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January 1, 2015

Thoughts on the New Year
By Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D
Core Faculty Member, Pacifica Graduate Institute

We fall into stories;
They often break us. We arise renewed.
Let a narrative nag at you.
Don’t swat at what irritates.
Let it land on the skin of your soul.
Sigh at the end of the year. Turn your face sunward.
The new year shines back in yellow mystery.
Your year has offered new stories.
They may be only half told.
The New Year writes old stories anew.
Sometimes my story is a tattered rag.
It calls to be mended. I can only amend it.
Last year the sun set every evening in the West.
But the New Year feels miraculous.
I will seek the setting sun in the East.

And we have landed onto the backs of a goat.  Welcome to the dawn of Aquarius and the rising power of the public opinion. We enter the Chinese year of the Sheep. We are being told that this is also the rise of the Age of Aquarius. Not the anthem of the Woodstock generation but a swell in feminine voices and alternate ideas. And another expanse stretches ahead, welcoming us to more ideas and imagination afloat.

What then, of what we have just experienced? The year that was 2014? Yes, it flashed past us. For those in our fifties and more, time seems to whiz past without a care. My mother was a grandmother at 50 and look at so many of us creative women... watching our children carve out their dreams without even a glimmer of another generation ahead!

2014 seemed to be a year when social media stopped chattering and started screaming. The outpouring of images, quotes, statements, opinions and general barrage flooded our hand helds and laptops. Young things with no credentials assumed global importance with innumerable "LIKES" and comments. Oh, the megalomania or self indulgence! We saw a lot and more of it in 2014. But creativity continued live and people responded. Smaller and smaller audiences gathered for quality work and more and more thronged for shows that had huge publicity and media support. However, one could not FORCE rasikas to STAY for rubbish and many were seen walking out of high profile events after the first 20 minutes.

Living in a city that considers itself the navel of the classical music and dance universe during December mandates some time and space for the annual much hyped Music and Dance Season. So here goes...

The year’s final month welcomed a deluge - literally and figuratively - of 2500 concerts, many in cowshed halls with makeshift tech support surroundings. Only 7 to 9 singers and dancers attracted house full and overflowing crowds and that too, only in certain auditoriums. Organisations still saw fans gathering at 3am to buy tickets for music shows. Dance continued to languish, dwindle and fade. The great divas disappointed with lacklustre shows, confirming what I have been saying for many years. That Chennai based dancers DO NOT SHOW OR GIVE OF THEIR BEST DURING THE CHENNAI SEASON. They are so exhausted with year round touring, and the presenters only give them 15 minutes to set up between the packed day schedule, that it is impossible to mount anything new or original in December.

My own season was patchy.  Choosing not to perform this year but enjoy the month of performance was only a distant dream. A house full of overseas visitors and relatives, my days were filled with meet and greet, shopping advice and planning for a looming large family celebration. What DID seem glaring was how I became a de facto tourism expert and ticket agent. With almost no information available online as to how to buy tickets and local hotel concierge facilities clueless about what and who are performing where, my inbox, facebook and whatsapp were brimming with panicked pleas as to how to watch Valli, Malavika, Rama, Leela, Aruna, Jayshree, Krishna, Abhishek, Sanjay, Ranjani/Gayatri??? “We are willing to sit on the stage, stand, pay extra, do cartwheels. Just get us a ticket!”

Even more surprising was when UK visitors who had but one or two days in the city wanted to watch another UK dancer. Why, I wondered would they want to watch someone who was already familiar in their own country? Seems our spirit of adventure has evaporated when it comes to the arts but not when it is called for to spend money on food, shopping and travel. Retail - both ground and online for cultural artifacts and personal effects, saw such a huge jump in 2014, that India is now considered the next mecca / Vaikunta of e-commerce. And to think that the sabhas are not interested in online sales since their tickets are already sold out for the season when the booking opens on December 1st. This is solely because the membership base of each sabha is entitled to 65% of the seats.  With no calendar of programming throughout the year, the December season is when smug and irate members make demands of choice seats and then not turn up for the shows, leaving empty chairs when the curtain rises every evening!

