October 1, 2019
My mistakes are my life.
- Samuel Beckett
Irish novelist and playwright
How many of us can say this? I saw this quotation printed on a tote bag in a quaint bookstore in Dublin, Ireland. It struck me, that could be the title of my memoir. The many, many mistakes along my journey - each becoming a teaching moment. The missed opportunities, the bungled collaborations, the stubborn ideas that I refused to push aside, the arrogant assumptions and presumptions, the stumbles, lurches and falls. Each embarrassing. Some in plain sight. Others, thankfully, hidden away. All papered over for the mask that is worn for the world that only wants to see what it wishes. Yet, it is through my mistakes that I have come to this moment.
So, can I just change the mood with a good old Texan welcome?
# HOWDY FOLKS!
The Irish cabbie in Dublin greeted me with this welcome as I climbed in last week. Everyone was talking about the REALITY SHOW that was Indian Prime Minister holding hands with the US President in Houston, Texas. Liam, my cab driver, was amused (or horrified, embarrassed or ecstatic depending on who you were speaking to that week) at the recent mega cheerleading event in the USA. How can any live arts event compete with 50,000 cheering, chest thumping "patriots"? No matter how deep your "araimandi" is or how many "chakkars" you spin, or how high you leap - nothing comes close to the #HowdyModi road show at the Energy Stadium.
Dance teachers were hard at work preparing their students for the cultural component. Rathna Kumar, Padmini Chari, Lavanya Rajagopalan, Sunanda Nair were just some of the dedicated gurus rehearsing their acts amidst the overpowering din and clamour of Indian Americans who had poured in from all across the USA. While Mohiniattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi groups were performing on the stage, I watched via YouTube, the impatient audience waving India flags and taking selfies while paying scant attention to the dancing on the centre stage.
Did the dance gurus, teachers and parents realise that this event was going to be hijacked as a Trump election rally? Were they even aware of the pejorative used by the Indian media covering the event? In fact, INDIA TODAY TV had a hashtag #NOTJUSTNAACHGAANA, referring to the event as something much more than song and dance.
As soon as this hashtag appeared, dancers in India were quick to react - pointing out the negative connotations to the hashtag and demanding an apology from the reporter who glibly dismissed the classical dance appearances as mere entertainment fillers. To think that the current generation of English speaking reporters is not trained in sensitivity and social media behaviour. No wonder dance is still regarded as another tool for finishing school rather than a sophisticated and complex dance system that is acclaimed and respected the world over. That apart, what else could the dance gurus, parents and students expect from an event like this! Trump is notoriously the most Anti-Arts President the US has known and India's present regime favours Bollywood above all else!
#EN POINTE FOREVER
Akram Khan's GISELLE
(Photos: Laurent Liotardo)
If SPECTACLE was on the menu then I was completely satiated after seeing Akram Khan's GISELLE at Sadler's Wells main-stage in London. Fortunate to get the last dress rehearsal ticket (courtesy Chitra Sundaram), I was among Khan's groupies who were bristling with excitement in the foyer before the doors opened.
GISELLE is the story of a peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman. Betrayed and desolate, she finally dies of a broken heart. This is a well known ballet in the conventional repertoire across the world. In Khan's reinvention, the scene was replaced as dismissed factory workers standing outside a giant wall, pushing and struggling to stir the conscience of corporate indifference. The wall moved, lifted, became a platform, a scaffolding to climb up and down. This, along sombre lighting and beautiful choreography in the first half was overshadowed by the absolutely breathtaking Act 2.
The story moves to the underworld where Giselle meets the lethal WILIS - female spirits who appear as if out of nowhere, standing on pointe and wielding sticks. They are menacing and force men to dance to their death. It was as if Akram met the dancers of the English National Ballet and asked them, "How long can you stand en pointe?" And the answer was, "As long as you want us to!" And he responded by demanding a full 30 minute section of dancing on their toes while we, the audience, sat at the edge of our seats. The slow accumulation of phrases, the relentless intensity of the sticks in various shapes suggesting capture and torture, the WILIS' intent on seeking revenge for Giselle's betrayal is certainly one of the greatest contemporary scenes of modern ballet.
At the end, the audience was on their feet cheering and exhaling in relief and delight. Seated next to me were middle aged women who had watched this show 3 times and were coming again for opening night! Can we engage our audiences with this kind of loyalty and admiration? Very few dancers have that sort of hold any more. We have brought down our icons with daily social media postings and there is almost nothing left of "adbhuta rasa" when we watch dance in India.
