September 1, 2018
Being very good will not change the world
- Usain Bolt, Olympic athlete
Cheers from Durban!
With seasons and hemispheres upturned, our faithful #TEAMSITA spent a full week in this historic South African city. Replete with references to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, we had a chance to visit many of the sites that triggered my country's independence movement and influenced South Africa's destiny.
With 1 million Indians making up 25% of the city's demographic, I saw Indians everywhere! Dressed in saris even as I exited the airport, silks, shiny crystal dipped georgettes, bling shoes, hair in various tiers of curls and clips- I had to look around to confirm that I had actually left T Nagar!
#JOMBA AND LLIANE
Now in its 20th year of celebrating contemporary dance and political theatre in Durban, founder Lliane Loots is a real pioneer of the new arts in Durban. As a choreographer, educator and cultural activist, she has made a huge impact on the city's landscape with her tireless efforts. In her keynote address on opening night, Lliane spoke of reclaiming the spirit of the maligned word JIHAD. "We cannot be mere cogs in the wheels of capitalism and safe policies. Artists must wage a jihad of creating community and extending compassion through constant and consistent work".
Lliane's trust in A MILLION SITAS emerged from her viewing my informal sharing last year at the University of Cape Town during a dance conference. This new version, with singer Sharanya Krishnan, also had a brilliant African drummer Mandla and a brand new set designed and ideated by feminist artist Reshma Chhiba.
Working with props is somewhat a specialty of mine and Reshma's set was a beauty to interpret, engage with and use as a co-performer. Opening night was filled with the normal trepidation of new spaces, lighting cues, and reselling an old story in new ways for an international audience of this Rainbow Nation.
Tightening the show and making the segues more seamless is always a challenge but this new version of A MILLION SITAS contains snippets of humour that was very welcome. The standing ovation on both nights made all the effort and doubts well worth it.
#FLOOD OF HOPE AND HATE
Please send legitimate appeals to ABHAICHENNAI@gmail.com
Nightmarish memories of the 2015 Chennai floods swirled before our eyes. Citizens of Kerala and other neighbouring states reached out to help us with generosity and selfless effort and it was time to reciprocate. Except that this time some of us were told to direct our efforts to helping one particular community or NOT those of another faith!
Disaster and death do not discriminate!
The high pitched yelling against Carnatic musicians reached its zenith when vocalist O S Arun was featured in a publicity photo for a concert featuring Tamil hymns written by various composers on Jesus. Tamilnadu has had a long history of syncretic harmony with some of the best scholars on Tamil literature being Muslims! For generations, Lord Vishnu as Parthasarathy (the divine charioteer of Arjuna) was dressed in royal blue velvet studded with pearls - patiently embroidered by the Muslim tailors of Triplicane, Chennai.
The feeding frenzy of hate and abuse saturated social media and all the Hindu Carnatic musicians were abused, threatened and labelled "traitors" by the fringe right wing activists. The musicians offered various explanations and many cancelled their appearances. Pianist Anil Srinivasan, who worked tirelessly on the Kerala helpline 24/7, was accused of playing a Christian instrument! In response, some musicians took to You Tube and Facebook to release earlier recordings of Bethlehem Kuravanji and other Tamil gospels on Jesus written by Abraham Panditar. In all, it was a mess. An UN-HOLY cacophony of cackling chaos.
Social media that has displayed life saving information in times of crisis also became the playing field for hate mongers and sickening language. I think of when I performed an entire evening of Muslim songs in 1999 for the Natyarangam series. Titled TARKAASH (the quiver of arrows) the scholar Abdul Rahman was my mentor and guided me on the choreography of the Muslim prayer. Would I have been allowed to perform this same theme today? I remember Sonal Mansingh in her seminal Mary Magdalene 40 years ago. Watching from the balcony of Sapru House, New Delhi, I remember her long hair "washing" the feet of Jesus. Maybe dancers as a community are more fortunate. We can and do dance to many poets from many countries and faiths. Still, I am unsure about interfaith themes in today's India.
From across the waters comes welcome news of a sleeping talent who has finally awoken. The supremely talented daughter of my Kalakshetra guru Neila Sathyalingam appears to have found her calling. Once a beautiful dancer and still a terrific classical singer, Mohana did not pick up the reins after her celebrated mother passed away and many of us lamented the waste of her talent and time. Until now. The establishment of her school SATYALAYAM and the growing number of students that are flocking to her academy, nostalgic for her mother's style and classical stamp, cannot come at a better time. In a country where originality and individuality is often sand papered to a bland conformity, I hope that Mohana's SATYALAYAM will refresh and renew her mother's successful legacy.
