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February 1, 2013

Where did January go? In a blur of weddings, celebrations, glamorous performances, glitzy hotel dining, culture talks, day spas, family feuds, shopping, gardening and choli fittings. Already in our second month, I sit down to recollect the 31 days of January.

The year and the month began with the important classical dance festival at the Music Academy in Chennai. I watched 14 of the evening shows and came away with one reaction. Odissi is thriving and Bharatanatyam is over-rated. That is not how I generally feel but the disappointment of my favourite dance form being so poorly represented and interpreted by the famous divas was a huge blow. Rama Vaidyanathan and Priyadarsini Govind delivered what I can simply sum up as “substandard shows” – full of temperament and lacking in content and depth. Both women are now wearing not pyjamas but JEGGYMAS – Jeggings that masquerade as dance pyjamas. Too tight and too unbecoming, especially for those seated in the front rows. Narthaki Natraj should have cancelled but instead danced with an injured hip and tortured us all. Mythili Prakash was incandescent and rose above a banal Andal varnam with trite lyrics to deliver a truly heartfelt performance. Her mentor Malavika Sarukkai chose some choice traditional items and she danced with energy and integrity but somehow the magic was not there. Alarmel Valli spoke beautifully and danced like she always does – like a 16 year old.  The Kuchipudi group led by Jaikishore Mosalikanti shone in their intelligent simplicity, devoid of that garish tinsel hairdos and wigs. The Manipuri group lost their audience with overlong programming past the witching hour of 8.45pm. Nrityagram’s SAMHARA stood out in the entire festival with their superb dancing and for once the Sri Lankan dancers (Thaji and Mithilani) shone and overshadowed the Bijayini-Surupa duo. The choreography and flawless execution with intelligent lighting and dramatic use of space - the neat musical ensemble tastefully clad, pauses between items and clear explanations is something that our divas can learn from. Nrityagram is an emblem of professionalism and sheer class.

The morning sessions revealed how disappointing the NRI dancers were. They universally were below par and revealed a flawed programming system that overlooked many talented India based dancers. Bad dancing, poor technique, improper costumes, hopeless programming choices – I can go on and on but the net result is that these women are given too much publicity and do not deserve to be programmed in such a prestigious festival without tighter curation. Vaibhav Arekar and Srikanth -Aswathy were very good in their respective slots and the audiences were almost unanimous in wondering how the foreign based dancers got opportunities at such a prestigious event. In spite of my opinions –which were shared by many in the canteen between the evening performances- the same names will continue to be featured year after year at the prime evening slots since the Academy committee has bound itself into a conundrum feeling that these R-A-M-P stars are the only names that sell tickets. These divas in turn will believe that they can do anything and get away with it since they will be invited again year after year inspite of rasika response. And the young dancers will wonder why they slave away at adavus when they can just pose, primp, strut, run around to climb the stardom ladder. And no matter how poorly they dance (Priyadarsini’s latest performances includes the mandatory slipping ‘vanki” from her thin arms, horrendous costumes, torn hemlines and Velcro fans that keep coming apart), the review in THE HINDU two days later made me wonder if I was at the very same performance that was described by writer Vidya Saranyan as a paragon of divinity descended upon earth.

On a lighter note, I know that I am not alone in carrying mop and bucket to the theatres. Lynne Fernandez of Nrityagram does that also, never depending on lazy organisers to clean the stage!!! The dust that rose every time Srikanth and Aswathy stamped made the front row sneeze. Was anybody at the Academy watching? 

Presenting a showcase of Taminadu performing arts to a large group of CEOs from across India gave me the opportunity to share my experience and anecdotes to an influential group of decision makers. How little urban India knows of our cultural workings and of dance history in general! What a great opportunity for impressarios and interlocutors today. Addressing a visiting group of elite museum goers from Singapore about Buddhism in South India made me realise how lucky I am to be a dancer who can access all kinds of information through the prism of poetry, literature, history, music, sculpture, painting, films and music. How easily Indian dance knits and braids such a wealth of tradition for today and tomorrow!

But all this gratitude and good feeling vanishes when cultural terrorism rears its head. India seems to be in the vice-like grip of fanatics. The dance world was abuzz with Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas turning down the national Sangeet Natak Akademi award for the Creative and Experimental category stating that she is a Kathak dancer and NOT a contemporary dancer. Brilliant Aditi, the international face of Kathak, has been in the eye of the storm, particularly from the gurus of the Kathak Kendra in New Delhi. Not wearing a dupatta and thereby “confusing” the younger generation seems to be one of the points raised by some seniors and Aditi’s slick and contemporary staging of Kathak is misinterpreted as being modern and contemporary in content as well. This is a delicate issue and it can be viewed through many kinds of lenses. Should Aditi have accepted the award and continued to create and perform her superb work? Is she insulting the Akademi committee who selected her? Is she right in refusing the award for a category she feels needs many years of a particular kind of training that she does not have? Read all about it in our ROSES and THORNS section and let us know what you think.

The larger question is WHO DECIDES WHAT IS CLASSICAL KATHAK OR CLASSICAL BHARATANATYAM? Who are the self appointed arbiters of these boundaries? Years ago Ramli Ibrahim’s Odissi dancers faced flak from a section of purists in Odisha who claimed that they were “lewd” and “vulgar” and not “respecting Odissi” by not wearing a dupatta during performance. Yamini Krishnamurthi did not wear one for years. Fortunately the fascist brigade was not active then in culture. Today the borders are shifting so rapidly and contemporary dance in India is fast leaning towards western modern dance techniques that what I create and perform does not seem to fit anywhere. Not classical enough, not modern enough, not contemporary enough, not Indian enough, not exotic enough. I feel fortunate amongst this confusion. I can continue to create what I want and when I want without worrying about these tags. And the audiences are there. They exist and they come. And they are NOT confused. And I am NOT alone. There are colleagues who are also working in these “in between” spaces – betwixt many worlds but firmly situated in the geographical and cultural contexts that we live and create in. Looking at the appalling choice of artistes selected to tour overseas reveals how strongly the state has entered and controlled the cultural spaces where the artiste is beholden to the politician and bureaucrat –not artistic directors or to gurus - for professional advancement.
 
