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May 1, 2018

Practice like you have never won
Perform like you have never lost

April arrived and departed in a blaze of dance events. Even with the mercury touching 45 degrees in some parts of India, hundreds of dancers were marking WORLD DANCE DAY- April 29th - with endless performances and dance-centric events.

Certainly, this day could not have been dreamed up by anyone in Asia!

For this performer, just rehearsing daily became difficult in my semi open air studio, with face and limbs soaked in perspiration even as early at 7.30am!

Still, the experience of recollecting and reviving 3 early dance compositions of my guru Adyar K Lakshman and the original creative team of musicians Madurai Sethuraman, Madurai N Krishnan and genius percussionist Trichur Ramanathan, was a sweet ride down memory lane - albeit slippery with sweat!


# MOONLIT TANJAVUR




Adyar K Lakshman

Madurai N Krishnan

I was 17 when the now famous NITHYA KALYANI Ragamalika Sanskrit composition by Seetaramaiah was performed at the opening of the Music Academy December season. Much has happened since then - to Bharatanatyam and to this dance student. Obviously, I could not dance and use the metaphorical suggestions that were created over 4 decades ago. The familiar tropes had to be re-examined and drawn out in a more compact way. I realized how theatrical Bharatanatyam has become over the past 15 years. Endless "sancharis", over dramatized "storytelling", never ending athleticism.... Even the Kalakshetra style that I imbibed from Lakshman Sir was a much gentler version of what I see on stage today.

I do not remember dancing to what is now described as a "military robotic style" - a broad term used to refer to all Kalakshetra trained dancers. I also do not recall straining to create the hyper curved Kalakshetra "spine" and the protruding behind to emphasize the seated "araimandi".

When Lakshman Sir would choreograph, he would actually DANCE the jathis and the swarams- not just show me while seated. I was certainly fortunate to watch his impeccable lines and his fertile mind creating sparkling rhythm clusters with the able inputs of mridangam genius Trichur P Ramanathan and the endless humour of Sethuraman Sir!

Watching videos of my rehearsals, I realized how much my training in Kathakali and Mohiniattam have influenced my movement quality over the years, as well as long hours in the meditative arts (Yoga and Tai Chi). Over time, one's body and muscle memory become imprinted with a certain pulsing and time frame that only your own breath and limbs can recognize. Working with a live orchestral ensemble after 8 years was an adjustment in itself. My trusted team of L. Subhasri (nattuvangam) and N.K. Kesavan (mridangam) were my backbone as I wove in the new team members - Dr. S.Vasudevan (Carnatic vocals) and new instrumentalists on the flute and veena.

Still, the Tanjavur evening - on WORLD DANCE DAY- in the shadow of the magnificent Brihadishwara Temple on a full moon night under the profile of the imposing Nandi - the soft breeze blowing in the vast space - was a very special blessing. To have my sister Pritha beside me - helping me get prepared and attired with the silks, jewels, ankle bells - made me cherish the family presence without whom no dancer in India can continue her/his career!


#BHAGAVATA MELA


The day before my performance was the inauguration of the annual Bhagavatha Mela festival. This ritual performance has gained popularity and audiences over the past 25 years but the sweltering heat made for an uncomfortable experience. Melattur is a small village close to Tanjavur and it comes alive in the scorching heat of May for the daily performance offering.

Popularised during the Nayak rulers in the 16th century, the Telugu lyrics and highly stylised presentation was remarkable for the continuity of the ensemble for over 40 years. Actors assemble at Melattur hours before the festival starts, each of them taking temporary leave without pay from their highly paid jobs.  Doctors, scientists, engineers, IT specialists, podiatrists, surgeons, professors, lawyers, HR managers - quite an assortment of qualifications- put aside for the week long all-night performance. I met actors who had begun by playing the young devotee Prahlada and then graduated to playing the king Hiranyakashipu. All the actors (all male) know all the roles and depending on who was able to arrive on time had their roles assigned to them by the director Mali Mahalingam. A true sense of ensemble rapport!


#HAND HELD RASIKAS

Can we escape the cell phone being held up while we are performing? Is there an escape from the perennial fascination for live streaming anything and everything? Small town audiences are the worst. They walk in and out at whim, record anything they wish, talk loudly during the show and allow their kids to run around unchecked.

