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March 1, 2013

To wait until the end of each month and then condense the images and memories of the many days gone by into one editorial is not easy. So this month I have three sets of thoughts that needed some separation. Here goes.

February 10th...
After my rather negative and unflattering assessment of the season in last month’s editorial, I  received e-mails from both Rama Vaidyanathan and  Ramya Ramnarayan. Both dancers posed their points of view and the cyber discussion was both positive and constructive. The innumerable comments that circulated in the social media world after my message revealed how little faith dancers now have in the traditional BIG BROTHER media houses whose reviews are skewed, favouring only select performers and blacking out those who are not in their inner coterie. What was also revealed clearly was how BLIND dancers are sometimes in that they do not read the words closely but jump to conclusions and exhibit knee jerk reactions. One NRI dancer flew into a tantrum accusing me of blacklisting ALL the dancers from foreign shores. Another claimed that most dancers who lived outside India “cared” about the art and the tradition more than their native colleagues. These generalisations become problematic with ‘dance’ and ‘Indian culture’ becoming synonymous. Hopefully the Music Academy dance committee will take note of the uneven percentage of non India- based dancers who were programmed in this year’s festival and encourage those who live within India. However, the final point is EXCELLENCE or at least, the pursuit of it.

Classical dance is experiencing cloudy times, echoed by the editorial by V Ramnarayan, editor of SRUTI, who makes a thoughtful observation on the same subject. In the February issue of the magazine, he writes, “...it will be condescending on our part to offer advice to the dance world, but the ground reality of the dance teaching and performance scene is by and large depressing...Even with all the prevalent activity around it, and all the pious proclamations of how divine the art is, the probability of randomly walking into a good dance performance is significantly lower than that of attending a good music concert.” Ouch! True? I certainly think so.

Not wanting to continue to harp on the precarious future of EXCELLENT professional dancers – especially soloists in the classical genre - I move to an issue that began with one performer refusing a national  honour and the issue snowballing to allegations of “cultural terrorism.” It is truly a sad moment when a dancer of Aditi Mangaldas’ brilliance becomes the centre of a larger debate about ‘auchitya’ and propriety. Like Tamil actress Khushboo’s house that was ransacked due to a comment becoming misconstrued by political goons, perhaps we should all watch what we say as cultural commentators in case acid is thrown on our faces – like it was on the artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet last month. Enraged dancers who were not cast in the company’s new production took revenge by staking out his home and attacking him.  In Aditi’s case, the rhetoric has become shrill and the main issue has blurred between name calling and metaphoric stone throwing. Follow all the action in our ROSES and THORNS column.

In this troubled atmosphere came the national conference on education in Chennai. Organised by a national daily and held in a glittering five star hotel, the speakers were all drawn from the worlds of politics and big business. The recurring mantra from every mouth was the dismal absence of SQ amongst the youth - SQ meaning SPIRITUAL QUOTIENT.  Now how does a student, focusing on high marks, have the time and the emotional bandwidth to accommodate ideas of culture, philosophy and a sense of history? Will that help him/her close the deal with the campus recruitment cell or get his foot in the door of a BPO? How does one develop, learn and even teach SQ? It is an accumulated knowledge that is not obtained from one HOW TO manual but from the various strands of observation, curiosity, reading, questioning and contemplation. And how can politicians and CEOs who are all focused on votes and profit margins be impartial mentors and advice givers about SQ? And how come the organisers of this expensive and glittering event did not consider inviting even a single member from the cultural community in our country? Not one singer, dancer, painter, sculptor, writer or arts impresario was heard. Artistes and cultural workers are those who have the skills and the intuitive abilities to nurture what is now being touted as the valuable SQ.  So, while this schism only grows wider at a national level, there are many of us dancers and actors who have entered committees and governing boards of many educational institutions. In New Delhi, Bengaluru, Pune, Baroda, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Chennai, dancers are prominent members of important schools and college boards and are now speaking up and speaking out about the implementation of a basic cultural and visual vocabulary that is mandatory for the humanities students. Waiting for any change in public policy may never happen. We have to seize the opportunity and make the changes at our own local levels. As I have always said, use every arsenal in our quiver. May our arrows never be depleted like Agastya’s wondrous gift to Prince Rama.  