Now look at the fate of brilliant film actor Kamal Hassan. As of this moment, his new film Viswaroopam has been banned in his and my home state of Tamilnadu. Creative freedom of a dancer to create and perform or an actor to write and direct seems to need government approval at every step. What does this say about India and the very IDEA of democracy? How many censors do we need to bow to? How afraid should we be about ideas and the space to express them? How much freedom do we have as a creative community?

January was a month in which I was able to witness the many different ways in which the elite in India watch and consume culture. At private celebrations, (Yanni and his fabulous orchestra, Cirque du Soleil performers and AR Rahman) the super rich and powerful are the new audiences for dance, music, art, design and culture. They do not attend performances. Performances attend to them. This is the privileged 1% who are the target of all luxury brands and who could be coaxed to be the patrons to a new generation of performing arts in India. The way in which dance is now being created and performed for the uber rich is far, far away from the strict gaze of sabhas and old fashioned organisers. Hundreds of young men and women are making careers in dance and performing at weddings, engagements, birthdays and anniversaries. An enterprising generation is seizing the opportunity to create short and interesting pieces, charge good money (about 2 lakhs for a 30 minute appearance) and continue a life in the performing arts. What does this say to those invested in creating SERIOUS art? What is so important about art that is viewed by 200 people who are mostly invited for FREE when 3000 people can watch while sipping wine or nibbling at sushi? You be the judge of that but in India, serious money and serious art are far apart. Like Lakshmi and Saraswati feuding.  

January was also the time when I was lucky to meet the legendary Vajira, wife and prima ballerina of Chitrasena Dance Company, Colombo. This slim and sprightly 80 year old continues to inspire the fabulous dance ensemble that her late husband created. Chitrasena, in turn, was inspired by Tagore’s Santiniketan and his days spent with Uday Shankar. He then returned to his native Colombo to re-imagine Sri Lanka’s ritual dance traditions for the proscenium stage. In rehearsal for a special show marking the famous choreographies of the iconic dance company, 8 dancers led by Vajira’s granddaughter Thaji (who dances in the Nrityagram collaboration SAMHARA) illuminated the simple thatched rehearsal space with the historical pieces like Saraswati and a slice of the famous Swan solo from Nala Damayanti. All created and performed by Vajira and later danced by her daughter Upeka and now Thaji, the rehearsal was a statement in impeccable preparation and ensemble camaraderie. Dancing drummers using hastas while drumming and moving in formations, superb dancing and a sumptuous dinner of curd/treacle and hoppers with jackfruit curry made for a memorable evening. On land donated by the government, this cultural treasure house, so close to our shores, can show us about how with limited movements and almost no narrative tradition, dance can be creative, dynamic and contemporary. 

The accolades continue to pour in for EPIC WOMEN and I am grateful to all those who attended and shared their delight at this path breaking event. PURUSH – December 19 to 22, 2013 -  is being curated as we speak and an exciting four days are guaranteed for those who will be present. I must add that conducting EPIC WOMEN on the very same days that our girl Nirbhaya was fighting for her life was a surreal moment. Many times I felt like remembering her and marking her uphill struggle to live. At every moment the mood of the EPIC WOMEN event was focused on discussing SITA, BALA, DRAUPADI, and somehow the moment passed. But the thought stayed with me. What was the meaning of the event against the murky tapestry of violence against our women? What was the real meaning of EPIC against this backdrop of acid burnt Malala and now Nirbhaya. These women were attacked by hateful mobs. Amidst the riveting discussion, I found my mind wandering through the corridors of cultural memory. Sita was the target of the Rama via the Ayodhya mob and she said “ENOUGH - I am going home.” Draupadi was the victim of the Kaurava / Pandava mob and she cried out “Krishna!” and issued a warning “Dusshasana-beware!” Ahalya was the target of Indra and Gautama and she said “No saviour for me of Gods and men.” She returned to becoming a stone – free from all men (in the best retelling of Tamil writer Pudumai Pittan). What can these women teach us about our lives in the India of today? I believe that mythology continues to tap into those well springs of deep compelling reservoirs that define us and it is at these times that we must try to recollect anything that can give us some measure of meaning. And sometimes nothing really can answer these questions. Nothing but rage and helpless anger remain. EPIC anger and EPIC hopeless emptiness.

The Padma awards were announced and were soon forgotten. Artistes are being recognised and honoured less and less and the list continues to expand for the corporates, scientists and designers.  And yet we persist. We continue to hope and want to see some positives, a sliver of light and reason amidst this increasingly grey landscape. We continue the dance of our lives.

And so it goes. Bonjour India – the cultural gift from France is enthralling audiences across India with fabulous shows. Soon to follow are OZ Fest, German celebrations and who knows what else? Young crowds who stay away from Indian dance events, are flocking to these performances in large numbers. And that is also a case study for our cultural czars and czarinas.

Wishing you a month of peace, fresh ideas and the compassion and luck to see them come to life. Have fun, smile and laugh - honestly.

Cheers!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai