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August 1, 2018

With white rings on wet umber
With moonlit sand I worship
You who thought burnt bodiless
Stroke ardour's ache: save my body.
I char for his sooty resplendence
Send me to him who grasps
The sphere spitting fire -
I'll follow as liquid shadow.

ANDAL's song to Kamadeva, God of Love
From NACHIYAR TIRUMOZHI
8th century CE
Translation by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

I open with a heartfelt round of gratitude to all those young dancers who wished me on Guru Purnima Day. Not being a guru in the traditional sense, I was moved, as I am each year, by the numerous messages and mails that come to me citing my work and words as an inspiration.
Thank you all... and may the light continue to burn within each of you!



#QUEEN SONAL ENTERS PARLIAMENT

It was a long time coming. The announcement that über diva and celebrated performer Sonal Mansingh would be nominated by the ruling BJP government as a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament. The news was welcomed globally by the dance community for whom Ms Mansingh is both an icon and an emblem of courage, determination and fierce intelligence.
In New Delhi, several celebrations marked the moment with high teas, soirées and fetes thrown in her honour. We now await her maiden speech in Parliament and her ability to steer the distracted government towards heritage, arts and culture.
Congratulations and felicitations to a truly remarkable woman!


#SAME OLD SAME NEW?

Prarthana Purkayastha & Anurima Banerji

The growing confidence of South Asian dance academics in the UK and USA is worth noticing and admiring. Each conference I attend outside India raises my applause barometer when I see the numbers of confident young women who negotiate dance, politics, feminism, activism and art with such ease. The academic jargon pours from their minds and mouths and many of them have parallel careers as university teachers and performers.

In historic and gorgeous Malta (an island nestled between Italy and Africa), I met with a group of dance academics - mostly South Asian - who were led by Anurima Banerji (USA) and Prarthana Purkayastha (UK). We were assembled in a round table format to discuss the forthcoming OXFORD HANDBOOK ON INDIAN DANCE. The preliminary list of contributors featured the same geographical arc of India-UK-USA.

Why is the rest of the world being ignored? Is there nothing of worth happening in South Africa, Australia, Russia, Canada, China, Europe and South America? Are there no serious academics and thinkers who can contribute to this important new volume? Is the kernel of Indian dance only carried through this 3 nation timeline? If this new handbook is scheduled for a 2020 release, surely there is time to include new voices and opinions rather than the same old tired names and worn out discourses?

What about queer dancing? Sexuality and Homoerotic poetry in content? Right Wing Religious rabble?
New methods of teaching? Techno gurus? Death of legacy?

Indian dance today intersects so many strands. It is this exciting and messy complex that needs to be addressed.

As someone who travels the world and observes so much, I find this kind of attitude a bit tiresome. Anurima and Prarthana are bright women who hopefully, will rethink some of their content.


#FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Arshiya Sethi

At Malta, I met scholar and arts organiser Arshiya Sethi who is a newly minted PhD. With great pleasure, I invited her to contribute regularly to this portal. SOCH is Dr Sethi’s column and I hope you find her “thoughts” engaging. Welcome to narthaki.com, Arshiya!

In her opening column, Arshiya asks the relevant question as to why most classical trained dancers are oblivious to the daily politics that surrounds them.

Which brings me to the next subject…


#BN FEMINISM - HERE WE GO AGAIN!

Mythili Prakash

A recent blog post by the gorgeous dancer Mythili Prakash set me thinking of the perennial dichotomy of classical vs modern in Bharatanatyam. Mythili, now a mother of a 3 year old girl, Rumi, must be assaulted with various moments of delight and anxiety about her daughter’s future. India is now  unofficially anointed with the title of “RAPE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD”. In a recent UN survey, India is more dangerous for women than Syria or Iraq!

In Mythili’s heartfelt words, her return to the time honoured classical Daru composition MAATE which invokes and honours DEVI, the Goddess, became the catalyst for a series of thoughts about the glaring chasm in the traditional lyrics and the grim reality for girls in everyday life. As much as I admire Mythili and her gorgeous dancing, I am curious about why she has experienced this “wake up moment” only now!  She mentions the gruesome gang rape of a 11 year old girl in Chennai and weaves a very open ended question to herself and obliquely, to her art. I continue to maintain that the classical framework has been created for a certain time and place - where visuals, values and content are braided to create a certain old world reverie. The appearance of a classical dancer in costume is akin to a South Indian bride or a Goddess in a shrine. All three are decked up, decorated and stand at a distance from reality.

Among the numerous responses and LIKES for Mythili’s post were several dancers who wrote that they were waiting for the new “avatar” of this varnam! Seems they completely missed the point! Mythili did not indicate that she was going to change the “TILT” of the original piece, but some dim witted dancers assumed that immediately!

Do we place a rifle in the hands of Devi in a shrine imploring her to wake up and kill the rapists?
Do we remove the noose rope from Her palm and replace it with a pistol?
Padma Subrahmanyam has been doing this for the past 30 years - celebrating DEVI and appearing in a finale tableau with an AK 47 rifle in her hand!
Dramatic?  Brave? Theatrical? Ridiculous? Effective?
Yes… all of the above…

Let us see what Mythili does because she is a wonderful dancer to watch.
Brave poets and social reformers Bharatiyar and Tagore had very real social concerns. Tagore in his epic poem PRITHVI accused Mother Earth of being a violent and savage being… of creating and then consuming her children like a female spider. Bharatiyar’s life and words are a testament to his fiery vision of a new India where the modern woman would hold her head high and walk with pride!

So dancers, here’s hoping for many more WOKE moments to revisit and rethink the canyon chasm between BN repertoire and life today!
Using a “jathi’ to show war and nuclear bombs and then a “tillana” to show a happy ending will not work beyond Facebook/Instagram “LIKES” and emojis! 


#NATYA YUDDH                                          

Janaki Rangarajan
 
Rukmini Vijayakumar

I carry a small handbook of 12th century Spanish priest Balthazar Grecian in my bag wherever I go. In it are a series of proverbs and homilies valid even today. One of them says “DO NOT ENGAGE IN CRITICISM OF ANYONE WHO IS POPULAR AND ADMIRED”.
 
I don’t always pay heed to this wise compendium of thoughts.
 
The recent surge of social media activity on GURU PURNIMA day forced me to reflect on some dancers whose popularity graphs are soaring but whose styles and approaches are certainly grist for the gossip mill.
I was forwarded two video links to excerpts of productions from two artistes whose fame graph is on the rapid upward curve. After watching both videos I thought that we should have a TELEVISION DANCE FACE OFF.

CONTESTANTS - Janaki Rangarajan and Rukmini Vijayakumar
 
Let us watch and decide…
 
Who kicks higher
Who jumps further
Who spins faster and longer
Who sits deeper in the 3/4 Mandi (not Araimandi)
Who turns her back to the audience more often
Who imitates film heroines more successfully
Who runs faster around the stage
 
These dancers are very attractive with lithe, gorgeous bodies and international careers. They are hard working and fiercely committed to their art. BUT what are they dancing? Bharatanatyam?
 
What is the use of legacy if every affect, mannerism and manoeuvre can be blender-processed with jathis, swaras and familiar music to be presented as an EXPERIMENT WITH THE CLASSICAL?
 
Janaki and Rukmini are immensely popular with the younger generation to the consternation of several gurus.
 
Dancer-actress Shobana and diva Padma Subrahmanyam should take ringside seats and watch how they have influenced the next generation of glamour gals.
 

#CONTRA DANCE?

The title of the 2018 Dance Studies Conference sparked several thoughts within me.
Looking at the range of topics and papers, I realized that there is so little formal dancing and so much discussion around everything else!

Some examples…

WAGAH BORDER MARCH: The choreography and politics of the border ceremony
PUSHING WATER: Dance aerobics in the pool
AFRICAN DANCE: Confronting geonicide
BELLY DANCE: The conflict within and around
BORDERS: Choreography and the refugee crisis
PERFORMANCE and PUBLIC GRIEF
SINFUL WOMEN: The dancing girl of Mohenjodaro
And so on and so on..

So...
Is this dance?
What is dance?
Any kind of movement or something that arises from a formal training and pedagogy?
The lives are blurring every moment and yet I bristle at anything and everything becoming fodder for mediocre papers and self indulgent presentations.


#PORCUPINE MATTERS

Shobhaa De

How does one handle criticism? This was the headline topic in Ahmedabad for social observer and best selling writer Shobhaa De. The object of both envy and ridicule for decades, Ms. De has been the target of local politicians and even the underworld for her bold and fearless writings on Mumbai high society and public lives. Her life threatened more than once, Ms. De took on the topic with her usual forthright candour.

Now THIS is something dancers should develop. An ability to step aside from a performance once it is over and prepare to face the comments and consequences once it is complete. Today, with the cacophony of social media and its instant release overshadowing the traditional writers, dancers have become immune to genuine self reflection. The younger stars are impervious to constructive comments and often take umbrage towards anything that is not glorified praise.
The performance is separate from you.
Though inscribed upon your body, once the dance is done, so is your performance personal.
Learn to step aside and allow your art to settle where it may.
Criticism is healthy like dissent in a democracy.
Who really needs bland praise?
It builds DANCE DICTATORS!


#IMPASSE AROUND ANDAL              

Andal
 
Arayer sevai

At a recent visit to Goddess ANDAL’s shine in Sri Villiputtur, I was saddened to see the neglected garden and an unpleasant battle between two brothers. Sons of the Sangeet Natak Akademi artiste the late  Srinivasa Rengachariar, both sons have inherited the ritual right to perform this rare art in the presence of ANDAL daily. Yet, a bitter fall out has resulted in one being banned from the temple and the other not being paid for his ‘seva’.

ARAYER SEVAI is a 16th century performing art style created by Vaishnavite saint Nadhamuni to bring life through chant and gesture to the sacred verses composed by Andal and several Alwar saint poets.
This unique art form has been recognised twice at the national level- the last time being 2013- although the award money is held up with the SNA since Arayer Rengachariar passed away between the official announcement and the actual ceremony.

The same story of feuding brothers is being repeated at another temple near Tirunelveli, Tamilnadu.
In Alwar Thirunagari, also the site of this rare Arayer Sevai practice, the two legal heirs are at logger heads.
According to the rules of lineage and heritage, Arayer Sevai can only be taught to the direct descendants and not to anyone outside the immediate family.
Yet Sudharani Raghupathy - urged by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay- learned it from one Arayer who was willing to teach. I, in turn started with Sudharani and then continued with the same senior Arayer in Sri Villiputtur (Sri Rengachariar’s younger brother).

The gesture language and stance of Arayer Sevai is very unique and I have always introduced it in my performances, as will be repeated in my forthcoming presentation on poet saint NAMMALWAR this month.

If such an art cannot be documented (filming is forbidden) teaching is restricted and the quality is seriously withering, what then is the future of ritual arts?

The Government of India is offering scholarships and money to both gurus and students but many traditional and ritual arts are stuck in this impasse with gurus either well past their prime and students not willing to let go of their hand held gadgets to surrender to the rigour of learning.


#ABHAI AND ABHYAASA 


 
ABHAI workshop

Finally, after years of suggesting that the diaspora dancers needed their own platform away from the chaos of the December season, ABHAI, under the new leadership of Roja Kannan and Priya Murle have plunged into the first international festival this month.
I wait to see the quality and range of performances.

This summer, almost every space and dance school have been offering intense classes from yoga, martial arts, technique, abhinaya, repertoire and more. These crammed immersions are very attractive to overseas dancers who either have dance schools of their own or seek to learn new pieces for their own repertoire.

This has become a very lucrative template for many teachers and more and more such sessions are being advertised and oversubscribed.
These condensed sessions along with the DVD guru has made the entire idea of LEGACY redundant.


#NGO VISION

In the past 20 years, despite every attempt by the Central Arts committees and changing governments, one trend has emerged unscathed, despite the vagaries of the political spectrum. NGOs and the Performing Arts. Several non-governmental organizations have used classical dance and music to promote Indian values, heritage conservation, environmental concerns and more. Among the most prominent is AIM FOR SEVA whose track record for the past 2 decades has been to commission and tour classical dance and music in India and the USA to raise funds for their educational programmes.

This branch of the late seer Swami Dayananda Saraswati, headed by Sheela Balaji, has been unflinching in its vision and clockwork implementation of its agenda. Vedanta and Vedic values via the performing arts for today’s generation. 
To visit the village of Manjakudi in Southern Tamilnadu is to witness a revolution. Agriculture, environmental issues, education, health and hygiene - all these aspects funded through the performing arts. While liberals may disagree with the “TILT” towards the right the smile worthy results cannot be disputed.
Angry art, promoted by the Left, does not always augur for quality.
And besides, it is the classical world that adheres to the idea that BEAUTY AND HARMONY HAS POWER.

