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August 1, 2019

LOVE is a fire
That dies out
If it does not kindle others

YOU have burned with joy
So kindle them who come near you
If you can

Or become a stone

- Italian artist Giovanni Papini

In the midst of rehearsals, performances and more gushing in the guise of reviews on Facebook, I turn my lens to fewer topics but those that have caught my attention this past month.


Deepak Mazumdar
Have you ever considered anyone reacting with SURPRISE AND EMBARRASSMENT at an award? Seems really odd, right? Well, even though I have not spoken to him after the jaw dropping announcement, I am sure that Bharatanatyam artiste and guru to the über talented Pavitra Bhat is NOT tom-tom-ing his recent accolade from the rooftops. The person in discussion is DEEPAK MAZUMDAR. Let me elaborate.

The recent list of awardees selected by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's apex cultural body, contained many worthy names. The category of CONTEMPORARY DANCE had a name that many of us read and exclaimed, "WHAAAAAT?" I read the name again and again and wondered how this mistake could be made! After all, Deepak Mazumdar is a well known Mumbai based artiste who has worked with dedication for decades and certainly a worthy candidate for the national honour. But in which category? Certainly NOT in CONTEMPORARY DANCE!

So was this one Mumbaikar favouring another fellow artiste from the same state?
SNA Chairman Shekar Sen is from Mumbai.

However, selecting an artiste in the WRONG CATEGORY was nothing short of a gross mistake.

Is CONTEMPORARY DANCE in India such a write off that just anyone and everyone can be dumped in that category? Have not the list of awardees - that reads like a roll call of brave cultural warriors - force the selection committee to take a closer and more deliberate look at the artistes and their contribution towards this fast growing field in India? What does Deepak Mazumdar have to do with contemporary dance? Why have artistes like Jayachandran Palazhy (who was my choice for several years now) and other dance makers not been even considered for this honour? What about Sangeeta Sharma who has been working tirelessly for decades? And Padmini Chettur? What does such a "careless selection" impact the years that many dance makers spend in the studios, creating work that plays to small audiences fed with the familiar dose of epic narrative and grand myths.

What do Astad Deboo, Mallika Sarabhai, Daksha Sheth, Tanusree Shankar and other awardees in this category feel about this? (I am also an awardee in this category in 2016) I have spoken only to some of these artistes and they are genuinely shocked. Deepak Mazumdar is also, in all probability, not a happy man. The national honour that so many of us desire and aspire to is a selection made by fellow artistes. Who in the executive committee allowed such a name to be chosen in the WRONG CATEGORY?

Deepak Mazumdar is a deserving artiste and he must be awarded in the category of his chosen field of endeavour. BHARATANATYAM. This year senior guru RADHA SRIDHAR has been chosen to receive it in that classical style. However, 15 years ago the honour was SHARED by Alarmel Valli and Prathibha Prahlad. So cannot the same exception be made again? The Bharatanatyam award to be shared by two artistes?

6 years ago, Aditi Mangaldas created a stir when she was selected to receive the dance award in the CONTEMPORARY CATEGORY. She asserted in many social media posts and in a letter to the SNA that she was awarded in the wrong category and that her work was KATHAK and not contemporary. Aditi's neo classical style became a flash point for many in the classical world to debate about the "purity" and "authenticity" of her style. I remember having to state my case to the committee about 9 years ago about WHY the category of CONTEMPORARY DANCE must be awarded every year so that those who were labouring in that liminal area of imagination and effort were not discouraged. Aditi returned her award, citing that her work was firmly in KATHAK. The committee after Aditi's gesture, was seriously thinking of NOT awarding in the CONTEMPORARY DANCE CATEGORY every year. Their argument was that NOT ENOUGH GOOD WORK WAS BEING DONE IN THAT FIELD!!!!!!!!

Still, this recent decision is an INSULT TO THE FIELD OF CONTEMPORARY DANCE IN INDIA. It reflects poorly on the Sangeet Natak Akademi which has done so much great work since its inception in 1952. This unfortunate moment is also an affront to an artiste like Deepak Mazumdar who has worked so tirelessly in the classical field and would much rather be honoured for his contribution to Bharatanatyam rather than be tossed carelessly into a list with which he has little connection.

What will this unfortunate decision do to the field of contemporary dance in India? What the SNA committee has said to all the previous awardees in this category by this decision is simply this - "ANYONE CAN DO CONTEMPORARY DANCE. WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT IT?"