My performance at the Tanjavur temple and the Bhagavatha Mela event were filled with hands in the air holding mobile phones. How can anyone actually savour a live performance through that tiny prism? What is anyone trying to prove? Nowadays, we can't even sneeze or cough without someone capturing us on video or camera. Stepping out means minding all our Ps and Qs in case someone records one comment or the other. While live streaming for some events make sense like dance conferences, most live arts do not feature well via shaky cameras and blurred lenses. Still, voyeurism is at its height everywhere! Fortunately, I am not in my 20s, 30s and 40s where being seen is very important to brand management!


#NEW CHIEF FOR THE BANYAN TREE

Revathi Ramachandran
And it is finally official. After months of speculation, doubts, controversy, debate, online agitation and protests, KALAKSHETRA has a new director. Bharatanatyam dancer Revathi Ramachandran has been selected among the cluster of 12 candidates to take charge of the beleaguered cultural academy. Her selection came as a total surprise since she was not regarded as the strongest contender. News from Delhi spoke of her interview session as being most impressive. But the larger question raised by the Kalakshetra Alumni Association was HOW WAS P.T. NARENDRAN's CANDIDATURE NOT SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED?
How could his 6 years in Kalakshetra now affiliated with Hyderabad University as an academic degree not be taken into serious consideration? And what about his further 6 years as a principal dancer in all the productions?
His connection to Kalakshetra, its ethos and philosophy made him an ideal candidate.

Also, after the hugely controversial appointment of Priyadarsini Govind 5 years ago, why select another dancer with absolutely no connection to the historical institution?
Is this a post for yet another newbie to learn while being paid a handsome salary?
Why not a musician for the post?

While these questions hover around Revathi like a dark cloud, she has her hands full as she assumes charge of the several branches of Kalakshetra Foundation. Education, weaving, dance, music, museum - there are many branches beyond dance. To start with, the music department of the institution is in a sad state and we do not see or hear any of the students at any event in Chennai.

Perhaps, Revathi can begin by banning vegetable markets, video game sessions and flash mobs on the campus. A revamp of the board with fewer nominees from the performing arts field and more individuals from academia, architecture, education, history and ecology will give her a broader perspective than just dance and dance politics. For the immediate present, her diary will be full with cutting ribbons and being garlanded.

As the dance fraternity, let us wish her luck and send her good wishes for this very important chapter in her career. She has managed a successful dance institution KALA SADHANALAYA for several years and her daughter Manasvini is a bright and talented dancer. Revathi is from the distinct lineage of Mangudi Dorairaj Iyer and we look forward to positive news from her leadership.

For most dancers outside Tamilnadu and India (except for some fanatically loyal alumni), Kalakshetra has dropped off the national radar. While individual dancers enjoy the patronage of certain NRI promoters, the mishandling of affairs over the past several years has been nothing short of worrisome. Can standards be any lower than the present? Can the only way forward be UP?


#BROWN AND BEAUTIFUL

Mindy Kaling
I recently watched the American feature film A WRINKLE IN TIME, featuring comedienne Mindy Kaling (Chockalingam of Tamil origin). Then I saw her beaming on the cover of two magazines, SPAN and a city local JFW. It is delightful to see a NON SIZE ZERO woman of colour (Oprah is an exception) making the cover of these editions. Mindy's rise is a remarkable story of persistence and determination. For those slightly plump dancers who are ranting on social media about being neglected and ignored - do good work. Talent combined with persistence and fierce focus a la Mindy ultimately hits the mark.


#BLACKLISTED

Why do so many Indian musicians and dancers toy with fate and travel to the UK and USA without a professional visa? I know of many who travel with a 10 year tourist visa and flout the rules by performing and taking fees in cash. This is a blatant NO NO and some high profile singers have been banned from the UK and USA for this violation. Yes, the Professional visa takes time and money (about $1200 for a group or individual) but the peace of mind and adherence to rules cannot be ignored,

Also, many nonprofit organizations presenting India based performers withhold tax as per US law. Advice to performers - negotiate the fees as a NET FEE AFTER TAX. The deductions are severe and can surprise the performers.


#ARANGETRAM PREP AS HARVARD COURSE
Has anyone thought of recommending to HBS the MAKING OF AN ARANGETRAM as a business module for MBA students? Having done all the leg work for 2 nieces in the past 2 years, I have calculated the many hours spent in buying saris, working with the costume designer, selecting the jewellery, co-ordinations with the photographer, videographer and make up persons, overseeing the print and digital invitations, stage decor, writing the announcements, overseeing the rehearsals and suggesting dress codes for the orchestra......
This is an impressive list of tasks that can each be slotted into a business spread sheet. To think of the many hats we wear and the many balls we throw up in the air leading up to those 3 hours in the green room and on stage can make for a fascinating study.

