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September 1, 2019

Most people believe
That physicists are explaining the world
They are only dancing in it
- GARY ZUKAV, American spiritual teacher

For almost all of last month, I was far away from home. Not just geographically but also from the familiarity of dance, performance and the arts. And yet, global events and the magic of the internet kept me abreast of so many events in our wonderful and fractured world of the performing arts. The distance from my cultural space helped give me a respite and an objective view of many issues and shifts in our lives as performers. Some ideas are still floating as unresolved questions. Others have settled into patterns that are now more than mere trends. As we move into the Fall season and cooler weather, I share more thoughts and ideas.

#STRONG IS BEAUTIFUL

PV Sindhu
Tall, dusky, muscular and unconventional. Sindhu has stormed her way to championship gold in the World Badminton tournament and forced the spotlight on how the lens has shifted towards a new kind of Indian woman. Imagine Sindhu on stage in a dance costume! She would not be pretty enough, fair enough, demure enough... nothing would fit the standards of the "ideal Narthaki". Yet here she is... screaming, celebrating, cheering. And India cheered her on!


Shanta Rao

Yamini Krishnamurthi
Imagine decades ago when Shanta Rao and Yamini Krishnamurthi stormed onto world stages. They too were too strong, athletic and sometimes referred to as "manly". They did not fit any box, but broke out with their energy and brilliance on stage. So today when dancers are busy sweating it out in gyms and running tracks, just remember that there were pioneers who were braver and more daring at a time when choices were far more limited!

So here's raising a toast to tall, strong, muscular, athletic dancers who refuse to be squeezed into the AUCHITYA BOX!


#SORE MUSCLES vs SERENE LIMBS
A recent post from a prominent Bengaluru dance star piqued my interest. After taking a workshop in the USA, she wrote of "sore muscles and sweaty bodies". I wonder why dancers need to work so hard at achieving this state of "NO PAIN NO GAIN', a saying that American actress and fitness pioneer Jane Fonda chanted in the 1980s. Why should dancers rehearse and over rehearse to the point of muscular fatigue? Is that some sort of honour badge? When knees and lower back issues are actually shortening the careers of so many, is it not more important to focus on HOW to train your body intelligently to execute the "adavus" and technique of classical styles rather than FORCE and STRAIN the muscles and hasten injury instead?

Watching Bijayini Satpathy in one of her many Instagram videos that she has posted, I noticed that her body has changed with not just continuous performances for 25 years, but also from various training systems that she has woven into her daily discipline. Her training pedagogy includes daily running in Nrityagram early in the morning for several kilometres, something only sportspeople used to do in order to develop stamina. When Bijayini dances, her core is so strong that she is able to command her body to do many things - each looking so seamless and easy!


#PRIMA NATYARINA

Bijayini Satpathy
I continue my commentary on Bijayini because I was in the USA when she was enjoying her first national tour. Which classical soloist can boast of rehearsing at the Baryshnikov and Mark Morris studios, and to have both super stars give her a standing ovation during her New York shows! Now, of course, the foundation laid by the inimitable Protima Bedi, the decades of sheer grit and perseverance in impeccable standards and the gift of a super agent have all contributed to NRITYAGRAM's super star status in the USA. But Bijayini, who was always the star of the ensemble, was forever tied to duets and ensemble work.

Now in her late forties, BIjayini has truly come into her own. Her dancing is free and fierce. Just watching a short clip of her performing to the words GARUDA GAMANA PANKAJA NAABHA (the One who rides on the Garuda/eagle and from whose navel the Lotus of creation blooms) I watched the ease of her shoulder and back muscles, her legs and core strength with which she was able to lunge, lean, stretch, crouch, and extend - all within the visual aesthetics of the Odissi costume. Sold out shows, standing ovations and an agent, who is booking her calendar nonstop. Bijayini has finally arrived onto the world stage as India's prima NATYARINA. Her legion of fans includes the powerful dance-catalyst, Rajika Puri who shepherded and coaxed so many presenters and writers to attend and comment on her shows. And yes... they were all captivated!

