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January 13, 2011

Greetings and joy during the auspicious Pongal, Sankranti and Kite flying season of harvest and festivities.  The New Year has just left us and already many of us are planning a shift in our pathways. For those who performed in festivals around the world and especially here in India, audience shifts may have been noticeable. In Chennai, where I attended the morning sessions at the Music Academy dance festival, the senior gurus were universally impeccable, restrained and a welcome change from the flash and bombast of the divas during the evening slots. Watching Rhadha, Dhananjayans, C V Chandrasekhar, Sucheta Chapekar and the queen of them all, Vyjayantimala at the daily packed auditorium of 1000 rasikas was a continuing example of the appeal of these ageing but dignified pillars of classical Bharatanatyam.  Immediately following them in the mornings during this “free admission” sessions, was the strong and confident dancing of Praveen Kumar, Priya Murle,  Lakshmi Gopalaswamy,  Prithvija Balagopal and Shobha Sharma.  Rather confused at the million avatars of Bharatanatyam sprouting around the globe, it was comforting to watch clean ‘adavus’, crisp ‘teermanams’ and lovely singing by most of the younger artistes.

In contrast, the evening shows did not attract the large crowds as anticipated. Even the sublime Nrityagram ensemble, that brought superstar Rajinikant to the Music Academy, did not pack the hall as did the eternal diva Vyjayantimala.  Aruna Mohanty’s intelligent and robust group choreography for Odissi brought home the golden era that this classical style is enjoying in contemporary India.

THE HINDU made a welcome and radical decision, spurred on by their editor in chief, N Ram. The main edition was opened up to many artistes who voiced their views on various aspects of the annual Chennai cultural season. The views that created tectonic upheavals were those that exposed the lack of basic hygiene and amenities for artistes in almost all the sabhas, except the Music Academy. The debate rages on and dancers are speaking out. Also this year, the malpractice of reviewing the same dancer twice in the season when they repeat their performances has been stopped. However, some reviews read like a personal homage to a particular dancer like Rupa Srikanth who almost always writes as if she is preparing to build a “temple” for her favourite dancer. This kind of “body parts” writing does little to serve the artiste or the art. If THE HINDU is the only media house that continues to give space for artistic discussions then it is about time that they train their writers about the correct way to watch dance with a critical objectivity and not waste space for hagiography and self indulgent remarks.  But then is it too late? Today nobody wants to hear anything negative. Not a word or a whisper. “Praise me, adore me, worship me. I am the best” is the anthem!

There is a particular body type that the West likes. It is the type that belongs to Aishwarya Rai and Malavika Sarukkai.  An international lithe figure, perfect proportions, lissome, even uber slim, with long and lean arms and legs. A fair skin is a huge plus and photo shopping can make one even whiter, as Ash and Beyonce discovered in their recent cover shoots. If you are “Indian slim”, with Ajanta hips and Chola breasts, please step aside. Presenters are NOT interested. So there are scores of fit dancers, jumping and jiving like robots, with great stamina but no inner core. Who really cares? The West adores the  “clean lines”, the “sharp angles”, the “mathematical precision” and “goddess looks.”  Vive L’Orientalism !

 The guru of the new millennium is undoubtedly Priyadarsini Govind. Her style of movement, abhinaya and costuming is the rage of the Bharatanatyam world from Aberdeen to Aminjikarai. Every wannabe young thing is copying her to a T but none have her training and her gravitas for lyrical depth. It is Ms Govind who is representing “ABHINAYA” at the Kennedy Centre in a special double bill. I would have thought that  Birju Maharaj would have been better suited but Priyadarsini has a theatrical quality that could communicate very effectively.

To demonstrate how vastly Chennai has changed over the years, the 1000 seater Lady Andal auditorium in the north part of the city was almost overflowing for the Indo Dutch collaboration of a natya-opera ORFEO smack in the middle of the classical season. And now the National School of Drama is celebrating their wonderful theatre festival in the city for two weeks. Each show ticketed unlike dance that is FREE, FREE, FREE.

It is now the time for the national awards. The PADMA and the Sangeet Natak Akademi honours. Who will get them this year? I would like to see the names of CV Chandrasekhar and Lakshmi Viswanathan but who knows who will finally get it? Perhaps those who lobby the hardest and whine the loudest!

Dr Avanthi Meduri from the University of Roehampton, Surrey in the UK was in the city on a brief trip to introduce the idea of a specialized Dance Studies course. But after watching dancer after dancer prostrate herself on the stage in a semblance of ‘bhakti’ and sacred ‘seizures’, she was left wondering if Bharatanatyam has indeed become a cultural product, too enmeshed with religion and social values to be  viewed as an artistic discipline for interrogation and critique.

Enjoy the first month of the New Year. I hope that your families are well and that the dance tsunami is quietened for the moment. For those buried under piles of snow and sleet, keep warm and keep those toes moving in taalam.
Until next time.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam  
Chennai/Bengaluru/Delhi