Will Deepak Mazumdar return his award? Not likely. Although the theatre awardee S Raghunandan declined his award last week on account of the "country's atmosphere of hatred and lynching." This is not a moment for AWARD WAPSI. Rather a time for the committee to make an important decision and correct a grave error.

And, continuing on that note - who is VIKRAM MOHAN? He has been selected to receive the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. Has anyone heard of him? Certainly not the former Yuva Puraskar awardees in the category! Is Mandeep Raikhy not a worthy name?

Meanwhile, let us congratulate the many, many worthy winners in both the senior and junior categories and wish them many more years in their performance journeys.

That there was some resistance and heated discussion to some of the selected names on the final list is reflected in this published article.
Sangeet Natak Awards suspense ends without much drama.


On a warm Sunday afternoon last month, I presented my new reboot of a 2003 classic on the life of ANDAL. The new auditorium at RR Sabha in Mylapore was packed with dancers and colleagues to whom the poetry and words of this beloved mystic poet is very dear. ANDAL has resurfaced in popularity in the past 6 years. Several new translations, historical fiction and photo essays have been published with international attention being drawn to her early feminist voice of resistance to patriarchy and the silencing of female sensuality.

For my team of 16 artistes, the experience of working with a mostly non cooperative staff at the venue was nerve wracking. Dangerously unfinished steps that led us down to the car garage where the makeup room was far too tiny to accommodate my cast, a single toilet just off the stage, the absence of wings which made it impossible to maneuver the "Pallakku/palanquin", the inability to have a proper lighting cue rehearsal - all this made for a truly stressful build up to the show.

Thankfully, my trusted team of Victor Paulraj (lights) and L Subhasri (manager and nattuvangam) took us through, along with my wonderful clutch of 7 dancers and 2 actors. In fact, most praise came for the girls who auditioned and then after being selected, stayed with me for almost a full year, working patiently on the many changes and last minute adjustments that I always make. Their team work, mutual understanding, clean dancing, aided by a remarkably focused ANDAL (played by Archana Raja) had every eye moist with emotion at the end.

Vyjayantimala Bali held my hand at the conclusion, weeping quietly as we both remembered my mother, The outpouring of praise from the audience - tugging at the cultural memory of ANDAL's poetry and shared Tamizh heritage - helped me in furthering my own presence as foster mother, narrator, and alter ego of the mystic poet.

More shows are on the calendar which means more opportunities to further reflect on how to bring ANDAL's passion to a global audience. I also realised that I was "au courant", in keeping with the current trend of reboots to popular themes. Almost every movie in Hollywood is now a prequel or a sequel to something created earlier!

This reboot made me realise that it is not possible to replicate a work created at another time, when there was less information and far less intrusion by social media imagery. NAACHIYAR NEXT was a definite move both away and forward from the 2003 original version. It is still ANDAL's gorgeous words and her brief yet blazing life. Choosing not to play ANDAL as I did in the earlier version has allowed me to make the interventions I always wanted to do.

As I return to look at reprising UTPALA (2002), ADHIROHANA (1998) and GAJAANANA (1996) over the next 5 years, I will need to look forward simultaneously while looking back at earlier choreographies. It is impossible to duplicate because my mind and understanding of each subject has shifted and expanded. Technology now offers so many possibilities and the mind space of dancers has shrunk with too much information. The months of improvisation that I once had the luxury of involving with the group has to be truncated into capsules and modules. Still, the possibility is exciting!


If anyone cannot find the best dance musicians during the summer months, look no further than the USA. My July performance of NAACHIYAR NEXT had several replacements as my dependable mridangist, flautist and veena artiste were all in various cities playing for - what else - arangetrams!

I admit to being condescending about the growing extravagance of the USA arangetrams. But I landed smack in the middle of one last month. Keertana and Sahana Rao, twin daughters of a very dear friend Kavitha Ramaswami, were being presented by their teacher, the remarkably professional Renuka Srinivasan. Watchung High School in Warren, New Jersey, was packed with friends and family from across the world and the evening started at 5pm and concluded at 9.30! Tamil was on every tongue and I felt that 10,000 miles away from home, I had not left Mylapore!

With the mandatory snacks and dinner for which nearly everyone stayed, I was struck by the professional manner in which guru Renuka of TALA SRUTI conducted the evening. With a stellar orchestra from India, the curtain rose exactly at 5pm with warnings about cell phone photos and videos. Normally, these announcements are tossed aside by our Desis. During the Chennai performance of NAACHIYAR NEXT, my own friends ignored the announcement and blithely recorded large portions of the show and posted them online while we were still on stage! I was so furious when I found out. I barked at them and the posts were promptly deleted. Now I have fewer friends!

