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July 1, 2017

"Dancing is a sweat job
The higher up you go
The more mistakes you are allowed
Right at the top, if you make enough of them
It is considered to be your style."
- American dancer Fred Astaire

I begin my thoughts in the midst of a long overdue retreat with the four fabulous women who have journeyed with me for the past 2 decades and more. Lalitha, Vidhya, Raksha and Akhila are on a well deserved holiday in Sri Lanka where we are brain storming, feasting, meeting creative artistes, taking long walks, and sharing a combined gratitude for our lives! None of the four are dancers! Thank you, ladies, for trusting me with this roller coaster ride we are all on! And Sumathi - our silent puppeteer and webmaster - we miss you!


PM Narendra Modi doing yoga in Lucknow

Yoga in Jodhpur swimming pool (PTI Photo)

On June 21st, the entire world seemed to be poised in a collective INHALE-EXHALE mode.
While many iconic public spaces around the world were filled with yoga mats and convoluted bodies, it was only in my home state of Tamilnadu that there was not a murmur. In my daily morning yoga class with guru Radha Sridhar, we spoke about how it was in Tamilnadu that the "banyan tree" of global yoga started. Guru Krishnamachariar was the source for both BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga) and Jois Pattabhi (Ashtanga Yoga). His son, the late Desikachari, continued the global phenomenon and today even health and fitness professionals confess that unless they add the word YOGA to any new physio or fitness routine, the students do not come!

While a scattered few students were photographed doing yoga in a swimming pool to combat the intense heat, the day was hardly marked in any significant way.


Messy Chennai road

Chennai and Tamilnadu are in a rotten funk today. The city is filthy, we have no governance and there is a disenchanted 'ennnui' everywhere. The dance and music community choose to ignore the spreading malaise and fly out to distant shores for their lucrative summer schedules. Meanwhile, dancers in Bengaluru are making the journey to Chennai for the open audition call I sent out a month ago. Of the 20 young men and women I have met and watched, 19 are from Bengaluru and 1 from New Delhi. NOT A SINGLE CHENNAI DANCER HAS RESPONDED TO THE AUDITION. No surprise here! Even in 2013 when I had put out a national call for the PADME PROJECT, it was Bengaluru that responded with enthusiasm. As PADME continues to be an example of how to work with independent professionals, Chennai-vasis choose to convince themselves that we are the Makkah/Srirangam/Chidambaram/Vatican of classical dance and music! The city I call home is just that. Home. I create in my serene dance studio and share it elsewhere. There is a twinge of sadness at this scenario which I hope to change in the coming months.

However, I must thank the classical music and dance community for their warm and affectionate wishes on my being selected for the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for contemporary dance! So many, across generations wrote and shared their joy at the news. I sorely missed the joy that Neila Sathyalingam would have expressed since she was the first of my teachers to applaud my departure from classical dance and also titled many of her new experiments under the NEO BHARATAM umbrella.

One young dancer said that my journey could be a road map of inspiration for the young who did not want to invest in western style contemporary dance practice after learning the classical form for 20 years. My response to her was, "Prepare to be lonely, criticized and ignored. You will meander in a grey area and you may even be erased for a while. Learn your history. Find articulation about your process. Surround yourself not with family but with talent BETTER than yourself. You will grow with the experience. Focus on excellence, professionalism and uncompromising dedication. And do brush up your PR along with your adavus!" There was silence at the end of the line!



Chennai has spawned an entire generation of multi percussionists who are now experimenting with SONIC ALCHEMY. Mridangam, cajones, cymbals, ankle bells, castanets, morsing, are all perched on specially made stands while the sole "alchemist" creates his sound design. It was maverick musician Sivamani who created a storm 2 decades ago with his unique style of sound, theatrical and fabulous at once. Blowing endlessly on the conch, strutting down a ramp with African and Caribbean metal instruments, this Tamil lad is now a musical icon. He has unleashed hundreds of young musicians to experiment and play on a multitude of surfaces. Anyone who has seen the Broadway musical hit STOMP will know what I am talking about. Here in Chennai, young Praveen Sparsh impressed with his sensitive music and sounds for a new play inspired by the Mahabharata war called WHEN THINGS FALL APART. Patient and attentive, our dance musicians could remind themselves of how musicians should behave and perform while the dancers and actors speak their lines and move on stage!