What is even more shocking - yes, it is a strong word - is how callous the retail establishments like hotels and restaurants are totally OBLIVIOUS of the city's historical cultural season. Chennai airport had an ugly and lop sided Santa Claus with anorexic reindeer greeting travellers and there was no handout in any hotel or the tourism centre about the daily or weekly schedule. When I was invited to talk to the ITC hotels upper management about CULTURAL LITERACY AND CHENNAI, most of the staff, who were from other parts of India, were surprised about the many facts and tips that they could use in their own hospitality kits! I spoke about the London hotel concierges who were the best in the world. Land in that city and ask a concierge about what is happening in town. You will get the information about the best show, the best offbeat concert, play, the best new place to eat and also how to get tickets! These men and women are the true ambassadors of their city. And here we are, frantically guiding our overseas guests who had made travel and hotel reservations months ahead with no guide as to how to attend any of the concerts or kutcheris! Seems strange but in Namma Madras - so very true!

Or perhaps, this is also true. That the much hyped SEASON is now only limited to certain small geographical areas like Mylapore, Alwarpet, Teynampet and Adyar. That north Madras that has seen the greatest migrants and newcomers to the city are more interested in the malls, stores, hotels and cafes than kutcheris and Carnatic culture!


Shyamala Mohanraj with disciple

Aniruddha Knight
Pics: Stream Imaging


The annual dance conferences continued. Malavika Sarukkai (assisted by co-curator Hari Krishnan) and Swapnasundari assumed charge of the NATYA DARSHAN and NATYA KALA CONFERENCES respectively. Attendance for both was patchy and the former did not curb self indulgent speakers and presenters to finish on time. For me, the most rewarding moments of NATYA DARSHAN were the sessions featuring T Balasaraswati's legacy as continued by her senior student Shyamala Mohanraj and her grandson Aniruddha Knight. Both back to back sessions showed the audience how close the relationship was between dance and music. In one charming moment, the singer Usha Shivakumar (dancer Vidya Sankaranarayanan’s sister) shared how she learnt one particular line of music from Bala’s daughter (Aniruddha's mother) Lakshmi Knight. She had to hold the mudra of a face near to hers and feel like kissing it. It was in the doing that she could capture the small inflection of affection and sensuality!

Scholar Vikram Sampath's presentation on Gauhar Jaan, the first Indian to record her voice on the Gramophone vinyl was charming and engaging. Scholar Goswamy spoke eloquently about miniatures and the ever widening circles of the Sri Krishna enigma as portrayed through North Indian visuals. Some artistes took the morning opportunities to perform with full orchestra, costume, bells and all. A darkened auditorium in the morning is not the mood for an academic and open discussion. In gist, many felt that while Malavika had done well in her first attempt as curator/convenor, the phrase that accompanied the title - The Creative Process - was tenuous at best and not sufficiently explored. Most performers took the title too literally, not to mention several scholars making the connection between the Lotus and India's ruling BJP party! Visual designer Rex came up with yet another imaginative set. Executed by Victor Paulraj and his team, Rex managed to create his usual magic in spite of several constraints.


Malavika Sarukkai

Set for Natya Darshan designed by Rex

Evening performances for the LOTUSES BLOSSOM festival were not of a universally high quality. Malavika’s own premiere of VAMATARA - Into the Light, found her disconnected with the bold multimedia behind her that created its own narrative. I saw her musicians, amazed with the huge visuals, thrown off key in many moments, revealing that there was perhaps no rehearsal with all the elements before the actual premiere. Working with multimedia calls for a whole new calibration of choreography, lighting and staging. The same choreography does not work when the scale and impact of falling petals or a widening eye of Krishna packs a powerful punch on its own. And Malavika’s own cringeworthy final section commentary on the slush and sludge of lotus ponds equated to the speed and greed of modern life screamed for editing and more rigorous introspection. For such a superb dancer to cut and paste earlier works to fit a new title is not becoming of her passion and status as someone who has truly pushed the classical idiom to fit her celebrated career.  VAMATARA needs a whole new look with careful editing. In this instance, COLLABORATION needs to be looked at as lighting, choreography, multimedia and music as being equal partners rather than mere vehicles for the soloist.

While Shijith Nambiar impressed with his heartfelt performance, days after the birth of his first child and the death of his father, dancer Lakshmi Parthasarathy danced like a ghost. Pale and ill, she crowded her confused ideas into an hour long unimpressive work that did not suit her growing reputation as a dancer to watch. And her multimedia attempt at white circled chakra centres pointing directly at the vulva region was an embarrassment!

The unanimous hit of the LOTUSES BLOSSOM festival was Aditi Mangaldas. Beautifully lit and fiercely danced, Aditi's new image of reworking Kathak for a global urban audience is gaining currency rapidly. Working on her strengths as a dynamic performer with limited facial abhinaya skills, she cleverly used props and mood lighting for her Meera bhajan.  Ferocious about her demands and technical requirements, she reflects the words of actress Shirley Maclaine: "You have to earn the right to be a bitch"! Bravo!