Why fault temples, socio-religious organisations and NGOs for promoting classical arts in a positive way? Artistes are paid well, treated fairly and given touring opportunities. It is much more than money. It is the WILL and INTENT.


#DECEMBER DIALOGUES        

Srinidhi Chidambaram

Priya Murle
One of the more interesting sessions of the forthcoming NATYA KALA CONFERENCE in December will be the one on LEGACY. With Bharatanatyam becoming more a fashion than a passion, the discussions will include current challenges vs time honoured concepts. Srinidhi Chidambaram helms the third edition of her successful tenure as convenor. ANEKA promises to be as engaging as her earlier two conferences.

NATYA DARSHAN is positioned a weekend before the NATYA KALA and will be convened by Priya Murle whose time has finally arrived. Priya is an eclectic artiste, open to theatre and new ideas while being a very good teacher in her own right.

Both women are exploring taking the conference to new spaces and opening up the weekend to more than just Mylapore and Mambalam which become congested and impossible to navigate in December.


#PICASSO AND 1932

Pablo Picasso

The exemplary exhibition at the TATE MODERN in London illuminated what a genius can do when challenged with his back to the wall. The world renowned Spanish modernist Picasso turned 50 in 1932 and was written off as a “has been” by the art world. He closeted himself inside his Normandy house in France and created a series of the most brilliant paintings and sculptures that became the spine of the much anticipated art show.

The question that floated inside me was…
Is it possible to have a last burst of brilliance towards the sunset of one’s life?
Does creativity have an expiry date?
Does art surge forward against strife and challenge?
Can one create from anxiety and desperation?

For those who have the opportunity to visit this stunning exhibition, please don’t miss it.
It humbled me to see what prolific work can pour out of one person whose life was filled with controversy, strife, chaos and multiple lovers...


#MANIFESTA LET DOWN

Contemporary art is a double edged sword. It can be thrilling and exciting or a complete let down.
The MANIFESTA contemporary art Biennale in Palermo, Italy was the latter. As a lover of new art in any medium, I spent an entire day in this Sicilian city to walk through the many exhibits. Many abandoned buildings riddled with bullet holes had been taken over by the city as exhibition venues
Palermo was the capital of the dreaded Italian Mafia and even today there stands an area called HILL OF SHAME where hundreds and thousands of killings occurred. Today it is a tourist venue with many taking selfies against the former mafia boss’ homes!

As a city that attracts many immigrants, I was pleasantly surprised to see the presence of 8000 Sri Lankan Tamils who have settled here for the past 20 years. They are a much admired immigrant block, with shops and professional jobs that Sicilians applaud.
The visual logo for the MANIFESTA included alphabets of 4 immigrant peoples.
Arabic, Greek, Persian, TAMIL.
Yes, TAMIL…

And how do the Sri Lankan Tamils hold on to their heritage?
Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music of course!
Dance classes already number 30 in this city and weekends are filled with the familiar “clackety clack” of the wooden stick beating out rhythms.

Oh, how Bharatanatyam travels!
It is the truly global star of the times!


#SITA ON TOUR

And here I go again!
Opening the prestigious JOMBA festival in Durban, South Africa
A 4 city tour of the USA - my second visit with this work
A short redux version for a Kolkata storytelling festival - August 21st

And the invitations continue to pour in for A MILLION SITAS.

The multiple strands of the RAMAYANA and the many oral and written versions of this epic make for fascinating retellings. Who knew that when Hari Krishnan and Rex and I dreamed up this work in 2009 that it would have such a long life!
AMS has morphed into its current avatar as a narrative, spoken word, physical theatre, movement, dance prop filled work.

Will share my travel diary with all of you as the performances unfold.

August is filled with lots of dance activity
Festivals, workshops, rehearsals… the buzz never stops
The world revolves and rotates around politics, sports, cinema, fashion and food

Meanwhile - as missionaries, mercenaries or minions - let us all dance and create and dream and hope!

Until next time

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Durban/USA

PS. Even before I leave for my long and challenging tour of two continents, I share the stage with Rama Vaidyanathan and Zakir Hussain in a Vaishnavite triptych this month in Chennai. Not an easy task to create the moodscape of the intensely philosophical saint poet NAMMAZHWAR, but the August 15th presentation is my second triptych - the first being AHSURA with Geeta Chandran and Sharmila Biswas. Wish us luck… and do come to watch.












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