September 1, 2017
"We are our choices.
Build yourself a great story."
- Jeff Bezos, Founder of AMAZON
"I am the me I choose to be."
- Actor Sidney Poitier
#OF INDEPENDENCE AND MADRAS
The month of August brought 31days of nonstop activity for my home town. Officially founded 379 years ago, the MADRAS WEEK celebrations have expanded to fill the entire month! Alongside India's 70th Independence Day celebrations, August turned out to be overflowing with social and cultural activity. Raconteurs took visitors to famous homes of classical and film musicians and dance tours to well known homes were also arranged. Tales of how Tamil cinema was pivotal for the nurturing of many well known gurus and choreographers like Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Muthuswamy Pillai and Udupi Lakshminarayan were recounted. Choreography for the film camera and dancing stars were among the popular lectures organized. Madras as the birth city of two famous pop musicians, Engelbert Humperdinck and Peter Best (the first drummer for the Beatles) was remembered. My dance company was invited to perform at a popular mall and we created a template of group pieces that would be high on visual appeal and dynamic kinetics. Quite a shift from my quiet and silent solos.
August also happened to find me in cinema theatres on two occasions. Both times we were asked to stand for the national anthem that was played before the main feature commenced. I stood and sang along with many others in the dark. One woman who was still texting was reprimanded by a man who had stood up and she hurriedly switched off her phone to stand up and join us. No fuss. No grumbling. Strangers in a darkened auditorium united in the hope of a better India.
Around the world, dancers and musicians highlighted India's "soft power" with several standing ovation performances. All the five continents rang with the sound of bells and stringed instruments as our artistes proved to be, sometimes, better ambassadors than the politically appointed foreign service authorities. If only the ICCR could plan more in advance for large festivals that require special skills to include the giant venues and stages. Mexico's CERVANTINO FESTIVAL is a case in point. Hosts to the acclaimed CLOUD GATE and SANKAI JUKU, India needs to send groups of 20 plus dancers to such stages and not compromise with small groups of 6 and 8!
Chennai always hosts an interesting clutch of classical dance based thematic shows in August. This year, NATYARANGAM, the commissioning wing of Narada Gana Sabha, suggested a patriotic theme. Of heroes and martyrs whose sacrifices helped India gain her independence. I only got the opportunity to witness the opening day where, sandwiched between Padma Subrahmanyam and Lakshmi Viswanathan, I was questioned every five minutes during the opening showcase titled GANDHI. Choreographed by Satyajit Dhananjayan, this dancer turned photographer, is returning to hone his unique visual eye on dancers trained by his legendary parents.
GANDHI was a bold attempt at repetition, reiteration and layered metaphor that did not finally succeed in its execution. Interesting use of the MALLARI and ALARIPPU (vocalised by the dancers and Shanta Dhananjayan) the narrative attempted abstraction without a foundational image. Having attended a rehearsal and watching the performance gave me a slightly better understanding into Satyajit's psyche but the polite audience were lost after the first 5 minutes.
I became the GO TO person to EXPLAIN what he was attempting to convey. "Nee daan contemporary dance-la award vaangirke. Sollu yenna daan panneraa?" (You have the award in contemporary dance; tell me what are they doing?)
Another senior guru declared after the muted applause, "This is like a Chandraleka show. Nothing is understood!"
In my view, Satyajit is a wonderful addition to the world of dance. His ideas and adventurous horizons will be like a jolt of fresh air to often smug and staid "agraharam" of classicism. To watch Keertana Ravi, one of the dancers in the PADME PROJECT that I have mentored for the past 4 years mature to this level has been gratifying. So what if the initial avatar of GANDHI did not cohere for the audience? It will find its voice in subsequent shows. Of that I am sure.
However, the festival had one runaway show stopping success and that was Vaibhav Arekar's SHIVAJI. Flag waving cries of HAR HAR MAHADEV got the audience cheering with many confessing that they felt goosebumps during the performance!
Vaibhav's solo performance the following week at SPACES was also highly acclaimed and this mature Mumbaikar has firmly etched his presence on the Chennai cultural scene. I look forward to closer interactions with his singular mind and interesting observations on dance and choreography.
