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February 1, 2012

Whew! What a month this has been! Seated on the weighing scale in the Kerala temple of Guruvayoor for the ‘Tulabaram’ offering at the crack of dawn and my mind whirled through the past month. Images, moments, memories… Where do I begin to share all that the packed 31 days has offered up to us?

First, a question. Why have we all become like porcupines? Why do we bristle at even the slightest criticism of our work? Not only dance, but music, cinema, art… anything... the artiste has become a self styled, self made genius... incapable of making any mistakes or being simply – HUMAN.

Some recent incidents, two involving this very site has prompted this question at the top of my editorial. First was a book review and then a dancer and guru took umbrage at a critical review of a Music Academy performance. In both cases, the reactions were totally uncalled for. Dancers and critics have a constant dance of war and peace going on. In India they socialize, argue, disagree, agree, praise, criticize, applaud and denigrate one another as long back as I can remember. Dancers hate to see anything but huge praise and so, over the years, dance writing and reporting has become very weak and watered down.

The inaugural performance at the Music Academy, a prestigious slot was given to the usually fabulous Priyadarsini Govind. Innumerable costume and jewellery malfunctions were certainly not part of the choreography but the performance was allegedly less than brilliant. However the review was nothing short of extolling a Goddess on stage. What this does is create an atmosphere where young dancers are subtly told that once you are a star, you can do no wrong even if you are less than inspired on a particular evening. Of course it is entirely possible that the critic DID point out something in the performance and the copy editor chose to remove it. In India anything can happen and the dance critic is not as respected as before when not a single word was changed without the writer’s permission.  The larger question remains whether critics should review ‘legends’ of dance anymore. While so many of these diva/devis disappointed horribly this season, how does one respond to mediocre shows? Can we all learn from the minimalism shown by Vyjayantimala when she stood in a gorgeous Kanchipuram sari, tied loosely at her waist and did subtle but glorious abhinaya while receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award. She left us all thirsting for more and imagining how marvelous she must have been in her prime.

Animated discussions every morning around the Music Academy canteens were the most interesting. Conversations ranged from dance styles, rehearsal tips, fitness and weight loss for dancers, articles, contemporary performances, emerging talents and archiving methods. If only we were flies on the wall or swarming around the steaming idlis, dosas, vadas and sambars to listen in! And speaking of canteens, the Music Academy watering hole notched up record sales on a single day during the concert of a popular musician totalling 3 lakh rupees while the dance season brought a meager 15,000 rupees daily only. So are music audiences hungrier? Or just much, much, much larger?

After all the numerous performances of Bharatanatyam in Chennai over the past two months, three artistes seem to be emerging with confidence and strength. Navia Natarajan, Janaki Rangarajan and Ramya Ramnarayan. All three live in the USA and are on the cusp of important breakthroughs in their respective careers. With Los Angeles born Mythili Prakash’s success story as a signifier, these three women seem bent on committing to a life in dance. In these times of such cynicism about the ‘margam,’ classical dance and the ‘ennui’ of grinding sandal paste and stringing jasmine garlands, we wish them all the luck and more. As for the UK, the dancers do not seem to want to journey to India to prove anything. The cushy funding situation and the confidence of ‘British Natyam’ has cleared space for dancers in the UK and established a solid context for their continued presence in Britain. Akademi’s seminar ‘LOOKING FOR THE INVISIBLE’ at London’s PLACE theatre later this month will look to explore the difficulty in classical dance training aligning with the notion of the abstract.

