December 1, 2017
"Everything comes to us that belongs to us, if we create the capacity to receive it."
- Rabindranath Tagore
And just like that we come to the end of another year
Eleven months of whirling around the globe, sharing, teaching, learning, watching, discussing, applauding and DANCING.
It is this month when thousands of artistes and art groupies descend upon my city to soak in the month long festival of performances. This is the time for dancers to glisten, glimmer and glide through crowds like a shimmering scythe - cutting through audiences who will gape, stare, admire and covet our very special aura that we will exude.
Sitting in the ancestral home in my native village - deep in southern Tamilnadu - I look back on the year that was... another year... but not like just another... it has been a time when the #METOO campaign has resulted in a literal purge of the US entertainment industry and in India we are also coming to grips with our deep rooted prejudice and fear of male privilege in the arts and society.
We are witnessing a hyper-nationalism and any whisper of dissent or argument is being construed as unpatriotic.
The arts are under attack more than ever.
Remember the killing of theatre activist Sardar Hasmi on the streets of New Delhi...
Recall the mutilation of guitarist Victor Jarra in Chile by dictator Pinochet...
What happened in November? Plenty... So let's begin to wrap my head and my galloping fingers across the keyboard.
#NEW DANCE IN MUMBAI
The PADME team performed the final show of the 3 year mentoring programme at the NCPA Contemporary Dance Festival. Ticket prices were adjusted to accommodate the ridiculous 28% GST tax surcharge and we had a good hall with a very engaged audience. Carrying her 9 month old daughter Dhanak was lighting designer Deepa Dharmadhikari, who executed a flawless plan with the limited time given. Two new works were performed in a triple bill evening - one of which was my expanded solo PRISM... a personal movement diary on life and loss.. I foregrounded the performance with a short introduction on my work that was both highly appreciated and served as an entry point for the evening. It was heartening to see senior dancers, writers and friends who had watched my work evolve over the years and the single take away from most was "the power and possibility of stillness and a distilled focus on simplicity and the essence of the moment."
A special SHOUT OUT to the two dynamos who are powering the NCPA cultural space - Swapnokalpa Dasgupta and the eternal Benaifer Besunia. Without these two, everything comes to a full stop!
And yes... the Golden Gals of PADME. The senior four - Meenakshi, Keertana, Vandana and Sukruti have been the pillars through the entire process. Congratulations and good luck with the future!
Just as I was writing this edition of my monthly musings, news poured in of the historic win for a classical dancer on the world stage. MISS WORLD is now from India- Kuchupidi dancer Manushi Chillar. A student of Raja and Radha Reddy in New Delhi, it is a welcome moment for dancers to applaud a beautiful colleague win the coveted crown 17 years after Priyanka Chopra. The Reddys' social media platforms were buzzing and aglow with pride at this singular honour bequeathed to one of their own..
And has anyone had the opportunity to visit the new high tech/opulent performance centre of the Reddys in New Delhi? From all reports, it is a beautiful building designed and constructed with an eye to the future!
#CONTEMPORARY or QUASI MODERN?
Aditi Mangaldas in INTER_RUPTED
Years ago, star dancer Aditi Mangaldas made national news when she turned down the prestigious Government of India's national award for contemporary dance. This brilliant performer argued her case by stating emphatically that she was performing KATHAK and NOT contemporary dance in her stellar productions. The Kathak and dance community did not agree and her desire to have the category changed from Contemporary to Classical was not granted. And rightly so.
In my post performance discussion with Aditi at the premiere of INTER_RUPTED in Mumbai, I asked her the same question. "Why does she resist the nomenclature of contemporary to describe her work?" Her answer was that "contemporary dance needs a whole new set of training tools." Really? Then what are you doing, Aditi? Training yourself and your dancers in many different directions that classical Kathak artistes are NOT doing.
Does rolling on the ground, sliding on the stage, groping and grasping in the air all represent "classical Kathak?" INTER_RUPTED had all that and more. And then one might ask - What is classical? But that is not the discussion here. It is Aditi's stance that is riddled with holes. Now comes news that Aditi has been nominated as one of the soloists for her recent UK performance of INTER_RUPTED. In the CLASSICAL DANCE/KATHAK category! Anyone who has watched this new production can argue that what Aditi was doing was certainly NOT classical Kathak but the Brits certainly think so! If she does win... and Aditi deserves many awards - this will again throw up a whole slew of questions.
Who defines what is classical and contemporary? On whose terms? And from what optic?
