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December 1, 2016

With white designs I decorate the streets of Your procession

Before dawn washes the sky I wash myself in the chill river
Small smooth twigs I rouse to holy flame while calling
You, Kamadeva, to descend and fulfill my prayer
Blossoms dripping nectar I string into garlands while chanting
The name of the dark one who tore Bakasura's beak.
I beseech You: inscribe my name on Your flower arrow
And shoot into my lord Narayana

- AANDAAL's Naachiyar Tirumozhi 9th century ACE
Translated by Priya Sarukkai Chabria


A year ago. The evening of December 1, 2016, two Tempo vans were floating in a sea of torrential rain water. The vans were carrying 10 dancers en route to the airport for a tour of Thailand. The passengers never reached their destination. After 2 hours of nerve wracking traffic and abandoned cars, the vehicles returned to my home filled with teary eyed, dejected dancers. It was ARANGHAM DANCE THEATRE's South East Asia tour of Thailand and Cambodia - a tour that the #CHENNAIFLOODS ensured did not happen.

What followed in my city over the next 5 days is history.

The paralyzed state government was unable to handle the crisis of their own making. The rains did less damage than the opening of the reservoir pipes at midnight while we were asleep! What did emerge was the citizen's call to action and the thrilling way in which strangers helped one another. The city of Bengaluru rushed - it seemed en masse - to help our marooned Chennaites! Artistes were homeless and many lost everything in those terrible, dark and gloomy days. The national and international call for aid was met with a spontaneous and generous outpouring of aid in so many forms besides cash - a heartwarming display of generosity and camaraderie.

The floods also polarized the performing arts community last December. Many - like myself- could not foresee the act of looking into the mirror and applying make up for a hour of "make believe" acting on stage. Numerous performers cancelled or deferred their season shows. Some took umbrage and went ahead. For the first time in a very long time, dancers and musicians spoke up and stepped up about how they felt in the time of acute disruption and chaos. It was an exciting time. It was an interesting time. It was a devastating time-for the organisers.

Now, another December has arrived. And my city has no water. Yes. It is true. No water and no rains in sight. The season performances have begun in earnest with social media groaning with announcements and ‘LIKE' buttons. Awards have been announced and all preparations are in full swing to make this December break the records for the maximum number of shows in a month.

What does all this singing and dancing in Chennai mean in the ultimate analysis? The city prepares for its annual onslaught of NRI visitors while the rest of India also hosts wonderful festivals and performance events of its own. In Goa, the SERENDIPITY festival promises much excitement with Tanusree Shankar as the Dance Curator. In Kochi, contemporary dancer Padmini Chettur premieres her new ensemble work inspired by the iconic MOHAMANA varnam at the much awaited Kochi Biennale. In Chennai, Sadanand Menon prepares for the 10th anniversary of Chandralekha's passing with a remount of one section of SRI - under the choreographic supervision of the original cast - Krishna, Meera and Padmini. In New Delhi, Rupa Lal's NATYA BALLET CENTRE, returns to its elegant programming of dance, theatre and Tibetan opera in the midst of discussions about other aspects of dance creation. And of course there are the two annual dance conferences in Chennai - NATYA DARSHAN and NATYA KALA CONFERENCE.

What do these conferences and talks actually reveal? Will they mostly be platitudes about the seniors and cow-towing to the gurus and legends? Will there be some level of independent assertions? What can the topics of STITHI-GATI (Srinidhi Chidambaram-convenor) and NEW DIMENSIONS (Krithika Subrahmanian, convenor) focus on? Both women are intelligent and ambitious. One is a doctor, the other an architect/designer. Both are Bharatanatyam trained. For both, this will be the first attempt at ideating and organising a dance conference. Can the vibrant writing in the academic forums in universities find a place in these dance and performance centric events? South Asian scholars in dance, theatre and gender studies are on the rise and I met more than 9 impressive women at the CORD/SDHS event last month in LA. Can Indian dance emerge from its excessive focus on aesthetics and move to other areas of rigorous engagement to include the various voices and registers of dance and performances in modern India today? As even Kalakshetra engages in a Q & A session after their current classical dance festival, I wonder what articulation classical performers have developed. Their vocabulary remains mostly mired in clichéd phrases. However, like Diogenes, I always live in hope of finding more than a handful of articulate, honest and intelligent dancers.

A topic I have been given for the Natya Kala Conference is about PRESENTATION. I think about this word and find that the very first impression created is of the physical body in the space of the theatre. How is this dancing body perceived in between movements? Why does the physical form become such an important virtue for a dancer? While meeting and talking to many former dancers turned lecturers and writers in the USA, I noticed that even 65 year olds, who had stopped dancing for more than 20 years, were lithe and fit. Fat and flabby was not in evidence anywhere. The food served was light and healthy while the discussions and presentations were less to do with the idea of "artistic dance" and more to do with how dance and performance were connected to the larger world of fashion, politics and women's rights. In fact, talking about ballet or contemporary dance as artistic processes was now considered "passé." Even the recently concluded GATI DANCE FESTIVAL in October focused on political resistance and its connect to the idea of the streets as a theatrical forum. Can these contemporary ideas be included in our current debates about dance?

