August 1, 2015
Will dancers stop to think about the annual Music Academy awards that are given out in December? This year the prestigious Sangeeta Kalanidhi is being awarded to Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramaniam and the Natya Kala Acharya to Bharatanatyam artiste Alarmel Valli. The second award has been instituted less than 15 years ago and shows the schism between dance and music. Did you know that Balasaraswati was the only dancer to be awarded the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title by the Academy in 1973? Why has there been no dancer since to merit this award? Why has music been dislodged as an inseparable component of the dance learning and practice? With greater attention to the body, line, technique and the ephemeral "perfection" that is being sought, recorded music and ready make solutions seem the easy go-to option.
More and more young dancers in India and certainly in the USA lack the awareness and choreographic imprint of one particular style or teacher. We are witnessing a generation of generalists - dancers who flit from one workshop and weekend tutoring from a large smorgasbord of visiting performers, grazing at everything and digesting nothing. This emerged from my conversation with contemporary dancer Mandeep Raikhy at the GATI premises in New Delhi. Every year many apply for the opportunity to be mentored in contemporary dance techniques by a roster of respected professionals. Each passing year elicits less engagement and responses to the basic questions about choreography and intention. The malaise is everywhere. Less interest in process and more attention on the final product. Learn one "dance item" and drop that into the dance menu box. Next! With these trends, maybe it is time to reconfigure the familiar guru-sishya relationship. Guru Purnima Day should now include not just the first dance or music guru but the various teachers, mentors and life coaches that populate our creative lives.
Is there a true community of dancers bobbing about in our minds but not in reality? Is the idea of a dance community a mythical entity, floating in our minds but not a reality? Social media is filled with dancers posting their events on several dance pages but the question is WHO IS READING THEM? Are dancers discussing their friends' performances or even recommending other shows to watch? I don't see much interest on these pages except for self serving notices about who is dancing when and where along with a stream of missable comments. Can the newly formed DANCE UNION by GATI begin to address these lacunae in Indian dance? Can we engage within ourselves and other interested entities to create a web of dance lovers, supporters and dance advocates? We have to hope that it will be possible.
One topic that is sweeping across tongues in India is the return of Akram Khan. This British-Bangladeshi superstar of contemporary dance was first seen in 2000 at THE OTHER FESTIVAL at the MUSEUM THEATRE in Chennai. I remember meeting with Akram's manager Farookh Choudhry at the South Bank Cafe in London to discuss his India visit. I had been blown away after watching Akram and Mavin Khoo in NO MALE EGOS, a duet that brought the NAVADISHA 2000 conference in Birmingham to a close. THE OTHER FESTIVAL, India's first annual contemporary arts festival had just begun in 1998 and Akram was THE rising star of British dance. Inviting Akram was the natural option and he graciously said YES. I recall him rehearsing on the uneven stage of the Museum Theatre, smiling as we scrambled to create the most professional atmosphere and delighted as we watched the audience rise to their feet in a unanimous standing ovation.
Since then, Akram Khan has visited India many times, each tour demanding more money, pre-production and organization. Aditi Mangaldas has benefited with mentoring and collaboration inputs of his design team. While we are delighted to welcome Akram Khan once again to our shores with TORABAKA, many are questioning the cost -3 crore rupees - being spent on one marquee name. Companies who normally do not support dance are on the British Council roster and some organizers are already leapfrogging this sponsorship opportunity to get on the boards of international arts companies in Europe. Imagine what this money could do to commission, mentor and create a national network of dance presenters and venues? Can the jaw dropping technical efforts of TORABAKA inspire lighting designers to improve their craft? Can dancers who attend observe the supreme professionalism of the performance? One Kolkata based classical dancer was so UNimpressed with Akram's style that he pushed himself to explore new horizons with a choreographer and has since emerged with an interesting modern solo work. Even that kind of response is interesting. Can NPN (National Presenters Network) that exists in North America and Europe be created in India? Meanwhile we are resigned to our major festivals being curated by accountants, lawyers, doctors and travel agents. And of course, dancers who insert themselves into these events with no thought of conflict of interest. COI? Huh? Whazzat?
