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June 1, 2019
Civilisation has always depended on
So, when does the road become a river
Or bone become marrow
When demons crawl beneath the surface
And wait.. wait to burst forth
The soft earth mellows heat
And the dandelion rises through the crevice
- Dialogue from the British TV series SHERLOCK
It was a roller coaster month
I was in five cities over the last 31 days and so there is much to share.
And of course, India voted in the largest theatrical exercise - of strong words, ranting, raving, hatred and tears. A gigantic spectacle!
But first, the month that was in dance and theatre.
#BHARATANATYAM TODAY by SARABHAI
How does one use a traditional form with an established aural and visual features and push it through a time machine? Revanta Sarabhai is attempting just that. In his well rehearsed evening at Mumbai’s OPERA HOUSE (gorgeously refurbished!) he shared an evening of mostly TAMIL repertoire which included the popular ode to Nataraja - Natanam Adinar - and a contemporary take on the Gopala Krishna Bharathi composition VARUGALAMO. With English super titles on the screen behind his head and very basic lighting, Revanta asked Lord Siva to step out of his sanctum to come near the devotee (VARUGALAMO?) instead of the timid Nandanar asking permission of Siva to approach him.
In the second part of the evening, Revanta subverted a traditional nayaka-nayaki trope of the lone pining woman into a shared sense of love and longing. “Why can’t the man pine also?”, he asks. Starting with a seated position and miming a computer on a Skype call, the hero waits, frustrated with his work obsessed girlfriend’s late arrival that eats into their shared time.
My thoughts on the evening that was very well attended and warmly received by a diverse and largely non-Tamil speaking audience, is that Revanta does not need to wear his ankle bells for the second half and can certainly throw on a causal jacket over his silk pyjama costume to really tweak the visual like he has done with the choreography and ideas.
Revanta has a very pleasing stage persona and a toned, six pack body to show off. His questions about tradition are pitched correctly and far from tilting at windmills, his performance reads like personal diary and a homage to his Bharatanatyam roots.
#COLOURS OF MALLIKA
Watching her son on stage offer his performance as a birthday card to her, Mallika beamed with pride. Earlier that evening, she shared her excitement at the phenomenal response to her recently concluded US trip. Addressing a variety of audiences in concert halls, television, universities, women’s groups and the Indian diaspora, Mallika agreed with me that a US dance tour is far from a glam experience. Except for 3 professional theatres, her 4 week tour often had some performing spaces with next to no lighting provided. At 66, this Sarabhai is a ball of energy, filled with hope and ambition for using art for social change, a mantra that has earned her global fame and domestic ire.
#THE HALF GOD OF RAINFALL
A brilliant idea, flawlessly executed, superbly performed in a lovely theatre makes for a perfect evening. It was in London, along with Chitra Sundaram, that I enjoyed this most unusual of plays - featuring only two actors for 85 nonstop minutes. Using Greek and Yoruba/Nigerian myths, the play HALF GOD OF RAINFALL, uses the premise of the Greek god Zeus raping an Nigerian woman and fathering a child who is a gifted basketball player. Tongue in cheek references to Michael Jordan “flying in the air”, three point shooters who make it rain on court, other heroic sporting heroes served as pieces of a giant and mesmerising puzzle that slowly pieced together. Two actors - Rakie Ayola and Kami Odoom - played all the roles magnificently, body language subtly denoting gender and character transformations. The overarching theme was water or the lack of - a global concern today. At the end, the stage split dramatically and water gushed through the cracks like a river in spate. Simply glorious!
The newly refurbished KILN Theatre, formerly known as the Tricycle Theatre, has British Sri Lankan Indhu Rubasingam as Artistic Director who is now charging the space with stories that are joyful, magical, treacherous and poignant.
#GREECE IN ASIA
In Singapore, I visited the brand new avatar of the renowned Victoria Theatre where I performed in and as KANNAGI twenty one years ago as guest artiste of Neila Sathyalingam’s APSARAS ARTS. The space has been completely recast, as is most buildings in Singapore these days. It was the opening day of the annual Singapore Festival of the Arts and the new festival director Gautam Kripalani was invited by the National Arts Council to “right” the cultural ship that seemed to have drifted to the far left under the captaincy of the daring visionary ONG KENG SEN.
