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December 1, 2015

As I write this column on the last month of this year, I have a confession to make.



It is increasingly difficult to feel optimistic about art and its location in the larger discourse of public life. Everywhere I look there is discord, unease and unrest. Opinions are freely dispensed by babes with thumbs stuck in their mouths and elsewhere anxiety is on the rise. Stuck as hundreds and thousands of Chennai-ites were in their homes with the furious rains and subsequent flooding last month, my son recommended that I watch a documentary called WINTER ON FIRE. This true story of the Ukrainian public resistance to Soviet bullying had brilliant interventions by pianists, singers and artists. Music in the midst of bombs and rubble, passionate voices lifting frigid bodies in the relentless winter was tremendously moving. Risking their lives and standing on the front lines facing police bullets, these artists stood arm in arm with their fellow citizens, “speaking out” as best they could - through their art.

I was soothed. Somewhat, albeit temporarily.

#AWARDWAPSI

The flurry of returned national awards by writers sparked off a nationwide controversy as to why performing artists were not joining the protest. Awards given and accepted are a very personal issue. Artistes in India seek these moments of recognition since the majority does not achieve a financial goal during their lives. So, to expect a dancer, musician or actor to return their hard earned (or hard lobbied) national award is not fair. To each their own. It is up to each awardee to make the decision. Speaking out or remaining silent also is a personal choice. So let us not tar our community with a black brush.


#NEPOTISM

A section of Karnataka artistes are up in arms against the recent award to young 20 something Kuchipudi dancer Prateeksha Kashi, daughter of SNA awardee Vyjayanthi Kashi. The Facebook protest, led by Sai Venkatesh, a well known organizer has inflamed opinions being stated. Prateeksha Kashi has come under fire since her mother is a member of the General Council of the Sangeet Natak Akademi that selects young artists between 20 and 40 for the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. There is no rule that states that members’ children and relatives are disqualified from awards. This is a fact. It is also a fact, that 10 years ago, two sitting members of the Executive Council received awards which then led to a rule being implemented stating that no active member can be nominated for this national honour. When dancer Geeta Chandran suggested that I accept the invitation to be a member of the SNA’s Executive Committee in 2009, I knew that I was taking myself out of the national award equation for another five years. During that time, Odissi dancer Arushi Mudgal was nominated for the Yuva Puraskar while her father, musician Madhup Mudgal was a member of the Executive Committee. It was an awkward moment for the members. It was also during my tenure that we fought to raise the age limit from 35 to 40 years. It is evident that most artistes come into their own in their mid thirties. Marriage, motherhood and other distractions remove women from an uninterrupted career track. One look at the Yuva Puraskar award list will reveal how many deserving artistes are between 35 and 40.

On the issue of nepotism, it does not automatically mean that if there is no such rule, then it is okay. It is a flagrant conflict of interest. Period. No amount of debate and poring through the rule book can exonerate such decisions. If an artiste is so talented then he/she can wait for another five years while the parent completes their term. Or, the concerned member can resign in order to put forth the nomination of the daughter/son. This is not a complicated issue. It has become more muddied with the free for all slanging match on social media. Comments resonated with anger, frustration, cynicism and despair. Look around us in India. Politicians are nominating their unqualified children to political posts. Business leaders nominate their wastrel children to the board. So why should not fond parents push the case of their children in the arts? In the case of Arushi and Prateeksha, I am not taking anything away from their talents. I am only highlighting the timing of their selections. They could have both waited until their thirties.

Finally, I never said life is fair. Art, too, is not a level playing field. Learn to play the game, swallow the disappointments and continue. That is why sports is the best teacher of life. You learn how to compete. To win and lose - gracefully.


#CHENNAIRAINS

Image courtesy: The Hindu

It’s raining, it’s pouring and the entire city is drowning.