The flop of the festival was a resounding and unanimous vote. Rama Vaidyanathan. She was totally off colour. Off mood, dancing with no passion, connect or feeling. She could have just as well phoned in her performance that evening. Childish attempts at multimedia of Krishna paintings, endless minutes of seated abhinaya, a frenzied "raas" that seemed straight out of a Bollywood film, an over amplified orchestra of Hindustani music (why must North Indian murals always call for North Indian music for Bharatanatyam?). I was not the only shocked member of the audience. Many outsiders who had come with great expectations were left wondering what had gone wrong. Was Rama emblematic of the malaise of the season? With international touring dates already in place for 2015 and beyond, has the Chennai season become something of a bore to these divas? Does it even matter anymore to create islands of excellence?

Booklet Did U Know from the archives of narthaki.com
published by Arangham Trust for the season
If celebrated dancers like Malavika and Rama do not introspect their respective careers, then it does not bode well for the future of solo classical dance. They, along with Alarmel Valli, continue to hold the standards of the solo form that is slowly but surely fading. No matter how loud the shouting, we have to face the facts. It is spectacle, large groups and huge numbers that really translate into audiences. Ask Anitha Guha and Sheela Unnikrishnan. Each of their group works drew large and enthusiastic crowds. Multimedia, art installations, posters, publicity... these are all becoming common in the dance world. The city of Vadodara is hosting India's largest cultural festival called VADFEST this month. Featuring glittering and spectacular acts like Yanni and A R Rahman, it also features Isha Shervani (Daksha's Sheth's daughter) in SIVA SAKTI. When money is poured into dance and LIVE ARTS, it is a good thing, but when will the bottomless pit be satisfied? Perhaps never like Lord Venkateswara at Tirupati is reminded that he still owes Kubera a sizable amount in loan for marrying Alamelu Mangai! No matter how filled the coffers, there is more to spend!

Swapnasundari was an impressive convenor of the Natya Kala Conference which saw meagre crowds and low moods. Her vast knowledge was lost on thinning enthusiasm from the audience. Sri Prabhu and Sri Sabaretnam have a lot of homework to do about the relevance and validity of holding these morning sessions during the season. In contrast, the purely academic sessions at the Music Academy draw healthy audiences and the music festival was extremely well attended.

Which brings us to the fact that finally, someone has pointed out the elephant in the room. Media has made note this season that the hype is over the top. Sabha managers are worried and a total rethink is on the cards. But who is to shake and rattle the ivory tower? There is such a contented nexus between presenters and a small group of artistes to continue to program the same roster of names that younger artistes will rarely ever get a chance to break through.

Even Kalakshetra that gets its crowds of foreigners and locals who want an annual dose of Adyar nostalgia ran nearly empty halls. The Rukmini Arangam theatre is still so gorgeous and demands great dancing within its embrace, which rarely happens. Shubha Mudgal’s wonderful presentation did not draw enough people and the rest of the performances of the Ramayana ballets were lukewarm at best.

Yashoda Thakore
So where did the crowds gather? At alternate venues like art galleries where Sudharani Raghupathy performed superb abhinaya and at SPACES, the gorgeous seaside theatre built on the premises of Chandralekha's home. I watched an utterly charming performance and lecture organised by scholar Davesh Soneji of Montreal that featured courtesan dancer Yashoda Thakore of the Kalavantulu community of Andhra. The flow of body with lyric, the mischievous allusions to "limp" organs and the sheer exuberance of performing left many of us smiling yet tinged with nostalgia. How far modern Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi have come from the early 20th century! And how much amnesia most of us suffer from without being fully aware of the history of the form!

SPACES was also the venue on Christmas morning where I presented a double bill of music and dance. FLOAT with piano by Anil Srinivasan and PADME, dance by the Bangalore group I have been mentoring for the past 18 months. 200 eager citizens and visitors thronged the space at 7.45am and stayed for the crisp and beautiful morning, right through to the pongal and coffee! CEOs, consultants, actors, directors, dancers, musicians, painters, joggers and elderly walkers on the beach - the morning had them all and in high spirits. 75% of the audience are not those who frequent the sabha season! Yet, they were fully present, bright young minds, engaged in classical music more than dance and ready to attend, participate and enjoy the morning.