At the New Jersey venue, the audience seemed to already know the rules. Nobody reached for their phones. The beautifully equipped auditorium had tall guards, who looked like burly nightclub bouncers, patrolling the aisles and warning people who seemed to have itchy fingers or crying babies! Backstage the senior students of TALA SRUTI maintained discipline and managed the flow of events. Do I also need to hire volunteers like the Music Academy does during the December season in Chennai? They take away the phone from the offender and return it only after the show. No negotiations possible!

Renuka Srinivasan also ensured that the twin teenagers had a full stage rehearsal 48 hours prior to the show date, to help them get over a first-time stage fright!

Included in the evening was the iconic snake dance. An "item song" from the 1944 Tamil film JAGATALA PRATAPAN, it featured a 9 year old "Baby Kamala" in a now memorable dance choreographed by the legendary Guru Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai. Renuka Srinivasan who had learnt this piece from "Vazhuvoorar", agreed to teach the twins this dance on the request of their mother. I remember dancing this item in my arangetram over 50 years ago!

When the familiar chorus in Punnagavarali ragam AADU PAAMBE floated across the hall, my mind flew to Kamala's signature body bends and my own young frame attempting to touch my head to the floor while keeping my arms moving sinuously like a snake! Kamala could with such ease every time. I barely managed!

American parents wear T shirts that proudly pronounce "I PUT 3 KIDS THROUGH COLLEGE". Knowing the mounting costs of arangetrams, Desi parents can certainly emblazon their clothes and even sari pallu with the proclamation "I PUT 2 KIDS THROUGH AN ARANGETRAM!"

Now this is a classic Harvard Business School case study. If the Dabbawallas of Bombay or the Big Fat Indian Wedding can make it to HBS syllabus, then why not our Arangetrams?


Ranganayaki Jayaraman

In Chennai, the grand old lady turns 80. Guru Ranganayaki Jayaraman's Bharatanatyam institution SARASWATHI GANA NILAYAM celebrated its 80th anniversary with a coming together of hundreds of alumni from across the globe. The camaraderie and bonhomie of the former students (now teachers themselves) was palpable even in the Facebook postings.

The Narasimhacharis
Also in Chennai, the KALASAMARPANA FOUNDATION, an institution founded by the Narasimhacharis will be celebrating their 50th anniversary with a special production featuring 100 of their students.

In Europe and India, the unstoppable Astad Deboo has been celebrated for his uncompromising commitment to contemporary dance. Now he shares his new solo LIMINAL to Indian audiences with a performance and discussion in Chennai's Goethe Institute. Coming up in November is his new collaboration with Chicago based Hema Rajagopalan - INAI.

In Bengaluru, Madhu Natraj launched her ambitious NATYA CHOREOGRAPHY COURSE, the only one of its kind in the country. As a prelude to this year long module, her dance ensemble conducted short "teaser" introductions at various points in the city to interest potential students and to highlight the independent art of choreography.

In Kolkata, Tanusree Shankar was awarded the SWAYAMSIDDHA award from ZEE TV 24

From Chennai, Malavika Sarukkai prepares for a brief tour of the US in September and is working on her new production based on the BHAGAVAD GITA.

At universities in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, Professor Hari Krishnan delivered lectures on BHARATANATYAM AND CINEMA and RUPTURED SELVES.

Odissi diva Bijayini Satpathy is enjoying great success in her first solo tour of the USA. Between sold out performances and body conditioning workshops, her name and presence are a magnet for audiences and students.

In Minneapolis, Priyadarsini Govind organised the first NAVADARSANA dance camp as a three day intensive for US based dance students. In the faculty were Anjana Anand, VR Devika and Bijayini Satpathy among others. Lessons both in person and via Skype were all located at the Koinonia Retreat Centre and was very well attended and received.

In Sydney, dance diva Anandavalli's son Shakthidharan's play COUNTING AND CRACKING has swept the prestigious HELPMANN awards - for best production, best new Australian work, best direction, best scenic design, best sound design, best male actor in a play, and best supporting female actor.

ICELAND has officially reverted to its NORSE PAGAN religion and has commissioned its first Norse temple. The country's arts spaces will soon be filled with music, painting and dance featuring the mythology and stories from its time before 1000 CE when Christianity became the official religion.