Ong Keng Sen

"When there is too much infrastructure, talent has no room to grow."

This was an interesting comment made by a participant on June 28th at OPEN, a town hall style discussion in Singapore. Positioned on day 1 of the four month long Singapore International Arts Festival, this provocative event (by Singaporean standards) OPEN was ideated and curated by the uniquely talented arts maker Ong Keng Sen. Hordes of young Singaporeans - not all artistes - crowded into the large space of the THEATREWORKS building to listen to and speak up about the increasingly conservative approach of this Asian Tiger state to avant garde arts. OKS bows out after 3 years as Artistic Director of the Singapore International Arts Festival (SIFA) that has witnessed amazingly modern and edgy work under his baton. Perhaps too "out there" for the notoriously cautious citizenry. Ong Keng Sen vacates the seat to Gaurav Kripalani - a theatre professional - whose vision is expected to be diametrically different.

In a tiny country that is the envy of the world, Singapore has not been able to attract creative talent that parallels with the funding and opportunities it presents. Singaporeans often leave to make their name elsewhere. The multi talented Hari Krishnan is a prime example. Ong Keng Sen himself established his reputation by working in Europe. Apsaras Arts, a company founded by National Award winner Neila Sathyalingam and currently managed by impressario Aravinth Kumaraswamy, continues to import guest artistes from India to bolster their productions. Collaborations are often sought from outside the country which has a reputation for obedience, efficiency, safety but not artistic ferment. In the absence of any kind of chaos, great art and artistes rarely create and flourish.

The OPEN was mapped as a rigorous 4 hour long discussion marathon. Topics hovered around the policing of art with a strong tilt towards LGBTQ issues. Priests, lawyers, actors, architects, doctors, activists, dancers, bankers, writers, teachers, musicians and students spoke up and sat patiently through the sessions propped up with sumptuous food during breaks! Ong Keng Sen expressed his delight at the response and said that this year's Arts Festival titled ENCHANTMENT would include creativity in food and the culinary arts as well.
The 50 year old Asian Peter Brooks (as he is often referred to) will be missed by many for the dynamism he brought to this annual multimillion dollar event.

For this artiste, Singapore represents great food,, wonderfully maintained museums, elegant public art, picturesque open spaces, endless food, late night solo walks on the streets without fear and fabulous shopping. There is too much discipline and robotic obedience for interesting art or opinion to be expressed!


Indian Heritage Centre

A must do on every artiste's sightseeing list is the newly opened INDIAN HERITAGE CENTRE in Little India. A gleaming building, beautifully designed galleries and an evocative film in English and Tamizh give visitors a broad arc of the dynamic and multi layered plurality of this tiny country. Featured prominently were dancers and musicians - Bharatanatyam dancer Ajith Bhaskaran Dass was on the film doing slow motion poses and turns. In fact, throughout the museum, the status given to the history of Indian performing artistes was noticeable. In photographs, videos and memorabilia, dance and music was acknowledged as an important cultural engine for the secular society Singaporeans are so proud of. My late Kalakshetra guru Neila Sathyalingam appears in an early photo along with other pioneers like Rati Kartigesu and the Bhaskars who established classical dance in Singapore over the past 50 years.

Featured in the ROVING EYE section are more visual details of my visit.


Jelena Ostapenko

Like a streak of lighting came ballroom dancing champion turned Grand Slam tennis winner Jelena Ostapenko. This 20 year old Latvian had her entire country dancing on the streets and cheering at her stupendous win in Paris. Many years ago, her fellow countryman Mikhail Baryshnikov burst onto the western dance scene and captured hearts instantly. Jelena's "performance" on the tennis court revealed her indomitable spirit and youthful charisma. The new tennis hopeful spoke about how rhythm, coordination and the discipline of dancing helped her in sports. Did many of you know that Bharatanatyam and film super heroine Vyjayantimala Bali was an expert golfer with a single digit handicap? She spoke on my weekly television show in New York City in 1981 about how classical dance helped and did not hinder her sports ability. So when my late great guru Adyar K Lakshman scolded my mother and myself for continuing to play competitive tennis in my teens, we both ignored his comments politely. "Sports teaches us how to win and lose on the court and in life," my mother often said. So, so true!

