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January 1, 2011

As the New Year dawns, many resolutions will be made…. The most popular among them would be... lose weight, stop smoking, drinking, gossiping, purchasing, mourning. Some may abstain from certain foods but we rarely think of the resolution to say NO. This is the time, especially for dancers who have withstood the recent Chennai sabha season, to embrace the word with conviction. NO.

The tsunami of programmes reads like a multiplex menu card. Dances start at 11 am and continue through the day. Shows at 2pm, 4pm, 6pm and 7.30pm. Almost all, except for the MUSIC ACADEMY, amidst appalling stage and green room facilities. Senior performers who are used to such callous maintenance have long given up on raising their voice but it is the junior brigade that suffers the most. Amidst this imbalance between corporate sponsorship and the absence of any responsibility towards the arts as shown by many space managers, the main question looms. What is the need to increase the number of performances when audiences are not growing at the same rate?

Performing as a professional is a harrowing experience during the Chennai season and every time we pull off a show, it is nothing short of a minor miracle. The level of ennui and smug arrogance that permeates the infrastructure is so suffocating that, in an ironic twist of events, it is we dancers who bear the brunt of the media, audience, organizers and funders. We are considered fussy, demanding and troublesome. Yet our dates for the NEXT season are requested months ahead of December. Compared to the crowds that musicians draw, we are paupers. Musicians are the true rock stars of the performing arts. Aruna Sairam, Bombay Jayshree, Sanjay Subramaniam and Sudha Raghunathan attract overflowing crowds with CCTV facilities set up outside the halls. Among the dancers, except for cine fame Shobana and Anita Guha's population explosion shows, many were met with modest audiences. A welcome change was a large number of young people from the corporate and IT world who attended some programmes. Sri Krishna Gana Sabha was overflowing for the premiere of A MILLION SITAs and it was a very gratifying moment.

With musicians staying away from dance and dancers also not attending another's performance, I ask - who are we dancing for? Why are we spending so much money to be seen in the Chennai season? Can one review make or break a dancer? The answer is NO. So then why is the Season so essential for performances if at every turn, a professional is thwarted, slighted and shooed away?

Fortunately, more dancers are speaking up. The Dhananjayans have always been vocal and many know MY outspoken nature. A pleasant surprise came when Mythili Prakash, Bharatanatyam's rising star, wrote a frank first person piece in THE HINDU about these same issues. It is time to continue to push and lobby for change.

Having lost the discipline to question, discuss and debate issues connected to dance, dance conferences in India are excuses to perform in full regalia. Dance writing is very weak and a critical discourse glaringly absent. However, the media is beginning to give more space to young artistes and inviting many to contribute a POV (point of view) column. As convenor of a dance conference next December for Kartik Fine Arts, the challenge will be to bring the right mix of academic rigour to a community that has forgotten the process of questioning and objectivity. The theme of the conference for Dec 23, 24 and 25, 2011 is being formalized and details will be shared soon.

My newest performance MILLION SITAs, created in my personal movement style of NEO BHARATAM had two very successful shows in the season. Large crowds from various fields including my favourite seniors Sudharani Raghupathy, Chitra Visweswaarn, Lakshmi Viswanathan along with beauteous Srinidhi Chidambaram were in the audience with family and students. The superbly extraordinary sleep deprived SITA tech team worked tirelessly to create magic on stage for both performances. Collaborating with musicians after ten years was another moment of relearning. The Ramayana is an eternal story that flows through the racial memory of our people. To enter this fascinating human tale, the lens of SITA was very moving for me. From one single mother to another through time, Sita's story is more than legend and myth. It is a testimony to the multiple realities of women everywhere. The project reminded me of the value and power of myth in our society and why I continue to navigate my performances with mythology as the primary compass. Also the term NEO BHARATAM, that I coined in 1998 to more clearly delineate my style of performance that is imbued with the multiple training of dance, theatre, stillness, personal life experience and improvisation has been appropriated without any understanding by many dancers in "Tiger Town" (Singapura). The recent lacklustre performance of AALAM, a group work from Singapore, began with a 'Neo Bharatam' piece. I shuddered in embarrassment as the dancers clad in black bodysuits threw themselves in various directions as if electrocuted. Am I guilty of implying that bad Bharatanatyam can be called Neo Bharatam? Or wearing black bodysuits, that I began wearing in 1995, can be combined with garish synthetic? Certainly not. While Bharata Nrityam is a codified style developed by Padma Subrahmanyam, the term Neo Bharatam is NOT a freewheeling framework for anything and everything that does not seem to fit into the classical mould.

The highlight of the 2010 Chennai season for me was the afternoon 2pm slot of excellent emerging stars. Against the unflattering sand coloured backdrop at Narada Gana Sabha, Priya Murle, Jyotsna Jagannathan, Lakshmi Ramaswamy, Vidya Subramaniam, Shijith Nambiar and Dominique Delorme displayed excellent technique and a clear adherence to their respective 'baanis.' All dancers are fighting fit and some moments of abhinaya were truly wonderful. However, they must all plan their programming to ensure that the pace and flow of items are not repetitive and overdone. The wealth of young dancers in their twenties and early thirties is impressive but they all have the myth of Sisyphus to contend with in their professional lives.

It is a gift to be a dancer in this life. No matter what the challenges, the power and potency of our art is like none other. Cherish and share this precious gift with care. This New Year begins the second decade of the millennium with the magical numericals 1.1.11. May this prime number be yours.

Happiness, peace, joy through life, friends, family and DANCE.
Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai