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June 1, 2013

Even though the rest of India was caught mercilessly in the web of cricket and the surrounding betting scandals, the last ten days of May saw me sequestered away from all the daily media bulletins in a rural retreat where phones and computers worked like a man in a mid-life crisis. Imagine yours truly detached from the drama of the Paris Grand Slam tennis drama and other sports updates! I had absolutely zero withdrawal pangs while at the ADISHAKTI actor immersion programme. For me it was a long awaited birthday treat. Away from family, daily responsibilities and small irritants that can deplete energies, my body and mind were absorbed in 15 hour days that began at 7am and concluded at 9.30pm. During those amazing hours, 23 participants were pushed to their limits - voice, breath, limbs, facial muscles, hands and feet – all focused and worked upon. This was simply the best “theatre spa” I have experienced.

To better understand the ADISHAKTI system of physical theatre training and performance, one must know the work of director Veenapani Chawla, its core spirit and artistic brain. VP, as she is called, left the urban distractions of Bombay in 1993 and made the conscious move to Auroville, the international community near Pondicherry where the world’s first experiment in international living began in 1971. On land gifted by the Government of Tamilnadu and named after Uttara Yogi Sri Aurobindo, a unique cultural crucible was born. Hundreds of disenchanted Europeans left their homes and resettled in this once barren rocky land, about 2 ½ hours from Chennai. Today it is a totally transformed space, bristling with internationally known but low key artists, sculptors, jewellers, musicians, dancers, carpenters, bakers, chefs, writers and masons. VP and her team transformed a large tract of land into a beautiful and ecologically sound retreat for actor and performance related training. Partnered by four wonderful colleagues Vinay Kumar, Nimmi, Arvind and Suresh, she has devised a physically demanding but scientifically researched body and mind methodology that is also great for contemporary dancers. This is NOT a course for the fainthearted. First, all the ego is immediately deflated when bad habits picked up over years of performance and “faking it” (we dancers know how to do it quite well) are immediately revealed. There is no time to sulk or nurse bruised egos since nobody on campus really cares about WHO you are and WHERE your most recent photo was published. The faculty focuses on your INTENTION to improve and enables you to become a more powerful and potent performer. The intensely physical sessions began with eye exercises and core training based on the seven chakras, followed by Kalari classes and then a series of sessions covering voice, emotions, breath, drumming and ending each day with exercises done in a salt water swimming pool and voice intonations done under water. Imagine breathing through your eyes, and finding three channels to inhale through each nostril, finding air pockets in the cranium to elongate speech patterns and martial art stances to help “throw” long monologues into the audience. My group of 23 (all in their twenties) were from Bombay – TV actors, dubbing artistes, voice- over performers, set directors, authors, poets and film makers. They were each seeking inspiration to heighten their artistic antennae.

In spite of very low internet connectivity, the young ones were not deterred. All the smart phones were focusing on each other during class sessions – breathing, stretching, humming, expressing... the phone cameras were working overtime. My question is, if all this current generation does is stare into their gadgets and exchange information, images and ideas from their handhelds, then when is there time to look around, listen and absorb? As for me, the ADISHAKTI intensive was a much needed break from the monotony of creation, rehearsal and performance. I badly needed this retreat to rethink, unthink and to understand polyrhythms of lyrics and text based work. Back home, I am charged with ideas and hope the enthusiasm lasts. Thank you VP and the ADISHAKTI ensemble. Watch for their latest presentation in December’s PURUSH festival.

At this retreat, I was, as usual, the sole dancer from Chennai. So the constant question on everyone’s lips who visits my hometown for festivals is “Where are the Chennai dancers?” Perhaps in May, 100 of them were either attending the ABHAI workshop where a traditional varnam was being taught by the legendary Bharatanatyam guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai, or camping at Nrityagram’s summer intensive on how to perfect your classical dance skills while developing a killer body like Bijayini.  In any case, the Bharatanatyam community in Chennai is certainly NOT interested in process or any kind of rigorous questioning about why, for whom and what they choose to dance. There is too much talent and the system of gurus, teachers, hundreds of students, arangetrams, performances, tours, foreign workshops and other gigs are very lucrative and do not disturb the status quo.

However, some dancers ARE interested in being mentored by greats like Malavika Sarukkai who has now become the “in demand” inspiration for Mythili Prakash, Lavanya Ananth and Ashwini Karthikeyan. Working with Malavika must be an interesting and timely experience for these women.  Malavika in a guru/advisor/creative catalyst avatar seems ready to shift gears in her 4 decade long illustrious career. She assumes the mantle of convenor of the 14th Natya Darshan dance conference from 2014 at Kartik Fine Arts. I conclude my three year term as Curator and Artistic Director this December. After two phenomenally successful conference/conclaves - MAD AND DIVINE (2011) and EPIC WOMEN (2012), this year is all about the male dancer - PURUSH: The Global Dancing Male.

