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July 1, 2019

Awake my friends!
Let us pray for
Verdant fields drenched with rain
Cows with udders swollen and full
Families sated with gratitude and plenty.
- ANDAL, mystic poet 9th century

I am reading these verses as I am in the midst of endless rehearsals for the new version of my 2002 ensemble production NAACHIYAR. I am struck with the irony of these words replete with generosity and grace.

I write from a city now famous as the worst spot for WATER shortage and drought on the entire planet!

How can I begin my monthly musings about DANCE when every waking thought on everyone's mind in Chennai is about water or the lack of it!

We have become the headline!

So what AM I doing, I asked myself. Dancing and singing about rain when everywhere around us we are bombarded by images of women standing with plastic pots for hours waiting for the water lorries to arrive.

All through the month reports poured in about musicians and priests engaged in praying for rain with several versions of pujas and invocations. Rationalists scoffed, politicians became camels and hid their brains in the sand, social media was inundated (I do notice the pun!) with varying opinions between the rationalists and the faithful. The crisis also caught the attention of Hollywood actor Leonardo Di Caprio who highlighted the environmental calamity through a tweet.

When the first rains arrived on June 27th - a month late - the entire city was out in celebration. Water that fell from the skies was never more beautiful! It was the truly visual embodiment of the dancer's mantra - JEEVATMA meeting PARAMATMA!

And so to the month that was!


Sudip Chakraborty at Delhi Navapallava
An idea of former bureaucrat Ashok Jain in New Delhi, this national initiative was sparked by the current corrupt practices of dancers paying to perform. While this evil is not going away anytime soon, NAVAPALLAVA has networked with local presenters across India to showcase emerging classical dance talent while taking care of all costs and PAYING the dancers an honorarium at the conclusion of their show. Only registered dancers are considered and already 7 cities have hosted a double bill of good quality dancers in non regular spaces in various styles.

The Chennai edition was held at the KAPALI SHIVA TEMPLE and attracted a very good audience. Now the next challenge will be to get the attendees to pay a token amount and not give away the performances for free. If only dancers would support other dance performances by buying a ticket!


With Mallika Sarabhai in Natarani
What an amazing arts space Mallika Sarabhai has created in Ahmedabad. In the historic grounds of the DARPANA DANCE ACADEMY is India's best dance theatre - NATARANI. Named after the Queen of Dance, Mallika's mother Mrinalini Sarabhai, this is a fabulous multi arts space with special water conductors running behind and below the stone seating to cool the space in the scorching summer. Raked seating and an apron-shaped wooden dance floor welcomes everyone. An art gallery, neat grids for lights, shower cubicles and dressing rooms, a lovely natural food cafe and an artistic facade that faces the Sabarmati river with clever acoustic padding to mute the traffic sounds - everything has been thought of with a meticulous sense of detail.

"Being a dancer, how could I not think of every single aspect of what a dancer requires?" Mallika claimed, beaming with pride. We shared stories of all the rotten spaces we had visited in our careers and laughed at the irony of it all. Three years and an expensive budget to update the new avatar of NATARANI has meant that the acclaimed VIKRAM SARABHAI FESTIVAL has not been presented to Ahmedabad audiences.

On the day I visited, Mallika was looking pale and overworked (no surprises there!) engaged in discussions with tribal activists and young women seeking her guidance and support. Her own office is a charming throw back to the MY FAIR LADY library of Professor Henry Higgins, complete with the winding staircase! We laughed and shared many an anecdote as well as rueing the idiotic FITBIT watch that does not recognise a "VARNAM" in steps!

With her stubborn stand against the ruling government, Mallika is also facing challenges on several fronts. Here's wishing her energy, health and more courage to face the battles ahead and continue to nurture the performing arts through her remarkable gift to the city of Ahmedabad and the rasikas of India.


Kumudini Lakhia
How can I visit Ahmedabad after 20 years and not meet Kumudini Lakhia? Fresh from her visit to Australia, the glowing 90 year old Kathak genius fed me with delicious Keri mangoes and tangy Chaas (buttermilk) in the 44 degree heat. We spoke of Kathak, tennis and our kids! Both our sons are in the food business and there was much to share. Her son and my brother were in boarding school together and her husband worked closely with my father in the transport business.

All that aside, we met as artistes. I have always admired Kumiben from afar, wishing that an opportunity arose to learn from her. Her students have taken Kathak into international arenas and she is still in great demand although her body is not cooperating and a sore knee to boot. Her eyes still twinkle and her laughter is intact. We discussed the state of the arts and agreed that whatever the Government doles out in terms of awards and grants, the real firebrands are those who forge on... regardless of political climate, resistance or applause.


Ishira Parikh
Male gurus! Do not touch a female student even if it is to lift their elbows. Do not yell or frown at an errant dancer. And God forbid if you make a face or a sarcastic remark. Be prepared to have an angry parent ready to slap a case on you for improper conduct!

Over tea at the charming NATARANI CAFE, Kathak dancer/guru duo Ishira Parikh and Maulik Shah shared some challenges they are facing while teaching the current generation of dance students. This is not particular to them alone and a dilemma facing many dance teachers across India. Today, one has to teach by being polite and sensitive to brittle and hyper sensitive students. "Thankfully, we have some very serious students who love the art and understand our desire for perfection," they said.

OM and AMEN to that! I hear the echoes from across the universe from teachers everywhere!

For a cricket crazy nation, the 12th edition of the WORLD CUP has been enough to distract everyone from dhobi to tycoon. With several friends and associates flying to London to watch one of the matches, paying obscene ticket rates - 5000 GBP or 5 Lakh rupees for one seat - I was left wondering why these deep pockets are rarely revealed for the arts. Sports people get all the attention, even when they make life gaffes. Like tennis star Boris Becker, who is auctioning all his prized memorabilia to pay off his bankruptcy dues. How many artistes have died in penury with their PADMA awards and personal effects lying in dustbins! If today, Aniruddha Knight held an auction of his legendary grandmother Balasaraswati's personal effects, would anyone really care to purchase them? Sanjukta Panighrahi's ghunghroos? Only Ravi Shankar's sitar, Alla Rakha's tabla and Ali Akbar Khan's sarod have been donated to the Grammy museum in the USA. And that is because all three legends made their international reputations OUTSIDE INDIA.

Family descendants who are not performing artistes rarely value the years and hours spent in the toil and creation of dance and music. With no sight yet of even the first brick being laid for the long awaited NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PERFORMING ARTS, it is a matter of intense concern for my generation who are surrounded by books, photographs, videos and citations that nobody really cares about.

Watching the intensely played India Pakistan cricket match last month, I was struck by the ease at which the commentators would use words like "brilliant", "superb", "amazing", "classic", "stupendous", "awesome", "stunning" for the most regular of on and off drives and boundaries. If such superlatives are the norm then why do we blame our young dancers from using the same terminology for the most mundane of dances? After all, we are not living in the age of the SUBTLE. Far from it. So the louder the shout, the more chances of being heard.


Does he ever stop? Like the famous DURACELL battery advertisement in the USA, dance critic Sunil Kothari has taken many a licking but keeps on ticking!

This peripatetic globe trotter can put us all to shame. At 85 years, SK is full of beans and does not hesitate to jump onto a flight. His recent photos in Indonesia have raised many an eyebrow but does he even pause? Nah! Hosting Sunil was the evergreen Ramli Ibrahim whom he accompanied to YOGYAKARTA in Bali to attend the WAYANG WONG DANCE FESTIVAL (recommended by ethnomusicologist Alex Dea). Posing against temples, in swimming pools, fancy sports cars and in rickshaws, Sunil was in his element. No matter what we may feel about him, we cannot but admire his unflagging enthusiasm and passion for Dance and Life!


Amala Shankar

Amala Shankar, wife of Uday Shankar, mother to Ananda Shankar and mother-in-law to Tanusree Shankar reached her century milestone this month. Celebrations are being planned in Kolkata later this year.

In an enviable example of global dance influence - Akram Khan's THREE productions are being staged in three countries almost simultaneously - UNTIL THE LIONS (Greece), XENOS (France and Russia) and his brand new OUTWITTING THE DEVIL (UK). In addition, Khan is the choreographer for the ambitious aerial, martial arts, Kung-fu theatrical DRAGON SPRING PHOENIX RISE, inspired by Bruce Lee (New York - THE SHED).