Also in Singapore is the prima donna Vyjayantimala for a special session of Dance Asia Pacific. Wow… what a treat for students who, hopefully, will understand that apart from learning items, they must also learn music! At 85, Vyjayanti still walks with a spring in her step, and if her son permitted, would want to dance every week!
18 years ago, Kathak dancer and guru Smeetha Maharaj invited me to deliver the keynote address at South Africa's very first international dance conference NRITYA SAMMELAN. It was only 6 years after the end of apartheid. This trip, which was on the invitation of the prestigious JOMBA THEATRE FESTIVAL, also had me address the founding group of SAIDA - South African Indian Dance Association. Ideated by Smeetha, SAIDA is hoping to bring Indian dance teachers and organisations in South Africa into the global network of Indian dance. Of course, this portal is loved and read eagerly by many, but the dance standards in the country have much room for improvement.
The discussions ranged from:
How Bollywood has become the peg upon which to draw new students and audiences.
How classical dance in India has become such a spectacle
How teachers and dance musicians in India are disrespectful and avaricious
How dance standards in South Africa has fallen alarmingly
While I gave them a global view of Indian dance across the world, I also urged many teachers to make links with similar voluntary organisations in India, UK and the USA.
South African history of migration from India started in 1860 and the histories of the diaspora in Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Mauritius and the Reunion Islands also share a similar pattern. Perhaps a conference of these nations and the role of classical dance in the retaining of identity needs to be organised. Meanwhile, await news of NRITYA SAMMELAN 2019 scheduled for next September.
#RAM AS RAMBO
Has anyone noticed how the drawings of Ram, Hanuman and Shiva have changed over time?
The once slender frames are now padded on with six packs. Hanuman resembles CESAR of PLANET OF THE APES and RAM looks like RAMBO. Shiva also has a puffed chest with visible rippling muscles. Much like the HULK and other superheroes.
With Wonder Woman and other female adventurers, Sita and Parvati have also become warrior queens. Not that I am complaining. I always wondered why the Indian queens in our epics would choose to be represented by covered veils and false bejewelled modesty.
#THE NUMBERS GAME
Dancers are celebrating their artistic anniversaries more than birthdays.
30 years, 40, 45, 50...the numbers mount as many performing artistes are marking their national presence with festivals, installations and seminars. It is something to celebrate and a marker for today's younger lot to wonder whether they will have the staying power to last even 10 years in this ruthless game.
Meanwhile, Congratulations to Ananda Shankar Jayant and Sharon Lowen who have marked their anniversaries with memorable evenings. Shout out to Jayesperi Moopen in Johannesburg who is marking her 30th year in professional dance.
#RAMA ON A RAMPAGE
The title may not sound flattering but this is the best way of describing the current global success of Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan.
She is here, there and everywhere… Literally… From continent to continent, she is teaching, mentoring, performing, and what not.
For years, I rued the missed opportunities of not watching Rama at her best. The three moments that I did sit in the audience were the same evenings when her orchestra was off key and she did not shine. My friends across the world have raved about her work and I was eager to catch her during the annual Chennai season. Somehow it never happened. Even the recent tryptch of PA PA PA NAYAKI on the Vaishnavite saints, found me watching from the wings, straining to catch her face and emotional shades. The day I sat in the auditorium to witness her collaboration with painter Thota Tharani was disappointing. Endless speeches (the bane of Tamilnadu dance shows) delayed the show by an hour and I had to leave for another appointment. So, I am perhaps among the very few who has not watched the current reigning diva of BN in a full evening performance.
Rama's lithe agility, joie de vivre, lightness of foot, pleasant temperament and talent have pole vaulted her to the top of her field. In Chennai, the green room was flooded with fawning parents requesting her to teach their daughters and numerous dancers wanting selfies with their favourite BN dancer. Just as Priyadarsini Govind's DVDs were the rage a decade ago, it is Rama's weekend item teaching workshops that have become a business model for many dancers across the globe.
Even the eyebrow raising photo of Rama going "head to head" with contemporary dancer Melanie Lomoff at the BRAVE festival in Poland seemed to thrill her fans.
#PA PA PA NAYAKI
We dancers seem content to have 500 people in the audience. We tell ourselves that dance is a niche art and that these numbers are good enough. When the hall of 950 seats is full and LCD Television screens are placed outside the auditorium to seat the spillover arrivals, it is a time to celebrate. That was the scenario for the Zakir Hussain concept of three Vaishnavite poet saints imagining themselves as women and in love with Vishnu/Krishna. Even more than what occurred on stage was the off stage drama. Elderly men and women rising with hands folded when the sacred feet image was projected upon my silhouette as NAMMALWAR, many chanting and repeating the spoken and sung verses from long term cultural memory, pin drop silence during our three different presentations, rice and sweets distributed to everyone outside- this was like a visit to a temple and the crowd too behaved like they were seeking a "darshan".