A much more concise festival that included several talks, free workshops, and interactions with local artistes and people of all ages, the 2019 face of the acclaimed festival continued to bring some interesting collaborations from South East Asia.
One such meeting was with the Japanese theatre legend Tadashi Suzuki who was paired with Indonesian grande dame Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum. Using the Greek tragedy of DIONYSUS as the spine, actors spoke in Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese with English supertitles (that is now the norm for multi lingual productions across the world). Adapted from the Greek tragedy THE BACCHAE by Euripides, it was a commentary on women’s freedom while twinning the storyline of Dionysus -the God of wine - and the liberation of women’s sexual expression to the rage of Pentheus, the King of Thebes.
The women swathed in voluminous sleeves of red and white, awash with the colour of wine, blood and revelry offered a stunning contrast to the pale men dressed in cream with heads covered. The magnetic slowness of movement across the stage and the “sweeping” of the floor with the large sleeves indicated the domestic drudgery of women’s work as well as the resistance shown by interspersed sharp martial poses.
#DANCERS AS ACTORS
For almost 2 months, we have heard about the Hollywood premiere of an Indie Bharatanatyam film called HIS FATHER’S VOICE. Directed by Kaarthikeyan Kirubhakaran of Auroville, and starring his beauteous wife/dancer and co-producer Ashwini Pratap Pawar, this lush and sensuous film is as much a love poem from husband to wife as it is an homage to the art of the dance-narrative in quilting a landscape of family relationships.
Watching the film in a house full Kuala Lumpur theatre was somewhat surreal. I could have been back in Chennai - the audience was primarily South Indian. The actors were all well-known classical dancers - Bragha Bessell, Balagopal Sir, Sudharma Vaithayanathan, P T Narendran (quite the hero in Malaysia!) and Christopher Guruswamy.
Can dancers act? Yes and no. HIS FATHER’S VOICE is a film about an estranged father and son. The director relies on gorgeous visuals, beautiful frames and measured responses with extreme close ups on the actors’ faces. But, it feels like a dance performance that is not quite calibrated for the screen rhythm. Faces turning a tad too slowly in response, lovers talking to the air rather than at each other, dance segments (fabulously danced and shot) thrown in for affect rather than effect - it all seemed too studied and calculated.
Yet, knowing the unique philosophy that Ashwini and Kaarthikeyan embrace in their oasis of a home KAVADI (the fabulous locale for the movie), I can lean into the message of the film which describes parent-child bonding as anything but simple.
The stars of the film were the camera and Ashwini. Her presence is magical on screen and her opening visuals of gentle dancing were among the highlights for me. Ashwini’s talent as a painter and artist were also on display, with all the canvases shown in the film being created by her hand.
Also, the short “battle scene” between Chandraketu - son of Lakshmana, and Lava - son of Rama was magnificently danced by Christopher and Sudharma. Independent snatches of Janaka (Balagopal) moaning the separation from Rama and Kausalya (Bragha) weeping for her daughter-in-law Sita were subtly shown as if this is an age old story that is being enacted in every age.
The Chennai premiere later this month will have the dance and music glitterati in attendance. What will they get from it? At a time when AVENGERS ENDGAME has changed the way audiences are fed special effects and a thrill-a-minute action, HIS FATHER’S VOICE uses the gentle lap of the ocean waves to remind us that life is lived one breath at a time.
Certainly worth a watch for classical dance and music fans who can see how a traditional art can become the trigger for a universal story.
To share a birthday celebration with him in the stunning SUTRA HOUSE, surrounded by so many artistes and friends over decades was very special. Dance showcases, impromptu movements to an unintelligible Spanish song (by GUNA who decided “TO HELL WITH THE LYRICS”) and a white mountain of coconut rice soaked in dark brown Gula Malakka made for a memorable evening.
Birthdays come and go and each year I remember my mother who birthed me and gave me so much opportunity, who opened my mind through numerous windows and who, in her time, was a true non-conformist. Thank you, Amma.