It is not just the DABBAWALLAS OF BOMBAY or WEDDING PLANNERS OF INDIA that deserve attention. ARANGETRAMS are the epicentre of Human Resource Management, Planning, Execution, Strategy, Negotiation, Budgeting, Presentation and Final Product. Anyone listening?


#GAMES OF SUPERNATURAL SANCHARIS

Andal




When I received an image of my beloved poet saint ANDAL seated majestically atop her favourite parrot, dressed imperiously as a man, my thoughts flew to the fertile imagination of the priests who adorn Her image daily. It is through these fantastic flights of creativity that dancers can be inspired for fresh interpretations of traditional songs. Did ANDAL actually ride her parrot? Did she cross dress in her daily life? So what makes these images so striking and indelible?

Likewise, one of the longest running American TV shows is a SCI-FI Horror series called SUPERNATURAL. In this two brothers Sam and Dean Winchester battle monsters, ghouls, witches and demons. The writing of this 12 year hit show combines world mythology from India, China, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, South America, Aboriginal and Samoan cultures and Aztec/Mayan stories. Rakshasas, Pisasis, Vetaals, Satyrs, Gods, Angels and Apsaras weave into the stories with fascinating regularity. Time travel, alternate realities and strange story links to East and West have made this series binge worthy for me during my long flights and jet lagged fatigue.

The lines between good and bad, black and white are all blurred as is our daily life.

Some excellent ideas and imagery are crafted into this addictive television series that is heading towards its 300th episode.
Also delivering narrative with stunning visuals is the addictive GAME OF THRONES. Those costumes and epic archetypes are great sources of inspiration for performers and designers. Not to mention the body language and choreography of some of the scenes that takes an expert team to perform and shoot.

So, don't just watch movies to copy costume ideas for your next Page 3 Selfie moment or a friend's wedding. Watch to learn, to be inspired and to think!

LET LIFE FEED YOUR ART!


#TUKDAS & TID BITS
In Pune, contemporary dancer Hrishikesh Pawar announces his latest edition of DANCE FOR PARKINSONS DISEASE.

In Madurai, theatre director Parashuram Ramamoorthy announces his online course DRAMA FOR AUTISM.

In New Delhi, Kathak dancer Rekha Mehra brought awareness on the use of sanitary pads and feminine hygiene for underprivileged girls through a performance.

In Chennai, the rumbling continues about the future of KUCHIPUDI DANCE ACADEMY after the demise of Guru Vempati Chinna Satyam's younger son Vempati Ravi. The prime land allotted FREE by late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa now throws up a torrent of unanswered questions.

In Jaffna, Sri Lanka, SATYAJIT DHANANJAYAN led a group of Bharata Kalanjali dancers to a rapturous crowd of 5000.


Harikrishnan Kalyanasundaram
In Mumbai, Harikrishnan Kalyanasundaram gave an excellent NATTUVANGAM lecture at the NCPA last month. Impressive and erudite nuances between conducting and playing the cymbals for every single Bharatanatyam item were lucidly explained. Ably supported by his student Krishna Praneeta, the session was both enjoyable and informative. What struck me was the daring dance design of starting a TRIKAALA JATHI in fully seated MUZHUMANDI. Ooooffff!

In Bengaluru and Mumbai, Madhu Nataraj's newly developed KAMPNI KONVERSATIONS and Sanjana Kapoor's JUNOON SALOON are initiatives to bring creative people into discussions for the general public. I hope more dance-centric spaces encourage such cross pollination.

In Auroville, Veenapani Chawla's singular theatre conservatory premiered BALI, based on another forgotten character in the RAMAYANA. Written by Nimmy Raphel, the stunningly original work featured Vinay Kumar and the Adishakti ensemble.

In Sitamarhi, Bihar, a shrine and a university is to be built and named after the Princess of Mithila-SITA.

In Chennai, ABHAI's annual day Chennai workshops by Geeta Chandran and Parshwanath Upadhye are already over subscribed. Nice to see such enthusiasm as the new committee of dancers take charge on May 6. It is during the micro management of organizing that dancers can actually learn attention to detail.