In 1995, I was still developing my skills as an arts producer and impresario. Having returned from my ten year immersion as TV producer in New York City, PURUSH was my first major international dance/performance event. Included were dance, theatre, film, stand-up monologues and the Chennai premiere of ADISHAKTI’s solo IMPRESSIONS OF BHIMA by Vinay Kumar. Standing room only crowds thronged the Music Academy and the Alliance Francaise spaces all day long. A full length dance evening called ‘PURUSH: Expressions of Man’ (co-curated by Jonathan Hollander of Battery Dance Company, New York) toured the USA in the Fall of 1995 to great acclaim.  Eighteen years later, the world is a vastly different place and dance is certainly not drawing those kinds of enthusiastic crowds in India. There are more academic interventions by South Asian scholars about the form and practice which has shattered many time honoured myths about the traditional dance. There are more male dancers in the discourse although the scene is still dominated by women. The 2013 edition of PURUSH attempts to bring diverse voices on this much needed subject with a variety of participants and invited guests. The excitement kicks off on December 19th and concludes on December 22nd. We begin to share the programming with you from this month and hope that you will make plans to be with us on those four magical days. I am delighted to invite Professor Hari Krishnan of InDance and Wesleyan University as my Co-curator and Academic Consultant.

I am also very pleased to welcome dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan as our columnist from this month. Here is an artiste who has lived life on her own terms - survived and thrived with her talent and humour intact! Enjoy her monthly musings ‘SEEN AND HEARD’ and yes, do respond. We also celebrate the online compilation of UK dance critic Sanjoy Roy’s 540 + articles on dance in a brand new website - www.sanjoyroy.net.  Bravo Sanjoy! We need more knights with shining pens to fight the malaise of the media towards dance more than ever. And congratulations to the intrepid Ranjana Dave who is making DANCE DIALOGUES in Mumbai another focal point for questioning and investigating traditional and contemporary practices in dance. Last month’s topic was about Dance Writing. Oh, we sorely need it. The quality of dance writing has gone from bad to worse and the less said about mainstream media the better. But the younger generation is refusing to quit and finding ways of connecting and arguing for a two way dialogue between tradition and current scenarios. Keep the faith. Stubborn determination is the only way in a world where the currency for success in nothing BUT economics.

Writer and publicist Akhila Krishnamurthy has launched her own arts organisation and magazine called ALAAP in Chennai. Now in its third issue, the small publication focuses on one topic each time. Inviting a wide variety of voices, the past issues have been on Performance as communication, Instruments - body and voice and Storytelling. You can learn more at www.theaalaap.blogspot.in

Even though this web portal in now in its 14th year, I still get occasional and wistful queries about why I discontinued the hard copy of NARTHAKI, the dance directory that was first published in 1992 and again in 1997. There are still many who long for something to hold and read, place by their bedside and in their hand bags. To them I say, look at all the dance publications that have abandoned their print avatars and gone online - www.danceinsider.com, www.thedancecurrent.com, www.dancedigital.org.uk...  

The annual Bhagavatamela ritual theatre performances concluded at the village of Melattur near Tanjavur, Tamilnadu. The performance of PRAHLADA CHARITRAM is usually the highlight of this important cultural marker and this year many international film crews were spotted recording software for jaded audiences. More of India Exotica!

I conclude with some thoughts about the annual Forum D’Avignon in France. This is an annual three day think tank that invites a variety of thinkers and artistes to congregate and discuss the crucial role of culture in a rapidly changing scenario. This year the topic is CULTURE AND POWER and will address the global shift towards Asia, with China and the Middle East who are investing 23% more each year on their cultural infrastructure. “Between citizens, creators, producers, distributors and politics, who holds the cultural power? As cultural footprints are being redrawn to accommodate shifts in power, the cohesion of territories and of civil society is up to the symbolic and almost magical power of culture which should not be reduced in its economic strength.” This is their message to economists, politicians and anti-intellectuals. That the French Government, with all its economic and social woes continues to support and fund this event provides some hope. The question is when will the powers in India realise the enormous talent pool within their own borders and galvanise an efficient and dynamic team to properly promote her artistes. Already India has several major museums and institutions without a chairperson for many months and even years! With culture and politics so enmeshed and culture becoming so trivialised even at the school level, the future calls out for another renaissance from Gen Next!

And so we enter the half way mark of this year. Where have the 150 days gone? Holidays are over. It is back to the routine. Planning the next project, costume, diet, choreography and fund raising will consume you all. Have fun. It is a lonely journey. So walk strong, dance strong and laugh true.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai, New Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Russia
Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in 
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ARthecontemporaryclassicist?ref=hl

PS: I deeply mourn the passing of brilliant film director Rituparno Ghosh in Kolkata. It was the outcome of one long and lazy morning at his ancestral home where I learned so much about Rabindranath Tagore. Rituparno's knowledge, insights and wicked humour kept dancer Sharmila Biswas and myself in splits while I was taking notes as background research for my project AVANI - a handful of dust. His generosity, acute observations into human psyche and a rooted sense of Bengali culture and society will be missed sorely. Another young life taken too soon.