April 1, 2017
"I will take what's mine with fire and blood!"
- Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NARTHAKI!!#THE ROYAL MUDRA
Entering year 18!
And we are still here - bringing you the wonderful and often tumultuous world of Indian dance, into your lives!
Thank you all for the immense faith and continued support.
We are honoured to have your trust, admiration and engagement.
You share your work, your travails and often your personal histories.
We started off as a dance directory in 1993, published a second edition phone book in 1997 and went online in APRIL 14, 2000.
We continue... We believe... We persist and YOU SUPPORT!
Here is an official THANK YOU and STANDING CYBER OVATION to the indefatigable
Lalitha Venkat and Sumathi - my two pillars for all these years.
And now, Raksha Patel and Akhila/Aalaap who are part of our team and our dreams.
ALL OF US WONDER WOMEN... SO CHEER US ON!
Aaaaaaaaand...Here I go...
Piali Ray meets the queen
Such a to-do about meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace! Who was invited? Who said NO?! Can we actually recall that India is NOT celebrating "70 YEARS OF UK-INDIA FRIENDSHIP" but celebrating 70 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE? By reducing India from the world's richest nation to total penury to finance their Industrial Revolution, the British gave themselves the crown of INGLORIOUS EMPIRE (the title of politician-author Shashi Tharoor's new book). But I am playing spoil sport here. Let us enjoy images of Aditi and Astad bowing to the Queen and Piali Ray showing her a mudra or two. The Royal Family (who was in full attendance) was most gracious from all first-hand reports while the dancing tableau at the entrance was panned by most!
Spending millions of pounds during Brexit to send the likes of choreographer Wayne Mcgregor to India on tour is not the ideal choice. I would have much preferred to see actor Rani Moorthy, a triptych of dancers Sonia Sabri, Vidya Patel and Mayoori Boonham and other interesting British Indian performers who are stirring the pot in "Old Blighty."
So while South Asian organizations in the UK are pleased to receive grants to mark this historic moment, here is a short and poignant film about THIS BLOODY LINE that created the largest human migration in the 20th century - the partition of India. A line that is still awash with blood.
This Bloody Line - A film by Ram Madhvani
Bending his lithe body into a zippered suitcase - against a wall of suitcases and duffel bags - Akash Odedra slowly slithered out of the enclosed space. His newest "contemporary" offering I IMAGINE, at Sadlers Wells was both derivative and clichéd. But Akash has earned the right to "say" what he wants since the "UK dance-star making juggernaut" is on a roll. Manager, Board Chair, Presenter in attendance, they actually marshall the discourse towards their own version of what is new or contemporary or worth watching. Rather sinister this!
The first half of the double billed evening (theatre and Kathak was the description) was ECHOES, a 2016 work choreographed by Aditi Mangaldas. A stage strewn and draped with ghunghroos, aided with stunning lighting by Fabiana Piccioli (Akram and now Aditi's lighting designer) the work was much smoother since the first viewing in Birmingham last year. Akash was freer with his improvisations, exciting during his low-bending chakkars and completely at home while dancing Kathak. It is in attempting theatre that he falters. Abandoning those immigrant clichés, stilted accent (why do dancers need to talk when their voices are not trained to do so?) hinting at being the outsider - ooofff! We have seen all that and have crossed that bridge 30 years ago. So why now? AHA! Because Akash Odedra has not done that yet. And he is the next superstar in the making! Or so we are told by the dance evangelists. It is Akash's natural talent and expressive ability that will carry him through this over hyped juggernaut that is surrounding him. Akash's genuine love of dance and his flickering flame of faith is what I found most appealing. The suitcases were clumsy, clunky and even his gorgeous contemporary movements on the floor evaporated against that installation.
Meanwhile Farooq Chaudhry-manager and star maker of Akram Khan told me that the Fall season of GISELLE choreographed by Akram on the Royal Ballet was already SOLD OUT! While there is no news yet of the ever brilliant Shobana Jeyasingh's LA BAYADERE which is scheduled to tour this Fall in the UK, Bharatanatyam has taken a huge step back in terms of visibility and star performers. I am not including Seeta Patel since her lacklustre India appearance has caused some consternation among UK admirers.
Shobana Jeyasingh is one choreographer I would change my travel plans for. I have always maintained that her 1992 ROMANCE WITH FOOTNOTES and the later PALIMPSEST are two landmark Bharatanatyam inspired choreographies that should feature in any discourse on modern Bharatanatyam. Convenors listening?
In one month, my travels took me to Liverpool, UK and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On both occasions, I had been invited to give talks about Indian dance and its current status among the Diaspora (KL) and in the canvas of world dance (Liverpool). Delivering the lecture on International Women's Day, March 8th titled WHEN THE BODY HAS EYES, my talk was about the empowerment of the corporeal intelligence, the ability of the body to "see" and "think" its way through kinetic challenges and the power of physical "play" that is not subservient to the mind and its machinations. Touching upon technology, the camera's eye, the shrinking dimensions of hand held devices watching live arts and drawing parallels from world mythology, the audience, comprised of lecturers and professors from theatre, dance and music departments were totally engaged. MILAPFEST who hosted the event, is also pushing to popularize the new PERFORMANCE STUDIES MA that is being launched at the HOPE LIVERPOOL UNIVERSITY this Fall. To coax students of Indian dance to move beyond learning items is going to be a tough call. For now, the growing popularity of the summer DANCE INDIA intensives in Liverpool and Singapore speak of young students eager to increase their dance menus!
