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August 1. 2012

We bid adieu to another great pioneer of dance. Without his determination, brilliance and perseverance, Kuchupidi would not have been known outside the Andhra village of the same name. Vempati Garu, your breath has stilled but thousands of your students carry on the art you gave of so generously.

As I fly across oceans to set foot back on Chennai soil tonight, I try to grasp the amazing month that was. Three continents, several cities and a cascading torrent of images, sounds, languages and lifestyles surrounded throughout July like an elegant Kanjeevaram sari. Theatre, dance, talks, tours, mountains and oceans, artistes past and present and the ever urgent voice of THE LIVE pushes its way to the surface of memory.

New York was where my two kids were in July – daughter getting her first novel completed   and son hustling in his new job as Producer / Cameraman / Director of a live TV newsfeed. Watching him prepare for the day reminded me of my own TV life in the eighties in the same city that was yet to discover the I-universe, e-mail and the magic of hand held devices. I was able to watch the American Ballet Theatre’s summer programming and marvelled at how elegantly the Lincoln Centre attracted such a diverse audience of all age groups for ballet.  Cut to a totally different performance event at the JOYCE – the physically plastic and pliable PILOBOLUS contemporary company whose reputation was built from their early years as NON DANCERS from Dartmouth College and who have endured as one of the most successful performance companies in the western world. From the Academy Awards to mainstream dance venues and specially commissioned corporate events, PILOBOLUS is a testimony to the incredible machine that is the human body. Their latest works were less physically extreme and more thoughtful and with two Japanese dancers in their company, giving them a slant towards more dance and less artistic gymnastics. Also playing in New York on the very same week was the Cirque Du Soleil. What can I say about this Montreal based clown theatre circus act that has coloured and changed the way circus / dance / technology / music and magic are integrated. For those who have not experienced their magic yet – make it on your MUST SEE list of 100 things before your die!

In Des Moines, Iowa, I was involved in intense discussions with the Shakespeare International Festival organisers who are mounting an ambitious event by the river next year. Oh, how the BARD continues to haunt us all with his words, character sketches and timeless truths. So watch out for at least one solo from yours truly from one of the most memorable of Shakespeare’s women!? Playing outdoor for a summer crowd of 1000 people will need me to recalibrate many of my more silent and meditative leanings for sure.

In Minneapolis, I reconnected with friends Sri Zaheer and theatre director Dipankar Mukherjee, whose Pangea World Theatre has finally found its own space for rehearsals and performances. Deeply connected to the voices of the marginalised (who draws these margins and who stands on either side can be a question for debate), Pangea has become one of the cultural landmarks of the Twin Cities. In between stellar gourmet food (guided by Sri’s exquisite taste) prepared by award winning chefs who have fled the crowded streets of New York and LA for the calm of the mid west, I visited the spanking new home of the GUTHRIE THEATRE, Minneapolis’ crown jewel of culture. Endless escalators carried us up many floors where several theatres were packed to capacity with popular re-stagings of ROMAN HOLIDAY (Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe are the current fashion icons once again… on jeans, bags, pillow covers and notebooks). In the caverns of this amazing complex is a small experimental theatre where I was blown away by COIS CEIM (Gaelic for footsteps) – a contemporary dance company from Dublin, Ireland. Dancer-choreographer David Bolger was accompanied by his 75 year old mother Madge Bolger and together they carried us through a brilliant evening called SWIMMING WITH MY MOTHER.  A simple bench that transformed into a diving board, a place to change, chat or dry hair gave us various images of  warmth, tenderness, memory, dreams, childhood and all carried on the choreographic metaphors of swimming, pushing through water, slow motion underwater-like movement. It triggered memories of how my own mother taught me to swim and was a refreshing ‘finger’ to the relentless movement for eternal youth and speed on stage.  This award winning production was one of the most innovative and original companies I have ever seen in recent times – another testament to the uncelebrated and exciting contemporary dance and theatre emerging from places like Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Latin America. Bound by difficult histories of colonisation, war, bloodshed and centuries of strife, artistes are constantly excavating what it means to hope and persist in the face of daily death.

On to Santiago, Chile, where my flight descended through the beautiful snow capped Andes and landed onto a chaotic airport which reminded me directly of my own country where voices, crying babies and helpless customs officials handling trained dogs to sniff at all our luggage wound past our snaking lines. I was upset with myself for not learning some basic Spanish before this trip since English is hardly spoken anywhere on the streets, stores or restaurants except in the hotels, and that too with such a heavy accent that it took me several seconds to separate the words to make the answers coherent. My visit was for the annual IFTR (International Federation of Theatre Research) conference titled MEDIATING THEATRE – Opera, dance, acting, research, new media and ritual.

