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December 1, 2014

Travelling for performances and other engagements overseas is extremely taxing. From the packing (23kg weight limit is directly aimed at torturing Indian dancers!) to pulling the luggage across endless airport corridors or train stations, loading into hotel rooms and green rooms, getting dressed and later, packing up – it can feel both exhausting and lonely. I have been in so many green rooms in glamorous cities staring into the mirror asking myself, “What am I doing here?” Sometimes one gets lucky, like I did last month in Washington DC. The young assistants assigned to me actually KNEW what they were doing. Daniel Singh’s 11th annual DAKSHINA Fall festival was a medley of various performances mounted over a 3 day weekend at the beautiful Shakespeare Theatre Company auditorium at Harmon Hall. Apart from the central location of the festival venue, the beautiful space came equipped with large green rooms and a dedicated wardrobe mistress who patiently ironed out the zillion pleats of my blue silk costume (all the time muttering under her breath, “I hate pleats!”). Fruits, snacks, tea, coffee were all laid out and volunteers cheerfully ran up and down bringing us safety pins, hair spray, gel and whatever. With the quick changes needed for my SPIRALS show, my two ultra smart dancers turned assistants, Kasi Aysola and Madhavi, set up a mini change station just off stage and helped me with meticulous and practiced perfection. Such a huge relief! Adding to the bonus was 23 year old Aysola, a professional MAC makeup artiste, who created a flawless finish to my face. I just walked out of the theatre and into the after party at a hip bookstore/bistro wearing the false eyelashes with aplomb!

Eleven years of sustained hard work to build a community of dance lovers in Obama land is not a mean feat. Daniel Singh has worked in relative isolation with several challenges thrown his way. New presenters with deep pockets who came along much later also brought the usual diaspora mentality of Divide and Rule. The Indian community has taken its own time to welcome Daniel into their fold and while the links still remain tenuous, his silent struggle is finally getting noticed. Uncomfortable with loud PR and social media blitzkriegs, Daniel’s 11th edition of the Dakshina Festival drew good but not houseful crowds. However, the bonus for an artiste like me was to have the opportunity to watch the performances of colleagues like Ananda Shankar Jayant and Ramaa Bharadvaj. Senior gurus like the Dhananjayans were also seen in intense and patient rehearsals with their students and the supreme professionalism of Daniel’s team was evident in every aspect of the festival.


Anita Ratnam and Kasi Aysola
A short panel discussion at the Indian Embassy was moderated by Alicia Adams of the Kennedy Centre and focused on the aspect of collaboration. Each of us had a different point of view but it was evident that all were thinking of our roles beyond the stage. That teaching, outreach, mentoring and inquiry was as crucial as the actual practice and performance. Of course, the obligatory question of “spirituality” did surface and I was quick to deflect it as an overloaded and inflated word in the context of Indian dance, that it is really a modern reinvention of the past. Veteran critic George Jackson calls our dance INDIADANCE – one word. And his remarks on the 7 performances he watched over one weekend revealed an extensive visual vocabulary and a keen eye to cut through the community sentimentality that is often lumped together with the ideas of “tradition,” “sacred” and “ancient values” of South Asian dance practice.

Read his review of the DAKSHINA festival and Ramli Ibrahim’s performance here.

During my short ten day trip to the US, I also had the opportunity to visit and pass through several renovated and updated spaces. Museums, train stations, auditoriums are all getting spruced up with aggressive outreach efforts to lure the younger generation. The Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery now has one evening with an open bar, snacks and music to attract the hip/cool generation to visit the historic portraits and perhaps become interested as future members or donors. It is quite evident that free time that dovetails into a cultural experience demands the inclusion of food and drink. Indian organisations can take a cue from this pragmatic approach. Audiences for the classical arts are mostly from the Q TIP generation – white haired!

With the staging of the vintage Ramayana productions in Kerala and New Delhi, Kalakshetra is now pushing its national branding efforts. Some of their ensemble works will also be featured in various venues during the Chennai December season. The six day festival of the iconic RAMAYANA series drew modest crowds with mixed responses. It is always a challenge when memory serves up scenes of A. Janardhanan and Krishnaveni as the seminal Rama and Sita for so many of us. I will always be biased when I watch the Ramayana performed today OUTSIDE the Kalakshetra ambience. Balagopal as Hanuman, Kunhiraman as Ravana and Chelapathy as Lakshman are evergreen in many minds. Many who watched the Delhi performances felt it was like looking through a bioscope – a slice of vintage history that appeared dated!

The annual sabha calendar is finally out and one can read a wide list of interesting names who deserve to be watched. More and more group presentations are on the roster but little is being done to commission original or new works by any of the sabhas. Many from overseas have tried in vain to obtain a calendar of events and have been mailing us requesting information. How can we share it when nothing seems available until the last minute? That is the Chennai sabha season for you. So smug and pleased with itself. Season tickets are already sold out. The bulk of them bought by NRIs. They also make up a large percentage of the audience. No longer does it mean a dancer or a musician who appears in the Chennai December season has arrived on the national stage. A performer does not get any pan-Indian engagements after his/her Chennai gig. Rather, performances are watched and judged through the eyes of US presenters and it seems that it is for THEM that the artistes now perform. Chennai in December translates into Cincinnati next Spring!