My city was under siege and it still looks like a large garbage pit. Debris everywhere, rubbish and sewage on the streets, homeless and desperate citizens stranded in their homes without power supply or food. It has been a harrowing November for us in Chennai. Flooded roads, disrupted communication, spreading disease… not a good omen for the approaching mammoth dance and music festival. My phone and e-mail was abuzz with friends from all corners of the world enquiring as to my wellbeing. American television carried frightening images of people traveling on well known city roads by BOAT… Taxi services transformed into ferries. Getting out of our homes was an impossibility and there was wide scale cancellations of many performances. Kolkata artistes Ronnie and Mitul of Rhythmosaic were lucky that their evening of contemporary dance was the day before the deluge. BUDDHA WITHIN and SWAN LAKE REVISITED was an interesting evening of classical contemporary technique on two well trained bodies. Mitul is an excellent interpreter of Kathak and modern movement and is an artiste to watch. The flamenco sections needed more development and the potential for editing was evident. Marshaled by the keen eye of producer Oindrilla Dutt, this husband-wife duo has a positive path laid out before them.


#BNBORING

Why has Bharatanatyam become so boring and monotonous? This is a question being asked and debated by many rasikas. Divas and Devas, please do not protest. This is a fact. Perhaps some of you are enjoying wonderful audiences and good press, but look around. There is an impoverished attitude in terms of energy, intention, ideas and performance. Same old same old. Yes. There are hundreds of performances happening daily in the city and elsewhere. How many are attending? Who is watching besides close friends and family? Who is organizing? How much is the dancer paying for the opportunity? Are the dancers thinking about what they are going to perform and for whom? Why is there so much smug bravado amongst the BN community in South India that as long as the coterie is functioning, they think that the art is hale and hearty. Wrong. BN is being touted as the conduit to salvation. "Learn dance and gain spirituality!” a town crier announces on e-mail.”Learn about Indian values and tradition!” shouts another. “Dance is your road to nirvana!” proclaims yet another. All this grandstanding does little to further the professional profile of Bharatanatyam - undoubtedly the most sophisticated and developed of all Indian classical dance forms. (Dissenters, you are outnumbered. The BN population is exploding - like India’s.)

In spite of Chennai’s position rapidly being challenged as the navel of the BN universe, several young performers, who live outside this city, yearn to perform right here annually, where they feel audiences are knowledgeable and nuanced about the classical arts. Their longing is laced with disappointment and desperation about the callous organizers and poor audiences. There is also a growing arrogance among Chennai based dancers. Newcomers and visitors are viewed with a large dose of suspicion and audiences do not respond warmly enough to other dance forms. December brings a large crowd into Chennai. Hotels are full with Woodlands being the hands down favourite hang out. Most of the visiting dancers and musicians book rooms months in advance and the daily breakfast scenario will find the restaurant filled with performing artistes sharing stories and off the cuff reviews of last night’s performance. Oh to be a fly on the wall! Step into the foyer and ask the front desk about the city’s festival calendar and nobody has a clue. Right next door is the famous Music Academy and the PR person is clueless about the largest music and dance festival on the planet!

Well... all some of us can hope for is that there are no more versions of RUPAMU JUCHI, PAYYADA and MOHAMANA performed this season. Enough!


#MSOVERDOSE

May I please put out a public appeal to all those singers and dancers who are jumping onto the MS Subbalakshmi centenary wagon? Special issues, commemorative evenings, long speeches extolling her virtues and brilliance have reached a tipping point in Tamilnadu. How ironic that the Brahmin community is worshipping and praising this magnificent devadasi artiste? Her home in Madurai looks sad and abandoned. Reading through the many articles about MS, I am amused as to how little there is about the world famous singer and more about the writer. "MS Amma came to my home and fed me milk. My voice just emerged from that gesture". "MS Amma's sari brushed my blouse when I was a little girl. Her blessings helped me become the artiste I am today!" This tone goes on and on in speeches and print.

What about the other centenaries? Birth centenaries of Kitappa Pillai (2013) and Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai (2010) have come and gone with not much fanfare except for his close group of students. If not for those pioneers, an entire generation of Brahmin girls would not have ascended the stage. My idol was Kumari Kamala and her electric presence.

And will the dance world celebrate Balasaraswati whose birth centenary comes up in 2018? She did so much to make the sadir repertoire accessible to a global audience in the 70's and beyond. How will the dance community (read BN) respond with creative ideas to applaud her contribution? Surely dancers need to doff their hats to pioneering performers and gurus and not align with a single name for the sake of publicity!