The swarm of scholars from more than 34 countries in the hotel lobby and the tone of camaraderie that suffused the atmosphere was quite different from a dance conference - several of which I have attended. I have always maintained that the world of theatre is more inclusive and inquiring than that of dance….perhaps because the scholarship of dance is younger and the fragile world of non verbal performance needs more protection?  What we have in dance discourse is certainly not as open and curious - lesser porosity between theory and practice. My session was at the Working Group conclave of ‘Performance and Religion.’ A tight and serious group discussed and watched several clips and heard papers about ritual, myth, embodied performance (my work on Andal, Tara and other feminine tropes from India and beyond). Since I was the only professional dancer in the discussion peopled by religion, theatre and cultural studies scholars, the performances of Andal and Tara of Tibet were received with astonished silence. Dead silence from all the wordy and cerebral scholars from prestigious universities around the world. And THAT was the moment that drove home the unique impact of live performance. And a reminder that RESEARCH THROUGH PRACTICE needs to be re-membered and reinforced again and again. Several in the erudite group had never encountered meditative energies infused into the Indian dance tradition and certainly not the touch of irony and humour I insert into the Andal monologue with Krishna’s conch – the Panchajanya. Still, it was two long days of vigorous deliberations about the enduring appeal of religious ritual, belief and the astonishing drama and spectacle of “performance” within the daily puja / prayer / worship across cultures. 

Between several interesting sessions on Choreography, Pedagogy, Butoh, Tanz Theatre, Feminism, Audience, Consciousness, Public Spaces, Disability and Politics, I took time to visit the two homes of Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. His city home named Chascona (the wild haired one) after his mistress and later third wife Matilde, and the seaside residence called Isla Negra were both designed as land locked ships. The enormous amount of memorabilia, personal correspondence and unique objects d’art were as unique as the celebrated poet’s writings. His city home contained his Nobel Medal awarded in 1971 housed in a glass cabinet. Looking at this honour up close reminded me of a similar place I stood in a year ago. At Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan near Kolkata, where an empty space stared back at me. Gurudev’s Nobel Medal of 1913 had been stolen and perhaps never to be seen again. How lovingly the Neruda Foundation has maintained the homes and organised tours and thoughtful memorabilia at the gift shops! How careless and unfeeling have we been as Indians to dishonour the residences and living spaces of our great artistes! Could we ever have the opportunity to visit the homes of Rukmini Devi, Balasaraswati, Begum Akhtar, Bhimsen Joshi or  MS Subbalakshmi?  Many of them are either in ruins, converted to ugly storage areas or just demolished by greedy relatives.

“Do tears not yet spilled wait in small lakes
Or are they invisible rivers that run towards sadness?”

Pablo Neruda from THE BOOK OF QUESTIONS

Neruda’s haunting word images have made him one of the most important personalities of the Western canon of world literature and reading his translated poems can reveal his fabulous imagination in a country shocked into a Holocaust for 17 years (Sep 11, 1973 was the day it started). Chileans are still grappling with the horror of the Pinochet dictatorship and without justice or closure for the victims or the perpetrators all theatre and art ache with the savage cry of scabs being torn off open wounds. All that we heard and watched through every performance, installation and talks from Chilean artistes echoed this same anger and frustration. Young Chileans are determined to rip open the cellotaped memories of their parents who survived the dictatorship and mine this raw and potent information into their works. I would return every evening reminded of my own maternal grandfather who was held as a prisoner of war in Singapore for over two years by the Japanese during the Second World War. His survival of torture and his miraculous escape surfaced to my mind as I walked through the brand new but grim Museum of Memories in Santiago. Unable to complete the tour, I sat down on a bench reliving my grandmother’s stories of the horror of those times.

Human Rights and Torture Art are the most watched shows in Chile today. International directors, video and installation artistes are invited to create and mount theatre, dance, stand up shows, video art and sculpture in many of the actual spaces that were dreaded torture houses in the country. Amidst this daily reminder of brutality, a young Bharatanatyam dancer from Singapore, who was also attending the conference, ran up to me in the lobby and thanked me profusely for what else - NARTHAKI!  Her squeal of excitement upon seeing me and the spontaneous burst of excitement brought a smile and cheer to my mood of gloom and doom. Aaaaaah (deep exhale)!