In Kuala Lumpur, the talk was more provocative. With the Indian Diaspora in South East Asia having a very different history than the UK and the USA, my points were situated within the Bharatanatyam world. Titled SMOKE AND MIRRORS - the challenges that face Bharatanatyam, the house full audience was taken through how BN and its earlier avatars were the first signifiers of what the West saw as HINDOO or ORIENTAL DANCING. Moving beyond Ruth St Denis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, the 1984 clip of Mark Morris interpreting Saint Tyagaraja / MS Subbalakshmi's O RANGASAYEE drew the most reactions.
Showing how the form itself has undergone huge changes from Kamala, Yamini to Parshwanath Upadhye, (the current rock star male dancer) was revealing when seen in quick succession. The gradual negation of leisure, poetics, abhinaya, the growing athleticism and stamina and the audience's yearning to applaud, scream, hoot and stand up for anything and everything is a far cry from my days of learning. But so be it. This is millennium BN. Watch. Observe. Take note. Smile.
#SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCER
Aishwarya Dhanush at the UN
This is NOT the title I was seeking when I responded to the abysmal clip of quasi Bharatanatyam dancer Aishwarya Dhanush at the United Nations in New York. Already appointed as the UN Ambassador for Women last year, the elder daughter of a Tamil film superstar was invited to perform on this important day. Representing Indian women and Bharatanatyam on an international platform under the umbrella of the NY Tamil Sangam and the Indian Permanent Mission is bound to focus the spotlight on anyone. Some adoring fan/audience member uploaded a 90 second clip of the event which was then forwarded to me by two media individuals in India.
With the time difference, it was already the next day and I woke up to grey skies in Liverpool, contemplating a walk on the wharf. What I saw on my personal Facebook messenger made me aghast and I immediately shared the clip with a preface on my status report. I did not mention Aishwarya's famous family or her guru (a national award winning Bharatanatyam dancer). I did not expect that one single posting to go viral and for the entire Tamil world to suddenly become experts in what is good BN and what is NOT BN! It was as if in some way, Tamizh pride and its image had taken some kind of a body blow. The trolling and memes that ensued brought me smack in the centre of what kind of disruptive influence social media has.
Overnight I gained more than 1000 twitter followers. The Instagram requests are still piling up with totally unknown names. The media used my name in each of their reports, some claiming I choreographed the dance, others claiming to have interviewed me. All this revealing how desperate traditional news and broadcast media have become in trying to simply keep up with the volatility of online news and occurrences. And, apart from 2 or 3 dancers joining in the discussion, the dance world was largely silent. Expected. I was speaking for myself and perhaps for all the hours and years spent in trying to learn, absorb, improve to excel in dance.
Does this incident and the growing voice of the public against corruption and VIP culture mean that people are fed up? Why were total strangers coming up to me at airports and showing me the "thumbs up" sign as if saying "well done!" People of all ages were leaning across the aisles in airplanes to give their expert opinion about dancing! Regular ordinary folks who have simply no connection with dance or Bharatanatyam overnight became critics!
What does this incident say about the power of celebrity and the leapfrogging and snatching of opportunities? How do we explain the growing political interference in culture? What do we say to the emerging talent when we see such sub standard dancing? What are we saying as a fraternity when such things occur? Nobody believes that life is fair or that the arts are not a landmine of failures and heartbreaks. If you are a celebrity in this age of instant media, you do not have the luxury of complaining and the guru must know that having a celeb sishya comes with the hazards of unnecessary media glare. Today the news cycle is 24//7. Anyone can go to anybody's YOU TUBE and hit a THUMBS UP or THUMBS DOWN for any one of our dance clips. However, all the spin doctors in the world cannot mask substandard dancing.
If the organizers wanted celebrity with talent - look to Shobana! She carries both badges. Or if you want the Next Gen - what about Rukmini Vijaykumar? Or how about any one of the wonderful BN dancers right there in the USA?
After so much negativity and mudslinging at my alma mater for more than 5 years, there was a month of good news. The March 13th tree planting initiative was a big success, with nearly 200 indigenous trees being placed into the earth after the devastating Cyclone Vardah in December last year. Immediately after, came the stunning sari exhibition where 15 of Rukmini Devi's favourite sarees were reworked and revived. What an amazing combination of colour, weave and design! I remember Athai and her generation of women wearing those daring contrasting colours and broad borders. I recall telling my mother NOT to send me Kalakshetra border saris during my years of television reporting. The image shot up to the waist did not reveal the sari colour since the border occupied the entire space below my shoulders! I remember owning my very first Kalakshetra sari - a special green with a navy blue border. I recall mothers going to RASI, the original Kanchipuram sari store in Mylapore and asking to see "Kalakshetra saris."
