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October 1, 2012

On the very last day of September, I was still in rehearsal mode... receiving the first copy of Naatya guru VP Dhananjayan’s latest book, delivering a quick speech on the occasion and then rushing home to complete this editorial before the monthly newsletter lands on your desktops on the first of October.

It has been one of the most exhausting, exhilarating and exasperating month for me. Performances, rehearsals, travels, new cities, new music, new audiences and lots of stress triggers. My life coach tells me not to think of my current life as “stress filled” but rather “happy busy.” That is true but, as producer as well as performer of all the dance works, it does mean wearing multiple hats. Well... here goes.

September began with intense rehearsals and a journey to Köln, Germany, where the Museum of World Cultures had mounted a magnificent RAMAYANA festival. My womanist work A MILLION SITAs was featured as one of three evenings of international performance. Budget cuts mandated that I could only travel with two musicians and had to add a percussionist and narrator from Germany. Fortunately, former Madras resident and now living in Köln was master drummer Ramesh Shotham. His presence and familiarity with all Indian rhythms made the rehearsal a real joy. 15 instruments around him and a thrilling metallic Swiss creation shaped like a metal convex bowl threw up the most amazing quilt of sounds. That, and the work ethic of the German people where efficiency and professionalism reigned supreme. The performance was very well received although the original India version was significantly altered to suit the modestly equipped theatre space. Cristian, the lighting designer watched a rehearsal and then set lights that made me alter some of the choreography based on what he felt would be interesting. So diagonals, low levels and restricted squares and circles became the space motifs for each of the female characters.

Back home and directly into the final leg of the India tour of AVANI - a handful of dust. This Tagore inspired work that premiered in Santiniketan last year, toured all the major cities and needed to come home to Madras (I prefer that name any day to the awkward ‘Chennai’). The intimate black box space at Alliance Francaise (the show’s co presenter) was ideal for the set of clothes hanging to dry and the running text of Gurudev’s words. Paring down designer Paromita Bannerjee’s stark and stylish costumes to the three colours of black, white and red helped maintain focus on the movements and choreography design and help coax out the hidden textures of the evocative poetry. What was most gratifying for me personally was the presence of both contemporary and classical dancers in the audience. Seeing them together seated side by side is a rare moment in a city where emotions, stand offs and  polarities are sharper than ever.  After a year of soaking in Rabindra Sangeet and Tagore’s words, I am still discovering the astonishing modernity in the Nobel Laureate’s mind.

AVANI completed and it was directly onto the third show of the month, SWARNA KANNAN -The Golden One. This special tribute to my great aunt Ambujam Krishna was the most demanding. It was a return to Bharatanatyam along with my sister Pritha. And in many ways, it was the most difficult of all. Returning to a style and a form that I have loved and left two decades ago was a difficult choice for me. Dancing those old jathis of my gurus and remembering WHY I was creating and performing songs on ‘Bhakti’ and ‘Vatsalyam’ left me conflicted about my own artistic path. It was like an emotional coming home without the contentment of a stomach satisfied with good old curd rice. Looking pretty is easy, but dancing pretty is not. My body and mind were constantly at war with musicians and missed cues and off pitch singers. In all of Madras, I could not find a single veena player who would come for 6 rehearsals and take notes. Not a single person. Playing for dance today in Tamilnadu means writing down the notes and playing WITHOUT looking at the dancer. Also, for those who perform very often and have dedicated musicians, the understanding is built upon constant practice. In my case, recorded scores having become my norm, the changeable and uneven quality from one day to the next is most exasperating.

Still, SWARNA KANNAN was a triumph of set design and magnificence. The ever brilliant REX had conjured magic once again. Victor Paulraj and the team worked all night to transform the large space into a magical frame of flickering fireflies, swaying lotuses and golden ponds.  It was a magnificent treat for the house full audience assembled to pay tribute to Ambujam Krishna-a beloved poet whose songs have become so popular with classical singers and dancers. Backstage after the show, there were large crowds  milling around Pritha and myself as well as trying to examine the set design like the specially made lotus flowers that cradled the space.

At all three performances - A MILLON SITAs, AVANI and SWARNA KANNAN, there were a variety of photographers and videographers clicking and recording the shows. The challenge is to chase them AFTER the show for the actual footage and shots. I don’t know how most dancers handle them but I am finding that these “image captors” have sudden bouts of amnesia. Before shows they hound you to have an opportunity to photograph you and once the show is over, they dive underwater like submarines. God help you if the images are urgently required for some PR or visibility deadline. I am still chasing one recalcitrant photographer who has disconnected his cell phone. Now what would he do with my rehearsal images from AVANI? Morph them into Rakhi Sawant? Or Lady Gaga? Don’t know. Don’t care.

In between all this dance chaos, I was busy ideating the opening montage performance for the international CRAFTS COUNCIL EXPO in Madras. With the theme THE FUTURE IS HANDMADE, the inaugural segment will be a short showcase of fingers on drums and a dancer’s feet and hands in  sharp streams of light. Realising this idea will be Veenapani Chawla’s magnificent actor/drummers and young emerging star Bharatanatyam dancer Sudarma Vaidyanathan.

And while you read this, I will be plunged into rehearsals for another show. This time as a stage actor. The play is about child trafficking in India –LONG WAY HOME and will open this week in two theatres in the city. Yes. I am crazy. Overcommitted and with a mind filled with junk. I need to decompress, unpack the mind and rest the body. But I am already prepping for my visits to London and Amsterdam where university audiences and dance contests wait to be performed to and judged.  I am chanting a mantra to myself..  ‘HAPPY BUSY”. “HAPPY BUSY”.

Perhaps my week in New York visiting my son on his 24th birthday will be the de-stresser for me.

Meanwhile, I have more shows to perform. More lines to learn. More energy to expend and more mountains to climb. A conference to convene and manage.  EPIC WOMEN is developing into an exciting three day event. Details are being posted on the site from this month. So plan on stopping by and seeing us if you are in Madras Dec 20 to 23. EPIC WOMEN in dance, myth and life promises to be even more exciting than last year’s MAD AND DIVINE WOMEN.

Akram Khan swept Indian audiences off their feet with his performance of GNOSIS and equal star was his business manager and friend Farookh Chowdhry, whose talks about management and sustaining a brand/company like Akram were very well attended. Now Daksha Sheth brings her silken magnificence to Madras with the SARI in tribute to India’s magical 6 yards of unstitched history.

Enjoy the festival season that has begun. Navaratri and Dussera.. What a wonderful time to be in India. Food, colour, festivities and celebration.  Keep dance central in your lives. And celebrate with family and friends.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Madras/London/Amsterdam/New York