Sanjukta Panigrahi
Odissi legend Sanjukta Panigrahi's 22nd year of passing was celebrated on June 24th with a 5 hour non-stop dance marathon in Mumbai by senior artiste Jhelum Paranjape.

USA dance schools are saturated with the non-stop sounds of clacking wooden sticks as students prepare for their ARANGETRAMS and parents sign fat checks to pay for a 3 hour evening replete with a full dinner and take away gifts!

As the name of Lord Rama becomes more political and Indian citizens more polarised, a mural etched into the Darband - i- Belula cliffs in Iraq has become a point of discussion. Showing a bare chested king holding a bow, a quiver of arrows and a dagger, the mural also features a supplicant with folded arms who, according to the Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan director, is an image of Ram and Hanuman.

Vaibhav Arekar's SANKHYA dancers are in Poland on their annual summer showcase. How wonderful to dance almost every day in the gorgeous European mountains and sunshine!

On International Yoga Day - June 21st- dancers took to social media to demonstrate the various ways in which yoga and dance training provided an ideal synergy. Contortions, acrobatics and gymnastic poses - mostly unsuited to the stitched BN costume - were on full display.

SAHRDAYA has launched its own BLACK BOX performance space in Chennai that seats 75 in an acoustic chamber environment.

Ananda Shankar Jayant acts as the uneducated village woman who has dreams for her daughter in a new trending film called SPACE MOMS. Spotlighting the women scientists who worked on India's Mars Obiter Mission, the film is directed by Radha Bharadwaj and also features director Mahesh Dattani.

Mira Kaushik of AKADEMI in London has a double honour. For the fifth year she has been named among the 100 most influential Britishers and her production THE TROTH has won yet another award.

Mitul Sengupta

In Leeds, UK, Kathak/contemporary dancer Mitul Sengupta premiered a successful work KNOTTED, choreographed by her husband Ronnie Shambik Ghose.

The biggest performance stage is the Indian parliament with the stylish #MOHUAMITRA trending like a virus. No amount of Abhinaya, Tandava or Gymnastic feats can compete with this attractive Bangla newbie MP grabbing all the eyeballs.

The Madras Music Academy's 2020 Dance Festival calendar is out. And guess what? The committee has fallen into the afternoon dance performance trap. So, in addition to the double bill every morning from 10 am, there is now an afternoon slot at 2pm that features good emerging talent. But how much is too much? The Narada Gana Sabha afternoon slot has become the best space for young talent. January 3 to 9th will then be DANCE MECCA (excuse me, VAIKUNTAM) at the ACADEMY. The trouble is it will all be the SAME AESTHETIC, the SAME VISUALS, the SAME COOKIE CUTTER styles. And mostly Bharatanatyam. B O R I N G!

And meanwhile, performers Aniruddha Knight and Swarnamalya are busy conquering audiences in Malaysia and the UK with their traditional art.

Let us not think for a minute that dance in India is dying down or slowing its pace. There is dance everywhere... now outside auditoriums and in parks, schoolrooms, gardens, living rooms and pubs. Wearing gowns, jeans, saris and jeggings, shorts or bare chested - on skateboards, swimming pools, skydiving and on train tracks - men and women are moving to padams and javalis in all sorts of mash up avatars. It is happening every single day. Thanks to social media, I am able to catch up on what my own colleagues are up to and also the many energetic students and teachers in their studios all across the world.

Still, does Indian dance, especially the classical world suffer from the weight of HOBBYISTS? Too many who take to this art form as a pastime and then walk away, not becoming either rasika or patron? Are we really creating a critical mass of cynical consumeristic "sishyas" who touch our feet but do not value what they have been given? When Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty gyrates in the name of Bharatanatyam, is it of any use to even attempt to counter the juggernaut of popular taste? SUBTLE IS OUT. LOUD IS IN. Where then can the classical arts nestle and be nurtured? Outside India? I watch the infrastructure and audience development programmes put in place as well as dance advocacy initiatives. My heart muscle twinges at the infrastructure and resources that dance has in many countries, west and east of India and my spirits sag in envy and frustration.

