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May 1, 2015

As I write this month's message, I learn of the earthquake in Nepal. That, alongside the dance-quake that occurred throughout India on April 29th (World Dance Day) would have been enough for an entire month of contemplation and recouping for body and spirit.

It is precisely when these natural calamities happen close to the heels of performances that we are called to question the place of the arts in our lives. In Nepal the earthquake devastated temples, precious memories of history and civilization and more than 6000 lives. (The death toll is climbing as you read this). Around the world more than 20,000 dancers must have celebrated WDD in some way or another. Social media was groaning with the avalanche of images from dancers who were celebrating in so many ways. Bangalore and Delhi were in the national spotlight with large scale events and flash mobs took shoppers in Chennai and Bombay by surprise.

In the USA, none of the major dailies or TV channels even mentioned the event. While dance is highly valued and given an independent stature in North American societies, April 29th came and went in a blur of political debate about Hillary Clinton and her push for the Presidential nomination. Hillary has a huge task ahead of her. While there is a deep divide about her political future in the White House, American TV and Film seem to be ahead of the curve about rising female power in public life. Remember the 2002 character David Palmer in the hit TV series "24"? He was an African American President and was hailed as the marker for the entry of Barrack Obama into the White House. It was widely referred to as the DAVID PALMER EFFECT. Now TV is flooded with powerful female protagonists.

You look around and women are ruling the roost. VEEP, SECRETARY OF STATE, SCANDAL, REVENGE, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, DIVERGENT, the HUNGER GAMES series, THE REAL HOUSEWIVES series, Detective Kate Beckett in CASTLE... it goes on and on... Yet in the land of the free and home of the brave, yours truly has been already slapped with increasing racism on the streets of liberal California and eclectic New York. While drifting through a farmer's market with my friend on a lazy Saturday in Los Angeles, a cowboy boots and Prada carrying white woman walked past me (I was wearing jeans and a sweater) muttering "Brown b... ch" and in New York's Chinatown, a middle aged white man asked me how I spoke such good English being an Arab since my eyes were lined with kajal. Now really???????

Naga Women

These moments apart, April was too much fun with my trip to Malaysia for the NAGA WOMEN theatre festival and tour of A MILLION SITAS. Produced by cultural powerhouse Sabera Shaikh, an actor and producer of woman centric work, her MASAKINI THEATRE COMPANY organized a 2 week, multi city tour of three solo works which included Rajika Puri's ELENI OF SPARTA, Sabera's own PUTERI SAADONG and my A MILLION SITAS. MASAKINI in Malay means TRENDING NOW and how appropriate for a dynamic theatre company!

What was interesting was not just that the tour was beautifully organized, generously supported and professionally managed, but that we three women were all in the stage of our lives now acknowledged as the JUICY CRONE ERA. Three independent actors, producers and presenters. Three women who were fiercely focused on our solo work while supporting, mentoring and encouraging younger artistes. So much in common and yet, our works were so different in approach and presentation. That is what made for such a fascinating and successful festival experience.

As for the country itself, Malaysia... it is truly a jewel in Asia. Overshadowed by the robotic Singapore and a more sensuous Indonesia/Bali, this amazing country waits for its true place in the global tourist map. Already National Geographic and other travel magazines have zeroed in on the enormous natural beauty and diversity of Malaysia and we were blown away with the international quality and rooted charm of this country. Everything was so impressive - the airports, roads, public transport, restaurants, shopping, local markets - the ease of communication in English versus the difficulty in Thailand and China. Malaysia was a sheer delight for Rajika and me and we vowed to return with our families.

All this euphoria was enhanced by the superb organization and audience appreciation of our individual works. Of course, the RAMAYANA is a familiar story in Malaysia with many students of the Veda and Mythology in the audience in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. The impressive technical team led by Aiman Saibaan took a little time to get familiar with each of our requirements, but once they understood, it was smooth sailing for all. My Carnatic singer Sharanya Krishnan confessed that she had never worked or rehearsed so hard for a single show like A MILLION SITAS. Normally used to the lazy way of holding sheets of white paper in front of her, and "adjusting" to the dancer's needs on stage, Sharanya was transformed into an actor with dialogue and movements for A MILLION SITAS. Having two full days of tech rehearsals, punctual call sheets and the luxury of leaving our costumes with jewellery in the dressing rooms from Wednesday through Sunday each week was itself a revelation. Imagine, nobody even THINKS of messing with our stuff. Unthinkable in India where so much theft occurs backstage!

