Ta Ka Di Mi 
- Anita R Ratnam, Chennai  
e-mail: aratnam@vsnl.com 

January 12, 2006 

Another December - Margazhi season ends. The special month where Sri Andal's songs fill the morning air, have gently faded and the symphonic cacophony of yet another December Music and Dance festival has come to a close. Or has it? Once it was only during 15 days in December that this city played host to the famous SEASON. Then there were about 100 performances at the most with four or five 'sabhas' as organizing hosts. Every hall and auditorium would be filled from morning to evening with singers, dancers, scholars and the city's erudite rasikas who could savour every nuance of 'abhinaya' or 'swara' patterns of the legendary Bala or Semmangudi. Today, 3000 performances in over 100 auditoriums or make shift spaces (sometimes worse equipped than cow sheds) host a variety of artistes from the sublime to the crass. NRIs continue to fill our city as their darling daughters and sons vie to perform, often with a hefty 'donation' to the respective sabha. In return, they are treated with scorn and suspicion by the local artists while simultaneously welcoming their dollar power or seeking a performance opportunity in foreign shores. Why do they do it year after year, subjecting themselves to utter humiliation and degradation? Ask them or ask the funding arts agencies in the UK and USA to whom they will proudly show off the festival calendar where their names will appear alongside 2000 artists, many of legendary stature. Don't ask them who came and saw the shows. Just to arrive in Chennai and dance or sing in the SEASON is validation enough it seems. And. Oh yes! They will certainly get a review since some critics have been hosted by them or even air tickets sent to them for foreign travel! This is where the real action is taking place in foreign export. Bharatanatyam – not computer software! 

Back to the season. The fragrance of fresh filter coffee wafted from the various canteens set up specially outside every auditorium only for the season. Women took a holiday from the kitchen and planned meals around these temporary diners. Breakfast could be at the Narada Gana Sabha canteen where the "idli was romba pramadam di!" and then lunch at the Music Academy canteen where the thali was the top favourite. In fact, one visiting musician from London made daily round of the canteens just to check out the latest dessert menu!  He was once late for rehearsal on the pretext that he lost his way. Truth was that he was enjoying the breakfast at one of the canteens before sitting down to his music! The canteens had become so popular that often there were more people relishing the badam and wheat halwa outside than inside the auditorium where the featured singer or dancer was facing a mere 20 or 30 people. 

This year the rains literally washed out the first part of our famous 'season'. Nevertheless, several die-hard fans were seen lifting up their silk saris to reveal mismatched petticoats wading through the knee deep waters! The historic MUSIC ACADEMY, the site for the renaissance debate in the 1930s of Sadir-Bharatanatyam, was reborn after much legal wrangling with a new committee and chairman. Attendance at that distinguished auditorium was excellent as the city's connoisseurs came together to embrace its favourite cultural venue. In the midst of all the classical music, so resonant of old Madras and new Chennai, we also heard the symphonic strings of the Bavarian Orchestra from Munich conducted by the very flamboyant Zubin Mehta. The concert, held on the first anniversary of the Tsunami on December 26, saw 2000 people, dressed in their finest best and 2000 more standing outside hoping to get in! Never mind that we do not have the auditorium or the stage to accommodate an international symphony orchestra and that the musicians were almost falling off the stage! Which brings me to the fact, that the sabhas are doing virtually nothing to reinvest in infrastructure of the venues during the season.  

Lighting is minimal with senior dancers like myself and a few others having to pay upto Rs 4000 per venue to get a modicum of lighting equipment for our performances. Green rooms are still dirty and toilets are filthy. Backstage management is non existent with people interrupting the precious time before a performance just to say hello and register their presence. Dancers are treated the worst with the musicians taking this opportunity to fleece them at every instance. Rehearsal fees, bad support during performances, refusing to come for adequate rehearsals and then throwing fits like divas has become the norm for dancers. An average orchestra with singer, nattuvangam, mridangam, flute and violin costs around Rs 7500. With the sabhas paying so little for the performances, each dancer loses considerable money performing in the season. Only Alarmel Valli, dances to full houses and returns the money that she is offered. Valli continues to be the crowd favourite pulling maximum ticket sales for dance at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.   