The much publicised and eagerly awaited ATTAKKALARI BIENNALE took place in Bengaluru in early February. A host of events, mainstage performances and workshops revealed a huge variety of artistes from around the world. The Indian contingent was best represented by Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya – both from Chennai. However, the overt importance given to non Indian companies is a point to note. Even in so called “collaborations” it is always the non Indian performer who is given pride of place in India. The recent encounter between Sasha Walz of Germany and Padmini Chettur of India that took place in Kolkata had that same patina of inequality. However, for those who watched and absorbed Padmini’s intellectual and rigorous technique in BEAUTIFUL THING 2, it was a rewarding experience.

February 20th...
At the opening of second edition of THE HINDU LITERARY FESTIVAL, actors Rahul Bose and Yog Japee read evocatively from letters exchanged between Mohandas Gandhi and Tamil renaissance man and politician C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji). Both men became related as their children married and their friendship was beautifully cross illuminated with images and restrained performances. Ending with MS Subbalakshmi’s HARI TUM HARO, there was not a dry eye in the house. Such delicate readings require a serious attentive audience which Chennai provided. The event also had a very engaging conversation with fashion designer Wendell Rodricks whose book THE GREEN ROOM was released. The candid and self deprecatory tone of the book was a clever way of introducing the reader into the high  melodrama of the fashion world. We are still waiting for an honest biography or autobiography of a dancer in India. There are so few readable and believable books on our greats and nobody wants to share a life -warts and all. Like our dance divas, their stories are almost always about a smooth road to fame. No fault, stumble. Not a zit on the impeccable makeup and “madeup” face. Ever.  

That is why the voices of Vikram Iyengar and Ranjana Dave are so refreshing and important. In this stifling atmosphere where everyone tiptoes around and whispers in half sentences, these cultural commentators have shared objective views in the three newsletters that were produced during the ATTAKKALARI  BIENNALE. Read the 100 feet newsletters through this link... http://www.narthaki.com/info/rev13/rev1366.html

Feb 28th...
This past week had me tunnel visioned towards a family wedding. My favourite niece Dia was getting married, the eldest of my children’s generation and my role was as the family elder and Artistic Director of the wedding. Overseeing the multiple events and activities and co-ordinating the several vendors was exhausting but my years of collaboration and producing have strengthened my management skills to be able to delegate and NOT micromanage. Infusing music, dance and cultural nuggets in all the celebrations was also a way to remind the elite urban guests that there is much in our midst, from eco friendly decorations and locally sourced materials to unsung artistes, who need to be seen, heard and appreciated. My curatorial eye was on the alert.

Concert quality musicians now collaborating for mature dancers is a welcome new move. Malavika Sarukkai and Aruna Sairam come together in a lovely Chennai performance next week and New Delhi will watch Geeta Chandran respond to the voice and compositions of Sudha Raghuraman. This meeting between strong aesthetics, technique will create multiple layers of ‘listening’ to dance and ‘seeing’ music.... For all those who groan and moan about the pathetic state of dance music, here is a way of working when self assured artistes are willing to step into a third space of contact for a new kind of alchemy.

March extends its arms towards me with a bouquet of events. I will experience the grandeur of ISHA’s fabulous Maha Shivaratri celebrations as a dancer and a storyteller to Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev’s  discourses.  I am also responding to mythologist Devdutt Patnaik’s LSD series (Lakshmi, Saraswati and Devi). Amidst the walls of Apparao Galleries in Chennai, we will share movement, painting and words. Later in March, I travel to Bengaluru to resume shows of the English play LONG WAY HOME, a socially charged script about child snatching and begging racket and the same night I take a flight to London and New York to begin work on two new solos for world premieres in the next three months.

So the sweat the grime games begin. Enough with the non-stop celebration, eating, laughing and feasting. The body now groans as I return to active space of images, sounds and ideas. Muscles ache, feet are sore and shoulders prepare to carry bags and drag luggage through the long corridors of airports. And to mount stages, stare into dark spaces and give shape to imagination!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai, Coimbatore, Bengaluru, London, New York