The ability to connect with the brilliant gamelan musicians from Indonesia and world percussionist Suchet Malhotra from New Delhi (he handled ALL the sound and tech for Rajika's ELENI) was a huge learning curve for my two woman team of Sharanya and tech assistant Vidya Subhasri. Forced to help with props and backstage clean up after each show, the need for team work, so common in theatre culture, was like a veil being lifted from the smug world of classical music (and classical dance).

The entire Malaysia experience was all due to the mentoring of the one and only Ramli Ibrahim. It was upon his suggestion that Sabera Shaikh initiated the NAGA WOMEN festival. Ramli lives in a gorgeous home and is constantly surrounded by struggling artistes and craftspeople who travel from the suburbs to catch his eye. When we met, he was busy with the art installation of the ORANG ASI, the Malay tribal artistes and his lieutenant, painter and scenographer Shiva Natarajah was hanging paintings in SUTRA HOUSE, Ramli's former home. Ramli still found the time to take us to the magical Craft Central Market where Rajika and I shopped like teenagers for sarongs and jewellery while savouring authentic Nanyang cuisine with the unusually delicious bitter gourd soup and DURIAN fruit sorbet! Ramli and Sabera know every interesting artist and creative soul in their country and each evening was a delight in hospitality and courtesy. For this writer, who prides herself on organization and planning, the MASAKINI team, led by the powerhouse Hilda Looi was a lesson in ruthless planning and execution. Bravo and thank you all.

I may have travelled to many continents and several countries, performed in numerous venues but the power of cinema continues to surprise me. In Penang and Kuala Lumpur, with its concentration of Tamil immigrants, I received special attention in restaurants, taxis and stores just because of the TWO Tamil feature films I had starred in over ten years ago. Even the security officer at Penang airport, took a selfie with me instead of checking my boarding card, much to the annoyance of the rest of the team. Now it is the turn of dancer Leela Samson. Her debut in Mani Ratnam's Tamil super hit OK KANMANI has been described as "brilliant, sensitive and moving". Playing the wife of Prakash Raj and sympathetic elder to young lovers who shun marriage, Leela will find herself signing more autographs and posing for more photos than ever before.

I spent a precious two hours in a freewheeling conversation with acclaimed dancer Chitra Visweswaran who is President of ABHAi and the Tamilnadu State Cultural Akademi. She rued the varying responses to serious learning versus Flash Mob excitement. Over 100 dancers applied to participate in the World Dance Day Bharatanatyam Flash Mob at a Chennai mall while less than 5 seemed interested in learning a rare Vazhuvoor 'pada varnam' from senior artiste Kanaka Srinivasan! We also agreed that Bharatanatyam has lost its lustre on the international stage with too many dancers crawling out of the woodwork! Odissi and Kathak are ruling the roost while BN is languishing in basements, and various "aradhanas". Is there still a possibility of a truly excellent professional repertory company in the style that took centre stage during India's independence movement and was the trigger for the recovery of "cultural identity"?

This edition's ROVING EYE will concentrate on my many visuals from Malaysia. Unusual and interesting in its variety, I hope you enjoy browsing through the images as I did taking the photos and recording the memories. I still remember the OWL LADY from Germany. Never had I seen so many owls gathered in one place as I did in Penang at the Sunday market. Owls on rings, earrings, watches, clocks, door knobs, necklaces, bracelets, key chains, cigarette lighters, book covers, napkins, paper weights, coffee mugs... it never ended. (And yes, I bought several)

No longer are we taking time off to cool off during the long hot summer. Dancers are working 24/7 through the year. Festivals and performances continue both in India and overseas. In London, the phenomenally successful ALCHEMY continues in its 6th year with Nrityagram making their very first UK presence and Aditi Mangaldas returning with an earlier work TIMELESS. For Aditi to be repeated immediately after her wonderful WITHIN which was staged last year is a testament to her excellence and relentless pursuit of international visibility. In the USA, Carnatic musician Sikkil Gurucharan has just completed a successful residency at the University of California Davis and the space is opening up for performing artistes to interface with graduate students of ethnomusicology, dance, theatre and movement arts. Dancers like Janaki Rangarajan and Vidhya Subramanian have started initiatives to encourage US based dancers and visiting artists to engage with South Asian audiences to look and think beyond the arangetram. Good luck with that!

