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March 1, 2018

Breathing in I am aware of the blue sky
Breathing out I smile at the blue sky
Suddenly, the blue sky smiles back
The blue sky becomes a smile
I smile back
- Thich Nhat Hanh
Buddhist Monk



For the past few days, my I POD playlist is looping the songs of Sridevi. She was not my favourite actor and I winced when I heard her squeaky voice on screen, but her charisma and comic timing was without dispute. While most of the Bollywood fans around the world may remember her from her Hindi films, we in South India were fortunate to see her before her NIP AND TUCK era as a fabulous actress in films like SADMA and MOONDRAM PIRAI. Despite her "thunder thighs" her dancing was also specially crafted for the camera, every angle and every bend catering to the loving glance of that glass eye that forever captured her sparkle and talent.

While the entire nation mourned her tragic passing, I wondered if the death of a dance artiste would garner so much national media. Of course not! What am I thinking? Dance? Important? Cha Cha! What a stretch of imagination to even THINK that! And with this government that spouts "ancient culture" and claps Bollywood in the same breath!

Ironically, I was at an event in Chennai accepting the GOLDEN STAR award (THANGA TARAKAI) on the birth anniversary of late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. She was also a Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer and it was she who gifted the prime Chennai land to Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam. With the passing of Vempati Ravi, the future of the academy remains unanswered. While making the acceptance speech surrounded by political MIKE-LLS (those who seize the mike and never give it up!) I mentioned this very fact that learning Bharatanatyam was a MUST for every aspiring actor. Kathak also was a style that many actors had to pick up for the camera close up of the eyes and the eyebrows.

Sridevi was the last of the South Indian dancing heroines to storm the Bollywood bastion and her dance tracks became iconic globally. It was perhaps around the same time of my delayed award ceremony that the film queen was found dead in the bathtub in Dubai. ATMA SHANTI to a dancer, actor and true diva!


Kalakshetra Banyan tree

The last few days of February saw my Facebook and Whats App pages becoming FLOODED with outrage, anger and indignation at the recent events that took place on the campus of KALAKSHETRA. A video of a group dancing in a Flash Mob with shoes at the Banyan Tree area of the Adyar Campus went viral. An eco outreach event organised by a Chennai organisation also had stalls for prospective home buyers. Vegetables were on sale and all this was captured on social media. Also on screen capture before it was hastily taken down was a sign declaring spaces in Kalakshetra FOR RENT.

The Kalakshetra Alumni Association - a global group of eminent, active and successful teachers, performers, academics and social media influencers gathered their energy and began alerting senior bureaucrats in New Delhi about these recent misdemeanours.

Sifting through the barrage of messages and mountains of moans and groans from artistes, painters, photographers, weavers, designers and others revealed that Kalakshetra meant much more than a dance school. The 82 year old institution has played a vital role in the reinvention of modern Bharatanatyam and the reconstruction of a post colonial national identity via the vision of its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale (ATHAI). In its glorious and checkered history, Kalakshetra has seen its own crests and peaks but has remained a beacon of hope and a haven of peace and calm for all its students - past and present.

The morning multi-faith prayers under the Banyan Tree was the fulcrum of Athai's multi-faith vision. For the first time I encountered a multi-faith prayer that embraced Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Zoroastrianism strung together like a garland which was chanted under the Banyan Tree by staff and students every single day of my years on campus. The sounds and images still echo in my mind screen. It was a blissful start of a long and gruelling day of Adavus and Araimandi practice. I would have the wooden stick thrown at my feet by the stern Sarada teacher and made to stay longer in class for corrections. As I would stagger out of the morning sessions, the sight of the silent Banyan Tree would calm my frustration and soothe my teenage restlessness. I have since returned a few times to the campus and would always take a few moments to walk to the tree and remember those days when Athai would make her sudden appearance in the mornings and we would experience a collective "frisson" of excitement and respect at her erect and charismatic demeanour.

The 8am ritual was a MUST for all of us and the tree framed the solemnity with its wide embrace. The several pairs of footwear left meticulously outside the sacred perimeter was a familiar sight, as was the shuffle of feet slipping into them after we dispersed.

To watch a cheap Flash Mob dance WITH SHOES under the Banyan Tree on my WhatsApp got my blood boiling. And I was among the last to actually react since my travels kept me from checking my phone every single moment.