# FAREWELL - JAMUNA AKKA
A river stops its flow. When alive, its gentle rhythms fail to alert us about its potential. When the last ripple ends, we gasp. How could this be? Artiste, musician, composer and mother - Jamuna Krishnan was among the most respected and well loved dance icons of New Delhi. She has nurtured numerous students, mentored several emerging artistes and spent countless hours in conversation and composition for her daughter Ragini and her students. To breathe her last in her daughter’s arms could be almost poetic if it were not so tragic. I regret not taking the time to study with her. The immense knowledge of Hindi poetry, her choreographic imagination for abhinaya and her ever compassionate quality of encouragement and support for new ideas were her forte.
Atma Shanti, Jamuna Akka. You are sorely missed!
#KUMIBEN AT 90
Celebrations broke out in Ahmedabad and across the world for the charismatic and ever brilliant Kumudini Lakhia when her life crossed the magical number of 90. To think of the experiences she has had, the decades of social and political changes she has borne witness to and the sense of humour she has retained through it all. Her vision to break Kathak free of “KRISHNA”, to imbue it with elegance and imagination and propel it onto global stages has been just a few of the pioneering initiatives she undertook. Anyone who has met or worked with her will attest to her unflagging enthusiasm.
Here’s to the evergreen Kumiben - I am raising a cup of Kadak Chai to your continued health!
In Chennai, Tamilnadu politicians who follow atheist leaders are suddenly looking to Carnatic music to invoke the delayed rains. With India facing an acute water shortage, Dravidian politicians now want divine intervention!!
In Mauritius, Priya Murle is immersed in the annual teaching and training programme that has been gaining momentum each year.
Across the USA, Geeta Chandran concluded a successful tour of prestigious universities and private salons.
In New York’s Asia Society, Parijat Desai joined 4 dancers to present an evening titled DANCING MY TRUTH, to celebrate Asian American month (May) . Parijat also announced some of the prestigious categories of the BESSIE AWARDS for dance at a ceremony last week in NYC.
In Chennai, Padma Subrahmanyam’s NRITHYODAYA ACADEMY continues to present graduating students in small batches, thus continuing her singular pedagogical research and practice of BHARATA NRITYAM.
In New Delhi, Aditi Mangaldas produced her annual showcase of DRISHTIKON-10, featuring 10 pieces of choreography from her repertoire.
In London and Cambridge, UK, Swarnamalya Ganesh will present her research based practice of SADIR NATYAM to launch AKADEMI’s 40th year celebrations.
In Chicago, Hema Rajagopalan’s NATYA DANCE THEATRE has received a prestigious grant form the NEA - National Endowment for the Arts - to curate a festival of leading dance gurus in the USA.
In Kentucky, USA, dancer Lakshmi received a teaching grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women to help empower teenage girls and learn the embodiment of power constructs.
In Belgium, Shila Mehta premieres her woman centric new work WOMEN SPEAK with a brand new costume template by textile revivalist and designer Sandhya Raman.
In the UK, Seeta Patel's Bharatanatyam inspired by composer Stravinsky's RITE OF SPRING has been received with great enthusiasm. Looks like the UK funding systems have found themselves a new star!!!
In Trivandrum, Kerala, Daksha Sheth and her family have started to clean the waters of the VELAYANI LAKE with a group of eco activists.
ARANGHAM LEARNING LABS Edition #1
The first edition is FULL. Nine dancers have been selected for the first of an annual open ended laboratory/exploration session with a master teacher. COUNTER TECHNIQUE was thrown open to all styles of classical Indian dance, but it is not surprising that this first edition has seen BHARATANATYAM artistes be the first to leap out of the gate. While I celebrate the stellar group of professional dancers who have been selected, I hope that in the coming years, we have a greater diversity of styles in the mix.
To prove that you are never too old to learn, I am rolling up my sleeves and throwing myself into the session as well. Perhaps I may be the most enthusiastic student yet! I want to thank Dr. Nithya Nagarajan, artist and curator from Sydney, Australia who first got me started on this path of opening up a creative space which DOES NOT culminate in a finished item but instead unpeels possibilities and ways of thinking about the dancing body in space. We are delighted to have such a great line up of dance artistes!