Rama, Zakir and myself realized the bonding power of faith and I am energized to explore the erotic poetry of NAMMALWAR further. As well as dress up in the all white costume and jewellery that would have made my mother beam with pride!
#PLEASE STOP TALKING
Why do dancers think that they can speak during a performance? Are they trained in theatre? Do they have the ability to make the segue from physical movement to spoken word moments? Mostly no. Yet this seems to be the new game in town. Do some violent jathis or lunges and suddenly start talking - mostly angst ridden lines about feminism or a misplaced womanist theme. Tone, language, tempo, intention - all come into play when the spoken word is uttered. The switch from physical to verbal movement is a delicate shift. Methinks that Rajika Puri should conduct sessions on how to use voice during or between movement!
And why do we have to choose the disrobing of Draupadi as a "sanchari" any longer? Are there no other ways to show Krishna as saviour? Should not dancers consider the plight of women in today's India and cease and desist from such mysoginistic references?
#BALI - A WHIFF OF VEENAPANI
The very first full length theatre production after the passing of Veenapani Chawla was staged in Chennai recently. BALI-KING OF KISHKINDA, focused on the Monkey King in the Ramayana, who was unfairly killed by Prince Rama. Directed by Nimmy Raphel and starring senior ADISHAKTI actor Vinay Kumar, BALI was brilliant in many moments, especially when Vinay, as the elder brother of weakling Sugriva, showed him how to tie the dhoti, engage in physical combat and as Ravana - share a private moment with Rama.
The comedy routines were used deliberately as a relief from the intensity of VINAY's scenes. They were placed as a break from the intensity and slowly deliberate scenes featuring Ramayana's antagonist and protagonist. Frankly, I could have watched Vinay all night. He has matured into a truly brilliant actor. Poignant and nuanced, he is Veenapani's pride and the pillar of ADISHAKTI.
This is a play that dancers and actors must watch and the house full crowd at Museum Theatre gave the cast a well deserved prolonged standing ovation.
#HEMA AND THE GOLDEN KAVACHA
Last month there was a short video of Lakshmi Viswanathan teaching a Javali to Chicago dancers organised by veteran dancer and artistic director Hema Rajagopalan. While watching it, I made the comment about "NRI bodies." It was immediately taken as an affront and many responded in anger and irritation. I was most struck by the tone of loyalty that Hema has created with her many generations of students and parents.
Here is one woman who is among the most professional of teachers, organisers and presenters in the USA. Her 40 plus years of clearing the pathways for classical Bharatanatyam in USA's Midwest have garnered many awards, citations and acclaim.
To date, Hema's 2001 conference on Bharatanatyam is the best and most significant conclave of experts ever gathered. It was days before 9/11 and nowhere else have both Chandralekha and Malavika Sarukkai danced in the same platform at Columbia College.
As diaspora community teachers struggle to put together a festival or a conference, Hema's landmark effort came before the onslaught of social media and deserves a mention in dance history.
It was there that I first saw SHARIRA and Malavika's GANGA.
It was there that Sadanand Menon made the comment that "the intellectual centre of Indian dance has moved out of India".
It was there that Saroja Kamakshi, Malavika's mother, created a flutter with the question to Chandralekha about how SHARIRA could be interpreted as Bharatanatyam.
Hema… it is time for you to dream up another "moment" for Bharatanatyam.
This time to include issues like LGBTQ and the hidden histories of bland hetero normative behaviour and repertoire in classical dance.
Dance Therapy, Dance for Seniors. Dance for Special Needs. Of course, with Bharatanatyam being front and centre!
Can we revive the 7 best varnams of the Tanjore Quartet and that golden era?????
#SITA TRAVELS FURTHER
I am enroute to the USA to begin a month long tour of the country. With singer/dancers Snigdha Venkatramani and Tanya Panda as my co-actors, I am excited to explore this work with mostly NRI audiences and gauge their reactions. It has also been most interesting to observe which presenters are most responsive, pro active and willing to work towards making the performance a good experience. Various theatres, different cities, diverse expectations.
I have already been approached by some dancers in the USA wanting to take "workshops" with the aim of learning dance items. I am really sad that this is what Indian dance has been reduced to. Two items in two days with music. There is much money to be made but, as I told the young girls, I am in the area of PROCESS and not PRODUCT.
Touring is very tiring and most unglamorous. But it is essential wish to expand one's physical and emotional boundaries.
Until next time
GO WELL - as they say in South Africa!
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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