Sometimes international reputations bring unreal expectations from the audiences and almost all the veterans did not create the buzz as was expected. I saw Malavika Sarukkai at Narada Gana Sabha and witnessed over 200 people get up and walk out after the first two dances. Were they the left over audiences from the previous music concert or were they simply bored with what they saw? A similar incident occurred at the Krishna Gana Sabha but I am glad that she got a standing ovation at the Music Academy. Malavika is one artist who is searching inwards towards that core of silence - something none of the others are. I have always worried about this trend towards noise and large groups of dance ensembles on stage or soloists resorting to various gimmicks to draw applause. While Malavika, without her orchestra of 15 years now has to reinvent herself or perhaps revisit the margam from a new direction, she remains committed to her art and her life with single minded passion.  

The stars of the season were the lesser known dancers. A Lakshman was superb in his Krishna Gana Sabha performance as was his student the 11 year old Sudarma.  Narthaki continued to enthrall audiences with her abhinaya and creativity. Maria Kiran from France was lovely to watch except for her poor costuming and Valli imitations during jathis. Watching Hari Krishnan perform a traditional Kitappa Pillai varnam in Vachaspati was a treat since it had been a very long time since I had seen or heard such a beautiful 'mukthayi swaram' embedded in the song. While watching 11 year old Sudarma at Krishna Gana Sabha enter with the pushpanjali, I was struck as to how similar the entries of Urmila Satyanarayana and Priyadarshani Govind were when they were dancing well and being tutored by Lakshman. Little do the public know that it was Lakshman who sculpted the styles of Urmila and Priya for almost 5 years each and was almost solely responsible for taking them from good dancers to excellent performers. That he is not credited for it is no surprise. Most dancers consider themselves as Swyambhu. They  believe that they are born and ordained with form and content all by themselves! I am happy that Lakshman got a great review and is now being considered as an excellent dancer and teacher. I am also disappointed that Urmila was not able to interest her fans and audiences this season since I have always felt that she has the best face and figure for classical Bharatanatyam.    
  
Anything new in the season carries with it the expectations of a margam. Dancer and editor of the excellent UK magazine PULSE noted that all performers and critics carry the 'cultural encoding' of a margam in whatever the thematic presentation may be. When Malavika's presentations were panned by a senior critic, it was perhaps that she did not perform a margam or at least, a varnam, in the center of her many dances on Padmanabha and the Ganga. I received a mild review from Rupa Srikanth who was gentle in her opinion of my classical and contemporary evening ARYA-TARA. Attempting to reconcile my love of the old and the new, I was attempting something that was not yet ready. Or so I felt. I felt that Rupa wanted to be more critical of my work, being a firm believer in traditional repertoire and being a huge fan of Padma Subrahmanyam, and was quite surprised at her tone in the review. Knowing very well that I do not get the older mama-mami audience for my work for the past 7 years, it is still heartening to see 250 audience members sit through my entire presentation without shifting in their seats or jumping up at intermission (yes I had a short one) and leaving for the next sabha. Or perhaps, as one friend put it. "Just make sure that you have chef Arusuvai set up a canteen wherever you are performing. Then have something like a Tani Avartanam – RTP – ragam, tanam, pallavi for 30 minutes so people can get up and eat their tiffin and then return for the performance. You will be guaranteed house full audiences." 

In spite of changing audiences and tastes, the season is the best place to try out new things since I am a firm believer in the vibration of Chennai. Now that my 3 performances are over, I am far more lucid as to how the first section of the classical presentation should be shaped before performing a shortened version of SEVEN GRACES (TARA). This season I experimented with my dance ensemble to recorded scores of classical music, having taken a path or not succumbing to the greed of live accompaniment which is going to become the bane of serious dancers. That audiences did not miss an orchestra during my performance proves my point regarding using good quality recorded music.    

This once famously conservative city has certainly changed. With every New Year, the decibel levels of all hospitality industries gets louder. Fancy holiday weekends for the well heeled, disco nights, jazz, salsa, contemporary dance, hip hop evenings, new coffee bars and day spas all opened in the same month that was once put aside for classical music and dance. The Tennis Open and a Kathak festival came to Chennai and both attracted very large crowds proving that audiences do exist beyond the classical format.  Critic Sunil Kothari made his presence felt all over the place while he was here but was sad that his birthday went unmarked. Little does he know that even here in Chennai, dancers and musicians of all ages are busy all the time! One of the most beautiful moments for me was the private performance of Bragha Bessel in my home on a margazhi Sunday. Unassuming and understated, Bragha held 40 of us completely enthralled as she danced padams and javalis with her unique style of wit and humour. At a later formal performance at Bharat Kalachar, she was not as inspiring, choosing instead to do Sanskrit and Telugu compositions which I felt did not suit her as much as the old and loved lyrics. Nevertheless it was a treat to listen to my guru Adyar K Lakshman conduct the recital and recite his impeccable jathis.  