DRUM ROLL PLEASE …!
1. Masoom Parmar (Bharatanatyam/Contemporary; Bengaluru)
2. Radhika Kathal (Bharatanatyam; New Delhi)
3. Revanta Sarabhai (Bharatanatyam/Contemporary; Ahmedabad)
4. Arupa Lahiri (Bharatanatyam; Kolkata)
5. K B Madhusudhanan (Bharatanatyam; Chennai)
6. Jayanthi Srivatsan (Bharatanatyam; Chennai)
7. Pavitra Krishna Bhat (Bharatanatyam; Mumbai)
8. Amrita Varshini (Bharatanatyam; Chennai)
9. Vaibhav Arekar (Bharatanatyam; Mumbai)
# OF CHAI AND LEADERSHIP
How can I sign off without even mentioning the biggest spectacle of the month that was the culmination of India’s national elections and the voice of the Indian voter.
In the most polarised, hate filled election campaign, where vile rhetoric and fake news went viral by the second, almost every single NRI friend and the majority of artistes I met on my recent travels unanimously “bashed” the Prime Minister and his “unsophisticated image” (compared to what???). I had to sit through and sometimes leave conversations full of expletives and armchair pundits who expounded on the DOOM that India is headed for if Modi returned to power!
As a cultural practitioner, I was among the many in the creative communities of actors, musicians, poets, dancers and writers who signed petitions about resisting the hate campaigns that were threatening freedom of expression and mob lynching. I was warned that I would face dire consequences if my name appeared on the list. I received hate mail and was called “a Brahmin capitalist dog.” My recent show A MILLION SITAS was at the receiving end of more ire suggesting that I change the title to A MILLION MARYS or A MILLION FATIMAS. All from NRI Hindu men (of course!)
For an artiste, and for the hundreds of colleagues across the country who are concerned about the curtailing of civil liberties, I wish to say that a time before 2014 was certainly not the ideal, altruistic age that people reminisce about. Social media today has put every single person in a constant spotlight. To imagine that there were no hate crimes, no goons on the prowl, no violence against women, no killing of free expression, no tokenism to minorities - dream on.
Dynasties once sprinkled with stardust have been reduced to sawdust.
The past 5 years has not been bright for Heritage, Culture or Education. A persistent dumbing down has occurred and the live arts have suffered greatly at the hands of unimaginative leaders in important positions. History books are being rewritten and important facts skewed, perhaps for posterity. It is the artiste that will ultimately bear witness to events and respond to those moments that deserve to be marked and remembered.
Throughout history, it is ART that has served to remind a society not just of beauty but also the dark side of power and corruption. It is art that has served as a catalyst to create, to speak, sing, paint and dance.
ART also warns of a single story, a mono narrative - where there are no deviations or inspirational interventions. Multiplicity, diversity and collaboration is the heartbeat of any creative practice AND a democratic society.
This is a time for us to support and encourage the subaltern, marginalised voices to speak loudly through practice. Communities that have yearned for space in the light, for voices clamouring to be heard, for those stuck in the shadows of cultural history and shamed into silence. Through a collective listening we can and must step aside and give space to the many Indias that live through artistic practice, LGBTQI and beyond.
So, suck it up y’all who prayed for a hung Parliament, unruly coalitions and more days of cronyism and inertia.
A special #FACEPALM to all those arrogant “ LUTYENS DELHI” tribe who lectured me- wagging fingers and all - two months earlier, warning me of being ambivalent towards PAPPU and for not castigating “THE UNCOUTH CHAIWALLA”.
India has voted so quiet your conspiracy theories and admire the raucous vibrancy of more than a billion people!
India has spoken and so should we as performing artistes - THROUGH OUR CONTINUED COMMITMENT TO THE LIVE ARTS.
DANCE everyone.. in your bathrooms, bedrooms, gardens, streets and classrooms.
DANCE and BELIEVE!
Until next time…
Dr Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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