Aditi has expressed delight and thrill at the very honour of being nominated. Her large fan following will be delighted at this new honour. However, the sour taste left behind amongst the committee members of the Sangeet Natak Akademi who selected her for the CONTEMPORARY/CREATIVE DANCE AWARD is not forgotten. Is whatever happens outside India okay even if the category is plainly wrong but to be selected and awarded by her seniors and peers in India not worthy enough to accept?
Also in London are raving about Mythili Prakash's performance at the DARBAR festival. Comments are pouring in about her style, technique and incandescence. I did speak about what a special dancer Mythili is and I am personally delighted at her rigour and immersion in the world she so obviously loves - Bharatanatyam. While reading Sanjoy Roy's beautifully articulated review, I realised that to programme classical dance needs both careful FRAMING and STAGING. To have the now iconic Akram Khan (who can do no wrong in British eyes) curate the event, open the evening with a dramatic lit match against a breathtaking set design, sets the tone for what is to follow. No longer can classical dance be presented AS IS. There is so much work that has to be done to re-establish the context and intention of both the form and its presence on the modern world stage.
Artistes like myself know the increasing challenge that we face across the world. While basement gurus and high school auditoriums are filled with ARANGETRAM hordes, the professional classical dancer has to teach, conduct workshops and conduct more and more outreach activities to offset a single evening's work on stage.
In Atlanta for a theatre conference, I laughed myself silly while listening to a dance colleague describe a local guru who insists on being seated on stage during the arangetram on a large couch in a reclining position. At the appointed time, the parents of the debuting dancer then proceed to wash the guru's feet with milk and saffron water!!!!!! Whaaaat?
And another NRI dancer practicing for her arangetram in Bengaluru, stops the nattuvangam artiste after the long "varnam jathi" and looks to her family as if to say "THIS IS WHERE YOU HAVE TO APPLAUD!" And promptly rehearses the "applause section" again! WHAAAAT???
My weeklong visit to this charming southern city was for an intensely engaged theatre event that saw students congregate from across the USA and overseas. I was co-presenting a paper about gender fluidity titled FLOODS OF DESIRE, focusing on the rapturous poetry of the Tamil Vaishnava saint poets. The level of interest, engagement and subsequent questioning left my co-presenter Dr. Ketu Katrak (University of California, Irvine) and yours truly stunned and satisfied. For too long we have felt that western theological studies ignored anything that did not fit neatly into their own world view and diversity was either ignored or treated as the "exotic other." I will expand this idea later this month for the NATYA KALA CONFERENCE under the stewardship of Srinidhi Chidambaram
#SRINGARAM - Is it relevant anymore?
The title of the 36th Natya Kala Conference in Chennai is provocative. What is the use of love in the age of DIGITAL DISTRACTION? Is the concept of SRINGARAM, the KING OF RASAS, even relevant anymore? Over 5 long morning sessions - starting from December 26th - convenor Srinidhi Chidambaram has curated an admirably diverse range of speakers and presenters. Opening with the ubiquitous and diva mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, the conference will have Vairamuthu, the popular Tamil film lyricist, music historian V Sriram, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam in tandem with her long time collaborator Alarmel Valli and witty humorist Lakshmi Viswanathan who will add her spirited presence to the mix.
Last year, Srinidhi Chidambaram surprised most of the dance world with her measured and professional demeanour and handling of the conference events. This year, the expectation is greater since the bar she has set needs to be maintained and hopefully, raised.
At a time when the very word LOVE/SRINGARAM is so fractured and ruptured by gender, caste, politics and global incidents, I anticipate and hope for some assertive questioning and hope that the audience participation is interactive in the most progressive way. Especially in the present atmosphere of LOVE JIHAD and ROMEO SQUADS roaming Indian streets bent on violence.
#CUT OFF HER NOSE - #PADMAVATI FURY
And the eternal tale continues to morph into so many avatars. The most recent being the threat from a Rajasthan Right wing group to mutilate film heroine Deepika Padukone's nose a la SUrpanakha, the sister of Emperor Ravana in the Ramayana. The brouhaha began when a rumour circulated about the story being of Muslim invader Allauddin Khilji falling in love with Rajput Hindu Queen Padmavati of Mewar. The film sets were trashed in two states, death threats issued to the director and the actress and the release delayed - all over some bloated misguided chauvinistic sense of outrage. The entire nation came to a halt in discussions about immolation, sati, honour, war, prestige and "Rajasthani pride!" In the context of history and the gruesome reality of women becoming the tragic spoils of war, the Rajput women chose to commit suicide. Commenting on this moment in history as "cowardice" is unfair and inaccurate. Anyone who has read the famous TROJAN WOMEN, a 5th century BC Greek play by Euripides or Homer's epic THE ILLIAD will feel their blood curl with the horror and cruelty that the women and children of Troy faced after their defeat at the hands of the marauding Greek army. It will bring tears of anguish and rage to anyone who reads this classic.