Indian culture in every muscle, from eyelid to fingertip by Alastair Macaulay

The recent New York Times dance review of various performances in the city has once again raised some questions. Have we really and truly shown the British the door out of India? The last time I checked we attained independence 68 years ago! And yet, powerful British dance critic Alistair Macaulay headlines a recent review clubbing Indian classical dance and culture? INDIAN CULTURE IN EVERY MUSCLE... Will he review Ballet or contemporary dance as WESTERN CULTURE IN EVERY MUSCLE???? No... and we desis, of course, will be ever so grateful for his comments. Rama Vaidyanathan and other dancers praised in the review will tout these words like wisdom from the mouth of Mahavishnu on their personal PR pages, their professional careers will receive a fillip with a NYT quote and life goes on. Yes. We should be delighted that so much coverage is being given to Indian dance (only classical gets the visibility). However, to mash Indian classical dance as a mirror to Indian culture? In today's multi layered society, that in itself is hugely problematic. Orientalism, Zindabad!

PULSE, the UK based dance magazine, has a very good cover story on the emerging field of contemporary dance in India. A lucid article by cultural theorist Sanjoy Roy maps the vibrant activity through three major festivals and numerous initiatives to encourage new work in India. With the words "contemporary dance" becoming increasingly confused with anything that is not classical, there is an increasing demand for a national presentation and performance network to showcase new work in India. With the current mood of the government, classical art will see a huge fillip but we hope that excellence from around India is the hallmark and not only the flavour of Gujarat!

As technology invades every aspect of our lives... here is an anecdote of how it can also be a true embarrassment. During a performance, one famous film star dancer used her cell phone to perform to A R Rahman's Vande Mataram to please an ardent fan. During the item, her phone rang! Now hold your breath.. It was her mother! And that unsuspecting woman actually had a conversation with her daughter in full audio spectrum of the 1000 plus audience! The dancer had forgotten to turn her phone off! So while musicians are busy using I Pads and other gadgets on stage for dance performances, please remember that the glowing screen is a distraction to the general visual design and does not compensate for lack of rehearsals or the musician fully participating in the performance while LOOKING at the dancer!

As I conclude, I have already completed my visit to the San Francisco bay area and am preparing for the NYU presentation of A MILLION SITAS. Dancers Yamini Saripalli, Sonali Skandan, Kasi Aysola and Kiran Rajagopalan have been drafted to assist me for this performance. A MILLION SITAS was first conceived in 2011 as a formal proscenium event for the December Chennai season. After a four year hiatus, the work has morphed into an entirely different personality. Since its new avatar that premiered in Kolkata on March 18th, this show has shape-shifted into many versions for intimate and large audiences. I tried a storytelling version in New Delhi before leaving for the USA and found that with a little more work on the sound and the transitions, the show will connect beautifully in alternate spaces, lofts, gardens and salons. Judging from the response from the Delhi audience in designer Sandhya Raman's atelier, there could be a long life for this particular production that carries SITA's name and whose shadow looms large over the consciousness of Indian women. Here's to you, Hari Krishnan and Rex - my creative and visual co dreamers. I told you SITA lives in a million and more ways!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY NARTHAKI...!! We turned 15 last month and are getting recognized, awarded and lauded around India and elsewhere! How wonderful for this soon to be sweet 16 year old! A huge THANK YOU to the wonderful women, Sumathi and Lalitha Venkat who have stood firm and strong beside me during this adventure. Thank you, dancers and rasikas around the world, who have embraced us with love and hope. And to think that we only planned for a 10 year life! Will we aim for 20? Keep reading!

I am still wearing sweaters in the USA while on this current tour but it is far warmer than the bitter winter I experienced during my February visit. So while many of you wait for warmer climes, India is already sweltering in 100 degree Fahrenheit heat!
So stay cool, or warm - whatever suits you. Stay well. Calm and centered.
Dance is all we have. It is our life's calling.
Cherish the body that makes the art and be kind to the planet that seems so furious with our greed.

Until next month!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
New York / Los Angeles / Chennai

PS: The new General Council for the Sangeet Natak Akademi has been formed. Among the new members are Malavika Sarukkai, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Kathak dancer Kamalini and Birju Maharaj. Many more names are on the roster and will be shared as soon as the EXECUTIVE COUNCIL is formed.

PPS: Dancers and choreographers... here is a new career. Drum Roll please... BRIDAL ENTRIES. Do you want to create an entry like a Thai bride, a Raj bride, a Las Vegas Showgirl, a Gujju, Punjabi, Bangla or a Tam Bram bride???? Now even the bridal entry into the wedding hall is a spectacle and a potential "item number" for huge, huge bucks... up to 20,000 US dollars! Any takers???

Twitter: @aratnam
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