In Wimbledon, the tennis crazy Ananda Shankar Jayant created quite a stir holding a hand written poster with her Kajal stick. ROGER FEDERER. AT CENTRE COURT FROM INDIA. JUST FOR YOU! The RF Fangirl promptly caught the eye of the championship's PR team and was featured in their daily podcast and made news even back home! A straight ace!

When a performance is watched simultaneously by 2 veteran critics who then respond in completely opposite words, it is worth taking a second look.
These are the 2 reviews of Gauri Diwakar’s recent Kathak premiere DANCING EMPTINESS.
Read what Sunil Kothari and Leela Venkataraman say.

Dancing Emptiness: Outstanding Kathak performance by Gauri Diwakar
- Dr.Sunil Kothari

Hype and Emptiness
- Leela Venkataraman

Two weeks ago, 49 prominent citizens from the field of cinema, literature, painting and social welfare wrote a joint letter to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. Among the signatories were acclaimed actress Aparna Sen, director Mani Ratnam and writer Ramachandra Guha. In it they highlighted the increase in hate crimes, mob lynchings, specifically targeting minority communities. The backlash to this letter came from several other prominent personalities. Among them were dancers Sonal Mansingh and Prathibha Prahlad. In counter arguments favouring the ruling government, both artistes were seen and heard on several national television channels attacking the motive of the letter and questioning the "tone and intention."

Prathibha Prahlad

Sonal Mansingh

Now, it is no secret that Sonal Mansingh is a very political individual. Her grandfather was a former Governor of Gujarat and she has never shied away from anything or anyone. Her courage and articulation is formidable. Prathibha Prahlad is a relatively new voice in this arena - equally fierce and brave in her life and art. Prathibha's frequent appearances on TV, made public by her social media page, has pushed her into the national limelight and a favourite of the news media that is increasingly being compromised by business and political interests.

The question is not who is right or wrong. The more worrying position is about WHY DISSENT IN ANY FORM IS CONSIDERED ANTI NATIONAL. Why are secular, liberal voices called URBAN NAXALS? Why does it become women vs women? Why is it that every time anyone expresses doubt or concern about any new incident or violence or a law (the recent amendment to the RTI is just one example) that they are labelled as the TUKDE TUKDE GANG? (a squad that aims to break the nation!) If the recent furore in the USA is anything to go by, the 4 brave women who are standing up to President Trump's bullying have been called THE SQUAD, and the overnight darling of the liberal media.

What was particularly shocking was that so many young people who rushed to share their two cents on social media did not know who Aparna Sen or Ramachandra Guha were! That young India had no idea about the architects of independent India's cultural landscape was shocking. So why should it surprise us when a young Bharatanatyam dancer of Indian descent in New Jersey, who was preparing for her arangetram, asked me, "Who is Rukmini Devi?"

I wish we had some of this rebel energy stirring the field of Indian dance. We are so content to just dance, be photographed, praised, applauded and worshipped - mostly via social media chatter. We have shut ourselves off from any form of discussion or disagreement. We are not cultivating dance literacy or advocacy. We are becoming numb and complacent,

Democracy demands Dissent
Art asks for Provocation
Creativity craves Disruption
Imagination invites Revolt

So please do not allow yourself to be emotionally and creatively lobotomised. If we become comatose then it is to our peril.
I say it as a proud Indian and a global citizen - one who has fought her own share of battles and controversies.


Niharika Senapati
I am most excited about the first edition of Arangham Learning Labs. Energised by a great group of dancers from across India, I am looking forward to being in a space where I do not need to have an answer for everything.

Welcome to all the 9 artistes who have committed to making this week long exploration. And a special welcome to Niharika Senapati, the teacher who will introduce and guide us through her template of COUNTER TECHNIQUE.

This is the final burst of summer. Enjoy the heat for those in climes that will soon freeze. As new work prepares to burst forth and the Fall dance season inches to the edge of the wings, we wind down our holidays and our short respite from the hours of sweat and labour that dance demands.

To all those who came to India from other shores, I hope you had a great visit. Did you fill up on your annual dose of nostalgia, shopping, costume stitching, jewellery buying, music recordings, photo shoots and family visits?

Thank you for the generosity with which you invite, present and host our artistes in your homes and communities. I hope your kindness has been reciprocated during your visit.

And, thank you for aiding the GDP of India!

Until next time,

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
San Francisco / Chennai

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

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