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August 1, 2016

Returning to the rehearsal space after a full year's hiatus has been a milestone. A healthier body, a calmer mind and a spirit revived by months of watching, reflecting, reading, walking, sailing, trekking and dining in far away cities, small towns and villages has rebooted my body and soul. I needed to take this break after 26 years of non-stop creating, performing, producing, speaking, convening, curating and mentoring. (In saying this, I realize that the time between age 5 and 21 that was spent in the dance class and a thriving performance career until age 21 is not being included in this discussion. I am only counting the years since my return from the USA in 1990). What if I said that NOT DANCING for 12 months has made me fitter, healthier and more energetic than ever! Don't raise those eyebrows!

The time was spent analyzing my body and limbs - internal and external, immersing myself in yoga intensives and other cross training programmes, long periods of total silence and a 24/7 health regime that was very difficult to sustain with the constant pressure of daily dancing.

It was a RELIEF not to worry about putting on makeup, managing the pressures of producing and performing simultaneously and instead, concentrating on observing and assessing the world I had chosen to inhabit. Even writing this monthly column required a conscious tug back into the issues and events that unfolded in the dance world.

In the past 12 months, I attended several conferences, chaired panels, made presentations in dance, theatre and literature festivals, watched a lot of dance-music-theatre, visited museums, witnessed many rehearsal sessions, held discussions with many colleagues and enrolled in many short term courses in philosophy and art appreciation. I acknowledge that my own body of dance work is not a perfect edifice but a continuing work in progress. As the archival process is underway, I have to ask myself what the value is of my many decades in this world. By returning to performance after this hiatus, do I have something fresh to offer? I know my body feels different while moving and my work will, hopefully, reflect this time spent away from the studio and stage.

Theatre continues to welcome the widest range of presenters and attendees. In comparison, the dance conferences are in "pauper town". Interesting cities, well funded programmes that range from social activism, protest art and open air installations to feminist arguments and LGBT topics, I was most engaged during my three visits to theatre events. May DANCE also be illuminated by the NEW WORLD DISORDER!

My time away also made me painfully aware that diaspora communities that hold Indian dance and music as cultural umbilical cords, will remain stuck in an awkward nostalgia time warp. That, after BREXIT and the looming threat of a TRUMP-led America, the performing arts world may actually shrink in imagination and scope, and that the best challenge is RIGHT HERE IN INDIA. That networks needs to be strengthened, touring intensified and new audiences developed. The time is right and ripe for a fresh set of challenges in an increasing right wing accented India.


The inner life of a dancer is always fodder for choreography. How does she create? Where does the seed of creativity germinate? What nourishes her spirit as the journey demands every fibre of her being into a calling that is, in turn, exhausting and exhilarating? Odissi dancer Sharmila Biswas' latest multi-style, ensemble production seeks to illuminate the precarious and vulnerable lives and artistic fault lines of women - specifically, dancers. Without dwelling on the now overstated and flogged-to-death topic of the DEVADASI, Sharmila intelligently tugged on a different timeline. The heavenly Apsara nymphs who arose from the churning of the celestial milky ocean. It is to those 'vidyadharis' - keepers of knowledge - that the modern day dancers and musicians owe a debt.

The brilliant music score that wove Odissi percussion, Bharatanatyam 'bols' and Kuchipudi 'jathis' was the best aspect of this unusual production. Now on its final leg of an all-India tour, ANTAR YATRA soared and dipped in many places. Excellent classical dancing by the three soloists - Lakshmi Parthasarthy Athreya (Bharatanatyam), Amrita Lahiri (Kuchipudi) and Saswati Garai Ghosh (brilliant Odissi) illuminated the many sections of this over long work.

The premiere show in Chennai, produced by the NGO, AIM FOR SEVA, the educational wing of Pujyasri Swami Dayanand Saraswati, had moments of technical blips and bloopers. Most of them would have been smoothened out by the end of the tour. The fuzzy segues and the rather clumsy opening sections were quickly forgotten when the soloists began their individual chapters. Props and scenic design by Oriya artistes, brought a whole new aesthetic to the normally over ornamented Chennai dance scene. The lukewarm applause towards the end did in no way diminish the intelligence and sincerity of the creators and performers. For me, an evening of high quality classical dancing was enough. Kudos to AIM FOR SEVA and its dynamic and determined team led by Sheela Balaji. For an NGO to first commission and then put their mighty network behind touring a classical dance work in this day and age is an achievement when most organisers and funders are either turning away from classical dance or shrinking into parochial ghetto like cubicles.

