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September 1, 2013

“An artiste's life and art have no reasons. Everything just happens. Artistes are as real as you or me but there is nothing real about them. They are dreamers, borrowing and distributing dreams throughout their life.”
From THE DANCE COMPANY, a novella by Sapna Rangaswamy

A month of watching works in progress in dance, theatre and painting has been most fulfilling. Besides caring for a sick son through the first two weeks of August and feeling the emptiness in my grandmother’s room, this past month has yielded its bouquet of roses and thorns through artistic practice. Of course, the never ending media barrage threatens to drown me in superficial titter and glib drivel. Talk shows, comments for columns, online interviews and photo shoots with dimly informed writers of glossies who pretend that South India is one large monolithic block where all we do is eat idlis, drink degree kaapi, wear jasmine in our hair and walk around piously wearing Kanjeevaram saris! I found myself frequently scrambling to a safe room just to emit a “Munch-like” scream!

So I begin with the episode of an interesting tussle between an international fashion monthly and myself. Designing a ‘CHENNAI SPECIAL EDITION,’ the copy, photo and features editors had jointly pre-selected the appropriate candidates who would FIT into their idea of Chennai.  So I am requested to get all dressed up in a Bharatanatyam costume for the segment on DANCE. I refuse. They balk. They are not used to being refused. I say I have worked too long to create my own image, style and aesthetic arc to fit into the traditional costume look. They don't understand what I am saying. I recommend Malavika Sarukkai for their classical photo. They choose someone else. Then they return to say I can appear in a personal style statement and I smile. “Chennai is incomplete without you.” they say. I remain calm.  I choose a turquoise blue kimono and dusty rose costume created from specially woven silk dupattas and display my favourite jewellery inherited from my mother and grandmother. And so, after seven days of phone calls, with the interview conducted by a New York reporter, the image is taken. One single image and seven days of back and forthing.  My Madras turned Chennai, continually dumbed down with silly and obnoxious films like ‘Chennai Express’ only continues to reinforce the simplistic stereotypes about my city and South India. Like the billboard for an international pizza chain that has a Bharatanatyam dancer before a plate of pasta with her hands in ‘aroma heaven’ mudra (katakamukha) and eyes closed in pretend ecstasy! PHULEEESE...excuse me while I barf!

Media continue to hammer some of us for endless quotes... MADRAS DAY, INDEPENDENCE DAY, THIS DAY, THAT DAY, ANYDAY, EVERYDAY. And we need to play this game due to the necessary nuisance of self marketing. Choosing your medium is the important thing. Look at social media and Facebook. It is through Facebook that I sent out the message about wanting to audition dancers for my new group work in 2014. I received many submissions - mainly from Bangalore (sorry Bengaluru, you just don’t have the right ring tone!). I did not send emails or take an ad or send a press release. One placement on FB and the message was sent out. Dancers responded and the audition was conducted and the selection process is underway. Similarly, it was through Facebook that many of us heard about the phenomenal success of Rama Vaidyanathan’s performances in New York with an unprecedented THREE reviews for her performances in the New York Times. What a great moment for Bharatanatyam and bravo Rajika Puri and Sridhar Shanmugam for your efforts. AND Rama for your wonderful dancing. All this good news was disseminated through social media. So to all my “serious” friends who are advising me to get off FB, I am enjoying my presence on this medium and find that news travels fast and that young dancers are using this more than ever to connect and update themselves of information from around the dance world.

While New York seems caught in the media grip of Indian dance, we all wait for Hari Krishnan or Shantala to win the prestigious Bessie awards. There has been so much coverage of the various performances and festivals that my American friends are now complaining that “Indian dance has taken over the dance section of the New York Times!” I say, “It's about time!”

Speaking of awards means that it is time for me to share two honours that are coming my way from Odisha and Chennai.  The GURU DEBA PRASAD AWARD from Tridhara. This is the first time the award is being given to a contemporary dancer and I am delighted to have been chosen. As I was writing this column, I received news about another honour. This time it is the VISWA KALA BHARATI - an annual citation for furthering the international profile of Indian dance from Bharat Kalachar Sabha, Chennai. Previous recipients have been Padma Subrahmanyam, Sonal Mansingh and Kamal Hassan. Both these moments are truly wonderful and will stimulate my continuing journey without compromise. Thank you all for the continuing support.