January has been a terrific and tremendously challenging month for me. A play - LONG WAY HOME - by first time playwright Shekinah Jacob premiered at both Prithvi theatre and the NCPA in Mumbai, a dance-theatre presentation AVANI in Delhi on Tagore, a new ecology themed Dance-Katha (UN-EARTH) offering in Chennai, a glossy corporate dance launch at a huge convention centre and a talk to the IIT students about “Passion over Profit” has made me totally drained. All in the space of 8 days! Should I complain, celebrate or give thanks for the variety in my artistic life or just stop and say, “Whoa –Enough!” The truth is that ONE of these evenings (the corporate launch) paid for ALL the others since the most prestigious gigs (including the National School of Drama event) did not even cover my expenses. And THAT is the truth of dance in India. And I don’t see it getting better. However, the energy of Mumbai city and the warmth of the staff at Prithvi and NCPA were so heartening. Such professionalism and such efficiency. As for the NSD festival in Delhi, it was much the same with an entire day given to each group to set up and focus lights and rig sets which is a luxury for dancers in India. And the enthusiastic theatre audiences and students who attended and who gave the work the much needed non-dance perspective it needed was rewarding. From a tentative start one year ago on the AVANI project and egged on by Sharmila Biswas to pursue Tagore’s writings, AVANI-a handful of dust, has become one of the favourite and acclaimed works in my repertoire. However, with the Tagore mania sweeping the nation now, all activity may cease after May 7, when the 150 birth anniversary ends. For now, there are countless Tagore celebrations happening every month in every corner of India.

Sitting next to one of my favourite choreographers Mark Morris in Mylapore last month to watch Malavika’s performance was a surprise. Morris is fun, brilliant and in love with Carnatic music. He visits Chennai once in two years and adores the art and humour of dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan. Now to visit his famous dance centre in Brooklyn to which he extended a most gracious invitation and where Parijat Desai conducts dance classes.

I shared a section of a new environment work called UN-EARTH in Chennai for a socio/religious group. UN-EARTH explored the irony and real life discrepancy of the much worshipped image of Vishnu asleep on Adisesha afloat on the milky ocean with Lakshmi by his side and Brahma floating above. Against a stunning curtain of empty water bottles and reams of newsprint on a huge roll, the spoken word and movement piece failed to deliver that evening due to a single reason. The mikes. They hardly worked and when they did, they came on and off like a faulty light bulb. What is it with technicians in Chennai who cannot imagine anything except musicians seated on a dais on the side of the dancer? Anything that needs them to stay concentrated, balance mikes and be alert to the movement of the dancers who speak AND MOVE seems beyond their capacity! I was broken hearted, along with my talented musical ensemble but special guest eco-feminist Vandana Shiva loved UN-EARTH and has encouraged me to develop the piece further. One continues despite all these roadblocks.

Amidst the excitement of a new year and a new beginning, comes sad news. We mourn the unexpected passing of designer Rex’s older brother and scholar Davesh Soneji’s father. Both young men have been my collaborators and friends for more than 15 years. Both passings coming at the turn of the New Year has made me wonder about the fragility of life and the urgent need to celebrate connections more than ever. And what better way than to share the gift of the dancing body… an act that is at once, generous, passionate, vulnerable, powerful and emotional. As I attempt to reconnect with my international host families post Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and revisit that city after my Master’s studies in Theatre and Television 30 years ago, I come face to face with friendship and loss. But the madness of Mardi Gras parades should more than make up for the missing faces when I shout out to the elaborate floats that pass by, “Throw me some dubloons mister…”

As you read this, I will be sashaying down a ramp dressed as DRAUPADI for a benefit fashion show wearing an amazing one of a kind creation by the iconic Ritu Kumar in a show directed by Neelam Mansingh Choudhry. A benefit evening that combines theatre, textiles, choreography and heritage skills on the fabulous lawns of the AMAN hotel in wintry Delhi is the much needed diversion I need before I board the flight to really snowy climes and a month of coats, hats, gloves, boots, scarves and ear muffs!

Until next time then…

Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Delhi/ New York/ New Orleans/ Des Moines/London
EPIC WOMEN: A Conclave of dance, theatre, scholarship and ideas – December 19 to 23, 2012, Chennai

PS: Congratulations to all the Padma awardees and a special note that dancers Minati Mishra (Odissi) and Pt Gopal Prasad Dubey (Chhau) made the cut this year. More musicians, theatre practitioners and scholars have been honoured.