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May 1, 2013

Surely an Asian would not have conceived of World Dance Day in the sizzling temperatures of this continent. However, the relentless hunger of dancers to seize any and every opportunity to ascend the stage was never doubted. On April 29th and days leading to this annual event, it seemed that the whole of India was dancing. From the scorching temperatures of Jaipur to the mountains of Imphal,   dancers were moving and joined a surge of energy that linked us all. All social network sites were overloaded with a barrage of images, handshaking, air kissing, pranam-ing, garlanding, bouquet gifting and DANCING! Mainstream media ignored the day altogether, although certain high profile events did make news of panels with celebrity dancers debating issues about changing tastes, styles and attitudes of teachers, students, sponsors and audiences. What could be a point to consider is that World Dance Day is becoming another excuse for a ‘Sabha’- like scam in some cities, initiated by money hungry presenters to ask dancers to PAY them to organise events!!! WILL DANCERS NEVER LEARN?

The Royal Festival Hall in London was full to the very last seat and the audience was on its feet swaying and clapping in delight at the stocky woman on stage with wild hair and swaying like a shaman. The Pakistani qawali singers seated behind her were waving their hands as their voices soared in ecstasy. Guitars, tablas, desert flutes and a twanging morsing completed an international soundscape that drove the audience into a delightful whirl.  I was wonderstruck at how Susheela Raman, the toast of Britain’s pop/fusion world could manage such a raucous crowd when her own voice was so off key during the traditional Tamizh and Sanskrit songs. Oblivious to anything except the energy of her own signature vocals that soared with a “grab-me” zing, Raman brought the two contrasting images of Sufi and Tamizh trance together. “ALI ALI” and “VEL MURUGA” were belted out in unabashed gusto with the audience swaying their heads until they seemed to almost want to fall off.  It was an example of superb arrangement, presentation and planning. Raman’s voice is not as interesting as multi vocalist Sheela Chandra but her stage presence was electric and glossed over her blatantly poor pronunciation and ‘sruti ashuddham.’ For the organisers of the annual ALCHEMY South Asian arts festival, this was a sure-fire house full event year after year.

ALCHEMY at London’s premiere arts centre - Southbank - has become the most prestigious week in the Spring calendar. From outdoor fairs selling tikka, dosa, health food and red chilli chocolate laced with saffron and cardamom (yummm) to wonderful embroidered jackets from Jaipur, fashion shows, and the now mandated open house session of Bollywood dance, the multi arts event turns this British cultural institution into one large mela. Embracing Daksha Sheth in the lobby and watching her daughter Isha “shusshing” her mom and ushering her to the rehearsal venue was a sight to behold! Pianist Anil Srinivasan was teaching music appreciation while Chennai based theatre artiste Yog Japee was the intern at the Southbank Centre to study how such a festival is planned and mounted. Also in the lobby were composers Nitin Sawhney and so many creative people that it struck me as to how deep the layers of India-Pakistan immigration are in the UK and what a diverse range of cultural pickings a curator could harvest from. Very different from the more linear and predictable US of A.

For this year’s ALCHEMY, I was invited as guest artiste to share the Purcell Room stage with curator/dancer Gauri Sharma Tripathi. Joining me in an evening called CLASSICAL DEPARTURES were Bharatanatyam artistes Chitra Sundaram and Mavin Khoo and Gauri herself. Each of us was requested to create a 20 minute solo on the idea of the theme. My offering was a new piece called MA-HYPHENATE, a triptych-meditation on three women/Goddesses inspired by the Japanese word “MA”- the space between objects.  In collaboration with my two dear friends and brilliant artistes Hari Krishnan and Rex (this is a 16 year old connection where we can anticipate and read each others’ minds by now), a short and compelling work was born. Continuing with the ideas of bringing a personal signature to the time lines of myth and abstractions, MA-HYPHENATE begins a different direction to my dance life. Created between the many e-mails, personal discussions and skype calls, Hari Krishnan and I worked in the freezing winter temperatures of New York dance studios. In spite of a hairline fracture in my right toe (I was unaware of this until after I returned to India), the  performance was completed without a hitch. Glimpses of the work are featured in this edition with images by the ever wonderful Vipul Sangoi.  

While away in New York and London, contemporary dancers in Chennai were very active. Preethi Athreya presented her new solo called LIGHT DOES NOT HAVE ARMS TO CARRY US, a visually and emotionally charged work with intelligent video projection. Emerging dancers Akhila and Anoushka also shared their nascent choreographies with city audiences in another evening. Now there are weekly improvisation sessions held at Chandralekha’s SPACES for three hours at a time. Participation is growing slowly and surely while keeping the tone of the sessions very egalitarian. Four artistes came together in December 2011 to start BASEMENT 21, a collective of contemporary dance and movement arts – to encourage those who wished to experiment in dance, movement and visual design. The quartet is Padmini Chettur (dancer), Martin Visser (musician), Preethi Athreya (dancer) and Praveen (artist). Basement 21 has since been developing into an open space that encourages new movement, ideas and dialogues with an emphasis on process.

In the sizzling heat of summer vacations, there are numerous workshop sessions being created and conducted by a wide variety of dance and theatre groups all over India. Parents are delighted to send their idle kids to these imaginative sessions – which keeps the young ‘uns away from cell phones, televisions and malls. Many folk, theatre, dance, music, painting and other artistes get a chance to interact with young minds and develop their own skills for a whole new demographic. The biggest attraction for the organisers is the chance to widen their contact network and charge fees that parents are very willing to pay.

As for me, it is a ten day advanced theatre workshop at Veenapani’s ADISHAKTI, with daily morning Kathakali eye exercises and afternoon Mizhavu drumming, textual interpretations and acting/movement improvisations. Breath work and body work will keep me sweating and engrossed until the end of the month. A highly recommended immersion for all dancers who wish to work in silence and truly listen to how the body responds without music, rhythm and external stimuli.

Starting June, celebrated classical dance Lakshmi Viswanathan begins a monthly column called “SEEN & HEARD.” An engaging speaker, Lakshmi recently delivered an interesting lecture on Devadasis in a Chennai art gallery.  The often misunderstood and misrepresented history (ies) of these amazing women needs to be remembered every ten years for today’s young women who display selective amnesia  about their ‘freedom’ of choice and lifestyles. Besides, publishers never seem to tire of this topic. Imagine a true incident when a great Chola king entered the fabulous Brihadishwara temple in Tanjavur on a chariot with his favourite dancer seated next to him! One of the many examples that these women were considered auspicious, talented, beautiful, wealthy, independent and educated. No wonder the British could not understand them! An Empire that colonised India at the time when Victorian values covered piano legs!

PURUSH-the global dancing male is gaining steam. We have confirmed many performers and speakers – most prominently the LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD for Pandit Birju Maharaj. Rare films and many world premieres are scheduled for my third turn as Artistic Director and Curator. Joining me this year is Hari Krishnan as Co-Curator. Wait and watch this space for the news as it unfolds.

And so it goes... day in and day out...
Dance... that seems to never end with its demands on our lives and bodies...
Stay well, stay cool and enjoy the sun at its height of its powers.

Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Kodai / Pondicherry