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August 1, 2013

"Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny part you occupy in this world."
- Gustave Flaubert

I have spent the entire month overseas, something that has not happened in 23 years. Six cities, three continents, and many, many miles of crisscrossing land and waters, takes its toll on the physical body. But the mind receives a steady stream of stimuli from the changing   landscapes, mountains, oceans, lakes, sands, olive trees and monuments that interface with  my speeches, lectures, performances and writings. So, this month will be a collection of my experiences and responses to events that have unfolded in the dance world and beyond. I wanted to begin with a collage of reflections from Barcelona against a backdrop of magnificent architecture, Gaudi, Dali and Picasso jostling the  mind space for prominence. Too much beauty in a week. But the reason that brought me to this Catalan city (separatist fever is very high and I am reminded that I am NOT in Spain but in Catalunya!) is a theatre conference. However, the travelogue section of this letter needs to wait since there seems to be seismic events that have occupied the minds and tongues of the dance world. This, instead of a royal baby, train accidents, cricket matches and actual earthquakes.  

 Kalakshetra- my alma mater - a grander IDEA than its present muddled reality.

"Sheath your swords!" That should be the general proclamation to all those who are aghast, dismayed and downright angry with the appointment of Priyadarsini Govind as the new director of Kalakshetra Foundation. WHOEVER the new appointee is, they are inheriting a mess. Disgruntled sections of staff and students who are behaving like trade unionists, falling dance standards and dubious media reports about financial fraud are smearing the once glorious cultural landmark into a shadow of its former majestic self. Having a non-Kalakshetran, the first time ever, and a star dancer in her prime, with nothing except her sterling performing credentials, may or may not be the direction that is needed. The initial response to her appointment reveals Ms. Govind’s lack of preparedness for the task. Using words like "thrilled" and releasing coy and demure ‘nayika/pining heroine’ photos to go along with the press release of her new administrative position only furthers the general impression that her coherence remains on the stage and not yet proven in the areas of management, institution building and collaboration with government workers. Because that is what Kalakshetra is - a government institution and Govind now a government employee. If she is considering cutting down her performance calendar (she seems to be dancing 40 days a month) then her ability to show gravitas, forethought and planning will need to come to the fore. An adoring international fan base and 18 years in the spotlight does not necessarily prepare a successful dancer to transition to the seat of an able administrator.

In the fields of medicine, engineering, corporate finance, architecture, design and pharmaceuticals, qualifications are a pre-requisite for jobs. It seems that only in culture we don’t seem to care. Just about anyone can become a choreographer, a guru and a scholar and anyone can comment, interfere and take charge in the arts world. And when they do, the war begins. Silent and deadly. Sonal Mansingh was forced out unfairly from the Chairperson’s seat at the Sangeet Natak Akademi when an ill advised signature campaign was launched against her. Leela Samson’s unhappy exit is another more recent event. Intelligent and capable women are targets everywhere and the sword of patriarchy seems ready to slice those who seem strong and confident. Over the last 15 years, the status of dance has diminished considerably in the political arenas and dancers are quite frankly, laughed at in the corridors of government. Even today we are referred to in derogatory terms of "nautanki" and “naachne waali"! In this scenario, what does Kalakshetra mean to the nation’s consciousness? Once it was the fulcrum of the nationalist debate. Now it finds itself on the margins.

