India’s great strength. Recently US President Obama made news by sitting ringside at a basketball game with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Both world leaders were in animated discussion and obviously having a great time. Contrast this with the sight of nodding Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and US President George HW Bush in 1985 during the lacklustre opening of the Festival of India in the US. The Kennedy Centre box seats were the centre of all eyes, as First Ladies Sonia Gandhi and Barbara Bush sat stoically next to their napping husbands. The show on centre stage was the magnificent (earnestly but wrongly curated) Kerala Kalamandalam Kathakali troupe. So should Prime Minister Manmohan Singh take his visiting dignitaries to watch a cricket game instead and explain the nuances of our national mania rather than sit in stony silence watching a sole Bharatanatyam or Kathak dancer expound on India’s “priceless heritage”? Cricket vs Dance.  Is there any contest?
As dancers, we MUST keep up with trends in communication and technology.  Can we ever think about a time before Facebook, Twitter, YOU TUBE, texting and e-mail? We live in an “I –WORLD” where the visual impact is feeling itself in every aspect of our lives. “SHOW US DON’T TELL US” is the anthem in the current US elections, with I Phones displacing the Blackberry as images and videos are streamed 24/7. In this hyperlinked society, I am appalled that performances for Government organizations and national festivals are recorded and handed out in a VHS cassette. YES. A VHS format.

How can we even play it when the machines have been phased out? For years I was asked by the Delhi top brass to “informally” compile a list of top 100 international dance venues in mainstream theatres around the world and around India. I requested an official letter so that I could undertake this assignment on a professional basis.  Nothing came. A familiar story of a well meaning bureaucrat who was not able to accommodate this need into the ‘babudom’ of the SYSTEM.  An international list of the best dance festivals is also crucial for the cultural departments who export our dancers and musicians by the hundreds each year to distant countries.  Most ambassadors and High Commissioners confess that culture is NOT their priority and economics is top of the agenda. Okay. Then how about some basic knowledge about world weather patterns? I was asked to tour an Eastern European country for SUMMER dance festivals in March-April! Oh come on!!!  Dancing barefoot in April? Summer in Europe is in July-August. Geography 101 please!

Yet… private initiative continues to flourish.  Nrityagram company sold out for all six nights at the Joyce Theatre in New York City, and are touring US and Mexico to standing ovations. This time, the Kandyan collaboration titled SAMHARA with dancers from Chitrasena’s dance company in Colombo are holding their own aside Surupa and Bijoyani and sometimes stealing the thunder and spotlight from them. A Lakshman is enjoying tremendous success on his maiden US tour. Valli, Priyadarsini and Rama are also   touring the US this year and more and more young men and women are enrolling in dance classes.  But are these students translating into audiences? Not if the respective dance teachers who dot every small town in the USA decide who is the dancer WORTH WATCHING and thus brainwash their students to attend or stay away from some marvelous shows. Perhaps, Butoh dancer Denise Fujiwara said it best. “We dancers are stubborn, creatively cunning and obsessively focused on making, sustaining and performing our art. Nothing stops us and we will continue to dance although the world thinks we are irrelevant.”

No matter how much we may complain in India about the sluggishness of the state machinery, working   WITH our national cultural institutions is the answer. Enormous progress has been made in so many sectors in revival and restoration of forgotten dance, theatre, folk and ritual forms over the past 50 years.  The ritual performance tradition of Arayer Sevai in Vishnu shrines in Tamilnadu is one example when Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, former Chairperson the Sangeet Natak Akademi, spotted this rare tradition and goaded dancer Sudharani Raghupathy to learn 50 of these poems for performance.  Today we have sensitive and pragmatic leaders at the helm of our performing arts bodies. Linking with the private sector that bring their own knowledge systems to the important aspect of archival and documentation will be a welcome move. Time is running out and our legends are either gone or past their prime. The ambitious and eagerly awaited NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PERFORMING ARTS in New Delhi is inching closer to becoming a reality. There are more young Indians studying Dance History, Performance Studies, Cultural Studies, Advanced Choreography, Pedagogy, Feminism, Library Science, Museum Studies, Dance Writing, Stage design, Arts Management and other academic and allied disciplines besides performance.  The problem is that almost all the topics I mentioned are conducted in universities OUTSIDE INDIA. While in Mumbai, I met with Ranjana Dave and Amrita Lahiri, two very thoughtful young classical dancers turned arts curators and facilitators.  Gen Next is well aware of the challenges ahead in a quick fix, instant gratification, HI-BYE world. There are many young dancers, trained in the classical arts, who are convinced and motivated to find a way to make the training and the disciplines speak to them in the here and now.