Akram's OUTWITTING THE DEVIL featuring Mythili Prakash is getting rave reviews after the France/ Avignon premiere. It is currently on a 5 month tour of Greece, Cyprus, Russia and other countries.
#QUIET, PLEASE! A DANCER PREPARES
For the first half of September, I was glued to the TV watching the US OPEN Grand Slam tennis. In between sets, I watched Madison Keys, the American star, sit quietly in a meditative moment while someone brought her a towel and the audience around her was talking loudly. She seemed to have tuned out all the cacophony and noise and was focusing on the points that had been played and perhaps planning her strategy for the next game.
I have always hated the back stage noise and disturbance that occurs at each of our performances. Rarely does the dancer get a quiet moment to pray and focus on his/her performance. People are rushing in and out of the green rooms, younger dancers chatter endlessly and take the mandatory group selfies. Food and drinks are everywhere. Relatives and friends pop in and out announcing their presence.
I became very unpopular, starting with my mother who could not fathom why I refused to meet some important VIP or uncle/aunt before the performance. I just wanted to shut out the world for 10 minutes before I set my bare feet on stage. How difficult is it to understand this?
There is more discipline in the theatre world. It is in dance that we lack the fundamental understanding that the artiste needs silence and space to prepare.
Niharika Senapati conducting workshop
One dancer who learned to stand en pointe and gave it all up for a whole new way of moving is Niharika Senapati. I have been writing about her first visit to Chennai to conduct the inaugural edition of the ARANGHAM LEARNING LABS - tools for professional classical dancers. Niharika was all that her bio data said and much more.
Beautiful, generous and an excellent facilitator, this former ballet dancer took the 8 member group of Bharatanatyam artistes, me included, through a 5 day routine that pushed all of us (I was the oldest and the slowest - huffing and puffing!) to relook at movement and the potential of our bodies. Niharika taught us that MOTION IS THE LOTION - it is through the dance and the movement that we can find answers. SURRENDER TO THE POSSIBILITY OF MOVEMENT was another motto she shared. The simple breaking down of bones and ligaments, the understanding of how we use and often misuse our bodies in certain classical routines, anatomical understanding of shapes and space - the 6 hour daily grind got us stronger and fitter ending with a greater appreciation of our bodies and the way we move and express through Bharatanatyam.
I came away with so many possibilities of movement, newer ways of looking at what the body can do naturally and how we can actually nudge it towards a particularly challenging move. Of course the young men in the group were ever ready to throw themselves all over the floor while the women were a little more circumspect. Every bone in my body ached but the mind and spirit soared.
The first edition of ARANGHAM LEARNING LABS has been a real success. The second edition in September 2020 will continue the relationship between Australian dance teachers and classical dancers in India.
# GRATITUDE TO GURU
Earlier this month, my inbox buzzed with an e-mail from the legendary Kumudini Lakhia's KADAMB institution in Ahmedabad. The explosive contents stated that in the 60 year history of KADAMB, no student had ever been expelled until now. The short list of disgraced students led with the name of Sanjukta Sinha whose meteoric rise to fame has had many an eyebrow raised. She, along with several other dancers, was listed as having been banished from the institution for having fostered unrest and divisiveness. Confirmed by Kumi-ben's daughter and son-in-law, the distasteful situation is a lesson to all gurus and dance students. While writing this, some of the dismissed students have returned, tail between their legs! Sanjukta is however, out of KADAMB for good.
Already a star in many dance circles in Europe, Sanjukta did not need to upset her guru who has encouraged all her students to dream and stretch their imaginations. Perhaps she will start her own institution and learn how difficult it is to train dancers from scratch. Hiring trained dancers is easy. Starting from ground zero is tough. Stardust is temporary. Commitment is ever lasting.
#MARRIED TO DANCE and EACH OTHER
While on my recent travels, I chanced upon the award winning mini series FOSSE/VERDON. The story of the enigmatic and doomed American choreographer/dance couple BOB FOSSE and GWEN VERDON.