This September, FRIDA KAHLO stares back at me from the EPIC WOMEN calendar. Her indomitable courage was the fillip for Kalpana Raghuraman’s THE SPIRIT OF FRIDA that had a successful India tour of three cities.  Kalpana's FLOOR ALARIPPU is the smartest and wittiest pieces of choreography inspired by classical dance I have seen in recent times. In Auroville, I connected with choreographer-writer friend Anu Majumdar, a marvellous dance artiste and a pioneer in her own right. More about her and some of her early choreography initiatives in the coming weeks.  Continuing my curating responsibilities for PURUSH, the international festival coming up in December, I was in Auroville watching two solos created in ADISHAKTI, the creative crucible founded by director Veenapani Chawla. TENTH HEAD by Vinay Kumar, suffused with humour and tenderness, examines the last of Ravana's heads as a misfit - out of balance and swinging away from the majority opinion of the other nine heads of this epic narrative. Vinay Kumar is a wonderfully expressive actor and the many layers of animation and internalised acting that this piece contains will make for a compelling opening for the December PURUSH festival.  Also being prepared for PURUSH is Nimmi Raphel’s NIDRAVATHWAM (on Kumbhakarna). This marvellous physical theatre performance examines the dual tension between Ram's brother Lakshmana staying awake and Ravana’s sibling in a state of constant sleep. Nimmi is an amazing actor and mover and someone I have watched emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon. Shy and soft spoken when she first married, this Mohinattam dancer moved to ADISHAKTI and has since become a force of nature. Her emergence is among the most exciting news for Indian theatre in recent times.  Watching both pieces in rehearsal and discussing them with the creator/performers is a rare privilege. It has taken them two years to ideate, write the script and create the structure of the piece. Such a timeline for dance productions is unrealistic. But then that is why ADISHAKTI remains as a unique example of what is possible when rigour and discipline are forged into a stubbornly creative oasis of creative expression.

The plummeting Indian rupee found many sunk in deep gloom with the aftershocks being felt at the prestigious EUROPALIA’s 24th biennial in Belgium. A four month extravaganza from October to December, one country’s heritage is the focus of this event that has the patronage of the Belgian royal family. An abbreviation of the words EUROPE and OPALIA - an ancient Roman harvest festival held in mid December to honour OPS, the earth goddess of fertility - the three month extravaganza selected INDIA as the focus country.  Caught on the back foot with rising costs, the Indian government has had the embarrassment of many cancelled shows, dance performances, art exhibitions, music concerts and writer appearances citing lack of resources. A certain loss of face for our culture czars and czarinas in Dilli. Opening the festival in Brussels is  Leela Samson’s ensemble choreography CHARISHNU showcasing several classical styles of classical dance. Contemporary dance is represented by Attakkalari’s beautiful MEI DHWANI. In fact, Attakkalari has made huge strides in their visibility and international touring calendar over the past two years. Their new production AADHAARA CHAKRA was performed at a quaint warehouse on the outskirts of Chennai a few days ago and the crowd was large, proving that contemporary dance has a growing audience in this city that saw India’s first annual international contemporary  festival launched in 1997 - THE OTHER FESTIVAL.  We really ARE more than silks, flowers and temples!

Dance tours to raise money for social causes are on the rise. However, what KIND of shows are  marketable? Rukmini Vijayakumar and her Bangalore based dance company are ready with a new high glamour quotient production called PRABHAVATI. The USA tour is to raise funds for Swami Dayanand Saraswati's AIM FOR SEVA - a social organisation focused on improving the lives of the less fortunate in South India. Rukmini’s dance is full of agility, grace, gymnastic aplomb and personal accents. I have seen her classical (??) Bharatanatyam as well as her contemporary dance and this young woman is the current darling of the fashion world. Her versatility could also be a double edged sword if she does not find a channel to focus her volatile energy. As of now, she stands as a visible statement that if tickets have to be sold and funds collected there MUST be a high entertainment and glamour quotient in live performances today. Tickets for Shobana’s KRISHNA - a truly OTT group work with ear splitting and eye blinding flamboyance - sold out days before the show and so too for rock star Aruna Sairam’s performance on Krishna songs for Janmashtami. Forget subtlety and nuance. Just sock it to them! That’s the only way! What this You Tube clip will demonstrate is how far the definition of classical Bharatanatyam has shifted. Watch the contours and the semi classical movements, the many strands of kinetic inspiration - all under the description of “classical dance theatre.” Bharatanatyam has never been at a more confusing moment than right now.