# OF STATUES AND COLONIAL RULERS
The recent fracas after the shocking Neo Nazi/White Supremacist skirmishes in Charlottesville, USA brought back incidents and memories of our own relationship to the Colonial rulers who ravaged and ruled our lands for centuries. Lying forgotten and gathering dust beneath a staircase in the Fort Museum in Chennai is the statue of Britisher Lord Cornwallis who defeated Tipu Sultan. Prince of Wales stares into the distance in Mumbai on the grounds of the newly renamed Chatrapathi Shivaji Museum while crows and birds perch on his hat and do their "business". Queen Victoria as her dumpy un-pretty self sits in Kolkata's memorial of the same name but Bengalis stuff their faces with samosas and chaat without giving her a second glance. The only time the Empress's name is recalled is when tourists ask for the VICTORIA horse carriage - a now dirty and unkempt buddy ride around the memorial!
While South Africa is dismantling all visible visuals of cruel rulers, and Americans are divided about their own "glorious" or "inglorious" history of oppression and slavery, Indians go about their lives like nothing ever happened. What is worse? Acknowledgment that our minds have been forever colonized or that we have a way of INDIANIZING everything? Many new buildings in the country are named 10 DOWNING STREET, BUCKINGHAM RESIDENCES, TOTTENHAM COURT, SURREY ESTATES, while new bistros are called ENGLISH TEA ROOM. Oh yes... we are Indians... like this only!
And yes... we are PURE, AUTHENTIC, ANCIENT and SACRED!
The spirit of the common man was best showcased for passengers in their fancy cars being stranded en route to Mumbai airport. Floating for over 4 hours in the downpour, they received hot tea and biscuits from the slum dwellers of DHARAVI - Asia's largest slum! Now how is that for the beating heart of MAXIMUM CITY!!!!!
The recent calamity is also about how the privilege of location and media exposure works. Assam has been ravaged with horrendous floods but is anyone shouting or commenting? What about the displaced artistes and creative people there? Pat will come the answer, "It is the North East after all. Are they really a part of India!!!!!!!???????"
Still, the national culture resources are being focused on the North East. Organisers are being encouraged to invite artistes from Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam and Nagaland for their festivals of dance and music. All expenses are being borne by the national culture fund as the spotlight seems to be focused on those 7 sister states. One spectacular contemporary dancer is Shilpika Bordoloi who opened the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with her stunning solo. She is certainly a dancer to watch.
Mythili Prakash ; Photo: Ramanathan N Iyer
What a gorgeous performer Mythili Prakash is! Her JWALA was showcased in Chennai as part of ARTery's weekend of Bharatanatyam. The venue was SPACES, the city's newest "sabha". Instead of charging a modest entrance fee, the overflowing crowds, many with crying babies, made for very uncomfortable viewing.
Nevertheless, Mythili simply "glowed" in her first 30 minutes where she used her imagination to show the sun, a funeral pyre, a flickering lamp and the shooting rays of light to perfection. Sharp lines, clean movements, matured with time and intense rehearsals, made for several memorable images. The moment that came through most clearly for me was the percussive "jathi" of her palms and fingers flickering in a tight spotlight (beautifully lit by Victor Paulraj) and Mythili's relentless movements - darting, flowing, sparking, shooting... it was a beautifully contemporary re-imagining of how the classical dance idiom can offer endless possibilities.
Watching intensely was her mentor Malavika Sarukkai who has been at the helm of Mythili's progress over the last 7 years. Where the evening flagged was with the introduction of Bharatiyar's CHINNAN CHIRU KILIYE, SHAKTI KOOTHU and Mirabai's HARI TUM HARO. In spite of Aditya Prakash's melodious singing, these three compositions dragged the evening into a pedestrian crossing. Until then the audience was being taken on a smooth road that suddenly hit a huge pothole!