The famous Olympics is under way and many of our dancers and artistes are already in the UK or have completed their performances for the important world event. We have photos taken by the brilliant Vipul Sangoi of Priyadarsini Govind at the Parliament House last month. Mira Kaushik/ Akademi’s cultural event is but one of the many happening all around the UK. Piali Ray’s Sampad also unfolded their multimedia and performance spectacle MANDALA in the Midlands and many more performances will occur over the next few days. Enjoy them as they appear on your computer/ television screens.

In the spectacular opening ceremony of the Olympics on July 27th, Akram Khan’s presence and artistic stamp on the terrorism segment of 7/11 London bombings left many, myself included, surprised - and not in a good way. Dancers dressed in loose salwar kameez inspired clothes and only Akram in an off white pants and shirt “wandering” in search of a mythical peace amidst the chaos of bombs and terror. A young (perhaps  Brit-Asian)  boy running scared among the movements and finally “finding” Akram who hoists him and then allows him to climb atop his rounded back in a symbolic raised hand holding the invisible “torch” of hope and harmony. Hmmmmm. Bangladesh- Brit superstar and poster boy of UK’s contemporary dance world and multicultural success Khan could have certainly done better. We do look forward to his India tour with DESH with excitement in September. Incidentally, this segment of the ceremony was edited out of the USA broadcast.

Film maker Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was spectacular with James Bond, The Queen and Mr Bean bringing huge cheers. Interesting to note that both the Beijing opening ceremony and the London event has been designed and staged by film directors. India’s theatre thespian Ratan Thiyam and designer Dasrath Patel ideated the country’s Festivals of India in Russia and the UK in the eighties but the baton has long been passed onto the cinematic medium for “adbhuta rasa” maximum impact. As Guy Debord says, “We are in the age of spectacle.” And dance cannot compete unless it collaborates vigorously and persistently with other mediums. The extraordinary success of the 3D film PINA, on late German choreographer Pina Bausch, is but one example.

Great news comes to us from the USA about the annual BESSIE AWARDS in Dance. Nominated for their outstanding ensemble work is the NRITYAGRAM ensemble along with the Chitrasena Dance Company of Sri Lanka. SAMHARA is the acclaimed work that is featured alongside two other nominations. Also in the running in another category is Kuchipudi / contemporary soloist Shantala Shivalingappa. Watching promotional video of Shantala in the lobby of the Joyce made me realise how deep the western contemporary dance aesthetic has been embedded into the prism of presenter / audience equation. Performing Mohiniattam and Kuchupidi “abstractions” in a long black dress with spaghetti straps and an ultra thin body, Shantala is the toast of Europe although not acknowledged as warmly in India.  Give me a young Anandavalli any day. Here was a truly fabulous  Kuchipudi dancer - all that “talukku” and “minukku” of the style! And here’s wishing Anandavalli, now the undisputed diva of Indian dance in Australia, all the best for the 25th anniversary of her dance academy in Sydney.

Best wishes to Nrityagram and Shantala for the nominations. For more details (http://www.narthaki.com/info/rev12/rev1246.html). Hats are also doffed to all those who have worked so hard over the past 40 years to create this space for Indian dance. From the margins of Ethnic and Folk Dance to mainstream attention, Indrani Rahman, Ritha Devi, Rajika Puri, Uttara Coorlawala, Hema Rajagopalan, Rathna Kumar, Viji Prakash, Rina Singha, Menaka Thakkar and others have worked systematically to create this kind of front page ‘optic.’ Am doffing my hat to these wonderful ‘EPIC WOMEN.’

And finally to our December conference – EPIC WOMEN – in myth, history, performance and life. The event is gaining momentum and many performers have been confirmed with several premiering new productions at the three day festival. Details are available on the site with frequent updates.

It is August and summer is coming to an end. In Tamilnadu, we are celebrating the month of Aadi with special house cleaning, body cleansing, special prayers for unmarried women AND the international BEE FESTIVAL where activists, artists, dancers and scientists speak, argue and perform the precarious ecological condition of vanishing bees and a threat to our daily lives. And you thought that bees only sting and make honey. Without them WE can cease to exist!

So hummmmm on... keep the buzzzzzzz going... and be as industrious, determined and persistent as these wonderful “BE(E)INGS”.


Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai all month long! Yesssssssss!

PS: KALAKSHETRA UPDATE… While Leela Samson has been officially reinstated as the Director of the Kalakshetra Foundation by the Central Government, she is now in the UK on a teaching assignment. Meanwhile, Arayambath Janardhanan popularly known as Janu-anna, one of the pillars of Kalakshetra, will be reinstated as Prof. Emeritus and help revive Kalakshetra productions. The issue is far from over, so watch for more news.