And the diva of Bharatanatyam turns 75 on December 20th, Yamini Krishnamurthy. What an indelible presence, fire and passion she infused into the art. Thank you, Yamini Akka. Our eternal and grateful pranams to you. Don't forget living legend Mrinalini Sarabhai, who, at 97, is teaching her nurse the Samyuta and Asamyuta hastas from her bed!


#DANCEGEKKOS

One has to hand it to the dancers who live outside India. They have exhibited a relentless spirit and an assertive self confidence to stay connected, travel and now conduct workshops and teaching modules for young students in India. I use the metaphor of the gekko which clings on tight to any surface, even when it seems to defy gravity. Many of these men and women have purchased apartments in this city and other metros in India, closed their flourishing schools in the USA and are touring relentlessly through SPIC MACAY banner and other organizations. Several familiar names are featured in the December programming schedule. What surprises me is how some of them are TEACHING storytelling and theatre in India without the proper training! Do classical dancers think that storytelling or theatre is so easy that one does not need to actually LEARN the craft? It is like choreography. Any dancer thinks they can simply become one!


#KAISIKA NATAKAM 17

It has continued uninterrupted for 17 years and 2015 marks the 20th year of my involvement in the revival and restaging of this 15th century all night ritual theatre. The 10th century Azhagiya Nambi temple in Tirukurungudi was alive with hundreds of visitors from all over India. Mostly over 55, the devout Sri Vaishnavas sat awake all night in a fasting vigil while watching the beloved story of the low born Nambaduvan redeem the Brahmin turned Demon. This year came with its share of problems. Two main actors slipped in the wet rainy weather and sprained their limbs hours before the show. Hurriedly re-blocking the main entries and exits, BN dancers Roja Kannan and Priya Murle, who were there for an earlier group performance, stepped in and skillfully executed three of the nine avatars of Vishnu. I saw how classical dance training helped in adapting and anticipating music and rhythm quite easily. The only point needed was to remind them not to look at the audience but only at the Utsava Moorthi (smaller image of Vishnu and Lakshmi) while performing. The mood of ritual offering was pervasive. In all, a crisis averted and gathered crowds left satisfied.

Performing inside a temple is an automatic "buy in" for devotional fervour. Each time the Narasimha 'avatar' is performed by any dancer, the applause is instantaneous. Simple village folk, deprived of any strain or glimpse of classical music and dance in the geographical area around Tirunelveli, sit riveted every year for the annual KAISIKA NATAKAM celebrations that fall between November 15 and December 15. With television and dance competitions as their only source of entertainment, these live arts interventions are soaked in by the parents and children with delight.


#MARVELLOUSMADURAI

What a magical city this is! My father's original hometown, this is India's original "city that never sleeps" - THOONGA NAGARAM. A visit to the magnificent Tirumala Nayak Palace, designed by Italian architects in the 15th century, made me realize how many influences South India has absorbed from the west from as early as the 2nd and 3rd BCE. The Madurai temple, almost razed to the ground by invader Mallikafur, was rebuilt with the generosity and vision of King Tirumala Nayak and his dynasty. There are bare breasted women everywhere. A transgender sculpture of a man cursed to bear luscious breasts after he leered at a dancing girl. So what is pure? Or authentically Indian? Where are the lines drawn for cultural propriety and decency? Islamic, European and Indonesian influences were everywhere in the palace. The architecture speaks of the rich and syncretic nature of life in this temple town. So when dance purists proclaim history, origin and other dates/timelines from before, before even the sun rose, please think again... India contains so much that is interwoven into her fabric in every stone, breath and motion. It is we who can make it grow and reach beyond and afar through a disciplined and focused pursuit of excellence through our chosen art form.


#VISIONVEENAPANI

It is a whole year since she passed. The creator of a singular theatre and performance aesthetic, Veenapani Chawla, passed away on November 30, 2014. Her vision of ADISHAKTI has endured and is now slowly beginning to blossom. The centre is attracting more creative incubation, international collaborations and soft premieres of new works. This is good news for actors, dancers and musicians who have found a fillip for their art from the bubbling energy that flows through this verdant space.