#STOP YANKING AT MY SAREE
Is it not time for dancers to cease that irritating sari pulling episode from the MAHABHARATA? Are we all not tired of seeing scowling, frowning and menacing dancers crouching with glee as Shakuni and ripping imaginary yards and yards of fabric from Draupadi's body? In this age of feminist awareness and multiple interpretations of myth and metaphor, the time has come to re-imagine all these protagonists and villains in a new light. Like the new hit Tamil film VIKRAM VEDA, there is no clear hero and villain. It lies in that ambiguous ocean of GREY. So why are we disrobing Draupadi, smearing Surpanakha with dark colouring and sagging breasts and pitying Sita for her misfortunes. Gurus and performers must find new and creative ways of interpreting and illuminating our time honoured tales. Stop taking them literally and use them as tropes-not actual people!
Imagine the shaming of Draupadi as the mutilation of women, rape, dowry deaths, there are multiple images that the imagination throws up. Why hide behind these safe and dull ideas? They become simplistic and childish to our eyes.
#AWAY FROM THE SPOTLIGHT
What happens when a dancer finds her name left out of reviews and commentary of a performance where she appears and other well known names are highlighted? This was the plight of Kathak dancer Gauri Diwakar, student of Aditi Mangaldas. Performing along with Akash Odedra, Rukmini Vijayakumar and Sanjukta Sinha for the high profile opera SUKANYA, Gauri found that her name was not featured in the several discussions and blogs that reported on the performance (including this monthly editorial in June). When Gauri brought this to my attention, I responded by telling her that none of my friends who attended the London performance mentioned her name. This made her dispirited but I reminded her about the power of celebrity and that being a graceful and elegant dancer was not enough to get her noticed in the age of brand names! Gauri's solo in SUKANYA was not a small moment but what perhaps stayed in people's minds were the endless leaps and twirls of her BLING SORORITY!
That is the title that musician Anil Srinivasan has given me - as someone who inaugurates, cuts ribbons, launches and initiates scores of new ventures. Storytelling societies, boutiques, start ups, e-portals, motivational lectures, book releases - I have done them all in August. And I have been doing this for the past 35 years- even from my early days in New York City! It came to such a point that I realized that preparing speeches and dressing up for these events was consuming too much time, energy and effort! Should I be grateful for the recognition or realize that there are many others who would enjoy these opportunities?? So now I am charging for appearances and lo and behold! I am getting paid!!!!
Comments and accolades continue to pour in after the recent cover story in SRUTI magazine. The first caller to congratulate me was Vyjayantimala Bali and after her warm wishes our conversation drifted to our mutually beloved ANDAL! The next caller was Kumudini Lakhia with whom I traded arguments about tennis (our favourite sport!) and who was more superior... Nadal or Federer!!! When Guru C.V. Chandrasekhar called, we drifted to speaking about his daughters and the huge challenges facing classical dancers today!
What a privilege to live in the times of these great and gracious artistes. With each phone call, I was more convinced that my long years of work, plagued often with doubt and loneliness, has been worth it!
With invitations pouring in to speak and perform in the most unusual and interesting venues, I savour this moment as an acknowledgment of persistence and stubborn faith. Thank you all for the warm embrace that you have enveloped me with.
#DANCE IN CURRICULUM
The growing line of questions and requests from visitors to this portal and the many dancers I meet face to face is about education. Where can I study further? How can I learn choreography as a skill? Where can I learn about Dance History? How do I study contemporary dance history? What is dance pedagogy? The queries are coming thick and fast and the questions are only multiplying. This points to the fact that many dancers are eager to expand their horizons and become better teachers, performers and choreographers.
In the past, I have shared information about courses in Ambedkar and Ashoka Universities - both in New Delhi. The stunning success of the Natya Course in Sastra University, Tanjavur (headed by Dr Padma Subrahmanyam) is evidence that more and more dancers are wishing to augment their kinetic vocabulary and theoretical skills. Now if they start swivelling hips a la Paddu Akka in the middle of a jathi, it is not her fault. Dancers should know when and where to use these signature movements that are knit alongside the Bharata Nrityam pedagogical system!