The contrast between former director Leela Samson and Priyadarsini Govind is too wide for comment.  For Kalakshetra alumni, remarks from the board members in the media (who preferred to be anonymous) stating that the  choice of Ms. Govind represented moving away from the usual "baggage" of a Kalakshetran is hurtful and unnecessary. As if the former students of Kalakshetra were universally unfit for the position. Were more experienced and suitable candidates considered and interviewed for the position? Were these candidates within the stipulated 56 year age limit? Yes.  And they were NOT selected. Perhaps the current board and staff wanted to appoint someone younger, untested, of marquee quality AND willing to learn and be moulded over time. But is this a time to initiate a novice? How do the present staff and students feel about a performing artiste-boss whose ‘leap-lunge- pose- twirl’ style are ‘yugas’ apart from what Kalakshetra has doggedly cultivated for almost 8 decades as classical (modern) Bharatanatyam? How will the three board members connected to Kalakshetra - gurus C V Chandrasekhar, Kumudini Lakhia and Preetha Reddy (MD, Apollo Hospitals and a Kalakshetra alumni ) guide the new appointee? Why were senior dancer Chitra Visweswaran’s arguments at the selection process not heeded? Why is it  that dancers’ opinions are never sought and heeded? Why should everyone else besides dancers be allowed to decide what is good for a national dance academy? And why are  dancers not united enough to form a strong lobby for important causes?

Asking these questions will automatically delegate me to the ENEMY position since we now, it seems are firmly in the age of Modi/Bush, "If you are not with us, then you must be against us." The last time I checked, we still lived in a democracy and a healthy debate is vital for a civil society. There has been a flurry of opinions from senior art critics about the lacunae in other national arts organisations like the National School of Drama and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The larger question perhaps needs to be, "How are these precious national institutions managed?"

Kalakshetra is 77 years old and its visionary founder Rukmini Arundale closed her eyes in 1986 as a very sad woman, the institution already rumbling with dissatisfaction and legal disputes. After all these years, there is still no academic accreditation for the graduates of Kalakshetra. Employment opportunities are scarce without that vital university degree certificate. Access for students of dance history needs to be opened up and a vigorous interchange between theory and practice needs to occur. Today, dance has moved away from the single goal of performance. While embodied experience continues to be a very important part of the whole picture, conferences and conclaves around the world are debating diverse topics like Epistemology, Phenomenology, Consciousness, Corporeality, Resistance, Ethno-musicology and other topics - all connected to DANCE! These are just some of the ideas that were debated at the Barcelona Theatre Conference where six delegates from India spoke about a very relevant and alternate point of view to Western Theological hegemony. And while more than 7 architectural landmarks in Barcelona are already UNESCO World Heritage Sites, why is Kalakshetra, the visual and cultural epicentre of India’s arts renaissance not listed, or even a consideration for this honour?  Founder Rukmini Devi was once nominated for the seat of President of India. Such was the mettle of this woman!

And so, good luck to Priyadarsini Govind. All her hard work, focus and dedication displayed towards her performing career will now be tested. This is a HUGE honour for the 48 year old who seems to want to shift focus, reduce performances (??) and have a platform for the next stage of her vaulting ambition.  So, to all those irate members of the dance fraternity / sorority - calm down. Let us wish the new director and her staff and students the best of luck in what is bound to be a tough road to travel. Kalakshetra is important. Its future needs to be less rocky and acrimonious than its recent past.

Now to my month long adventures that took me to so many cities and exposed me to centuries of magnificence.

My first stop in July was the scenic Laguna Beach, California, where I was privileged to perform for a group of select CEO’s of major corporations. With the Pacific Ocean as my backdrop, dolphins frolicking near surfers, I was but a part of Nature's magnificent scenography. Performing from my popular template ABOUT HER that unfolds a cascade of feminisms, the Indians in the audience seemed gripped. For the many 'desi' men who attended as first time 'rasikas' - who confessed to running away from classical dance shows - the stories I shared between dances, connecting the many faces of the sacred feminine to life and contemporary icons, came as a revelation. In the audience were women who were called  Durga, Saraswati, Kanchana, Susheela, Padmini, Diambika. All names of the sacred feminine but not recognised as such. At the end, one very successful doctor came up to me and said, "You connected the dots for me. I finally understand the strands that connect a woman’s world to her family and society through your movements and words."