Malavika Sarukkai dons her curator/convenor hat for the first time with her 3 day Natya Darshan event titled LOTUSES BLOSSOM: THE CREATIVE PROCESS. Joining her is Professor Hari Krishnan of Wesleyan University who brings his scholarly eye to the much awaited event. Also assisting Malavika is my long time trusted team of designer Rex, administrator Lalitha Venkat and technical director Victor Paulraj.

Chennai in December is more than the largest privately funded dance and music festival in the world. It is also a time for family gatherings, weddings, dressing up, bonhomie, shopping and a respite from the cold and frigidity of western climes. Can we actually focus on important topics that affect dance and music or is it too much to ask for anything other than having a jolly good time!

The last week of November saw a mini avalanche of dance performances in my city. Amidst Hip Hop and site specific performances that took bemused audiences into leafy lanes with torch lights, Jothi Dogra’s solo devised creation called NOTES ON CHAI stood out for its intense originality. Performed at the beautiful SPACES, she etched a compelling 90 minute monologue channelling several characters within in the embrace of the culture of tea. NOTES ON CHAI introduces us to a shy woman from small town Punjab, a cranky, diabetic man and a host of fleeting haikus held together by an astonishing vocal range creating a seamless sound design. Dogra is a wonderful actor but the work needed severe editing. Over 65 minutes of raw intensity, not aided by a late start of more than 45 minutes, did not help the restless but admiring audience. Editing and a ruthless outside eye is what most performances seem to need.


Suhasini, Krithika, Gopika & Yamini in Antaram
Like the dance production I watched called ANTARAM. Lush sets, multimedia, a pleasant score (hints of Gustavo Sanataolalla’s Brokeback Mountain and other popular lounge music) and leather puppets could not rescue this confused but glittering work. Suhasini Mani Ratnam is a natural storyteller whose confidence and star power as multi lingual narrator were in full flow. Despite her many avatars as flight attendant, Iyengar mami and aerial actor, her talent could not hold this weak script and performance together. The sparkling Kuchipudi by Yamini Reddy (she dances like the Eveready Bunny- nonstop energy!) and Gopika Varma (beautiful Mohiniattam) were like dark chocolate treats in the ocean of beige fudge. Why don’t dancers hire a dramaturg or a director? An overdone idea of strong women from history, literature and myth was given a glamorous update and the well dressed house full audience got their “oohs” and “aahs” in plenty. Where was the ANTARAM – inner quest - that was promised? Was this another excuse for a vanity showcase? I watched an earlier production called NAMARGAM two months ago with the same mixed emotions and shall have to wait for producer Krithika Subramaniam’s next venture called SWAPNAM premiering in December before making up my mind about what this ambitious architect/arts producer has charted for classical dance in today’s buzzing world. So far, it is good to see big money poured into dance productions. Full houses are a positive but if one is not left with a single image the next morning, then questions can hover. Also, I do not envy the critics who have been asked to review this work. With a majority of the filled hall being friends and family, how can one be objective about the artistic content of such a hyped evening?

Meanwhile, Leela Samson continues to dance around the world. From Venice she is leaping onto the silver screen. Yes... you read it right. Leela is acting in Mani Ratnam’s latest Tamil film! In her sixties, she is dancing as beautifully as ever. And so are other mature artistes. An evening of ABHINAYA in London featuring veterans Chitra Sundaram, Pratap Pawar, Sujata Banerjee and Pushkala Gopal drew a full house and many a tear for the superb abhinaya last month. Here in Chennai, sahbas are reluctant to give space and time to senior artistes for an evening of abhinaya. Seems the demand is only for acrobatic and athletic dancing.


Marabu
Whoever said that dancers are impoverished? Not when the business model of “workshops” are looming ahead like Jason’s glittering Golden Fleece? Do the math. US$500 per student for three days of teaching. One or two items taught. Gather 20 students at a time. The organiser takes a cut and the dancer/musician walks away with a significant amount. How can you teach items in two days? Who really cares? The end numbers are more attractive. Musicians already have good business going with SKYPE lessons from US students. Now dancers can also share in the lucre that awaits mainly from eager American NRI. Does the USA know how much they are contributing to the Gross National Product of India through the business of dance and music?

