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January 1, 2016

I am knitting blue wings into my dress
Sewing sparrows in my sleeves

Azadi is the name of my unborn daughter
and perfume of love in my poem’s dress

If I fail to tell my stories of struggle
I will lose myself

- Afghan poet PARI

On the first month of the New Year, I share these lines with the hope that the coming year will not carry scars of violence, savagery and cruelty that 2015 has witnessed. The largest number of displaced peoples in a century, the worst heat and floods in a century, rising fear and hate mongering … 2015 is best behind us.

My own New Year has been marked by the ritual visit to my favorite Chennai temple - Parthasarathy Kovil in Triplicane. As I waited in the long lines at 4 am, the memories of how the entire community bonded during the flood crisis returned. Muslims, Hindus and Christians took refuge inside the temple, and in the aftermath of the chaotic disaster, the Muslim community in Triplicane helped clean the temple before the auspicious month of Margazhi began on December 16th.

How easily these friendships and alliances of faith are erased!  And how soon we forget these precious moments. The Triplicane story was but one of the many triumphant moments in the resilience and courage of the Chennai citizen during the horrendous five days in December.

The much famed annual Chennai music and dance season took a huge hit in terms of cancellations of several performances, with some dancers (myself included) choosing not to perform stirred up a huge and still ongoing debate about the role of the artiste in times of social upheaval. Just last month I mentioned the role of artistes in the UKRAINE’s struggle against Russian bullying. There the artistes took to the streets and sang/danced/played alongside the protestors. Here, the debate was about why the dancer should not continue with her/his JOB since banks, telephone companies and other "essential services" resumed operations. The various tones of grandstanding, the morality tirade for and against those who abstained and those who performed only served to further confuse and divide an already fragile and vulnerable community.

Crowds were thinner than usual. They picked up after December 20th. Nowhere, however, near the enthusiasm and eagerness of previous years. Ticket sales, except for the stars, were down by 30%.  Music, as always, drew larger and more adoring crowds. NRI faithfuls who had planned their itineraries months in advance, walked into halls wearing shorts and flip flops in flagrant flouting of the unspoken rules of attire. The mood was muted overall but many were relieved to be able to leave their homes and forget, even briefly, the dreary images of devastation that destroyed much of Chennai and coastal Tamilnadu. The tale of gloom continued throughout other tourist towns. Madurai, Trichy, Tanjavur reported large cancellations of foreign tourists and holiday celebrations were cancelled at most clubs and hotels. The rage and desperation of the common man is still high in Chennai. One private party was stopped by an angry mob throwing stones and a shopper who was traveling on his scooter laden with bags was stopped, beaten up and his merchandise stolen in broad daylight. The wounds will take a long time to heal though the scars will remain.

Under the umbrella of ABHAI - the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India - money was gathered from dancers, rasikas and patrons around India and the world. Benefits were held from Dallas to Dartmouth. Clothes, medicines, utensils, food and aid are being directed to benefit those artists who were badly affected by the floods. The relief efforts will continue for 3 full months as ABHAI, led by Chitra Visweswaran, continue to assess the situation. The generosity and concern of those who called, e-mailed and tried to contact many of us during those five dark days in early December will not be forgotten. So many young artistes worked tirelessly alongside others from all walks of life, braving the infested waters and imminent disease to help and rescue the displaced. I am so proud of these young men and women. No longer will I call Gen Next spoiled and entitled… They did Chennai proud!

The flood crisis brought to the fore the role of the artiste. Should we have a voice in events that affect the societies and communities we live in? Should we be like Teflon in pursuing our craft to the exclusion of all else? The Federation of Sabhas issued a statement saying that “the Madras season was not cancelled even during the Tsunami of 2004 and World War 2.” It sounded hollow and out of sync to many outside the state. Can one dance and sing about divine grace and interventions when the visual landscape was filled with wails and loss? The situation brought about a cacophony of opinions. They flew around like bullets missing their targets - and the point.

Many dancers and musicians who cancelled their shows returned to performance later in the month when the sun shone and their moods lifted.

Many held onto their earlier stand about not performing during the season and diverting their energies and resources to relief work.

Some contributed and donated their modest sabha earnings towards flood relief.

Some sabhas refused to allow concerts to become fund raisers.
 
Armchair pundits who morphed overnight into dance critics made nasty comments about dancers and musicians on social media.

Many NRI dancers went ahead and performed, having already invested much money for their annual appearances.

Dance performances drew dismal crowds. Some well known artistes had less than 30 people in the audience. A shocking statement for Chennai, revealing the lack of community spirit.

Sangeeta Iswaran lost her mother during the terrible floods. In spite of her personal sorrow, she sent out a plea for “karuna” and not “sringara” to be the overarching rasa of the season.

Priyadarsini Govind was also bereaved. The passing of her mother caused the cancellation of the much awaited Music Academy performance. Her fans will have to wait another year to watch her during the December season.