Between my travels, I received news about the passing of my grandmother Saraswati. For those who have met her in my parental home in Chennai, lying down in the verandah and observing me in rehearsals, she has been a constant pillar in my personal and professional life for almost 6 decades. She closed her eyes on July 15th at age 97.  Five years ago, on July 24th, I lost my mother while performing in Hyderabad. Soon after I wrote a personal essay questioning WHY DO I DANCE? I was not home when my father passed away in 1998 - rehearsing 11,000 miles away for Dipankar Mukherjee's theatre production. And now, absent again for my grandmother’s last breath. It is in moments like these that doubts surface. Am I relevant to the dance world? Is what I do a self indulgent madness? Should I have been nearer to my loved ones when these transitions occurred? My parents and grandmother were immensely practical people. "There are hundreds to mourn but not enough with talent and ability like yours. So go out and do your thing!" was their constant chant.  But....I still wonder. WHY DO I DANCE? My grandmother was more than a beloved co-parent for me, accompanying me through my life in India and New York, standing beside me strong and fearless as I fought against all that was thrown at me. She was backstage at every performance in Madras and travelled with me in India as long as her body would allow her to. She watched my sister Pritha and I perform ANDAL ANDAL in December 2011 and again in SWARNA KANNAN in September 2012, both times proudly seated in a wheelchair wearing a gorgeous Kanchipuram sari and weeping for her lost daughter - my mother!  Now her room is silent and her bed empty. My home will take many months to recover from her absence. And my heart perhaps longer to heal.  I bring back the thoughts of July 2008 exactly five years later. 

WHY DO I DANCE?

My month long travels also gave me time to prepare for the forthcoming international imprint  based on the two successful dance conferences MAD AND DIVINE and EPIC WOMEN. Co-edited by Dr. Ketu Katrak of the University of Irvine, California, this publication hopes to condense two incredibly successful dance events into a volume of academic papers and personal choreographic notes of some of the performers - many of whom created original work for the events. Anyone who has or is working on a book will know how difficult and time consuming this is.

In 2012, I participated in my first IFTR - International Federation of Theatre Research -conference in Santiago, Chile, where the theme was PERFORMING TRANSCENDENCE. My presentation was for the working group called PERFORMANCE and RELIGION. This year, the Barcelona presentation was focused on the conference theme - EMBODIMENT AND REPRESENTATION. The selections chosen were from my 25 year long study of the Goddess and the diagrammatic vibrations of the SRI CHAKRA. Through dance, visual art, tantric citations, yoga, traditional healing practices and martial arts, the paper presentation and performance provided points of cross illumination between Western and Eastern beliefs in sacred geometry. The delicate balance between not succumbing to an Orientalist view while maintaining a cogent balance between practice and academic objectivity continues to be my twin ‘dwarapalas’ (guardians) of my ongoing investigations into DEVI - ON THE MARGINS.

One Sunday in Barcelona, the local guide took us to the oldest Gothic cathedral in one of the city's many plazas. There, people of all ages joined in large and small circles, deposited their belongings in the centre, held hands and began a synchronised folk dance of the Catalan region called SARDANA. On the steps of the Gothic church were volunteer musicians on the trumpet, saxophone, cello, violin - playing a structured score that all dancers seemed to know. Young and old, couples, friends, strangers, made circles all over the plaza and danced. Such a lovely sight.... reminded me of Kolattam, Kummi, Kaikottikali or the popular Raas that is taught in homes and then performed during festivals and celebrations. Except that the SARDANA occurred all through the year… every Sunday and was a public opportunity for anyone to participate. Set against the magnificent Gothic facade, faith and celebration fused on a blazing hot Spanish morning.

Culture is valued and celebrated in Spain but taxation for all entertainment and cultural events have risen by 20%, which means that a 10 euro entrance ticket for a movie or a dance show now costs 12 euro. All concerts, performances and museum entrances have also been taxed and this is affecting attendance. The protests have already begun from the strong cultural lobby. Meanwhile, museums in Italy and Spain are overselling tickets, which means huge crowds, overheated rooms and not enough time or perspective to enjoy many masterpieces. Still, Michelangelo’s DAVID, Venus De Milo at the Academia and the languorous Arianne sculpture at the Uffizi were worth the perspiration and the long waiting lines in Florence’s sweltering heat.