And on the continuing topic of body vulnerabilities, dance and injuries, the wise and necessary health insurance that all Canadian and UK citizens receive allows dancers to have longer careers simply due to the fact that they can access the best of treatment and therapies for free in their country! Not in the U S of A - the alleged "LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD".


#PLATINUM SONAL
75 years and no signs of slowing down!
SRUTI magazine featured dancer/activist Sonal Mansingh on the cover of its August issue to celebrate her landmark year. When I received the copy, I saw a very young Sonal in Bharatanatyam costume on the cover, taken perhaps when she was in her twenties! A student of U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabagha Devi in Bengaluru before she encountered and mastered Odissi, Sonal's throwback BN image was a stark contrast to the images that accompanied the article. Happily, she did not only submit photos of her younger days, something ageing dancers do more and more. Amidst a long report on the many twists and turns in her storied career, we saw Sonal as she is today - age and experience fired with passion and imagination burning bright in every pore. With her constant YouTube uploads on society and politics, while speaking in beautiful Sanskrit laced Hindi, Sonal Mansingh's prodigious intelligence shines through.


#GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN

Mrs YGP

Balagopalan
We all have to disappear one day. But will we be remembered and celebrated for our lives?
The passing of two cultural giants in Chennai last month was a huge moment for the dance community. Across the world, students mourned and reminisced on two remarkable individuals.

Mrs Rashmi Parthasarathy, Dean of the Padma Seshadri schools in Chennai, was a catalyst for arts learning and promotion alongside her radical educational methods. Founder of the Bharat Kalachar Cultural Trust, she was committed to promoting emerging talent and encouraged every talented student on her rolls to continue their arts education along with their studies and never pressured any student to adhere to the attendance register if it was in the cause of the arts. Rashmi aunty or Mrs YGP, as many called her, was the first to honour performing artistes of the diaspora with the prestigious VISHWA KALA RATNA award - an honour that I too received 10 years ago. At the time when the corrupt practices of sabhas charging dancers to perform became public knowledge, Mrs YGP was proud to say that she had never fallen prey to that sickness that still continues in the Chennai December season. In her later years, while confined to a wheelchair, she was a familiar figure at many performances, sitting in the first row and watching dancers and musicians across generations. What many of us will miss is her voice sharing the first REVIEW immediately after each performance in December. She would take the microphone and immediately speak of what she observed and appreciated. She was unique and her legacy of support, inspiration, courage and fortitude was exemplary.

Another sad and shocking passing was that of the iconic HANUMAN of Kalakshetra.
CK Balagopalan was adored and admired for the role he created and made his own over 4 decades at his Alma Mater. He was brought to the attention of Rukmini Devi Arundale when he was a very young boy and when ATHAI was looking for young men to join her pioneering cultural institution. The rest, as they say, is history. I remember him as being a positive natured human being, engaging with generations of students and sharing his artistry at many platforms. I recall his narration of the creation process of his role as Hanuman in the famous RAMAYANA DANCE SERIES. Rukmini Devi accessed the Javanese image of Hanuman standing on Lakshman's shoulder as the final image of the scene when the bridge was built across the ocean waters. Bala Anna was full of these stories that opened a window to many about the process of creating these everlasting dance images. I last met him at the Kalakshetra Alumni meet in New Delhi earlier this year. His daughter Prithvija, a diminutive dynamite of a dancer, has all the hallmarks of a Kalakshetra performer.

ATMA SHANTI to these two greats.


#MATERNAL MOODS

Yashoda and baby Krishna
In Northern California, where I spent the most part of August, caring for my niece and her newborn baby daughter, I was struck by how naturally a young mother held and nursed her baby. The curve of the arm, the tilt of the head, the stretch of the baby's neck as she automatically reached for her mother's breast to nurse -all these were the ABHINAYA moments of VATSALYA BHAVA that we dancers learn in class. And what a difference it makes for those who are mothers in real life and those who are "dancing motherhood". I have watched young dancers "rock" their babies to sleep on stage and it looked like a roller coaster ride in Disneyland! Trying to put a baby to sleep on their laps was akin to a cyclone lashing the waves! Perhaps dancers need to learn this maternal feeling in their classrooms with a baby doll in their arms. The delicate nuances of holding up the head, the angle of the bent arm, playing with a young child - all these need to be observed by unmarried female students to make for more convincing moments on stage! Male dancers too need to watch and learn since most of them are dancing "nayika" roles!