#DOWN AND OUCH-November 8
How can I not mention what has occurred across the oceans and here in India on November 8! On that single day, a racist, moronic, misogynist won over a competent and intelligent woman to lead the USA and 86% of India's currency notes were demonitised. It was sheer chaos in two of the world's largest democracies. In one, we watched as women and men preferred an unprepared, immoral and untested man to supersede a far more capable woman to lead the USA. In India, unaccounted money became worthless paper in the matter of a few minutes. Nothing prepared us for the tears and rage of the US election outcome and the panic of holding the 1000 and 500 rupee notes which became holders of roasted peanuts and chips! In a season of weddings, it was unprecedented agony for the common man and the bankers who are still witnessing long lines and empty ATMs. What is the use of a 2000 rupee note that is spit out of the cash machines when a dosa, coffee and a lunch thali costs less and nobody has the balance change? My credit card did not work at the Kolkata airport on November 12th to pay for excess baggage and neither did they function while attempting to buy tea, coffee or samosas for the team.

In the midst of all this, there was dance. PADME completed its 3 year timeline with an outstanding show in Kolkata. Presented by the irrepressible Oindrilla Dutt (Open Door Productions) and Rhythmosaic/Sengupta (Ronnie and Mitul), the dancers were in top form and supported one another admirably. When one of the costumes got scorched accidentally during ironing, the team rearranged their "look" and went on stage. All without telling me, knowing that my micro management style would upset me. It was lovely to see so many dancers in the audience watching my new solo PRISM. In the span of a mere 9 minutes, I have created (with the immaculate eye of Hari Krishnan), a personal ode to faith, maturity and gender. PRISM is a quiet, powerful and a consciously "unpretty" choreography. I am very proud of it.

Mitul Sengupta is evolving very quickly into a contemporary dancer to watch. With the rigour of classical jazz and contemporary dance movement, she brings to her Kathak, a flair and an edge that is riveting to watch. Let us watch her blossom and may TEAM PADME continue to bloom in their chosen fields as they move on in life!

Aditi and Astad continue to gain fans and admirers around the world. Both artistes prefer to have their performances do the talking. Not seen on too many panels or lectures, both stellar dancers are touring the world nonstop with ideas that always bristle with imagination and intelligence. The indomitable Prathibha Prahlad has also dazzled with the 10th edition of the DIAF (Delhi International Arts Festival). Having never witnessed a single event, I hope to catch some of the excitement next year. Knowing firsthand how tough it is to ideate, stage and sustain an annual festival, I salute Prathibha's tenacity in holding on and pulling off such a mega event.

Borrowing the title from zen-guru Robin Sharma, I cannot miss mentioning the genuine vacuum that musician and renaissance artiste M Balamurali Krishna has left with his passing. Many have mined personal memories and his genius has been unquestionably acknowledged. My memories are few but lasting. 1985. His walking on the Music Academy stage when Padma Subrahmanyam demonstrated her SUKHA LASYA technique of moving while a Raga Alapana was being embellished. She invited any musician to try the idea and it was only Sri BMK who strolled on with panache and proceeded to stun us all.

Again, when I interviewed him for PLUS CHANNEL/Amit Khanna's monthly video magazine in the mid 1990s. He was patient, warm and spontaneous and proceeded to play the violin and mridangam for the session. He also admitted on camera that he loved looking at beautiful women! Then, 1997 - New York City- Carnegie Hall. To mark 50 years of India's independence. I was Sutradhar/Emcee for the evening along with actor Roshan Seth. Sri BMK ensured that his bio data was accurate and winked and being the only South Indian musician in an all DILLI centric roster who had the Padma Vibhushan! "I am flying South India's flag tonight!" he declared.

Dr Balamurali Krishna in conversation with Arya Rajam

Years later, 2015. My daughter Arya Rajam contacted him independently for a blog and he responded with a time and date. She requested me at the last moment to accompany her. When we alighted from the car, I recognized the house! "Who are you going to interview?" I asked her in astonishment! Minutes later, we were escorted to his living room where he sat dressed in immaculate white and smiling at my nervous girl. "She is your daughter?" he asked in surprise. "I never knew that!" What enfolded was a beautiful and heartfelt session where he spoke softly for 30 minutes about his likes, loves and peeves. The warmth he showed my hesitant first born will always be a precious memory.

In his passing, our daring creativity has felt a severe blow. Resistant to the Chennai sabha system, colliding with anyone who attempted to strait-jacket him into compartments, his bristling, inquisitive mind spanned decades and charmed millions. Atma Shanti, Sri BMK. You inspired me to think freely. I know you inspired many more.