As comments, accusations and cyber yelling poured out via our hand helds, this flagrant violation of Kalakshetra's original charter forced many of us in the Alumni Association to return to the words of the visionary founder. Founded in 1936 "with the sole purpose of resuscitating in modern India recognition of the priceless artistic traditions of our country and of imparting to the young the true spirit of Art, DEVOID OF ANY VULGARITY AND COMMERCIALISATION."

The founding charter continues to delineate specifics about high standards, education without fear, art in conformity with tradition and other issues. And now, the presence of tomatoes, onions, and shoes!!!!!!

What this incident forced upon many of us were the following questions.

Why does a national institution of culture, education, weaving and ecology need to rent its space?
What are the norms or rental?
Who decides and when?
Are there contracts?
Who monitors and what are the penalties for flouting rules?
What authority do the board members have in these decisions?

With an annual budget of almost 15 crore rupees annually (2 million US dollars), why are rentals happening?

As former student, award winning bureaucrat and tennis fan Ananda Shankar Jayant asks, "Will Wimbledon turn into a Farmer's Market and Flash Mob venue during the off season?"

This widely publicised incident also attracted some hasty coverage by the local Chennai media but the thorny issues remain unanswered. Kalakshetra Foundation Chairman, R Gopalaswamy defended the decision to allow Reciprocity Foundation to hold their second annual eco awareness event on campus during which the DABBAN KOOTHU dance was performed.

Former directors Leela Samson and Priyadarsini Govind shared their individual views on their personal Facebook pages, each blaming the indifferent government or the nonchalance and carelessness that has occurred AFTER their tenure.

The issue is not about who allowed footwear and who permitted the sale of tomatoes and onions. It is about CULTURE BEING IGNORED AND DEMOLISHED SYSTEMATICALLY AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL.

Without a director for 8 months, and the rot inside the campus among staff and students continuing unchecked, it now remains to be seen what is going to be done and IF the strident voices of the KALAKSHETRA ALUMNI ASSOCIATION will be heeded. Social media cannot bring about real change but it CAN and DID alert the Kalakshetra dance world about the shenanigans within the historic campus.

Another point…
All over the world, institutions call upon their alumni to be associated and continue to guide universities and colleges.
That in itself is a question to be asked and pondered upon!

Anyone who asks these uncomfortable questions is automatically blacklisted and called an enemy! Count me among those!

February 29th marks the 114th birth anniversary of Rukmini Devi. What a way to honour her memory!

KALAKSHETRA must be included in the Prime Minister's new vision of creating 20 institutions in India of international eminence. IITs will make the lists but why not KALAKSHETRA? The 100 acre campus which now serves a mere 200 students can become an active and energetic crucible of ideas, new thinking, research, workshops, movement investigations, conferences, creative conclaves, residencies, international collaborative experiments - the possibilities are many. Which other institution of culture and ideas encompassed education, music, dance, weaving, fine arts with animal welfare and ecology?

#SAVEKALAKSHETRA is more than a hashtag.
My once glorious Alma Mater is sinking and it seems it has almost hit rock bottom!


Deepika Padukone in Padmaavat

Black Panther
Watching two of the most discussed movies of the season with different groups of friends in two countries was a most interesting experience. First came PADMAAVAT, with a group of Sri Lankan women in Colombo. While they were busy oohing and aahing about the costumes, visuals, Holi colours and dancing, I was cringing at the OTT representations of patriarchy, misogyny and overt melodrama. The final Jauhar scene was disturbing with the camera focusing on the pregnant woman. With all the propaganda the film spouted, it was a most disappointing experience, although Deepika danced beautifully in the Ghoomar song with CG graphics covering her slim torso which was previously exposed - just to satisfy the indignant RAJPUT HONOUR MOBS.

From Mewar machismo, I put on my 3D glasses to watch and cheer the latest Hollywood hit BLACK PANTHER. City was Singapore!

What a difference in the way a culture was transformed into an empowering statement of female confidence and pride. No fake speeches of honour and Islamophobic brutality. No glamorous dressing up to burn a la SLB style. This was African pride in its composite colour and glory. Women generals, fighting, defending, dying with pride. Not the overstated melodrama from the women of Mewar. The choreography of the fights and the female guards "SALUTE"- arms crossed and then opened with the cutting stroke! The charisma of Danai Gurira (OKOYE) as the badass Army General; her leading the gorgeous warrior women at the brink of the waterfall with the camera taking the helicopter view- each frame was just as carefully constructed as PADMAAVAT but with a totally different purpose. BLACK PANTHER was not skewed to be puppeteer to pull on heart strings. It purposefully quilted a convincing palimpsest of dignity, diversity and African pride.