Feminist writer and archivist C S Lakshmi ( Ambai) spoke in an informal round table dialogue about how the Brahminised -Sanskritised body could NOT be convincing in Bharatanatyam padams and javalis that spoke of a lover walking down the courtesan’s street (Theruvil Varono) while young girls like herself were specifically asked NOT to look out the window while growing up. The notion of ‘sringara’ was a very different understanding with today’s 21st century urban body as compared to the devadasi, whose lived life experience brought a convincing ease and fluidity to the danced poem. Which is why when NRI women try to learn these poems from instant abhinaya experts, they look awkward, melodramatic and uncomfortable since nobody, even myself, has ground sandal, strung flower garlands or skipped a meal waiting for my beloved! Ambai’s book on creativity and performance called MIRRORS AND GESTURES was sold out in its initial print run and will be available again shortly. This is a MUST READ for all dancers.

 In closing, I would like to make note of the interesting discussion about SNARKY dance writing. It is from a blog of the US based Dance Critics Association. The topic to be discussed was “Should sarcasm have a place in dance criticism?” Some writers have said that sarcasm does not help the choreographer and dancer improve their performance and so should not be included. New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay has refuted that notion by saying that sarcasm has a history in dance writing and that it is an integral part of the dance dialogues. (http://www.dancecritics.org/blog/)
In a culture that is increasingly reverential and saccharine, when divas turn up noses and snort at any small remark that is not pure adulation, the place of wit and well placed sarcasm has a definite place in our conversations about dance and dancers. However, watch yourself when you enter the state of Odisha. It is the new battleground of the SAMANTAPANCHAKA, the original name for KURUKSHETRA of the Mahabharata. The five lakes of blood that poured out from Parasurama’s axe after his genocide of the Kshatriya warrior is now replaced by the nonsense that is spewed from the self appointed ‘Dwarapalas’ of ODISHA heritage. In spite of all the good work being done by the state government and the many dancers who live there, a few fringe elements have taken it upon themselves to become self righteous guardians of Odissi. They embarrass organizers and noted visiting artistes in public forums by repeatedly stating that non Oriyas have NO RIGHT to be dancing Odissi.  Sharmila, Ramli, Madhavi... what were you all thinking for all these years???

And so it goes... into the warmer weather and more dance imaginings to inspire, animate and colour our lives…

World Dance Day is on April 29th and this little teenager has a birthday on April 14. Happy birthday Narthaki.com! I watch you become 13 with pride and joy! Thank you, Lalitha and Sumathi, the true ‘Dwarapalas’ of this portal. That three women have brought this infant this far is applause enough…. And
THANK YOU ALL for the support, belief and admiration for our dream.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/London/New York/Brussels

P.S: Now that the MARGAM debate has drawn many comments, we close the poll with a sharp comment by arts critic Veejay Sai.
(‘The Margam is dead, long live the Margam!’ by Veejay Sai)

This month's poll is
CAN TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS OF KNOWLEDGE BECOME COMMERCIAL COMMODITIES?
(The examples of classical dance ITEMS being marketed piece meal and specialised TEACHING of classical, traditional, ritual forms being sold to the highest bidder)