However, many gurus are now struggling with their arangetram ready students who are also practicing martial arts. There is a crouched stance in all these fighting forms that work directly against the erect shoulder position of classical dance. Hands become stiff, fingers less flexible, the face grows guarded, I know of many mothers who have been told to stop their daughters and sons from doing the daily kalari and karate practice until their arangetrams are done! After all, in most cases, the arangetram is the first and last public performance for the young student! They will untie those "ghunghroos/salangais" and then march directly onto the fighting mat!


Revathi Ramachandran and her students

As the new school year commences for millions of students, we are told that more and more Indian institutions are including the performing arts in their syllabi. This is hopeful but who are the teachers? Who will address and tutor the young minds about the various possibilities that dance, music and theatre can deliver? Do the present day gurus and teachers realize that teaching dance for performance is very different from training a dancer to become a teacher? That too, in a school where other subjects are being taught? Universities are also expanding their Liberal Arts curricula to include Dance, Contemporary Performance and Theatre Practice for Bachelors and Masters Degrees. SPIC MACAY has realized that the present standard of dance teachers in some parts of India is abysmal and several workshops are being held with this focus. With a lack of a central standard system for dance teaching, we are now flooded with mediocre dancers becoming horrible teachers. Everyone wants to be on stage and learn from DVDs!


Kanak Rele

Another milestone is crossed. An inspiration to many, including myself, Mohiniattam artiste Kanak Rele celebrates turning 80 and also marks the 50th year of her famous institution NALANDA. The plan includes a yearlong celebration for this scholar, performer, teacher and mentor. As news of these legends appear every month, the nostalgia also increases. It seems time for those of us, born within 15 years of Indian independence, to remember the days of gurus coming home to teach us after school, of watching every dancer who came to town, of spending most of our holidays in practice, of pretending to be sick just before dance class, of sweating in front of strong halogen white lights, stamping on rough stone floors in small towns - those were the early days when we were unaware that as young students, the form we were learning was itself reinvented for a new generation of young Indians. Artistes like Kanakben, who have lived through so many sea changes in our country's life have so much to share and many more ways to inspire. I clearly recall her performance at the Madras Music Academy in the early 1970s. She stood confidently in her Mohiniattam costume, explaining her dance with subtle mudras and the right words. I was struck with the simplicity with which she conveyed the gist of the lyrics. My own explanations for each item came from that moment. Congratulations and thank you, Kanakben, for all that you have accomplished and achieved!

Kudos to Bharatanatyam guru and performer Roja Kannan, who is marking 30 years of her dance school. These anniversaries are now outlasting some marriages! Roja, who also learned from Adyar K Lakshman, is one of the very few artistes who still maintains the original style of Lakshman sir and wears a positive smile every time we meet.


Could this be a moment to stop and ponder on the very essence of TIME? How long can we dance? Is there a moment for us to recognize that it is TIME? Time to stop, to retreat, to withdraw, to watch, to guide, to listen and to be still. Once a dancer, always a dancer? Maybe... but not always ON STAGE! Our time is not infinite and our legacies are fragile. If dance is about hope and a gleaming horizon of possibilities, should we not also ruminate over the final frontier? Philosophers and savants have said that from the moment of birth, the soul prepares for its final journey. My own controversial response through dance about death was VAITHARANI in 2003. I leave you all with thoughtful reflections from renowned philosophers about the idea.

Seneca on Grief and the Key to Resilience in the Face of Loss: An Extraordinary Letter to His Mother
Truth Beyond Logic and Time Beyond Clocks: Janna Levin on the Vienna Circle and How Mathematician Kurt Gödel Shaped the Modern Mind

Dance lives only in the moment of its making and doing. Once the dancer stops, so does the dance.
The dance dies and fragments float in our minds...
Once the dance is done, it can never be repeated exactly ever again.
Life and death... every moment pulsates in our dance experience.
That is the power and fragility of DANCE!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Singapore/Colombo/ Cape Town

Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST /

​Surprised to see that no one from Chennai had come for audition while the scene here is every street has a dance class, parents of the so called dancers jumping at any opportunity!!! Also, when ​I read about Padme in The Hindu, was wondering when and where t​h​e notification for this audition happened? Maybe... should start reading Narthaki more regularly...Other thoughts and ti​dbits in this article are a good read.. some reflecting my own thoughts, some little contradicting.. ​Please keep up the good work..
​- Anon (July 10, 2017)​

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