Ever since I started presenting alternate programming in December - from 1993 until the end of THE OTHER FESTIVAL in 2007, I have seen Chennai changing rapidly, with a growing audience for good content and intelligent programming. The classical season has deteriorated rapidly with small pockets of excellence in the larger miasma of boring mediocrity. There is the audience and there are good performers. The question is how to get them together with careful and intelligent planning. And the right mix of money and patronage. Critic Devina Dutt from Bombay who summed up the Lotus conference with pithy and honest remarks has turned presenter of jazz and music groups with great success. She was shocked at the poor audience turnout for the dance and music shows in Chennai saying the lustre and reputation of the city has taken a hammering.

Padme
The PADME project was the end of an 18 month mentoring curve for me as artistic director / producer. From a national audition held in Bangalore in 2013 to the show at SPACES, the international collaboration (choreographed by Kalpana Raghuraman) came to a fulfilling end with roaring applause and thrilled dancers. While all the performers, in the post performance discussion, spoke of how "life changing" this experience was, it was clear from one of the Bharatanatyam dancers that in spite of being treated and paid like professionals, that she would be ready to pay sabhas and dance for 10 people instead of being a part of a professional project like PADME!!! The reason stated was that dancing for a sabha during the Chennai season looks better on her resume! Of course, she has not thought out the entire graph between paying for her slot, dancing to meagre audiences and then continuing to beat at the wall for another paying opportunity. When will it stop? When the money runs out? When she finally realises that she can actually earn more money with her degree in management? This response from a smart woman and a good dancer! So now you know how deep the rot is!

December for dance and music does not mean being in Chennai anymore. All of India has festivals no matter how cold or inhospitable the weather. Delhi and Hyderabad had their own share of daily shows with outdoor events bringing in the best crowds. An NRI from San Jose has entered into the Guinness Book of Records for holding the largest gathering of Kuchipudi dancers (several thousand), with laser lights and politicians in attendance and now being hailed as the "saviour of Kuchipudi." Another NRI has published a bestselling comic book with the Nirbhaya rape victim becoming a Goddess/Kali. Rape as a comic? Problematic to say the least. 

Mythology continues to hold sway over the minds and imaginations of many. Movies and articles continue to debate the ideas and impulses behind many ideas from Vedanta and other older belief systems. Joseph Campbell's book A HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES was used for Tamil superstar Rajinikant's newest film LINGA, although the timeline was all wrong, with the character located in the 1930s and the book written in the 1950s!  A Campbell Round Table group has been started in Bombay and a special course on Mythology created in the University of Mumbai. In Chennai, the Women's Studies Department has been inaugurated earlier this month with mythology as one of the key components.

Elsewhere around the world, art continues to be created. There is so much discourse, discussion and engagement in the arts that in spite of the tightening of attitudes, an increase in fundamentalism and appropriation of visuals and metaphors, the performing arts continue to be performed, watched and enjoyed. India finds itself on the threshold of immense change and our arts are being co-opted and thrown up for all the wrong reasons by those in power. In 1993 and again in 2011, critic Sadanand Menon stated that "the intellectual centre of Indian dance has moved out of India and to North America." It rings true more than ever although more and more dancers are turning to the academic world to excavate their own histories and the many levels of social and political interventions into the modern avatars of Bharatanatyam and other forms.  Ironically, most of the degree courses are being pursued OUTSIDE India!

Do not think for a moment that I am disenchanted or cynical about the worlds of music and dance that have informed and influenced my life. It is in the watching, observing, preparing, presenting and performing that I have learned so much about life and those who live within and outside the arts. My impatience is for what is possible and why, we in India continue to fear excellence.

I will not exchange my life in the arts for anything. Yes, give me a sail around the Greek islands or a ride on the Nile to watch the pyramids. A walk up the steps to Tirupati and a walk into the waters at sunset at Kanyakumari. Travel and adventure increase our own bandwidths and make us better artistes, more responsive to the world we live in and create from!

We welcome back writer Shanta Serbjeet Singh with her unique take on culture and the arts with her monthly column BASE NOTES. Critic Ashish Mohan Khokar will be discontinuing his Dance History Column which focused on past events and people and instead focus on the present and future trends that impact the arts and young people. His new column is called TRENDING.

Happy New Year to all. 
With best wishes from a cool Madras (20 degree sweater weather!)

Dr Anita R Ratnam
and the team at narthaki.com
Chennai/Colombo/Trichy/Bangalore/New Delhi


Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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