In Florence, where male genitalia greets you at every turn and violence against women is celebrated in stone (the rape of Sabine, the rape of Polyxena, Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa), I was almost relieved in Spain where the Sacred Feminine is celebrated and worshipped so widely. Especially in the cool mountains of Montserrat where two golden angels were supposed to have carved the jagged peaks with a golden saw! Walking up the narrow stairs to kiss the hand of the Black Madonna who holds the child Christ on her lap, I passed a staircase lined with gold embossed mosaic tiles arranged to represent more than 16 women saints who have guarded HER presence since the 13th century. The white stone statue is believed to be a Swayambhu - discovered by a monk - turned black through exposure to time and candle flames. A miracle healer, SHE was revered by Picasso, Dali, Gaudi, Chagall, Matisse and Monet who donated some of their works to a museum next door to the church. Today, Spain's creative community continue to visit this beautiful mountain town where local farmers still make cheese and herbal liqueurs in their homes.

One of the joys of travels for conferences and performances is the chance to meet or re-meet my girl-turned-women friends. With the sand squishing through our toes, Church Park Convent kindergarten classmates turned corporate superstars, Susheela and Karmeen and I strolled down scenic Newport Beach in California. We watched the finals of Wimbledon while gazing at surfers, dolphins and botox obsessed Californians. In Italy, dancer Chitra Sundaram shared her love of Florentine architecture and Tuscan food (oh those tomatoes!) in the city of the Medicis. In Barcelona, Spain, feminist scholar Fawzia Afzal Khan and theatre professor Ketu Katrak joined the "Ooh and Aah" chorus while marvelling at the art of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and architect Gaudi's splendid cathedrals. We were treated by the conference organisers to jaw dropping elegance every evening - flamenco, Spanish acoustic guitar, contemporary music, physical theatre, shows at the fabulous Greek amphitheatre and a final party at a spectacular castle that now houses the Catalan Museum of Contemporary Art. Oh, what a stylish city Barcelona is! And in spite of the woeful economic situation, it is so clean. Streets and subways are spotless. (New York City should be ashamed of its garbage pile ups and stinking subways). Endless tapas, toothpick cuisine from Basque country (google that one), pitchers of Sangria, Cava, churros dipped in dark chocolate, laughter and midnight dancing amidst soaring Doric columns with feminists from Sweden, Finland, Spain, UK, Australia and India were energising.  These estrogen moments have always sustained my spirit and I continue to cherish my women friends as life continues to carry me through surprising twists and turns. Most importantly, these women - not all of whom are dancers or actors - have become precious ‘battery chargers’ since we rarely discuss DANCE…but debate LIFE. 

Before signing off, there are notable mentions in the dance world. From New York we hear good news of the two BESSIE Dance Award nominees Hari Krishnan and Shantala Shivalingappa. From Singapore, we are told that Asia's Peter Brook - Ong Keng Sen - assumes role of Artistic Director of Singapore International Arts Festival which has been languishing in recent years. We await some fresh and provocative ideas from this Asian superstar. Rajika Puri returns from another performance of ELENI of SPARTA in Greece. Rama Vaidyanathan continues with her successful MAD AND DIVINE concert tour of the USA. Kalpana Raghuraman brings back her wonderful FRIDA to several cities in India. Rajika, Rama and Kalpana created their now internationally acclaimed works for my conferences in 2011 and 2012. And THIS is the satisfaction of successful curation.  Navatman in New York launches an ambitious dance/music festival. Contemporary dancer and choreographer Parijat Desai from NYC who has been selected for a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar grant to India will teach contemporary dance at Darpana and at the Gati Forum in Delhi. Parijat has been seeking to move out of New York City for some time and coming full circle to India may be a positive move for the UCLA World Cultures graduate.

