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September 1, 2012

Why is it that as we grow older, time seems to race ahead? Already a whole month has gone by in breathless haste and I am at the computer banging out this note before I head to the airport for another long trip and a performance. A month ago, on the first day of August, I returned to Chennai and dived straight into the POLLINATOR/Bee Festival ideated by arts curator Rajeev Sethi of Festival of India fame. Three days of playing the Sutradhar with jet lagged brain, body and tongue amidst a canvas of beekeepers, dancers, artistes, social activists, educationists, musicians, scientists and filmmakers was an exhilarating way of returning home. While Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai interpreted nature and the appeal of bees through Bharatanatyam, it was the performances of Sonal Mansingh, Veenapani Chawla’s ‘mizhavu’ drummers and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s poetry that were the highlight of the event. Sonal dazzled with her knowledge, subtle artistry and acting skills. For many in the audience, her performance was a revelation. 

It was the buzz of the bees that sustained me through a "jaw dropping" extravaganza by cine fame Shobana. Declaring that her new dance spectacle KRISHNA was the result of research, she blithely showcased all the female protagonists of this timeless story as lustful sluts. Seated in ROW ONE and assaulted with the OTT music and choreography, I marvelled at her well trained and hard working dancers situated in a very smug production. However, Shobana’s understanding of the camera was so evident since what we saw on stage seemed very different from what the television cameras picked up for broadcast for the back rows. Tickets for this show were priced at Rupees 3000 and were sold out days in advance. Ironically, this was a fundraising effort for Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, started five decades ago by the friendship of late arts patron R Yagnaraman and Carnatic musician Maharajapuram  Santhanam- both purists of the classical form.

A wonderful new talent has emerged onto the Bharatanatyam scene. Well, she is not new or young but Savita Sastry is returning to dance from a long hiatus and she was simply marvellous in SOUL CAGES, a thematic work about death. The childish script and awkward treatment to this work did not detract from the clear brilliance of Savita’s dancing. If she performed traditional Bharatanatyam, she will be a force to reckon with in the very near future. With all the right lines, superb technique and the right theatrical intensity, here’s wishing her all the best.

The first contemporary dance awards were held in Chennai last month and it was with wistful memories that I returned to the historic Museum Theatre, the site of the nine year long THE OTHER FESTIVAL of contemporary arts. The place was dull and silent – a far cry from the bustle of the past. The two day dance event was also relatively disappointing with a wildly uneven showcase of entries. Most of the dancers seemed to have forgotten that India became independent 65 years ago. Quoting poets from France and Germany and even Bob Marley, the dancing was mostly substandard with Shobana Jeyasingh being the general yardstick for most Bharatanatyam abstractions – though done poorly. Preethi Athreya impressed with her short French piano collaboration though Padmini Chettur, easily India’s most well known contemporary dance export, was unable to communicate with an excerpt of her new work against white cloth representing a white wall. Why she chose to participate was a puzzle. Perhaps she was requested though the mentoring opportunity with Akram Khan could not have been the draw.

The first day was so tiresome, that I actually dozed off in the midst of the performances. Derivative work, poor choreography and sloppy costumes seemed to be the universal code. As New York Times writer Alistair Macaulay said sarcastically of an activist US based Indian dancer, “it was like watching paint dry.” The tedium was so intense that even two jury members were actually seen taking a break in the corridor. Many in the audience were missing the spirit of Chandralekha in the midst of this dismal scenario. Kudos, however, to curator and arts patron Ranvir Shah, for kick-starting this initiative. The prize of 5 lakhs for the winning performance and a certain national tour is a great start for those invested in contemporary movement.

The best performance of the nine group showcase ended up winning the competition. Without single sheet of information, we were unable to get any details except that the choreographer of the winning work was Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy. Trained at Attakkalari, the two male dancers wearing business suits and shoes strutted onto the stage with panache and did a lovely short piece to walk away with the prize. And I would like to wind up this section by asking a question of all these young contemporary dancers. “Why are you so ashamed of being Indian? What is this fascination with spouting words and imitating moves from what the West has already discarded? Why do you want to be bad imitations of the white dance world? Is there not a single image or quote or note or move from your own tradition that you cannot take, abstract and reformat intelligently? Stop stealing from YOU TUBE! And what’s with these stony faces? And Black... Phuleese. If you must wear biker shorts please spare us your cellulite behinds!”