This is an endless cycle of more questions than answers. Most of my colleagues in the profession are so caught up with their classes and performances that not many have the time to step back to map the macro view of the deteriorating scenario of the current TIK TOK generation!


Sudha Raghunathan with her son-in-law Michael
The recent furore over Carnatic musician Sudha Raghunathan's daughter Malavika marrying an African American Christian has caused a very unpleasant twitter crisis in South India. The right wing army has been very vocal about "one of theirs" (Sudha is a Hindu Brahmin) being "polluted and corrupted". Some have called upon temples and sabhas to ban her from singing in their environs, falsely claiming that she has converted to Christianity. The tone of hate and blame has been shocking and I am truly saddened to think of the future of my two children who have been raised to feel totally comfortable with their faith and also in the company of people who choose to love any way they want. How will they be viewed if either of them are seen on a date with someone from another faith? Or are we so hypocritical to "allow" a white skinned person and are simply focused on our racist obsession with colour?

Bad enough that our classical arts have become co-opted by the extreme right and dancers are so gullible as to fall right into the trap by constantly mouthing words like "divine", "sacred", "sublime", "blessed", "anointed"......

There was a time when classical dance, especially Bharatanatyam and Kathak, attracted students from all faiths. Remember Father Francis Barboza? A devout student of Guru C V Chandrasekhar, who used stories of Jesus in his repertoire. And in Los Angeles, Viji Prakash and others have set special pieces for their Parsi and Jewish students. Geeta Chandran has also taught an atheist!

The brilliance and sophistication of classical dance does not need to be soaked only in the traditional repertoire of Hindu deities or mythology from one source. I remember in 1997 when Natyarangam in Chennai invited several dancers to create works on multiple faiths. I was given Islam and I had to really work hard with a wonderful scholar Dr. Abdul Rahman to look within the tenets of the faith and come up with work that was convincing. The auditorium was filled with young girls and women in burkhas! They came up to me later and thanked me for the opportunity.

20 years later, I will not make an attempt to review TARKAASH. Times and moods have changed and hate is at an all time high from the loony fringe. Nobody seems safe anymore! Even our families!


Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Can there be one book, one slogan, one chant to prove your patriotism and Indian-ness?

Queer scholar and Bharatanatyam dancer Aniruddhan Vasudevan writes in a heart breaking personal verse about the battle being fought on the grounds and in the minds of New India. Is it INDIA or is it BHARAT? Or Both?

The gods that lend their names
To lynch and kill
Are not mine
When gods need saving
As they might from time to time
They seek refuge in my heart
To be soothed
In my goodness
They don't ever ask me
To go to war
They ask me
To go to love

(An excerpt)


Girish Karnad
The passing of Kannada literary giant Girish Karnad made me realise how someone with prodigious talent and a strong sense of self worth can resist time, trends and trashy responses.

Girish Karnad may have been closer to writing, theatre and cinema but he was a great fan of classical dance. He was the chief guest - courtesy Rajika Puri - to one of our shows in Mumbai 20 years ago and he made some very astute observations about the ragas in the work as not suiting the tone and nature of the Sangam poetry that was the core of the production. Later when he was Director of the NEHRU CENTRE in London, he revived the decrepit space by inviting a host of creative talent, including my controversial VAITHARANI, a piece on death, sitting patiently (though not without some fidgeting) and sharing some polite but astute comments.

I will value the short interactions I had with him since it is rare to find someone with articulation and a world view, while still being so rooted in his Kannada culture.


This image from Australia featuring Moria Finucane and her performers from GLORY BOX is my tribute and nod to the amazing creative people out there... those who have intersected in my life - you know who you are... OUT AND PROUD.

June was GAY PRIDE MONTH and across the globe, celebrations and performances illuminated the growing voices of the LGBTQI communities.
Dance, music, theatre, painting, sculpture, cinema, writing and the entire world of the arts have been enriched by their incredible brilliance and unique perspectives.

Let us celebrate our individualities AND our differences
Let us dance and move and reach and embrace ALL that we are!

Until next time... (slogging away intensely at rehearsals and yet wishing I was at Wimbledon enjoying strawberries, cream and Pimms!)

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Tanjavur/New Delhi/London/NYC

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

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