Kalakshetra Foundation cancelled its annual December Arts Festival due to continued water logging on the campus grounds and student hostels. New dates will be announced.

At the 35th Natya Kala Conference dancers continued to use the platform for performance instead of the lecture demonstration format. In sharp contrast, the morning lecture sessions at the Music Academy were excellent according to most rasikas and scholars!

Malavika Sarukkai’s Natya Darshan conference was postponed to mid January with many of her original speakers having opted out of coming to Chennai in December. This conference is worth supporting and attending since she showed sensitivity to the situation.

The omnipresent superstar tailor Aiyyelu, whose entire shop was washed away made the best comment to the media, “If the dancers postpone their shows by one month, I can deliver all their costumes!!!!!”


Swarnamalya Ganesh
Several US and UK based dancers landed in the city and headed directly to the relief centers. Many of them took several photos and selfies with distraught citizens for social media during their relief work!  My dance studio is busy all day with out of town artistes trying to get at least two rehearsals before their performances. It all seems so stressful even to watch them prepare. So much seems invested in THAT SEASON SHOW. Is it really worth it? So many dancers feel that they need to return to connect to THE SOURCE of Bharatanatyam. To renew and reaffirm why they are dancers in far away countries, dancing to mirrored walls and cold floors. Musicians feel that the season is beyond money. It is about prestige, about expanding one’s canvas and growing as an artiste. Whatever be the reason, the Chennai Season is now like an enormous serpentine oil tanker. It just keeps trundling on. Getting it back on track will need strength, heft and a wide turning radius. It will also need the strength of a JEDI LIGHT SABRE - a clean sweep of the malaise of smug mediocrity and rampant corruption that has revealed itself in all its ugly and grotesque splendour. It is also a gender equation at play. The BOYS CLUB of sabha gatekeepers vs the community of largely women who have chosen to take a stand. Now who is the JEDI and who is DARTH VADER? Where is THE FORCE and who carries the DARKNESS? Sides are interchangeable according to who you ask. But the lines were drawn clearly during this past month. 

The runaway star of the December Chennai floods from the dance community was SWARNAMALYA. What energy and what commitment! Wow! Sleepless days and nights, helping, cooking, rescuing, counseling, feeding hundreds while assuaging the sentiments of the outraged LGBT, disabled and other marginalized communities who were neglected in the relief efforts - she gets our VIJAYA KIREETAM from all of us. She has further called out the “elephant in the room” with her startling and well known racket of dance slots being sold by cartels of dancers and dance gurus! Bravo, Swarna!

Also shout outs to Priya Murle and Anil Srinivasan and Sashikiran KN… artistes who stood shoulder to shoulder with the relief workers during the exhausting week long crisis.

As the mood slowly lifts by the day, the much awaited Music Academy dance festival will perhaps be the litmus test about audience attendance and response. Three marquee slots fell vacant (Chitra Visweswaran and ensemble, Hari Krishnan/Srividya Natarajan and Priyadarsini Govind) and were quickly replaced by others. 72 year old Sonal Mansingh had 8 back to back performances!

Come December 2016 and it will be clear if grudges are held against the dancers who cancelled their season shows. Will they be invited again? Will they be blacklisted? Will more money be demanded to include them in the roster? Only time will tell. 

Let’s switch tracks to lighter points.

There is a new DANCE CHANNEL on TV and actress Madhuri Dixit is the brand ambassador. Among the classical dance styles being taught are Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Birju Maharaj and Saswati Sen anchor the Kathak segments and guess who is in charge of the BN? Namita Bodaji! Who? Yes. Namita Bodaji. Who again?  And why is someone so unknown either as a teacher or a performer at the helm of the Bharatanatyam section? Have I missed a new star on the rise? What will be taught? Bollywood songs with semi classical or classical touches. Ouch!

I mourn the passing of my theatre guru and collaborator Professor S Ramanujam on December 7, 2015. Professor Ramanujam was a student of Ebrahim Alkazi of the National School of Drama, New Delhi and later of Malayali theatre director Sankaran Pillai in Trivandrum. The author of several important Tamil plays, he specialised in children's theatre and won the national award for his unique contribution to Kerala and Tamil Theatre. Since 1995 he was involved in the revival and reconstitution of the 15th century dance ritual theatre KAISIKA NATAKAM in Tirukurungudi, Tamilnadu.
 

A breathtaking photo exhibition in memory of CHANDRALEKHA at her seaside home on Elliotts Beach Road, Chennai. Laid out across the verdant grounds of her Elliots Beach home, the photo series captures moments and moods from her 10 major productions created over 20 significant years. Curated and mounted by friend and collaborator Sadanand Menon, one of the photographs contains critics Shanta Serbjeet Singh and Sunil Kothari watching a rehearsal in the early 1980s. This not-to-miss cultural event marks the 9th anniversary of Chandralekha’s passing on Dec 30 2006.