Around India, politician Shashi Tharoor's new book WHY I AM A HINDU continues to make waves in the talk show circuit as he lambasts the current atmosphere of extreme right wing Hindutva while admiring the visionary statements of the Vedantic seers. The book comes at a time of great turmoil in India's social fabric.


Kalairani
In Chennai, Tamil actor KALAIRANI reprised her iconic solo VARUGALAMO inspired by composer Gopalakrishna Bharathi's famous song.


Dr. Maheshwar Neog
In Guwhati, the University will unveil a bronze bust of Dr. Maheshwar Neog, the eminent scholar, and Ratna Sadasya Fellow of SNA, who was a major force in helping to establish Sattriya dance as a classical dance form.


#OBIT FOR INDIA'S WOMEN
I left the dark news for the end. The horrific brutality forced upon an 8 year old Kashmiri girl inside the precincts of a temple has left India shell shocked. For all dancers who approach future compositions on Lord Rama, what thoughts will the words churn up? When Saint Tyagaraja, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Arunachala Kavi, Kamban and others wrote and sang about this MARYADA PURUSHA, could anyone have ever imagined such a sinister twist in the continuing saga of RAGHUVAMSA TILAKAM?

How does one dance with joy and abandon in a society that is unsafe for women?
What do we tell our daughters about the India that my generation still believes in?

When Israel publicly prints Tshirts about India being the RAPE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD and cautions all its citizens from traveling, how do we respond?
Or rather, how can our voted leaders continue to tour the world repeating the chant of INDIA SHINING?

Sita's words ring true through the centuries on the Lankan battlefield on the cusp of her AGNI PARIKSHA.

IN YOUR NAME RAMA, ARMIES OF MEN WILL RISE TO WREAK HAVOC UPON WOMEN
IN YOUR NAME RAMA, CITADELS OF FAITH WILL CRUMBLE
IN YOUR NAME RAMA, THE FIRE I WALK THROUGH WILL SCORCH THROUGH TIME BURNING MY SISTERS AND DAUGHTERS
ALL IN YOUR NAME...

Yet, we continue to believe, to pray, to worship, to create, to share, to dream, to hope, to sing, dance, act, paint, sculpt, learn and teach the arts. For the artiste, the art is a whole universe. For others, art is a solace and a refuge.
But can it continue to be only an escape valve?
Can it heal and deliver a vision of a hopeful future for our citizens?
Can we as art makers continue to be tone deaf to the rotting society around us and most importantly, CAN WE THE CREATIVE WOMEN OF INDIA REMAIN MUTE AND COMPLACENT?

Ironically, thousands of Europeans gathered in Croatia to celebrate and worship at a Vedic ritual of fire and Sanskrit Slokas. Not one of them was born a Hindu and yet they have all turned vegetarian and have embraced the hallmarks of Vedanta. Does it signify that somewhere, somehow, the earth's positive energy cycles are shifting away from India to elsewhere?

I also note the sad and sudden passing of dancer/scholar Anne Marie Gaston in Canada. She was an important voice in dance scholarship and she will be missed.

May sizzles... I turn yet another number as do many celebrated artistes of our time. Some are not with us anymore and others are in the twilight of their career, but I remember them with gratitude and admiration.

Mrinalini Sarabhai, Guru Maya Rao, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Katherine Hepburn, Rabindranath Tagore, Balasaraswati, Audrey Hepburn, C.V. Chandrasekhar, Kumudini Lakhia, Revathi Ramachandran (my birthday twin), Ramli Ibrahim, Maggie Q, Cate Blanchett, Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Mallika Sarabhai.
Not bad company to keep, would you say???????

As the "happiest" month of the year is with us, let us take a moment to consider what it means to be a dancer - an artiste - a creator. Is it enough for today's millennials - to whom we look up to hold the promise of our future together - to regard dance as a path to temporary fame and photo ops? Do today's 20 somethings realize the value of STAYING POWER? What it takes to arrive and remain in the discourse of dance and the live arts through doubt, failure, derision, isolation? From family and loved ones even.
How many can claim 10 years hence to still be in the conversation about dance and dance making? It takes much more than social media and endless emojis to hang in there - to persist, resist and exist.

Stay cool, and may the warmth of your soul's urge and the twitch of your feet help you stay the course!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Coonoor


Comments
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So well written .
- KB (May 1, 2018)










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