The famous December season phobia of sabha-hopping – watching one dancer or singer for two items and then leaving to catch another at a different venue continues to the irritation of all concerned. What emerged this past season was the new style of programming that presented the younger dance artists in afternoon programs. Once the sole prerogative of the musicians, these afternoon kutcheris drew excellent crowds and helped these talented youngsters break the glass ceiling of competing with the stars for evening crowds. Morning lectures and showings of traditional gurus in spaces like the Woodlands Hotel as well as a Film Festival of Performing Arts at Satyam Cinemas was a new addition to the season. 

The morning sessions of lectures and demonstrations were well attended by most but the level of questioning remains very rudimentary. I was accosted (sorry Janaki, but I felt like I was) by Sruti Janaki after my lec dem from my recent group work UTPALA. In the presentation I chose to use a snatch of a Sri Ragam to show the quiet stillness of the lotus pond. Immediately, I was asked why I used that particular snatch since it meant that the rest of the famous Tyagaraja song Entaro Mahanubhavo had to follow! I wanted to be forthright and ask her about how many young people even knew that song before the Tamizh film ANNIYAN was released! Instead I tried to be polite and side step the question which in retrospect was not a wise decision. Such an encounter brings me to a point of asking myself why the Chennai audience becomes so smug and parochial when new dimensions are shared. It is as if they do not want anyone to think. "Just entertain and give us something beautiful. We know life stinks. We want the dance not to reflect anything that makes us think of the negative." Since I do not subscribe to those sentiments, maybe I should not participate anymore in these pointless lec-dems.  

During Geeta Chandran's polished presentation via DVD, she made a statement that Bharatanatyam was not as mobile a style to cover the stage like Kathak with its vertical stance. Immediately C V Chandrasekhar protested and went up on the stage to demonstrate through the 'tai ha tai' adavu how space could be covered. Frankly, we were all embarrassed at this demonstration and Geeta's point was proved. The adavu did not suit such a rapid covering of space. Neither did it become a senior guru like CVC to protest so loudly. Bharatanatyam has its limitations. So have other styles. What makes us so smug as to constantly remain closed to other opinions?  

After seeing actress Shobana's elementary exposition about group choreography and her blatantly cinematic dancing in the evenings to packed halls and thunderous applause, it is evident that we are living in aggressive times and stillness and quietness has no place in this stream. At least for now.  

Even the normally sedate Priyadarshini Govind has succumbed to senseless sensuality. Leaping, posing and jumping all over the stage to the amazement of the audience and perhaps herself, her performance at Kalakshetra left one totally amazed and disgusted at the same time. None of the jathis concluded on the sama tala and nothing made sense. Singer Preethi Mahesh, while singing beautifully, does not keep talam while the jathi is being recited. This traditional pattern is thus interrupted and there is no way to ascertain if the overly complex 'teermanam' (for the sake of being complex) actually arrives on the required beat and flourish. Of course, there was thunderous applause to all this executed with flawless araimandi and a newly cultivated "savoir-de faire." It was the birth of the new ACRO-NATYAM. Perhaps she is now good friends with actress Shobana who tried to convince us that her abhinaya to flamenco music is contemporary dance. At least with Shobana, one is not confused with her blatant sexuality and commercial eyelash fluttering, hip swaying style. She is over 35, a movie star and only mother roles being offered to her in films.  Now she is intent on reinventing herself as a serious classical dancer. If it  is entertainment that audiences want, then a visit to the latest KING KONG flick will do better. Peter Jackson has taken liberties with the original Fay Ray story but has done it with love and reverence. In Priya and Shobana, I saw only arrogance and self indulgence. Yet they are the supposed flavours of the season. We will wait and see if my original theory of 7 years ago proves true. That of Chennai creating dancers only for north India and export proves true. That dancers, once they start the international and luxury tour circuit of Europe, private homes and resort hotels and the NRI circuit, forget where they started from and ignore their local audiences. With my own work being invited to museums, universities and scholarly occasions, I too am worried about losing touch with my public and roots. Perhaps it is this nagging feeling that has made me accept a three city tour of Kumbakonan, Nagapattinam and Chidambaram for the annual Shivaratri Natyanjali this February. I will have to return to local audiences in thousands and see how I feel and how they react about my new work. Of course, with recorded music. Greedy orchestras are out. Out.   