With MEERA (meditative choreography by CHITRA VISWESWARAN with stunning music by BOMBAY JAYASHRI) starting a 22 city US tour this month, it is heartening to see the support that dance is getting from the most unexpected source.


Say Say. What do you say about the MAGSAYSAY? The selection of Carnatic musician TM KRISHNA for the prestigious Philippine based award came as a total shock to most 'rasikas' in Chennai. What had this 40 year old brilliant musician actually accomplished to deserve this award, was the question on many outraged lips when the news broke. Granted, he had called out the elephant in the room - according to cultural critic Sadanand Menon - CASTE. TMK had denounced the elitism in Carnatic music as dominated by Brahmins. Ironically, he is an upper caste Brahmin whose entire career was nurtured and nourished by the very same organisers and elite clique he was now denouncing. A darling of the pseudo liberals and leftists outside Tamilnadu, TMK has attempted many interventions. Classical music in the slums, festivals in war torn Jaffna, writing on social issues in various magazines, drafting young volunteers to help and manage his annual performing arts festivals in Chennai. An avid trekker, his latest award comes with the over arching hue and cry about his condescending attitude towards the less privileged. Are the DALITS he is performing for translating into audiences at the plush Madras Music Academy? Is he learning any of the DALIT music? Are the slum dwellers learning Carnatic music? Is anyone in Chennai shedding a tear or clutching their hearts in agony when TMK does not perform during the annual season? NO. Nobody in this city cares whether he sings or not. He may have a group of fierce fans who are willing to cut their veins to prove their loyalty but there are an equal number who have not succumbed to the PR machine overdrive. The Carnatic music world, while furious at his jibes and jabs, are comfortable with the knowledge that there are too many brilliant musicians who have already stepped into the slot made vacant when TMK made his grand announcement that he would not perform in the annual December season evening slots. Many organisers are relieved that they don't have to deal with upset audiences when he ENDS with the traditional opening song of a concert! The media in North India, however, is obsessed with his provocative statements. It seems nobody else exists in the rich and diverse world of Carnatic music!

What makes this award to TMK all the more surprising is that there are so many more artistes doing excellent work for a far more sustained time line and who could have qualified. How can 5 to 7 years of "community outreach" work qualify for such a huge honour? When Carnatic music doyenne MS Subbulakshmi was selected for the award, it was an eruption of national euphoria for someone who had devoted her life to collecting funds for various deserving causes. MS was 58 years old and had already spent 25 years in public service. TMK is 40. A sure sign of the times!

So should dancers flee proscenium halls and head to the slums? TMK has proven that if you make an attempt to be "inclusive" for 7 to 10 years, it may just get you the most unexpected rewards! Better yet to stay in the arena of creativity/performance and art while keeping EXCELLENCE as a goal that TMK fans wish he would return to!

Magsaysay for T.M. Krishna: Citation an insult to Carnatic music by Jataayu


Priyadarsini Govind

The same wish follows fans of dancer Priyadarsini Govind. After an "underwhelming" US tour of SAAYUJYA with musician TMK, the talented dancer finds herself again embroiled in a controversy. Three years earlier, I had written about how wrong a choice Priyadarsini Govind was to assume the role of director of the prestigious national dance institution KALAKSHETRA. As her term comes up for renewal, there is a rumble about her capacity and capability from the members of the Kalakshetra Foundation board. Giving up her glorious dancing career that saw her amass a global fan following from Azerbaijan to Adelaide, Govind was perhaps, unprepared for the tiresome procedures of Government red tape. At age 51, she is still young enough to return to the performing circuit with her prodigious DVD outputs and an international population of fanatic imitators. Kalakshetra standards have dropped and the reboot of the classic RAMAYANA series has been less than satisfying. We wait for more news about Govind's extensions and Kalakshetra's future. Kalakshetra needs the twin forces of a capable administrator and a visionary artistic director. To expect a single individual to perform both roles is not practical given the demands or adaptability and flexibility that lie outside the sylvan campus in Adyar.