#MANORAMAFOREVER

This iconic Tamil film actress recently passed away, leaving a daunting filmography. In the hundreds of roles she played with ease, this comedic genius expressed regret that she never played a transgender. This beloved actor of more than 1500 films and over 750 stage performances still had the spark to challenge herself! I wonder what the current right wing fascists would say if such a film were released today? Lucky for the classical community that nobody pays attention. If not, words of Radha’s stiff breasts bearing Krishna’s weight and torn garments after a night of passion will have poet Jayadeva and performers facing the wrath of the right wing extremists. Maybe we need to cheer Goddess Meenakshi who holds her third breast in her left hand, ready to throw it at these myopic chauvinists!

Aiyyoooo, Aiyooo, Aiyyooo!


#DEMISEOFTHELIBERAL

On October 31st, the morning of the Halloween holiday in America, the New York Times had a front page article about US University rules about dressing in politically correct costumes on campus. One could NOT portray an Asian, a transgender, a black, Hispanic or immigrant person. Pocahontas and Pancho Villas were out. Samurai warriors and geisha girls were taboo (even if the wearer was Japanese). Miriarchis and sombreros would offend Mexicans. No religious figures (Durga, Hanuman and Kali were favorites among some New Yorkers). No Native American costumes. So what was cool? Cartoon characters - with Spidey (Spiderman coming out tops!)


#INDIAINTOLERANT???

In the general narrowing of liberal thought, freedom of expression is the victim. A BJP politician recently held up Prince Rama as a “thoughtful and concerned husband” since he demanded that his wife Sita undergo the trial by fire!!!!! The protests against such mysoginism were not as furious as I had hoped. But the uproar over Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s recent comments was loud and clear.

Speaking on television about his “alarm and despondency” on the increasing intolerance in India, he confessed that his wife did consider moving out of India. Imagine a pampered star whose global fan following has embraced his talent and not his faith, speaking about his concerns for safety. An actor, who walks through every security cordon with his entourage, whose children have personal security details and who lives the pampered life of an adored superstar, speaking of being afraid! This one comment has divided Indians on the lines of religion. Hindus who are supporting him are being called “traitors” and those who have slammed him as “patriots.” Whew! Real life is far more dramatic than the intrigues of God's and Goddesses!


#TIMEOFTHEMONTH

National television is obviously desperate for newsworthy fodder. After the disaster of the Chennai rains which dominated the news for a full week with the state machinery throwing their hands up in desperate failure, the next focus was menstruation. Why women during that "time of the month" are discriminated against. When asked to comment, I told them about the worship of the menstruating Goddess Kamakhya in Guwahati, Assam. Thousands throng her shrine in the hills and wait for the closed temple to reopen after Her period of seclusion. A deafening silence at the end of the phone!!


#EMOJIRASA

With TIME magazine putting the Emoji as the Person of the Year on its cover, it is time for us dancers to explore the vast variety of emojis that dominate our communication bandwidth. Here are the Emoji Navarasas.

And on that smile worthy note, let me bid good bye to 2015. It has been a year of many hills and troughs. We have lost so many important names in the dance world. Despite all the odds, dance and dancers continue to find ways to perform, tour and share their art. Spaces large and small are filled with the sounds of classes and performances. Tours continue. Classes continue. Screaming from the rooftops about how wonderful this dancer is also persists. In all this cacophony, DANCE continues to find the nooks and crannies to breathe.

How much longer? How much more stamina can the professional dancer have against this tsunami of mostly mediocre family style functioning? When will the public demand better facilities, aesthetics and environments that support this wonderful art?

Welcome to all dancers and rasikas from across the globe. This is the month that so many of you return to recharge your artistic batteries. We hope you enjoy your stay, that you are energized by the aura of this city and that the message of great dance seeps into your marrow. Walk the beach, meander around the flower markets, shop, gossip and share.

Good luck to Malavika Sarukkai and Swapnasundari who anchor the annual dance seminars.
Congratulations to the many awardees who will be felicitated for their artistic contributions to the field.

We look forward to the return of dancers Priyadarsini Govind, Mythili Prakash and Kapila Venu to the stage. A year long hiatus has made the expectations rise as fans are eager to see them post important events in their personal lives.

In the enduring hope for a great Chinna Melam smorgasbord! Let the fun and games begin!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Bangkok/Bombay/Kolkata

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



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