Thank you Aruna Sairam, Gayathri Venkataraghavan, Suresh Gopalan and Ghatam Karthick for generously giving me your precious recordings. Thank you for agreeing with me on the pathetic quality of dance music and that something should and can be done about it. While younger dancers will suffer, at least we seniors can establish a system whereby the sabhas will have to accept good quality recorded music for season concerts.  
     
Visiting one of the jewellery or sari stores during this past month and in the first weeks of the New Year is also a continuing tradition. Crowded with visitors from overseas, these enthusiastic people bargain, buy, design, place orders for huge volumes of merchandise that makes the locals feel like paupers. Sales of audio and video cassettes of dance and music were at an all time high this year with the DVD becoming a fast substitute of the traditional 'dance guru' if you lived in Kalamazoo or Pretoria! Priyadarshini Govind's prolific output of Bharatanatyam DVDs perhaps makes her the new guru of high-tech virtual-natyam!  My single DVD offering created three years ago is still in demand and distributors asking for more product. What product? I now have a personal style called NEO BHARATAM. Will the public accept it? Who knows?  

Poring over the reviews and reports produced by THE HINDU in the special Music and Dance Supplement is another great way to spend each morning with the steaming hot cup of filter kaapi, latte or cappucino! Catching up with friends like director Dipankar Mukherjee and writer Meena Natarajan, scholars Ketu Katrak, Radhakrishnan and Priya Srinivasan, musicians from Sweden and  Germany – all during this December season is one of the best times for women like me who travel so frequently but make it back home for the famous SEASON. Pianist Anil Srinivasan from Columbia returns home to Chennai to "regroup and refresh."  

With each passing year, Chennai attracts more and more academics and serious scholars who study this season and absorb the wealth of riches laid out for them to feast upon. Performers who command large fees elsewhere perform for next to nothing in Chennai for the special experience of sharing their art with one of the best audiences in the world. Lack of cohesive publicity and serious corporate or government support prevent long term planning for a truly unique cultural phenomenon! This is the largest performing arts festival in the world. How come nobody knows about it? As always, the government insists on holding the annual Mahabalipuram festival at the same time. When it was first started in 1991 by Lakshmi Viswanathan, the time was early February and the setting by Thota Tharani was perfect against Arjuna's Penance. Now it has become a local tourist attraction with only bums and backpackers as audience since the arrangements and facilities are disappointing. No senior artist accepts to perform at the Mahabalipuram festival which is a real pity since the Tamilnadu government refuses to see reason and insists on programming simultaneously in the month of December. The rains pushed the festival to early January but it remains a non event for serious dancers and dance goers. 

As we start 2006 with the sounds of ankle bells and mridangam beats still ringing in our ears, we look forward to more of the classical and contemporary arts in this city which has nurtured excellence and innovation in all forms of thought and action. 

And so it goes… 

Anita R Ratnam is a Choreographer/Dancer, artistic director of Arangham Dance Theatre, and Founder of www.narthaki.com 

 
Response to a portion in Ta Ka Di Mi 
  
Di mi Ki ta! 
- S. Janaki  
E-mail: sruti@eth.net 
  

January 28, 2006 
  
Browsed Ta Ka Di Mi just a short while ago after my computer's safe return from the ICU. Read your comment about the lecdems too. "Accost" you, Anita? Well, that was not the intention, though I am certainly blessed with a booming voice :-) Yes, I asked you why you had used "that particular snatch" -- the  swara segment from Tyagaraja's pancharatnam 'Entaro mahanubhavulu'.  Why? Because it did not convey anything to me about the lotus or goddess  Lakshmi, which was the main focus of  your 'Raktotpala lotus from India' segment. I certainly didn't expect the sahitya to follow the swara segment (as mentioned by you) which would have seemed incongruous in your presentation!  

Your choice of Bhagyada Lakshmi tune seemed very relevant unlike 'Entaro'.  I wondered whether you chose Sree raga because we do associate Lakshmi with the term Sree, but I felt you could  have had an 'original'  score  --  swara, lyrics whatever  --  in  that raga instead of using the swaras from Entaro which have a specific context. As you say, many youngsters do not even know that song and will therefore not find anything amiss. But that is what makes us doubly responsible to present it in context. We have a tremendous treasure of cultural memory to draw upon and let us transmit it in context to future generations. 
  
Ta Ka Janu!