While questions swirled about the choice of a Tamil play in Kalakshetra's monthly performance calendar, the alumni is preparing to celebrate the birth centenary of Sanskrit scholar and teacher extraordinaire S Sarada. I was among the many fortunate students of this wonderful savant during my time spent at Rukmini Devi's dance academy. Peria Sarada teacher was a true giver - knowledge, time and attention - to all those who approached her. She dropped in our classes to observe each of us and patiently explained the meaning of each word with subtexts of the famous Telugu varnam RUPAMU JOOCHI. I remember her long fingers held in a gentle 'alapadma' hasta to show beauty and lustre. Even through her thick spectacles, we could feel the gentle waves of admiration and devotion of her glistening eyes. She was my guide for my Advanced Dance Theory courses and would spend the entire time discussing Sanskrit concepts and how Kalakshetra coalesced the philosophies of the Theosophical Society with Athai's (Rukmini Devi) modern approaches to Bharatanatyam. Sarada teacher was the researcher and backbone throughout the creation of the Ramayana dance series as well as the Dasavatar productions. Her research was meticulous and flawless, her attitude patient and humble. The biggest compliment she paid me was after a performance at the Music Academy in 1975. She came up to me and touched my sweaty cheeks saying, "Unakku Sthaayi bhaavam romba nanna nikkurudu" (your emotions are stable and convincing). The celebrations are scheduled for September 1 and I hope to share the experiences of publishing a volume titled NIRMALAM- The Genius of S Sarada. It was a book whose catalyst was Sundari teacher, another Kalakshetra loyalist. Without her constant push and my mother's urging, it may never have succeeded. NIRMALAM was released in 2005, on Sarada teacher's 90th birth anniversary.
Mythology will never die. Leftists, liberalists, new age thinkers - please note. Theatre genius Peter Brook returns to THE MAHABHARATA with his new play called THE BATTLE from one section of the great Indian epic. London's THE GUARDIAN newspaper reports that this play is being produced today since it speaks more urgently than ever about the times we live in. YOUNG VIC in London will play host in February 2016 to the latest magnum opus of the 90 year old director.
The latest volume on THE RAMAYANA by author AMISH called SCION OF ISHVAKU has sold 2 million copies in the fastest time span in India.
Tamil writer Kalki's epic PONNIYIN SELVAN - historical fiction set in the 12th century South India - ran for ten consecutive house full shows in Chennai commanding ticket prices of 3000 rupees a seat. This is the second year of the play and promises to become an annual feature.
BAHUBALI, the new Indian movie sensation that pays homage to James Bond, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones has smashed all box office records worldwide, sending shudders through smug Molly, Kolly, Tolly and Bollywood. A rip roaring adventure of kings and queens, intrigue and treachery, thrones and outcasts, this fictional story has black market tickets being sold as high as 10,000 rupees!
On the topic of movies, one of the smartest new films is INSIDE OUT, a delightful PIXAR animation about the mind and moods of a young 11 year old. The script harnesses the nine rasas. Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness play key roles and one scene harnesses the ideas of Abstraction, Linearity, Fragmentation, Memory and Dimensionality. These are dramatic and choreographic concepts being used today in modern dance and theatre. In the final scene, both Joy and Sadness hold hands to acknowledge that one needs the other for a complete experience! Delightful.
My friends and readers know that I spend my free time watching movies, TV shows and cooking episodes. A recent fixation has become the NETFLIX series THE CHEF's TABLE. A brilliant multi part series of men and women who have made an impact with unique eateries around the world. The hour long episodes discuss the philosophy of food and cooking. What struck me was how each chef thought of themselves first as artistes. Massimo Bottura, the Modena based Italian chef speaks of entering an art exhibit and watching an installation of crows and birds on the ceiling of the gallery. He thought,"Why can't I be that bird raining crap on the purists of Italian food?" And that is how the remarkable story of Osteria Francescana began. I am reminded of what a sensation Chandralekha caused among the conservative Madras community with her work in 1986. Among one of her sensational statements attributed to her was, "I am the pin prick on the smug backsides of Mylapore." Each of the chefs talk about craft, discipline, intention, alchemy, choreography, mood, emotion, beauty, sensorial impact, visual appeal and that dining must be a "total theatrical experience." Many of them live in remote areas and often undertake solo retreats, fasting, running, Ashtanga or Iyengar yoga, surf, swim and engage in physically challenging activities to stimulate their imaginations. Is that not what performing artistes considered their exclusive domain?