The signature hat, sliding of the foot (way before Michael Jackson made it world famous), the inverted knee, the jutting hip, the cane and the rolling shoulder were all trademark FOSSE. Remember the staggeringly original and brilliant movie CABARET? It made Liza Minnelli a star and rocketed Bob Fosse to stardom and an Oscar. The opening scene in Hrithik Roshan's DHOOM 2 is straight out of the FOSSE choreography book!
The TV series focuses on the challenges that his wife GWEN VERDON, herself a brilliant dancer and co- creator with FOSSE, faced in their tumultuous marriage. Gwen was never credited for many of the important interventions she made during the filming of CABARET. Her vigilant eye and a knack for knowing what to edit and how to realise her husband's vision was an important asset to BOB FOSSE's creative arc. VERDON was the muse for FOSSE and yet their marriage failed.
How do dance partnerships last in India? Is it always the male dancer who takes the glory? I know at least 3 dancing couples where the wife is the far better artiste and yet they are not allowed to break free of their husbands.
What makes FOSSE/VERDON so watchable is the dark and unpleasant sections of doubt, arguments, the crisis of faith and the lack of trust at times when it seemed as if everything was falling apart. His genius, talent and temperament stood in the way of accepting the accolades and awards that poured in. Filled with self doubt, the story is also a sad reminder about mental health issues that so many artistes face.
Entwined collaborations in art and life are never easy. Do we ever discuss this? Or do we always wear a mask and pretend that Indian dancing partnerships are Perfect. Great. Unbreakable. No mistakes. Never. Ever.
Oh Well! But at least watch FOSSE/VERDON and enjoy the great acting and choreography.
#TA KI TA TOM
Ketu Katrak of the University of California Irvine is preparing for her next book on South African choreographer JAY PATHER.
Dr. Katrak conducted an excellent 3 day symposium titled THE GLOBAL SOUTH, connecting non white cultures and their performing arts traditions at the FORUM FOR CONTEMPORARY THEORY in Baroda.
Professor Hari Krishnan of InDance and Wesleyan University has a new book called CELLULOID CLASSICISM, a commentary on the Tamil cinema and its influence on Bharatanatyam.
Sonal Mansingh performed her NATYA KATHA dramatic rendition of Kasturba Gandhi in Johannesburg.
Ashish Mohan Khokar is hard at work with cataloguing and arranging his father's priceless dance collection which has finally found a home at the INDIRA GANDHI CENTRE FOR THE ARTS in New Delhi. A lifetime of meticulous collecting from someone who can only be called DANCE OBSESSED!
Malavika Sarukkai premieres her new solo work based on the Bhagavad Gita... THE BATTLE WITHIN. Her current US tour of DARSHAN is being received with great acclaim.
Chitra Dasarathy premieres her new ensemble work ROOTS in Bengaluru this month. Her choreography always triggers fresh ideas and impulses within the Bharatanatyam framework.
Dr. Sunil Kothari was conferred the SRI SRI MADHAVDEVA AWARD for his contribution to SATTRIYA dance by the Govt of Assam at Narayanpur, Madhavdeva's birthplace.
Glowering, menacing, prowling - the FESTIVAL OF VILLAINS is happening in Washington DC curated and ideated by dancer Kasi Aysola.
Kathakali artiste Kalamandalam Goutam of Kolkata committed suicide on Sept 7, 2019.
Leela Samson with Daniel's twins
Bharatanatyam and contemporary dancer Daniel Phoenix Singh is the father of twins from a surrogate pregnancy. He has named them after his favourite dancers Leela and Madhavi. Congratulations on the birth of Meher-Un-Nissa Violet Madhavi Singh and Armaan Phoenix Leela Singh! WOW!
The entire music library of the Madras Music Academy is now online for students, researchers and Carnatic music lovers! What a treat!
Madhu Nataraj is curating the dance component for the women's creative festival called UNDER THE RAINTREE in Bengaluru. This event was ideated by writer Sandhya Mendonca.
Kathak artiste Sanjukta Wagh is conducting a two day workshop - organised by dancer Masoom Parmar - titled MOVING BETWEEN THE LINES that encourages actors and dancers to use improvisation, image accumulation and voice to discover ways of using the body in performance.
Shivapriya and Geeta Chandran
The summer season of Arangetrams across the BHARATANATYAM universe came to a vibrant close with a stunning debut by 18 year old SHIVAPRIYA. Guru Geeta Chandran marked her 47th Arangetram in her 28 years of teaching.