DOORDARSHAN, ALL INDIA RADIO, ICCR, DEPARTMENT OF CULTURE, SANGEET NATAK AKADEMI - all these national institutions have their own parameters for grading performing artistes. A TOP, A, A MINUS, B PLUS... It goes on... Not that everyone who has made the top tiers actually get invited anywhere to tour on behalf of the Indian government. Ask guru C.V. Chandrasekhar, who, along with his two daughters Chitra and Manjari, have been lofted to the top grades and have NEVER been sent on international cultural tours. So this latest grading system, adopted by the present BJP government, without consulting any critic or cultural guru comes as a total shock. Troubling and flawed in its intent and purpose, one can only surmise that those close to the corridors of power - read New Delhi and Delhi based artistes - will have the largest slice of the pie! More about this controversy in the ROSES AND THORNS section.

Meanwhile the muddy goings on with national awards and the regional favouritism towards Manipur and the North East is happening at the cost of hugely talented artistes in other parts of India. The shocking disregard of failing to hand over the national SANGEET NATAK AKADEMI PURASKAR to the son of the late awardee ARAYER SRINIVASA RENGACHARIAR - 3 years after the selection in the category of RITUAL THEATRE, is an example of glaring oversight from those in power in New Delhi. As I write this column, there has been little or no reaction from the SNA about righting this wrong for a humble priest hailing from the Tamil temple town of SRI VILLIPUTTUR, for whom the award came too late and now perhaps may NEVER be acknowledged! For the 22 year old grandson, who is slowly stepping into Andal's sanctum to continue this rare tradition of prayer and performance, this selective amnesia is surely not a good sign of encouragement for this rare art form!


INTER_RUPTED by Aditi Mangaldas

Beyond glamorous photos that are posted every second on social media, the LIVE aspect is now assaulting us. Bad enough we had to deal with so much mediocrity tooting their horns. Now we have to also resist tired, balding, overweight critics and newly anointed commentators holding forth on everything from politics to pot roast! Dancers can use this new window via podcasts, webcasts or rehearsals and other backstage moments to share interesting vignettes and slices of 'process'. It is the sweat and grime of creation that is far more interesting than the actual final presentation.

August is an exciting month. Premieres and launches, photo shoots and award meetings, tours and workshops. This is the month that is slowly matching the frenzy of the Chennai December season without the nuisance value of clogged streets and impossible traffic. INTER_RUPTED by Aditi Mangaldas's newest should be interesting to watch for where she chooses to place 'abhinaya' - on the face or the body! UK PULSE magazine's newest edition focuses on this aspect of performance. With back to back articles on the late guru Kalanidhi Narayanan and UK's BN star Seeta Patel as contrasts, the ideas discussed opened up several questions that pointed clearly at differing aesthetics and points of reference in the UK and India.

Rukmini Vijayakumar

Yamini Muthanna

She was flirting with the camera for many ad films and now she has plunged into the world of Tamil cinema with one of the greatest directors of our times. Dancer RUKMINI VIJAYAKUMAR, seen lately in television ads for leggings, where she does ballet leaps and splits, will be featured in a high profile Tamil film soon. Dancer YAMINI MUTHANNA is the yoga guru on the ACTIVE FITNESS channel for the TATA SKY cable service. It is wonderful to see dancers diversify their portfolio, something that I have been talking about - being adaptable and creative - to stay relevant and to be willing to reinvent themselves as the world changes rapidly.


We are delighted that our newest columns NOT JUST ANYBODY and MOTHERS BY DAUGHTERS AND OTHERS are doing so well. The social media links to both columns are enjoying hundreds and thousands of hits and several shares, proving that dancers are interested in topics beyond Selfies, photoshopped images and positive reviews. To our contributors and the food-fitness divas - a huge hurrah for joining our cyber community with your expertise and ideas.

And on a final note, nothing we perform in the next four months can compete with the theatrics of the upcoming US Presidential elections. The cast of characters, the delightful fodder for comics and cartoonists and the extremist behaviour of the angry right wing fringe can only pale against the all India and diasporic mania for the latest release of Tamil superstar Rajnikant's film KABALI! Add to that the sheer magnitude of the Malaysian financial scandal and we are left wondering what we are doing in the realm of art! Of what use is our endless worrying and planning on the next project? Are we making a dent? Can art heal or can it just calm frayed nerves!

We are already into the last five months of the year!
Dance on... Dream on... Dare to risk...

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai - Singapore - Kuala Lumpur

Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST /

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