So, what is the future of bright young minds in dance today? More and more performers are turning to other avenues. Dance therapy and Dance Education are among the growing areas in India. I have met several talented performers who have veered off the performance circuit (impossible to sustain and support) into these allied areas. Nalini Prakash works in Washington DC with war veterans and other challenged individuals. Preeti Sunderrajan in Bangalore is fully immersed in Dance Education and is working with international trainers in several schools with encouraging results. Both good Bharatanatyam dancers, their commitment reveals a great future that is possible to bring social justice and the movement arts closer together. However, the sobering reality is that Indian society is going through a peculiar phase. As social thinker Amartya Sen observes, it is only in India that we think that one has to get rich first before doing good for others. Other successful examples have always reached out along the way to help the arts and human interest areas. How can we get the new generation of Indian dollar billionaires to divert some of their wealth towards the arts? As Mandeep Raikhy of GATI remarks, "Why does not Bollywood with its reliance on music and dance give 1% of its profits to the arts?" The question is out there like Arjuna's arrow, waiting to find its mark.
Social media, particularly Facebook often puts me in touch with younger musicians and actors who share their clippings with me. One recent share was from Mahesh Vinayakram, the hugely talented son of Ghatam genius Vikku Vinayakram of Chennai. Mahesh is a global world music artiste, travelling across continents for various stages, including spiritual music for meditation retreats. He has also composed for Aditi Mangaldas' recent works WITHIN. One of his recent tracks was TAMIL BOSSA for which an Indian dancer based in San Francisco has performed. Notice how the choreography has little or nothing to do with the mood or the lyrics of the piece. Any piece of music could have replaced Mahesh's track. This kind of work that crowns itself as "Indian contemporary dance" could add to the existing confusion about the growing genre in India. Mixing up jazz, some modern dance and floor movements with Bharatanatyam mudras passes off as contemporary dance in most Indian minds.
In contrast, watch performance artist Seema Kohli's film which does not make any pretense about beauty or form. This painter allows the camera to capture every aspect through the lens and her response to the environment and her immediate surroundings makes for much more interesting viewing.
Good news for contemporary dancers in India. The Singapore Arts Festival, led by Ong Keng Sen has selected Padmini Chettur, Preethi Athreya and Mandeep Raiky for its 2015 edition in September. In contrast, Salzburg Austria has invited classical dancer Alarmel Valli and Nadaswaram performer Injikudi Subramaniam to open their festival this month. Finally we are getting two contrasting images of dance from our country. Centuries coexist as India does!
Meanwhile, the USA continues its love affair with classical Indian dance. Minneapolis based Aparna Ramaswamy makes her debut at THE JOYCE in New York City in October with a Bharatanatyam solo. Nrityagram appears in the annual FALL FOR DANCE event in the Big Apple. DRIVE EAST, the annual August festival in NYC, displays a roster of mainly classical solos except for Madhu Nataraj's NATYA STEM DANCE KAMPNI with contemporary Kathak. A cornucopia of dances but mainly of one kind of patina.
As you read this, I will be flying back home across oceans. Coming up immediately is the launch of Ramli Ibrahim's new book QUINTESSENTIAL SUTRA (August 14th) which promises to be another design marvel. The tribute to my first dance guru RAJEE NARAYAN in Bombay is on August 16th and a revamp of my favourite NEELAM for Bombay audiences comes up soon after. While sifting through the many photos and videos of my dance life across decades, I have managed to retrieve some wonderful moments which I hope to share with readers in the coming months.
Continuing to grapple with the dilemma of too many hats....and too many balls in the air...
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Madras / Bombay / New Delhi
Blog: THE A LIST /
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