My son and I were the only ones in the large theatre hooting and cheering while the obedient Singaporeans just sat in their seats watching - faces immobile! And yes..., we did get strange looks thrown at us!

How devious and powerful the camera can be! How it can amplify or shrink the smallest gesture! And how careful we dancers must be as our work gets viewed more and more on the hand held screens of our phones and tablets. What are we saying? Every pout, smirk, shrug and pose can get misread and misconstrued. Every angle that the camera captures transcreates the movement and choreography into something quite different. That is why film choreographers work with the camera person and not the director while crafting movement. And we dancers and choreographers have to rethink our movement vocabulary and framing to suit the camera's EYE. Not just the audience. We are dancing more and more to a virtual world. Less humans in their seats, more at home watching and using the HAMSASYA/PINCH MUDRA to enlarge the image!


Sohni Chakraborthy
From being the former national capital to the home of Mamata Banerjee DIDI, the city of Kolkata has seen many a leader and coloniser enter and exit. The always crumbling city has a charm that grows on you - if you allow it to enter your bones. I am a fan of Kolkata, its endless negotiations between daily morning kesar chai and deep fried samosas and puris, waiting to visit and make new encounters via the brilliant friends I have made over the past several years.

The most recent visit was under the instigation and coaxing of JNU academic Urmimala Sarkar who connected me to an NGO-Kolkata SANVED. Led by the dynamic SOHNI CHAKRABORTHY, SANVED has focused on rescuing and rehabilitating sex workers. Bengal has India's largest number of sex slaves, the Bangladeshi migration contributing to the social calamity. To meet these young women, sold or trafficked at a very early age, was a humbling moment. Faces lined with pain, bodies shrunk with repeated violations and violence. These women had been rescued several years earlier and had since gone through therapy and counselling to emerge as the trainers for the next set of survivors spoke volumes for Sohni's dedication.
My mandate was to create movement based on my own corporeal experience as a dancer and actor. Time was four long days. On Day 5 a short performance-demonstration was to be readied.

Not being a teacher or facilitator of DMT - DANCE MOVEMENT THERAPY, my approach came purely from experience of performing and speaking about gender based issues on stage and beyond. The first prop used in DMT is the stretch cloth. SANVED already had several lengths of stretch cloth which I encouraged them to sew into a long "tunnel". Using this as a centre piece, the women entered and played… was this a tunnel of life, a womb giving birth, a cave, a cage, a prison, an entrapment? Each person used the passage to their own imagination... punching, kicking, pulling, biting, crawling, rolling - the shapes made for fascinating images which I selected to create a choreographic motif.

Keeping the location of our daily process - the campus of Presidency University - I also worked with the students of the Performing Arts Department and included them into the work. The students could learn rhythm based work quickly, the SANVED women could respond to improvisation more easily. One's weakness was another's strength. Balancing both was the challenge. FLOW was the 18 minute outcome of the four intense days, keeping in mind images like THE WALL to lean on and rest, A MOUNTAIN to climb with support, A WAVE to help another travel, A TUNNEL through which to crawl.

Watched by intellectuals, feminists, academics and the dynamic Vice Chancellor Anuradha Lohia, the entire process was an important learning curve for me. All my observations and improvisations based on real life and other images came to the fore. My love of cinema, music, painting, contemporary art, sculpture, poetry were all pulled together. I look forward to returning to work further with the brave women of SANVED. They taught me as much as I shared with them.


Sudarshan Chakravorty

Vikram Iyengar

Kolkata also is the focus of two intersecting and complementary events. THE PICKLE FACTORY initiated by dancer Vikram Iyengar and SAMABHAVANA - the contemporary dance conclave convened by another dancer Sudarshan Chakravorty. Together the first week of March will mark an interesting new chapter in realigning national focus onto a city that has long been forgotten on the cultural calendar and performance circuit.

Images from the renovated GEM CINEMA interiors and the ICCR auditorium will be shared and reports carried in the weeks to come.