Good news from New Delhi is about the Archive of Indian Music (AIM) which is launching their redesigned website and making rare gramophone recordings of great musicians available for scholars and students. At a time when increasing attention is being paid to the dismal efforts at archiving India's performing arts, this is really good news. In Chennai, effervescent Janaki Srinivasan (she is the quintessential ENERGISER Battery Bunny!) and her team forges ahead with yet another edition of the Natyarangam festival - this time featuring Kings and Rulers. Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan receives the prestigious Sangeeta Kalanidhi award and Chitra Visweswaran the Natya Kala Acharya award from the Madras Music Academy. Congratulations! The major dance awards for the year will be announced very soon. 

One recent video that I wish to share with you is SAKHI PRANA (http://vimeo.com/10134590), beautifully directed by Chennai based filmmaker Rajiv Menon. For those who want to see something refreshingly different, watch Preethi Athreya do ‘abhinaya’ to a Sarah Vaughan song in SWEET SORROW (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pH-nRxxZ4K8). And read the inspiring interview this month of Ananda Shankar Jayant’s triumph over breast cancer in Victory Dance.
 
Finally, in this age of social media hyperbuzz and maniacal marketing tricks, we are told that FACEBOOK LIKES can be "purchased." A good read on this new marketing phenomenon with an Indian dance connection in ROSES AND THORNS.

My heart is full and my body is heavy with too much beauty, and too much travelling and far too much feasting. I am burnt brown in the blazing European heat and I am channelling my grandmother who would order me to apply yogurt cream and lemon juice on my face! Now to hug my children, rest, diet, exercise and get going with the dance of my life!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
In Chennai - and refusing to move anywhere - at least for now!

Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in  
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ARthecontemporaryclassicist?ref=hl



Response

August 9, 2013

Amazing. Priyadarsini inherits a hornet’s nest.... not only in terms of board members, staff and faculty, but also in that artistically what she practices is historically positioned as opposed  to what Kalakshetra has inherited and what Kalakshetra inhered to so far. Still I think it is best to close that book. It is dumb to be prudish about romance and movement for movement's sake if one wants an audience in a time where every seat occupied (in the auditorium) is a vote of trust and interest. I know that Kalakshetra performances are always sold out at home during the season. How wonderful. What an example. It is worth keeping this "alive." On the other hand, it is hard to book Kalakshetra abroad. Choices have to be made.  

Regarding academic education, having performed my way through a masters and Ph.D, I do see how theory and practice can be antagonistic. Yet, each performer also needs to be equipped to deal with a global world of applications and funding trends - if he or she wants longevity as performer. Academic performers are invariably out of shape, although impressively verbal...   So the idea of offering more that certification at Kalakshetra is a very BIG step - not to be taken glibly. 

In this case of a complete switch - I do hope that the persons in places of leadership will support Priyadarsini by relieving her of administrative minutia, and keep her informed of official red tape procedures.  In moments of challenge, it is this that invariably gets thrown at visionary leadership. Silent acts of non-cooperation, little resistances can wear down even the most enthusiastic. Hard choices involve risk, but for who? In this case, the risk is all Priyadarsini's.   If Priyadarsini meets the silent treatment, action-in-absentia negotiations, then I will firmly believe that she has not been supported by those that selected her.  If this happens, I will only be able to see Kalakshetra as dysfunctional and embroiled in a legacy of arrogance and insularity.

Thank you, Anita, for keeping us informed.  I am conscious of distance, of being a far away observer, and I am grateful for the telescope that you offer as Narthaki. I stand by what I just said.  If someone would like to explain to me why and what I say is wrong, offensive, inaccurate, opinionated etc, I would love to hear from her or him. I do care and please do keep us posted.

My best wishes and heart goes out to to Priyadarsini Govind as she starts this labor - Promethean because of the circumstances.

- Uttara Asha Coorlawala
Professor (Adj) Dance, BA program, Barnard College/Columbia University
Professor, BFA program, The Alvin Ailey American School of Dance at Fordham University