Talk of selling tickets for a classical performance in India and you will be met with stony stares as if to say, “You expect me to PAY for a performance?” The New Delhi bureaucratic freebie culture has seeped all across India to include free entry for almost all dance shows that it seems almost impossible to reverse the tide. Boldly striding into a “no-dance zone” is Aditi Mangaldas with her new international production called WITHIN. Over the past years, this excellent Kathak-trained dancer has titled her productions with English words - TIMELESS, FOOTSTEPS ON WATER, IMMERSED which, perhaps she feels, are more international sounding and accessible for touring. With an agent in her bag to help increase her visibility in Europe, Aditi has booked Delhi’s Kamani auditorium for SEVEN DAYS - four for tech rehearsals and three for the shows. AND she is ticketing the three nights of WITHIN. Tech, lights, costume, stage are all being prepped by her international crew (almost all are from the Akram Khan stable) and rehearsed thoroughly on stage - a luxury most Indian dancers never have. Can it be done with Indian conditions when a totally international crew used to working for more than 10 days in the actual theatre INSIST on Aditi giving them the same conditions? Don’t we dancers manage marvellously with a maximum of a single day in advance or even an evening or an all night tech and spacing rehearsal in Indian conditions? Aditi is working towards moving to the next level of international mainstage bookings much like Akram Khan and Shobana Jeyasingh companies. Good luck with the heartburn and the heartache of what she has attempted. WITHIN has stunning images with costumes imagined by Aditi and Japanese costumer Kimie Nakano. Aditi MUST succeed if only to send a message that it IS possible to create an evening of excellent dancing with visual, kinetic and aural magic to make people willing to PAY for the experience. However, after WITHIN, Aditi may only intensify the growing opinion that her profile is clearer in the area of the neo-classical and contemporary dance rather than classical Kathak. Readers may recall that she was unhappy with her selection for a national award in the contemporary dance category. The more important criteria should be quality. And Aditi is an excellent dancer.  Full stop. Whatever she has created over the past 25 years has been exemplary and WITHIN is a much awaited evening of great dancing from a marvellous artiste.

Two days after her ambitious premiere, Aditi zips off to Washington DC for the Kennedy Centre India Festival called UTSAV 2013. Also appearing in the three day classical dance event are Nrityagram and Mythili Prakash - three wonderful evenings of programming for the East Coast audiences.  

Which brings me to the topic of the many strands of effort that culminate in the final product. On Indian television, reporters are crediting the camerapersons with whom they gather and file stories. On stage, the costume designer needs the talent and efforts of the tailor or the fabrication expert to make the design come alive. That is why REX, my visual design and costume collaborator, INSISTS on giving credit to the fabricators - Alex, Shanti Tailors and designer Prabha Narasimhan. Translating a design idea or a sketch into reality on the moving, breathing, dancing body requires a special set of skills and for Aditi’s burnt sienna costume, Sandhya Raman, my long time collaborator, has been brought in to bring alive Nakano’s costume ideas onto the stage. Likewise, acknowledging dancers who together or individually contribute towards the creation of a final product is now being recognised with “additional choreography” credits in the programme notes. I began this practice in 1997 with DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN. As a producer and presenter, I know so well that one person is not an island and dance demands so many strands of cooperation. Gone are the days of fond parents and siblings hovering around. The world of professional dance mandates a professional approach.

I cannot forget to mention the tireless work done by Ashish Mohan Khokar with his 15th annual edition of ATTENDANCE. An iconoclast and a soloist by nature, Ashish or AMK as I refer to him, has achieved remarkable progress through his monthly DANCE DISCOURSE gatherings in Bangalore, the DANCE HISTORY series where he taps into his father Mohan Khokar’s remarkable treasure trove of dance memorabilia and the annual WORLD DANCE DAY where the Alliance Francaise, Bangalore, comes alive from dawn to dusk with over 500 dancers present. With his travels to academic centres in Europe, Scandinavia and USA, AMK’s voice is resonating in the corridors of dance history. None of this work begs for state funding and all of the efforts are clearly from a source that is fixated and obsessed about DANCE and its multiple possibilities. Gathering praise and barbs along his singular journey, he marches on. Congratulations, AMK, and keep the faith!

Guru Maya Rao’s splendid biography with rare photographs is ready for release and the initial images are simply breathtaking. We wait for the official announcement when dance lovers and historians can read about this remarkable 84 year old and her pioneering journey from New Delhi to Bangalore and her many achievements. Far from being a hagiography, this is a first person account with candour and a charming self deprecating honesty about the world of Kathak and its many avatars as she saw it. Also readying for release is a new DVD from Malavika Sarukkai that discusses her dance philosophy, excerpts of some shows, rehearsals, and the journey of Bharatanatyam from temple to court to stage.