Ramaa Bharadvaj (Pic: Navin Ravindran)
Ramaa Bharadvaj regaled the audience with a brilliant comic/satirical rendition of traditional Tamizh folk songs called TARKA PAATU in our Arangham Studio Series.
#MAKE THE WORLD GRETA AGAIN
I could not go anywhere without seeing a 16 year old Swedish high school student with Asperger's syndrome dominate the headlines. Taking on world leaders and leaving them speechless, young Greta Thunberg has made us all sit up and take notice of the alarming deterioration of the planet. She is the DAVID to the GOLIATHS of the world - politicians and the far right who believe that climate change is a big hoax. Greta is the modern day KALI, arriving in a sail boat across the Atlantic to steal the thunder from all the pompous MAHISHASURAS who had assembled in New York City.
In Baroda, I ran smack into a procession of the Ganesh VISARJAN (immersion). The streets were clogged with plastic and paper; crowds were dancing and singing while crackers burst dangerously close to cars and motorbikes. The large idol of Ganesh - normally jovial and friendly looking - glared eerily through blue halogen lights surrounding Him like a halo. Traffic stalled for over an hour and the streets were littered with waste. Hello SWACH BHARAT! What's up?
So dancers! Instead of dancing about flowing rivers and nourishing streams or performing narratives of Siva drinking the ocean's poison and Krishna stamping out the serpent Kalinga's venom, let us stop pretending to care while only on stage. Let us consciously slow down, pause, buy less, waste less.
Let us take a leaf out of Mahatma Gandhi's life, whose birth anniversary is marked this month. He ate raw food (before the word VEGAN was coined), walked over 20000 steps daily (before the APP was invented) and wore KHADI.
In Gandhi's words... THERE IS MORE TO LIFE THAN INCREASING ITS SPEED.
It's the season of the GODDESS. SHE arrives in all HER splendour. Warrior, Healer, Teacher, Companion. SHE banishes darkness in our lives. The veil that separates this world and the next shifts to accommodate our expanding imaginations and spirits.
DIWALI also arrives with its attendant celebrations of consumption and excess. Greta and Niharika in different ways have reminded us that our bodies are the most precious jewel we can posses. Nothing else compares. What we have is unique. We must protect it, and thereby protect our planet and ourselves.
No, I am not breaking out in a love song. I am just sharing what I feel after a week in Ireland, where nature is so generous and everything tasted so clean, fresh and true. My lungs actually went into a shock while inhaling clean oxygen!
The Irish are not very different from the Indians. They too laugh a lot, eat a lot, argue constantly, worry about their families, drink too much, hug and smile easily and love madly. They too have their mythology, a love of mother tongue, Celtic Music and dancing, fairies and superstitions with a colourful and ancient history. Home to literary icons like WB Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Beckett - they too are stubborn and loyal. Opinionated and irritating.
So let's not, as the Irish said, act like "FECKING EEJITS" and wake up to what is possible while we draw breath. Cherish our bodies, nurture ourselves and each other.
As performers we are surrounded by the daily grind of rehearsals, doubt, the anxiety of ageing and the constant looking-over-the-shoulder at someone younger, swifter and better. But we also have the potential to love, live through the many characters and roles that we play and the ability to share our art with generosity and joy.
Let us welcome the Celtic Goddesses AINE, AIRMED and BADB who join hands with DURGA, LAKSHMI and SARASWATI to battle darkness, pettiness, cynicism and negativity. They battle (YUDH) and radiate BUDH (wisdom).
Enjoy DUSSERA and DIWALI...
May this season bring joy to your lives and to your loved ones!
Until next month...
- Dr. Anita R Ratnam
PS: A MILLION SITAS embarks on its 3rd tour of the US with shows in Houston (November 2) and San Jose (November 9)
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Anita, enjoyed your month's message very much. Don't know if it was the inspiration of the Irish air, but I found it concise, fun and poetic.
Just a brief note of dissent. I tried to watch Fosse/Verdun when it was aired but was very disappointed in the series especially as the choreography was not by Fosse. I could not watch most of it because the dance and choreography totally lacked his wit, sarcasm, cheekiness, elegance and restraint. One of my favorites is the Rich Man's Frug, youtube.com/watch?v=mcrZIK3gqbU with the signature Gwen Verdun hand gestures of juggling a soft boiled egg. Do enjoy.
- Uttara Asha Coorlawala (Oct 3, 2019)
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