How important are awards? Big or small, they convey a collective vibration of belief in one’s art and the responsibility of a life well spent. I am always surprised when I receive the phone call or email about being honoured. Not being a guru or a classical dancer and being who I am – outspoken and naturally dramatic, it is mostly an out of sync ‘rasa’ in a simpering and saccharine society of the classical arts. Somewhere in the maze of all the cowing and towing, I seem to have made a difference. Two evenings of honours back to back? A real treat... First, the quartet of dancers Priya Murle, Roja Kannan, Srikanth and Aswathy chose to mark my contribution to dance during their presentation of MARABU, an evening of classical repertoire in Chennai. A conflict of interest may be inferred while I write about the show. MARABU was four good performers who have forged a friendship of more than 12 years of working, creating and performing together. I liked the choice of each dancer’s favourite items to remould and the joy with which they danced. Sometimes, simplicity speaks volumes. The evening was an exhilarating reminder of how rich and complete a form Bharatanatyam is and the PARASHAH quartet danced with elan and control. Nostalgia moments for me were the reworking of NITYA KALYANI, the ragamalika varnam composed on me as muse by Guru Adyar K Lakshman in 1971 and the brilliant Brindavana Saranga Tillana composed by Madurai Krishna Iyengar. With two dance evenings back to back, I received a powerful reminder that sometimes being clear and dancing all out cannot be beat.

The very next day, in another city, the distinguished panel of judges at ATTENDANCE, the annual dance publication, selected yours truly to receive an award. November drew to a close with an elegant evening in Bangalore hosted by Ashish Khokar and attendance. The annual dance awards in five categories were selected earlier in the year by a secret jury. I was honoured with the MOHAN KHOKAR award for OVERALL EXCELLENCE. The event began at the Alliance Francaise auditorium with a sedate performance by Balasaraswati's grandson Aniruddha Knight. A vastly improved artiste, Aniruddha performed three signature songs from his family's amazing music and dance repertoire, among them, PAYYADA... the sensual lament of a woman, Watching Aniruddha's silken hands spin endless images reminded me of his mother Lakshmi and his legendary grandmother. Aniruddha sings beautifully and spoke eloquently about the weight of his tradition. In all, a very pleasant evening that reminded us all about how far Bharatanatyam has travelled from the art of Bala, and how important it is for us to remember sources. Watching a short film made on my ideas and contributions by the techno smart Janardhan Urs and Keerthi Kumar, made me realise how much more there is to do, as I had written in a recent first person piece in FEMINA. Bring me back as a woman, an Indian, a dancer, a mother. There is truly so much more to be done!


Receiving Mohan Khokar Award for Overall Excellence, Bangalore

Rehearsals are also on for the Chennai showing of PADME at SPACES. This is a chance for audiences to see how a group of 7 classical dancers who have never worked in a professional environment have grown as a team and in a new work. As mentor and producer, it is as exciting for me to watch their evolution. Choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman unites with the team soon and the work continues to build.

Prayers go out to Rathna Kumar whose husband Anil is in critical condition and to Mr. R. Krishnaswamy of Narada Gana Sabha who is suffering from prolonged ill health. We bid adieu to the one and only Sitara Devi and watch as our greats slowly fade away. A tribute by critic Sunil Kothari in the New Delhi edition of THE HINDU carried a photograph of another dancer who is very much alive! So much for editorial scrutiny! That is how irrelevant dance and dancers are to media today!

As I conclude this letter, the shocking news about the passing of Veenapani Chawla comes. It was around noon on November 30th that this iconic and seminal thinker of Indian theatre and performance closed her eyes permanently. Already diagnosed with a pancreatic infection, she was rushed to a Pondicherry hospital where she had a heart attack. Only 67 years old, born in the year of India's independence and a true pioneer in movement investigation and performance energy, it was because of Veenapani that I bought a small home in Auroville where I am planning on spending more time in the creative world. I was so fortunate to have known Veenapani from her early years in Bombay and am truly proud of being the only presenter in Chennai to have believed in her unique vision and presented all her theatre repertoire at my various festivals and events in this city. She was last seen and heard during the 2012 EPIC WOMEN festival and conference where she delivered a stunning mosaic of women in the Ramayana. I am deeply saddened by this passing as I was when Guru Maya Rao also left us 3 months ago.

As these greats become stars in the sky, let me extend an open invitation to all those who are travelling from everywhere to this city by the sea. ..
As you read this, I will be in the calm of my ancestral village of Tirukurungudi near Tirunelveli where the 16th annual festival of Kaisika Natakam will be performed. It is a magical all night ritual that now draws thousands from across India.

My city is always the butt of jokes. It is too hot. It is too tame. No pubs. No alcohol. Not enough playgrounds for the party crowd. Filthy streets. One way traffic hell. But this month we can preen. We host the world’s largest music and dance festival. We hold within our embrace the best of the best in music and dance. So come on down and enjoy yourselves. Soak in idli, dosai, pongal, vadai, Keeravani, Bhairavi, Todi, Shankarabharanam, jathis, adavus, korvais, padams, varnams, javalis... watch our dancers and musicians spin magical webs around us all.

Madras Nalla Madras!
Let the melam and talam begin!
Welcome! Vaango!

- Dr Anita R Ratnam
Tirukurungudi/Bangalore/Chennai


Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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