It has become somewhat of a farce. Colleges, businesses, even the World Bank calling some of us to speak about WOMEN'S EMPOWERMENT. I have stopped accepting these invitations, often suggesting other women to address the gatherings. In the light of so much retarded behaviour from society and the barrage of double speak that we read and hear every day, it is time to focus on the women in our own homes and close circles. How are we bringing up our daughters? What is the relationship with our girl friends? How are we treating the women who work in our homes? Are we educating a girl child? These are ongoing issues and not to be focused only on a single day.

For me, my SEVA and DARSHAN for women were both completed with my experience at KOLKATA SANVED. That was more than any award or speech!


A performance I watched end January was not accommodated in last month's newsletter since there was simply far too much to comment upon. So here is my response to AKADEMI's presentation of THE TROTH-USNE KAHA THA, a famous short story by Chandradhar Sharma Guleri.

THE TROTH staged at KAMANI in New Delhi was an interesting mix of history and contemporary dance. Producer Mira Kaushik took on modern India "on her own terms" by casting white, British contemporary dancers as Sikhs during the First World War when Indian men were called upon to enlist "for the Empire". This short story found resonance with many Hindi speaking people since it was almost mandatory reading in the school syllabus. Both a love story and a sad slice of Indian history. The performance itself was held together by the scratchy black and white historical footage from the archives with some of the dancing looking compelling but most of it rather disjointed. Vidya Patel was luminous as the young girl waiting for her husband to return from battle. Her movement quality is gorgeous and many saw her extraordinary potential. The show has since completed its India tour and has returned to the UK. Audience response was tepid although the hall was full with standing room only and many having to be turned away.

Back in the UK, THE TROTH has elicited rave reviews from critics proving that each society watches and receives cultural product differently. Reading through some of the reviews made me realise that my own geography plays a large role in how I respond as an audience member to the live arts. Certainly, artistes who are celebrated in their own societies sometimes do not receive the kind of positive reactions in other countries. Nevertheless, the UK continues to be a beacon of British Bharatanatyam and Kathak as well as the funding and dance advocacy issues.

Why are we not taking care of ourselves enough? When we attend performances or sit for hours at conferences and seminars, we should consider our own health issues. High or low blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments are part of many a dancer's life, and recently two incidents in Chennai has brought this matter to the fore. First was the sudden collapse of a senior guru on stage after a program and then the case of a senior former dancer who collapsed after attending a program and could not be revived for a full ten minutes. Both are in their seventies and eighties. Did they need to hydrate and eat at regular intervals to maintain energy? Both events caused a great deal of concern to those who were present. And that makes me question our daily diet and the toll our weather and food take on our lifestyle choices. I know of so many dancers who have several ailments besides the normal aching knees and lower back pain. Our bodies are the only machine of physics and chemistry that we have at our disposal. Our mind stays active as our bodies mature. Taking care of our machine is our primary goal. Let's do better from today!


How do we maintain our expensive dance costumes? One reader asked me a question and it got me thinking. For the thousands of rupees that we spend on silk saris, tailoring, jewellery and accessories, our environment is hostile to the luxurious fabrics we invest in. How does silk sustain with the heat and perspiration? How do we treat stains that inevitably arrive onto the fabrics?

My mother always used to dry the costumes under the ceiling fan on a bed after each performance. Knowing Madras and its intense humidity and the rural towns I travelled in every weekend, these costumes took a beating. In those days heavy silk sarees were all under 2000 rupees and it was inevitably the blouse, the top "melaakku" that wore out first. To avoid staining or spoiling the saree, my mother taught master tailor DS AIYYELU how to finish the sari at the waist and stitch an entirely new compatible silk piece as the top "melaakku" cover. In this way, the sari was saved without any part of it becoming worn out.

Conditions in India are not kind to expensive costumes. I have written about dirty green rooms and filthy stage floors. The situation may have improved, but only slightly. From the chairs in makeup areas, to the passageways and wings, one has to be constantly vigilant about maintaining the impeccable look of dance costumes. Newer fabrics, brocade stretch material have all been innovated but there is nothing to beat the regal gleam of a Kanjeevaram or Odisha silk and the grandeur of handloom and the skill of the weaver. Classical Indian dance is wedded to the visual image of gold, silver, silk, jewellery and sensuous luxury. Take that away and more than half the impact is lost. Contemporary dance, on the other hand, can take more risks but in that arena, I have brought my love of textiles and fabric, often to the resistance of those who shun glamour as not "pure art".