In contrast comes good news from Delhi where Geeta Chandran’s new solo on GANDHI has caught the imagination of many. A stark, meditative and slow work, it has now been booked in several venues and one hopes to get a chance to see this mature presentation soon in South India. Meanwhile, enjoy the lovely images with costumes designed by my long time friend and collaborator Sandhya Raman.

Aditi Mangaldas has completed her mainstage shows at the Edinburgh Festival and now, with an international agent, she is on her toes, literally, all year around. Well, how does one get to the international level in dance? An agent is crucial as Nrityagram has known for so long and as impressario Sanjoy Roy of New Delhi seems to reinforce when he speaks to dancers. 

Excellence in presentation is something that cannot come overnight and how does one get experience if you do not travel and learn? Well, we are at a Catch 22 situation where India has excellent performers but no way of polishing work and getting it “out there” for a viewing. At an informal round table talk with a clutch of important cultural workers from around the country, there was a universal agreement that the government cares little for culture since it is not a vote bank or a way of adding to personal coffers. So, personal interventions seem to be the only way that India can continue to create, perform and spread the word about the dynamism in her arts. And perhaps a revisit to the writings of Abhinavagupta about ‘rasa’ and aesthetics could help the younger generation of dancers understand the dynamism of a tradition that is so impressive and inspirational.

It was a heart warming sight to see Bharatanatyam dancer Uma Namboodiripad return to the stage months after a shattering personal tragedy. I have always marvelled at how dance has pulled so many women out of the dumps and revived their minds and souls. Uma is one of Chitra Visweswaran’s prize students and she embodies the best of her guru with an added musicality all her own. Good luck to a talented young woman, who dances, sings and also conducts shows with excellent nattuvangam skills. A rare triple treat in today’s world where even the devi-divas cannot hold a single note!

Iconic Akram Khan is in India mesmerising Indian audiences with GNOSIS (inspired by Gandhari of the Mahabharata) but also attracting critics in small quarters. A brilliant dancer, his career is an example of how management, funding and a long term vision can actually make a superstar in the world of contemporary dance as economies collapse like nine pins. Whiz manager Farookh Choudhry speaks on the ‘Making of Akram Khan’ the international brand. I remember meeting with Farookh in 1997 at the South Bank café in London and making my first request for Akram to visit India for the one year old THE OTHER FESTIVAL. Farookh carefully explained his ten year strategy for this brilliant dancer and now BRAND AKRAM KHAN is international. It was only in 2000 that I watched Akram and Mavin Khoo perform NO MALE EGOS in Birmingham to a rapturous crowd. Look at the different trajectories of these two lovely performers!

The stalemate at Kalakshetra continues. What will happen next is anyone’s guess. Stay tuned. Leela Samson is back from her long international tour and we wait and watch.

And I close with a note of hope. All of August was spent rehearsing and creating three new shows. A MILLION SITAs, revamped and reconceived for a special festival in KÖLN, Germany. AVANI - the TAGORE work restaged in Chennai at the end of the national tour and a brand new tribute to my great aunt, the late Ambujam Krishna called SWARNA KANNAN – The Golden One. From dawn to dusk it was rehearsals and sweat 24/7. Never have I felt so tired and exhilarated at once. Unable to sleep and do anything else, this overdose of dance has made me realise how fortunate we are who are able to express and pour our energies into something that is so healthy and fulfilling to mind, body and spirit. It is when we actually think about the results and payback that we get depressed. But as my father put it so succinctly, “In business, one talks about ROI – return on investment. In the arts, you must think about ROI differently – Return on INFLUENCE.”

And so it goes. Into the Fall season where the weather turns crisp and the leaves turn golden. The annual December conference and festival EPIC WOMEN is getting more and more exciting. Watch the announcements and premieres of this wonderful event scheduled in Chennai, December 20 to 23. Performers, shows, talks and other events will be announced through this month and in the coming weeks on the website and also on social media. Stay tuned.

Enjoy the seasons and the coming festivals. And dance… it will sustain you, save you from yourself and keep you sane.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Köln