A MILION SITAs
Credit: Ravi Shankar's Photography
While in Bengaluru for a KAMPNI KUTCHERI showing of my now very popular A MILLION SITAs, I met some of the new batch of students at the NATYA INSTITUTE'S CHOREOGRAPHY COURSE. Designed by director Madhu Natraj to accommodate full time students with an eye to creating shorter capsules for NRI students in the future, this unique course opens students to global influences in classical and modern dance. American, European, East Asian and Indian dance histories are discussed along with choreographic progression and intention in each discipline. Archeology, History, Sculpture and Painting are also included to give dancers a comprehensive visual vocabulary to watch and understand how the dancing body moves in each culture.
All these are initiatives by dancers- who feel that it is time to move beyond performance, time to build the infrastructure around the performing arts. 70 years of Independence and we have no suitable theatres to accommodate intimate performances and small audiences. Across India, dancers and musicians are tearing down walls, raising their roofs and building adaptable spaces. Where do they find the funding? Not from the corporate sector for whom CSR and the ARTS seem a mismatch. Are you doing something for the BLIND, MENTALLY CHALLENGED, PHYSICALLY DISABLED, ELDERLY? Come to us for those needs. ARTS FOR ART'S SAKE? How indulgent! How cute! A full time vocation? Really?
So to the fat cats out there - Write a check out of guilt or whatever - just WRITE THAT DAMN CHECK FOR OUR ARTS INFRASTRUCTURE!
Look at the dismal rehearsal spaces our artistes work out of. Do the glamorous establishments like KAMANI or the MUSIC ACADEMY recognize that dancers need space to WARM UP and REHEARSE? We are just expected to descend like angels, dance and then float away! PHULEEEESE!
#WHO NEXT FOR KALAKSHETRA?
Kalakshetra banyan tree
That is the question on many lips. With the selection process coming to a close and the final list of applicants being vetted, all eyes are on the national institution that will have a new Director in the coming month. Will it be a dancer, a bureaucrat or someone from the allied arts? Whoever it may be, that person has a full roster of responsibilities. Will a busy dancer or a guru be able to re-arrange their personal schedule to accommodate a week long 9 to 5 job that is filled with administrative duties and multiple agendas? Being a national institution, all permissions have to come from New Delhi. What about private performances and tours? Private teaching? Will there be time at all to be a performer? Priyadarsini Govind gave us 4 precious years in her prime to become the Director of my alma mater. Who will don the mantle next? Sonal Mansingh who heads the search committee will be among those deciding this month. Watch this space!
# COME SEPTEMBER
September brings the mega dance extravaganza of diva Saroja Vaidyanathan's 80th birthday celebrations. This multiple award winning national artiste is marking her 1000 moons date by holding an all day and night Bharatanatyam spectacle. From across India and elsewhere, dancers are congregating, at their own expense, to perform in 20 minute slots in a nonstop celebration.
This is also the month of Navaratri and Durga Puja. For more celebrations of the FEMININE and to mark new beginnings. As Eastern India readies itself with its mammoth cut outs, idols and pandals, the rest of India mark the nine days with various styles of celebrations. Dance and music is never far away and many cities will ring with the click of wooden sticks beating together as the DANDIA RAAS takes over communities and streets. In Chennai I look forward to this annual ritual of arranging dolls and other small objects in homes for viewing. Some arrangements are truly spectacular!
I have commented on so many shows I have seen this past month. More than usual. That dance and music is all around us is not a question. The more important challenge is "What are we doing for the infrastructure in the arts?" What are the challenges of performing spaces? What is technology demanding from existing theatres for live performance? That India has not built a single new stand alone theatre for dance since 1980 is a case in point. And fodder for another discussion.
Dance, sing, feast and rejoice
This is a land of colour and celebration.
Enjoy the moment.
Seize the spirit of the body in motion and at play!
Until next time!
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
New York/ San Francisco/ Chennai/ Bengaluru
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Regarding the commentary on Draupadi, Janaki Rangarajan has already addressed the various issues raised in her production, Unravelled. Unravelled will be coming to Chennai soon.
- Aneal Krishnamurthy (Sept 5, 2017)
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