How does one quilt dance training with professional passion? Bharatanatyam dancer Preethi Sundarrajan, former of the SHIRI DANCE COMPANY, Bengaluru, diverted her discipline to education and movement exploration for young students. Funded by an altruistic patron, GAIT (Grooming Artistic Innovation Talent) has developed an impressive curriculum and syllabus to stimulate and encourage young girls and boys to discover confidence and body consciousness through simple physical exercises and improvisation techniques. I watched several sequences of this training method at their annual day last month and was delighted to see a variety of quirky and humorous suggestions that the kids had come up with. If only we can make these small local initiatives as potent patchwork quilts in a larger canvas of well being and emotional intelligence building in schools across India!

All over the globe, there is tightening of opinion, a move to protectionism and a backlash against immigration. I think about the UK and the USA - two countries who have seen the best of India's citizens fork out successful lives and careers for themselves and their families. What will the colour BROWN / BLACK/ YELLOW mean to the new extreme right wing regime? As reports of depressing racist slurs and attacks come in from both the countries, I think of the anachronistic nature of classical dance dreaming of a perfect world through the butter/dupatta stealing antics of Krishna or the Tandava of Siva. How can the phenomenally successful diaspora acknowledge the recent political upheavals and reflect it in their art? What will the tilt towards WHITENING the workplace in the UK and the USA mean in a world where intersectionality of politics, arts and activism are now inextricably linked?


Chi Udaka

In the space of a single week I had the opportunity to watch two visiting dance companies from opposite ends of the earth. Australia (CHI UDAKA-Lingalayam-Anandavalli) and USA (SANGAMAM - Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh). Both were on India tours of their latest productions and both evenings revealed a great deal of how much the diaspora dancers have evolved in terms of stage presence, professionalism and discipline.

CHI UDAKA (earth and water) was a tour de force evening of Taiko drumming and splendid flute embellished with vibrant Kuchipudi dance. A most unlikely tango between two Asian traditions came together with intelligent direction, elegant scenography and great teamwork. Indian dancers in the diaspora are mostly part time artistes. Most work during the week and spend the weekends at the dance studio. The CHI UDAKA dancers, led by Sydney based legend Anandavalli were bright, lithe and well trained. While not as exemplary as the drummers, the seamless segues and well timed contrasts of lighting and mood shifts made for an engrossing evening. I watched several young percussionists from the city in the audience and wished they took notes of how wonderfully the percussion ensemble remained still at times while watching the dancers; how quietly they made their exits and entrances and how fabulously they leapt onto the centre and spread their pulsating rhythms. No notes, no looking here and there and no distracting fuss.

For me, the "accordion" highlights were the opening and closing sections where Sydney diva Anandavalli made her appearance. Walking on with the nattuvangam in her hands, she rattled off a complicated and long Kuchipudi jathi sequence with aplomb which the drummers echoed in a perfect "call and response" style. Walking around in a gorgeous heritage Kanjeevaram sari, Anandavalli set the stage for the show in this sparkling opener which braided the two worlds. She returned at the very end carrying a small lamp and in a brief and heartfelt sequence performed to the gentle accompaniment of the flute, she conveyed her gratitude for the land of her birth (India / Lanka) and the country that embraced her with such love (Australia). It was a moving tribute of minimal movement with maximum impact.


September Sonnet

DAKSHINA's tour concluded in Chennai with 3 sections. At a well attended event at Kalakshetra, Daniel dedicated the show as a tribute to his mentor Leela Samson and opened with a section from CHAKRA, inspired by Abhimanyu's tragic death in the Mahabharata war. This was followed by a soulful duet, originally created by American choreographer Anna Sokolov called "September Sonnet." Daniel and his female partner performed this famous dance in shades of rust and orange and "spoke" as union and loss in the simple and evocative choreography that signified the Sokolov aesthetic. The evening closed with an ode to the TULSI plant that I found a bit too wordy and overstated. Beautiful costumes were among the highlights of the evening - long flowing and worn by both the men and women. Daniel is by far the most thoughtful and professional presenter of South Asian dance in the USA and many artistes in the audience were present due to the enormous goodwill he has generated through the years of creating and sustaining a dance company and his annual Fall Festival. The multi racial cast have returned to the city that will be home to their new Marmalade President who presents little hope in a disordered and disorderly world!

While putting the finishing touches to this editorial, I attended a WOW session conducted by the British Council. It was an estrogen-charged revelation to meet a wide swathe of astounding women. Pilots, manual scavengers, lawyers, theatre activists, painters, taxi drivers and police officers. All agreed that the creative arts, especially theatre, could be used effectively to sensitize families. Many shared the epic loss of the HILLARY MOMENT.

And so, as we brace ourselves to receive the deluge of visitors to our city, as the music and dance resonates from every nook and cranny from Mylapore to Adyar, as we talk, argue, discuss and debate every aspect of the performing arts, let us ask ourselves the following questions.

What is the state of music and dance in India?
What is the ecology that surrounds our creative practices?
Do we know how far we have come as teachers and performers?
Do we know our history?

In the words of art curator and theorist Shuddhabrata Sengupta

Welcome to my city that sits at the edge of the ocean, ready to meet the world!
Let the KONDATTAM begin!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / New Delhi / Tirukurungudi

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

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