Words are sacred
- Anita R Ratnam

March 22, 2011

"Words are sacred. If we can get them in the right order, we can nudge the world a little." This is one of the memorable quotes from playwright Tom Stoppard. I found it at the end of one of senior cultural writer Shanta Serbjeet Singh's e-mails. It brings to light a pressing issue that has been on my mind ever since the recent Chennai December dance season concluded. Several senior dancers, who are now at the status of legends, performed far below their capacities and audiences were dismayed at their lacklustre shows. Now how does a young dance writer respond to these legends? Should they write gently and suggest that they showed "glimpses of greatness" or should they just cover it all with a patina of hagiography and all round gushing? In any case, it is never easy to suggest that a dancer is past his/her prime. This is a personal decision that every dancer needs to make after looking at the mirror and into themselves in a self reflexive manner which is sorely lacking.

So should legendary dancers be reviewed at all? Icons for an entire generation and beyond, should their performances be commented upon in public media space? One can argue that all performers who step onto the stage should be ready for public comment. In India, dance criticism has not matured to the level of international objective critique since the dancer and the writer are so interlocked that any hint of a suggestion or criticism is taken as a personal insult and writers and the publications are threatened with lawsuits. That is one reason why all arts criticism in India is not taken seriously in the world.

In 1985, Sonal Mansingh was the dancer whose name was replaced by the then young Malavika Sarukkai for the Festival of India in the USA. It was a tumultuous decision that surprised the arts world, but 28 years later, Sonal and Malavika are still dancing around the world. Malavika is the only dancer who has continued to be the favourite of the Indian government through many prime ministers and presidents. At age 51 she is at her prime and a true icon for thousands of fans.

The magnificent 20 day festival of India at Kennedy Centre, Washington DC concluded on Sunday March 20th. Enormous crowds, sold out shows and standing ovations for all our artistes is a heady cocktail for dance fans and the artistes involved. What is amazing is that after all these years of Orientalist imaginings of India and the East, the American writers are still fixated on certain terms and words to describe our dance. Our own email inbox was also busy with several Indians in the audience disappointed with Shantala Shivalingappa's Kuchipidi dance and Malavika's New York 'Ganga' performance. Set against rapturous reviews of the American critics, the e-mails conveyed a disappointment about "poor handling of subject" and "unimaginative choreography" from such acclaimed artistes. Quite clearly, what appeals to the West does not always touch a "desi's" heart.

Still, millions of dollars were spent by the Governments of India and the US and not a SINGLE WRITER OR CULTURAL COMMENTATOR sent from India to watch and report to publications in India. Why is it that our writers are not taken seriously? Perhaps because there is little objectivity and an unwillingness to step back and comment. Or perhaps that our divas have become like prickly porcupines and can bludgeon any editor or writer to delete uncomplimentary remarks. In any case, this does little to serve the larger cause of dance as an independent and precious art.


Responses

March 24, 2011
I have had the opportunity to attend the maximum India festival in DC. I live in Cedar Rapids and am a freelance writer. I am a student of Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi for over 35 years. Some of the programs have been excellent but some have been terrible. Shanatla's program on Saturday was one of the worst I have ever seen and should have never been as psrt of the festival.

As a student of the dance form I am smart enough to know what is dance and what is not. I read Sara Kaufman's article on Shantala's "Kuchipudi" performance in the Washington Post and it was an outrage. Kaufman may have won a Pulitzer prize but she knows nothing about Indian classical dance. Shantala's dance was not Kuchipudi and was a mix of many styles on would call" masala." Anyone who is not tone deaf could understand the music was OFF key the whole program. The American audience should stop pretending like they know the art and educate themselves before they abuse the bully pulpit and act like they know what they are talking about.

Rahul Rajan


March 24, 2011
Good finally someone had the guts to call a spade a spade.
Today there is no ethics in our art forms. Only push or influence works.
People talk of quality only for others but when it comes to them it is only push.
Today art management had shifted into a lobby which has money power and they started dictating terms in the selection process. This is there right from SNA to local Sabhas. Even Art Criticism has become tailor made to please the artistes.

Now the mantra is "you scratch my back and I will scratch your back."

Anyway this is unfortunate. On a world platform our art forms could not stand. It's like our Indian cricket team.

Thanks
Venkat Vempati