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May 1, 2012

The seismic aftershock from my hometown is being felt throughout the artistic world. It is not the five minute tremors Chennai felt on April 10th which was a fallout from the Indonesia earthquake, but the ‘frisson’ on the very same day from a committee meeting  in Thiruvanmiyur  on a major decision taken by an international dancer and arts administrator.

Days after the meeting was held at Kalakshetra, director Leela Samson resigned her post citing several reasons. The main one being a PIL filed against her for continuing after age 60.  (Sabha secretaries, ABHAI and other cultural bodies please note. If THAT is the criterion then there will be nobody left to head our cultural organizations. Not to mention our Cricket boards and governments).  Within minutes of the news breaking in mainstream media, the cyber waves, BBM, Iphones, social network sites and phone calls flew around the world and cyberspace.

The fact that I open with this news is because the future of India’s cultural institutions is poised at a precarious state. Years of bungling, interference, mismanagement and misplaced egos have ruined so many of our top cultural spaces like Kerala Kalamandalam and Santiniketan. To bring them back from the brink of chaos and steer them again on the path of which the visionary founders imagined them is a herculean task. Kalakshetra too has had its share of muddied waters, controversies, legal issues and falling standards. Leela Samson took over at a time of great uncertainty and has resurrected my glorious Alma Mater to a vibrant and forward-thinking cultural institution, dance academy, music conservatory, publication and weaving centre and ecological haven. Classical, contemporary, modern dance and music   are now coursing through the veins and pathways of the expanse in Thiruvanmiyur and there is a new dynamism whenever I have visited the premises. And now this.

As someone who has always steered clear of any state institutions, I have been fortunate to observe how Leela Samson handles delicate issues and situations up close as Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Always calm and firm, she is informal in her conducting of meetings and very determined to stay the course of what the state departments and ministries require. To have someone who is a dancer, respected by the artistic community as well as the government machinery is very rare. Leela Samson contains in her slim frame all the qualities of a leader and a thinker.  It is imperative for all of us who care about the arts, about dance, about the future of India’s cultural bodies to urge her to reconsider her decision and to ask her to return to her Alma Mater with philosopher/thinker Gopalkrishna Gandhi as the dream Chairman of her board.

A separate column in ROSES and THORNS features the recent media coverage on this story and also invites all of you to share your views. Write in and speak up.

I write this from the crisp spring of a London morning after ten days in the USA. Having watched dancer Preeti Vasudevan’s showing of SAVITRI, listened to musician Philip Glass in conversation on his 75th birthday celebrations and seen a variety of contemporary dance and art (in between tending to my fledgling filmmaker son’s immediate needs in his NYC apartment) has filled me with many observations and trends that are quite confusing. US based dancers universally feel that they are always marginalized when featured in multiple bills alongside a dancer from India. The media and the presenters always tend to emphasise the “original”, “authentic” component of the visiting performer and as such relegate the local artistes to second place. Media ignores them and the “other” is valorized. This is unfortunate and unless the Indian community supports the contemporary dimensions of the US based dancers, it is always going to be struggle for their visibility and acceptance. Classical dancers are also not living up to the hype of the media and audiences are catching on quickly with the repetition of dance items and the needless pandering to the “other-non brown” audience. Well. C’est la vie, my dears. Nobody said that the contemporary road is easy. It is a road less travelled but wait for the next five to ten years. Already the contemporary dancers are smarter, working much harder and networking more furiously about issues and subjects OUTSIDE dance to create a real critical mass of support for their works.  Just wait. Persist and persevere.  Your time is coming soon. In India and around the world.

The ART OF CRITICAL WRITING sessions at London’s Southbank proved very illuminating for me. Writer Sanjoy Roy of THE GUARDIAN laid out his systematic plan of how to approach dance reviews. Music critic Jameela Siddiqui suggested that if you hated something you just saw or heard, you should just put it all down with all the expletives and then leave it for 24 hours before returning to the page and rewriting it from a less passionate perspective. (A good point for me, who reacts emotionally and then spurts it out on my blogs). My own narrative about the colourful story of this site and the many ups and downs we have faced in our 12 year presence on the www was very well received since I peppered my presentation with humorous incidents including attempts to take down this site by enraged hackers. The politics of dance arts in India was an eye-opener to many and my bird’s eye view on the dance trends as organizer, performer, writer and commentator proved very useful as an alternative to the serious presentations of the other talented speakers. Kudos to Sanjeevini/PULSE for the initiative to create a critical group of commentators who care about the dance arts to watch and write about the craft.

What is interesting to note about the South Asian (Indian) dance scene in the UK is that there is no hegemony of the classical over the contemporary. In fact, there is more excitement about Akram Khan and Shobana Jeyasingh than classical dancers. Other than summer dance camps that attract students to learn more ITEMS to add to their menu palate, it is EXCELLENCE and PROFESSIONALISM that counts alongside good arts management. In that area, the USA is yet to catch up to the vibrancy seen in the area of contemporary Indian dance versus classical dance. And that is why artistes like Leela Samson and a handful of classical dance colleagues have to be applauded for holding onto high standards of quality and aesthetics. I have always maintained that Leela and Malavika are aesthetic inspirations for the Bharatanatyam world that is increasingly becoming ‘Bollywoodized’ and garish.

As Priyadarsini concludes her USA tour and Valli, Rama and Malavika prepare to land on Obama’s shores in the fall, organizers are busy trying to drum up support and sell tickets. The recent sell out shows of Silappadikaram by Muralidharan and Uma were successful BECAUSE of the involvement of local dance schools, students and teachers. Tamil Sangam events are always a sellout due to comedy dramas and free dinner. And why not?  These high net worth professionals slog all week and expect to relax and commune with friends, show off their new clothes bought on a recent India trip and swap stories of their kids during these cultural events. They do NOT want to be educated, enlightened or uplifted. Without the support of the local dance schools and teachers, there will not be enough BUMS ON SEATS any more.  Theatre, film music and food are more powerful magnets than classical divas touring.  Malavika is at the Lincoln Centre’s WHITE LIGHT festival and will continue her lone campaign to showcase the dynamism of Bharatanatyam to mainstream audiences around the world.

It is also time to applaud the untiring efforts of women like Rajika Puri in New York City and Chitra Sundaram in London who have single handedly (almost) prodded, hand held and coaxed writers and presenters to attend, watch, comment and support excellent classical dance from India. Rajika and Chitra - We are putting our hands together through cyberspace for you and your generosity. May you continue your splendid work on and off the stage!

As International Dance Day passes by us and celebrations conclude around the world, let us remind ourselves about WHY we are so passionate about an art that so little care about. Why do we dance and why do we love the world of dance? Ask the question and discover the answers. If you truly love dance, then you will love it even though it is NOT YOU on stage.

And so it goes…

Until next time
Anita R Ratnam
London/Brussels/Chennai/Coonoor and DOWN UNDER