On Mahasivaratri, it seemed every person became a devotee of Lord Shiva. Social media turned into a giant bowl of ash and chants. Everyone it seemed, was either dancing, fasting, meditating or in a Saiva trance! It promptly ended the day after!

We were spared endless love stories via dance on Valentine's Day. With February 14th becoming a clarion call for V DAY, to mark violence against women by author Eve Ensler in 2013, it is also a day for male and female dancers to pause and rethink their "relationships and love stories on stage". Sexual orientation can be interpreted in multiple ways and as we learn more and more about relaxed ancient societies, we should try to recall the courage and the energy that colonial rule sucked out of us.

As dancer couples are making waves with their dual presence, this is a call to all the wives/dancing partners to kindly cease and desist from being pleading, begging caricatures. If you are playing Parvati or Lakshmi, can you kindly not bow and beg your LORD and MASTER?! In our ancient stories both parts are equal, so why not straighten your spine and have a dialogue with your lover/consort/husband on stage?

Lord Muruga is a powerful people's deity in Tamilnadu. Not so in North India, where the words MURUGA MURUGA conjures up a man running after a chicken to catch it! So while the dancer is inviting the deity to appear, audiences are giggling about chickens and curry! (MURGI is chicken in Hindi). So please remember who you are dancing for and what some words actually mean outside your own linguistic territories!

The prestigious KALIDAS SAMMAN was not covered in the Chennai papers even with Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan receiving the honour. I would like to see Sudharani Raghupathy in that list soon. Her contributions are immense and her knowledge impressive.

Khajuraho witnessed another edition of its annual festival that started in 1975 and was the catalyst for the state sponsored dance events at archeological locations. 43 years later, its programming has not changed much and it remains among the top outdoor dance events to be featured in. Without wanting to body shame anyone, some dancers looked both out of shape and out of practice!

Dance critics Leela Venkataraman and Dr. Sunil Kothari continue to travel extensively all over the country covering several events. I marvel at their stamina but also question the lack of younger writers, especially for contemporary dance events. As much as I respect their long history of visual vocabularies and their undisputed passion for dance, I wish to read a variety of voices. And frankly, different optics make for varied points of reference.

The annual Sangeet Natak Akademi awards committee has met and the names will be released shortly. My own award was granted in 2016 with the actual award function in January of this year - 2018. So the SNA backlog is one full year!

Tamilnadu's annual arts awards KALAIMAMANI have not been awarded for the past 7 years. In a state where caste continues to play a major role, nobody seems to care. The award has lost all credibility with the popular saying, "If you throw a stone in Tamilnadu, you will hit a KALAIMAMANI!"

Carnatic musician TM Krishna is pushing all the right buttons outside his home state. Singing in churches, synagogues and mosques, he is supported by a powerful left lobby and always getting his face displayed prominently on all publicity - in the name of democracy! The majority of patrons and rasikas in Chennai continue to ignore his musical somersaults!

AUROVILLE marked its 50th anniversary with quiet grandeur and elegance. Water ceremonies, sunrise fire rituals to welcome the dawn and a giant group meditation were just some of the wonderful events planned to mark the historic moment. Prime Minister MODI attended to pay his respects to the extraordinary vision of the seer Aurobindo, the UTTARA YOGI, so named by my ancestor Kodiyalam Vasudeva Iyengar who prophesized Aurobindo's arrival to Pondicherry and who was an early patron of the ashram.

The BOLSHOI BALLET tours INDIA on a five week tour of Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Kolkata. Of course CHENNAI is passed over. No theatres good enough!

As the latest giant financial scam surfaces involving diamond merchant Nirav Modi, the iconic RHYTHM HOUSE building that he acquired in Mumbai may be auctioned off by the Enforcement Directorate. Businessman Anand Mahindra has suggested that a consortium acquire this building and transform it into a music and cultural hang out. What a great idea! Go @anandmahindra

I commence my travels across the oceans. I look forward to connecting with friends and colleagues in various cities.

No workshops and item teaching please!

May the vibrant colours of HOLI paint your days with richness and exuberance.

Until next time, stay well, healthy and positive and hold on to your dreams!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Mumbai/London/San Francisco/New York/Minneapolis

Blog: THE A LIST /

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