A charming novella on the world of classical dance and its many avatars comes to us from writer Sapna Rangaswamy. Inspired by the character of Kuchipudi guru Vempati Chinna Satyam, this work of fiction traces the rise of charismatic dancer Mrityunjai, whose star rises and falls in this simply told and deeply felt story.  Sapna questions the trappings of stardom, the sacrifices of a dancer's personal life and the many rocks against which artistic lives are shattered. You will recognise many well known names in the book as dancers we all know. The slim volume tells a compelling story of performance as a magnet and the many pitfalls of fame, adulation and the ultimate treachery of success. A must read for all dancers and rasikas. 

Why do young male dancers put their foot in their mouths? Is it because they are in such great demand for overseas travel that they really don't care much for what seniors or colleagues actually think? One giant mis-step was made by Charles Ma, whose unfortunate and immature  statements about Bangalore gurus and dancers found its way into Tulsi Badrinath’s book on Guru V P Dhananjayan.  Overnight, he was gheraoed at his house by irate dancers and his Facebook page shut down immediately after a public apology was issued. At least dancers did not take this issue lying down like a carpet that India has become. A national carpet for all to walk over and trample.  And especially the world of performing arts. Dissing, hissing, spitting, spewing - all feline misdemeanours are the noises of the day where unity is absent and cultural policies are adrift. The Charles Ma controversy is covered in our R & T section with many comments already filling that space. 

As a rule I stay away, rather, run away from chief guesting at arangetrams. They are boring, too long and far too mediocre with fond parents and NRI relatives hanging on and waiting for my speech which, I have to admit, is replete with lies. How can I get up on stage and praise a below par dancer? I did it more than once and took an oath 15 years ago NEVER to accept any arangetram invitation. I broke protocol and was present in New Delhi last week for good friend and textile designer Sandhya Raman’s daughter Arundhati’s debut. I saw her as a new born and introduced her to Geeta Chandran when she was ready to take her first dance steps. I walked into the Chinmaya auditorium which was a vision of taste and elegance. White and orange flowers contrasted with the matte black curtain and the wooden images of Nataraja on stage. Arundhati  benefited from a lovely figure and gorgeous costumes designed by her mother to look like a breath of fresh air. The musicians led by guru Geeta Chandran, were in one word - SUPERB. Banishing the Sabdam from the evening’s repertoire, Arundhathi danced beautifully and the entire evening was a poem to style and taste. Oh, how I wish Chennai could learn from this! How garish and loud these events are in this city! How crass the selection process has become in the sabhas! And how careless many are about quality and standards!

On Michael Jackson's birth anniversary, the TV channels were full of his amazing dance videos. What a phenomenal genius whose every pore and nerve tissue reverberated with rhythm!  MJ invented his now iconic and much copied POPPING style of movement as well as his MOONWALK which was first performed publicly at the 25th anniversary celebrations of MOTOWN in 1983. But, the Tamil Tanjavur clay doll can surely be called the original isolation popping dancer. Anyone who has seen the image with neck, torso and leg moving separately will know what I am talking about!

Speaking of images, I am always tremendously moved by my frequent visits to the MANGADU AMMAN temple outside Chennai. This small shrine, very popular with local women, has grown in size and reputation as have other Goddess centres around India. My mother used to walk the 15 kms from home to the shrine every month for years when the city was safer and less crowded. My 5am visits are always energised by the vision of the ‘Tapas Kamakshi’ who stands next to the main deity. SHE is balanced on one foot which is immersed in fire, HER two hands - one above her head and one at the heart centre held in ‘katakamukha’ pulls an invisible meridian centre through the core, eyes closed. To me, SHE symbolises the journey of a dancer, the trials by fire and the steadfast resolve we all need to have in order to continue in our paths no matter what is thrown our way.

August ended with two days of intense discussions and performances about contemporary dance, its current position in India and its somewhat tenuous future. A more detailed report and responses from some of the participants and observers will be featured on the site in the coming weeks. In short, there is much work to do with supporting new work, sharing spaces and resources and creating a "GRID" ( in the words of Jayachandran) to invite, view and share contemporary dance in India.

And so after an entire month of staying put, I start my travels again. Cooler climes and newer cities call me. I will continue to watch, record and recount my experiences to all of you over the next months. Meanwhile, the artistes for PURUSH is finalised and the schedule is out for all of you to read. Between three venues and a variety of styles, we will endeavour to showcase the most exciting talent spread over five days.
  
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Brussels/Delhi/Colombo/Bangalore

Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in  
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