#TA KI TA TOM

Dancers are now organising their own festivals. I say it's about time!

In Bengaluru, contemporary artiste Masoom Parmar presents PLATFORM for classical and modern dancers
In New York, BN dancer Kiran Rajagopalan's #TIGHTSLAP features queer artistes
In San Francisco, BN dancer Ganesh Vasudeva curated the IDIA FESTIVAL
In Kolkata, Kathak and contemporary dancer Vikram Iyengar curates CRITICAL RESPONSES
In Bhubaneswar, Ratikant Mohapatra continues his annual homage to his legendary father with GURU KELUCHARAN MOHAPATRA AWARD FESTIVAL
In NYC, IAAC presents ERASING BORDERS DANCE FESTIVAL
In Chennai, Kalakshetra hosts its annual KATHAKALI FESTIVAL
In Maryland, Kasi Aysola's Prakriti Dance presents FESTIVAL OF VILLAINS
Malavika Sarukkai tours US with her DARSHAN - encountering the divine

DEVI BHARATAM, the 24th edition of NATYARANGAM series concluded successfully in Chennai

Mega dance musicals are trending:
In Bangalore, Sanjay Shantaram's NADAPRABHU KEMPE GOWDA featured 60 dancers in a fundraiser
In New Delhi and Pune, MEERA - THE MUSICAL directed by Srividya Varchaswi is another fundraiser
In Bangalore, 18 DAYS, DUSK OF AN ERA, is a dance musical based on Kurukshetra


#KASHMIR AESTHETIC SOURCES

Abhinavagupta
While everyone is busy either bashing or praising the Indian government's daring policy on Kashmir, we are forgetting the crucial importance of the state and its enormous contribution to dance and theatre. It is Kashmir that both savants, ADI SHANKARA and RAMANUJA visited and were influenced by the esoteric Shaivism that tinged their own SAIVA and VAISHNAVA theologies. Where will we dancers be without the texts like ABHINAYA DARPANA, TANTRA SASTRA of philosopher ABHINAVAGUPTA? Think of SARANGADEVA, the Kashmiri Pandit who authored the SANGEETA RATNAKARA - the celebrated text on music that has influenced the two streams of Hindustani and Carnatic music systems.

Add to this illustrious roll call and we have Habba Khatoon and Lallo, the famous female poets and ascetics and even KALIDASA, the iconic Sanskrit playwright who was believed to have been born in Kashmir.

Shikara on Dal Lake
So, while so many of us in India and elsewhere are indulging in demonising our elected Prime Minister or holding forth on Drawing Room Theories as political pundits, let us not forget how important the geographical and cultural significances of KASHMIR was and is to the performance and aesthetic map of India. As artistes, THIS is what we should be reclaiming as our heritage.


#INSTA DEVIS

As more and more dancers are hiring social media experts to post more frequently on social media, particularly INSTAGRAM, it is interesting how a 50 second video is getting more viewership than actual bums on seats in live performances. Now perhaps senior dancers like myself have to rethink our choreography to suit the hand held devices! Aditi Mangaldas and Bijayini Satpathy, who have been fairly media shy until about a year ago are now prolific on Instagram. And I know that both women have no time to keep logged on to INSTAGRAM 24/7.

Welcome the age of the Social Media Handler!
For the young dancers, please do not think that this less than one minute effect in any way supplants the actual experience of a full length evening. Work at your craft, your technique, your body, your health... but remember that a dancer's life is short. It is vulnerable but also very, very powerful.
Understand your art. Articulate your thoughts. Craft your sound bites. Do not mouth platitudes or imitate tired clichés. What you DO AND SAY will be equally important.

Unleash that power... not just of the body... but also of the word and image.

I welcome choreographer and facilitator NIHARIKA SENAPATHY to my city. Along with 9 excellent dancers, we begin the first edition of the ARANGHAM LEARNING LABS. I am excited to be the oldest and perhaps the most enthusiastic of students in this group!

Until next time,

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Baroda/Ireland/New Delhi

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