January is filled with dance, theatre, literature festivals and poetry sessions. AANDAL is the featured poet in the HINDU LIT FOR LIFE and JAIPUR LITERARY FESTIVAL. Her life and imagination are the feature of two important books by academic Archana Venkatesan (Aandal’s Garden) and poet Priya Sarukkai Chabria (Autobiography of a Goddess). I will read and re-read her words while nibbling at ‘thiratti paal’ the calorie rich milk sweet famous in her home town temple of Srivilliputtur.  May AANDAL's passionate and erotic words move and inspire a new generation of women and dancers to plumb their creative depths and find a way to move beyond the cloying and simpering ‘sringara’ bhava we see on stage these days.

Mythology and Epics are the featured theme of the Kolkata Literary Festival this month. Being on panels with author Amish and performing A MILLION SITAs at the gorgeous Victoria Memorial will be a refreshing experience. SITA continues to enthrall and fascinate audiences through time. And MYTHOLOGY is not going away in a hurry either! Just take a look at the Sita-centric Hindi TV serial SIYA KE RAM. In it SITA is an artiste, a fighter, educated, wise and outspoken. Writer Ashok Banker and others are attempting to set right the silencing of women’s voices in the epics!


White Lotus Black Sand

I did have the opportunity of watching one contemporary performance in Kolkata. On a consultation visit for the Kolkata Literary Festival 2016, I had one evening free to watch the Indian-Chinese collaboration called WHITE LOTUS BLACK SAND between Rhythmosaic –Sengupta Dance Company and Beijing Dance /LDTX Company. Using Asian modern dance, Kathak and Western contemporary technique in action, this international dance exchange was brimming with promise. With the “Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai” metaphor being stretched to its limits, this show has an extended touring life ahead! Politics and art enmeshed.


Leela Venkataraman and
Shanta Serbjeet Singh
January 11 marks the 80th birthday of two divas connected to dance. I am talking about Leela Venkataraman and Shanta Serbjeet Singh. Together and separately they changed the way dance was reported, discussed and presented. For almost 40 years their elegant prose and lucid observations created many generations of rasikas, patrons, dancers and avid dance watchers. In an era before social media and instant opinions, it was their optic that was respected. Varied approaches and often diametrically different views, Leela Maami and Shanta-ji (as they were often referred to) brought to the world of dance criticism a steady stream of engaged and intelligent discourse. On their 80th birthday, we applaud and salute their continued passion for dance. Happy Birthday, Leela Venkataraman & Shanta Serbjeet Singh!!

We cannot forget 84 year old Kumudini Lakhia who had a grand celebration to mark 50 wonderful years in choreography. Her sense of humor was intact even as some of her former students performed with LED lights, and gibberish narratives. With such love extended to her from so many, it was hard not to feel the love-quake even down in Chennai. Hugs to you,  Kumiben. You are special!

As I end this message, I must confess that this is the very first “season” that I have sat out completely. I have not attended a single concert from December 1st. How did it feel to not watch or listen to anyone for an entire month? Relieved? Guilty? Restless? Envious? Relaxed? To be honest, it was the first and last emotion for me. And a bit of the others thrown in but not enough for me to regret my decision of staying away from the stage.  Being in the midst of deliciously mundane household chores was most therapeutic. As I return to the rehearsal space with a very busy January ahead, I ask myself “Why do I dance?” “What do I want to say?” “Do I have anything to contribute by my presence?” The answers are not clear or reassuring. Perhaps I have to trust my body-intelligence to work out the answers. 

HERO OF THE MONTH - SOCIAL MEDIA. All relief work was coordinated and executed through Facebook/Whatsapp and Instagram for quick and effective response between Dec 1 to 5.

VILLAIN OF THE MONTH - WHATSAPP... the incredible debris of messages that floods our phones from all kinds of wannabes inviting us here, there and everywhere. Gimme a break! EXIT/DELETE GROUP has been my most frequent activity last month!

LAUGH TRACK OF THE MONTH - Recorded phone messages on all Chennai land lines and cell phones featuring our very own Chief Minister JJ stating how she has “forgotten” her birth name and how she is now only known as AMMA. That the citizens of Chennai and Tamilnadu are her “children” and how her heart “bleeds” for them! Slamming phones and enraged expletives greet this telephonic intervention!

GOING, GOING ALMOST GONE - Our 10 member team of dancers stuck in the torrential December 1st night Chennai downpour, en route to the international airport for a 10 day tour of Thailand and Cambodia. We barely escaped an awful fate.  Leaving 20 minutes earlier we would have reached the airport only to be stuck there for 5 long days without power, water, communication and food! Govinda! Govinda!

It is a leap year. Let us hope for less stress and violence. Let us look towards the light and find the beam that will shine on many of us. Let us find that bubble of optimism and joy that lies buried in our souls.

Link hands and hold on tight.
We are creators, prophets and shamans.

We are artistes!

Happy New Year!
In 2016 we have 366 days
Make that extra day count!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Kolkata/Trichy


Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ARthecontemporaryclassicist?ref=hl



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