Now with this revival, Kalakshetra cannot keep up with the piling orders. My name is on the list. So should those of you who love saris and who want to own a piece of textile and dance history. When I drive past the entrance of the campus to my daily yoga class, I notice a brand new board advertising craft and art certificate classes. I am delighted that the focus is not solely on dance. Kalakshetra was founded on the brilliant holistic vision of an extraordinary woman and the fillip of the Theosophical Society where her husband George Arundale was a senior member. It was after his death in 1945 that the institution faced challenging times. To see an accumulation of such beauty in those revived silk saris and to meet the cluster of textile experts from across India was a timely reminder that the warp and weft that creates those magical 6 yards also weaves our checkered histories.
Quietly, with a gentle rattle, it moves - slithering between the prejudice and bigotry, the fiercely held positions and rigid dogma, "rattle snake art" has emerged to shake up the system that is increasingly leaning to the "ALT RIGHT". I am talking about 4 shows in 3 countries that have gone directly against the system and current political and social ideology.
In India, Mandeep Raikhy scored a stunning national coup by touring and performing his stunning 2 man hyper charged erotic show QUEEN SIZE. It was a direct response to the archaic law Article 377 that criminalizes homosexuality. 37 performances in 17 cities with almost 5000 people rocked to the core with its charged sexuality.
In Canada, Hari Krishnan upturned every preconceived notion of Asian-ness, Indian-ness and Orientalist optics in his eye popping presentation that had Toronto audiences smiling, gasping and on their feet. Playing on clichéd metaphors, archaic superstitions and marked satire, HOLY COW(S) was a wonderful choreographic response to Western stereotypes about India and Indians! In an earlier interview to Canadian media, Krishnan spoke of the idea being sparked by anger at being unable to question American choreographer Mark Morris about his Indian appropriation. Anger is always a good place for a creative trigger to begin from!
Days after Ramli's show came the feisty stand up comedienne JO ANN KAM. This Chinese Malaysian has become a superstar with her ribald humour and xxx rated scripts. The show I watched had 5 women- Sri Lankan Tamil, Singaporean Punjabi, and Malaysian-Chinese. Watching Asian women speak with unapologetic wit, sharp timing that would never be allowed into an elite salon, they dismantled every myth and stereotype about marriage, tiger moms, men, food fetishes and dating. I have never laughed nonstop for 2 hours in a long time. It was both cathartic and refreshing!
It is this kind of quiet but determined creativity and commitment that can show resistance to a world increasingly titling one way and refusing to accommodate diversity. This silent but deadly slithering - like a rattle snake - is the only way daring art can continue. One does not have to strike... but continue to move, finding pathways, never staying still.
Quite different from cinema where the latest man-love film KA BODYSCAPES is stuck with censors. The wonderful LIPSTICK UNDER MY BURKHA is also banned in India but New Yorkers have a chance to watch it at the upcoming Indian Film Festival. Cinema is in full glare of the public. Dance and theatre can slither quietly - like dandelions - between the hard stone, finding the cracks.
#A SMILE DIMMED
March marked the passing of a favourite woman and guru. Neila Sathyalingam (born in 1938), dynamic dreamer and choreographer- founder of Apsaras Arts in Singapore and multiple award winner was a crucial figure in my dance career in my late teens. She helped me navigate the stern and sometimes intimidating atmosphere at Kalakshetra and my back breaking classes with Sarada Hoffman. Often reduced to tears after an hour of sitting in araimandi or muzhumandi, Neila and her daughters - Mohana and Nandana - would make me laugh and feed me home made marzipans. Neila Mami, as she was fondly called by her Singaporean students and admirers, was a modernist - always looking for fresh ideas, bold experimentation and attractive visualization. While working with her on the dance opera KANNAGI in 1998, I watched how she conducted classes and shared her vision of dance as both spectacle and art. While Apsaras Arts continues under the professional stewardship of Aravinth Kumaraswamy, Neila Sathyalingam was the glue that held so many different temperaments together. Atma Shanti.
# NEW YEAR SYMBOL
April brings us a brand new year to several communities - Tamil, Bengali, Thai... It also marks WORLD DANCE DAY on April 29th. Lord Rama's birth star (who remembers Sita's?) I take my restless feet across the waters to the USA where I deliver a talk in Houston and 4 days of performances as part of FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH project. It is the first time that dance patron and facilitator Rajika Puri was invited to curate the entire series with Indian dancers in the USA. Started in 1998 by Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham, this democratic device is often described as "the heart and history of dance" and aims to bring outstanding dancers and choreographers of all ages together in the celebration of dance and spoken word theatre.
Horse's Mouth JP2013 - Jason Samuels Smith and Pablo Francisco Ruvalcaba
Keep those feet tapping... keep that heart singing... and keep your spirits buoyant.
This is a time of disruption. This is also a time of opportunity
So keep those peripheral visions alive. Watch for those opportunities.
Seize them. Make them count.
With love and admiration for all that we do across the universe
Until next time...
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/New York/Houston/San Francisco
Blog: THE A LIST /
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