Why can't all nation leaders take a cue from Macron, the President of France? He has now initiated a national programme to sensitize and shame all those who prey on women. Titled BALANCE TON PORC- EXPOSE THE PIG, the country's leader is calling for official legislation in the wake of the US led #METOO expose. In India, can we ever hope to be this mature and firm in dealing with gender violence?
Now let's lighten up the mood with the lyrical dancing of Deepika Padukone in the adaptation of the Rajasthani Ghoomar dance from the film Padmavati. Gorgeous visuals and great dancing! Some lessons from Guru Maya Rao in her early days combined with her athleticism wired into her genes seem to have helped Deepika.
In a real moment of personal reckoning, a Facebook alert from arts producer Sumathi Krishnan in Sydney, introduced me to some of the most beautiful dancing I have seen in a long time. A short film featuring the reclusive and brilliant dancer and guru from Kerala, Manu Master, born Abdul M was a reaffirmation of the beauty and power of Bharatanatyam when done with mature simplicity and pace. Watching this helped me forget the abysmal videos that are on social media and the low levels to which my favourite dance form has descended into...
This is truly a deeply felt moment.
#KUCHIPUDI IN CHAOS
With Andhra Pradesh and Telangana fighting over their own classical dance styles, Kuchipudi has been appropriated by Andhra and Telangana is furiously working to establish Kakatiya Natyam and Perini as the dance form of their newly constituted state. The last time I watched Perini was at the PURUSH festival in 2013, a co-curatorial venture with Hari Krishnan. The result was disappointing and here I am being polite. As for Kakatiya Natyam, let's wait and see how vested interests "draw" from various Sanskrit and ancient texts to "establish authenticity and antiquity!"
As of now, Kuchipudi itself is in a state of utter chaos. The few good performers in the largely mediocre field need to be suitably alarmed if this vivacious dance form is to hold its own against the onslaught of so many pressures.
#THE OTHER FESTIVAL 10 years later
It is already a whole decade since the last edition of the now prophetic THE OTHER FESTIVAL ended. I cannot imagine reviving this kind of an event in the world we live in today. Instead, it will need a whole lot more money and a programming mix like Goa's SERENDIPITY ARTS FESTIVAL, where dance is thrown into the mix of film, food, fashion, art, words, music and general all round MASTI. What THE OTHER FESTIVAL accomplished in its 9 years of existence from 1998 to 2007 was to put contemporary dance and theatre on the national map. It kept performance as its focus with little other distractions. Produced every December - in the same month as the annual Chennai music and dance extravaganza, it managed to attract enormous media and public attention with its bold and imaginative programming. Today, young crowds are difficult to attract. Our city roads are mostly choked with traffic and potholes and audiences want to make a lifestyle choice of combining arts and recreation with their limited time.
A few events and thoughts in bullet points...
Zakir Hussain presented a very sincere depiction of TIRUMANGAI ALWAR but his bulging biceps distracted from his attempt to be feminine as the Alwar had imagined.
Kavitha Ramu, dancer and bureaucrat has assumed charge of TAMILNADU museums. Now can we see how she can animate these precious spaces.
Prathibha Prahlad has completed yet another edition of her high profile DIAF.
Sandhya Mendonca has successfully initiated THE RAINTREE FESTIVAL, a multi arts event in Bengaluru.
A popular columnist for this portal and a witty performer, Lakshmi Viswanathan receives the renamed dance award NATYA KALANIDHI from the Madras Music Academy.Why have Vyjayantimala, Kumari Kamala and Yamini Krishnamurthy not been considered?
Kathak and contemporary performer Vikram Iyengar has launched THE PICKLE FACTORY, a dedicated dance and movement arts collective in Kolkata. The organisation will revive two abandoned buildings with rich architectural and social history via a national festival in February 2018.
Mandeep Raikhy/GATI is creating an intense 4 month BODY SPACE TIME project that includes a certificate course, commissions and a journal. In July 2018, GATI will launch a Masters Degree in Contemporary Dance at Ambedkar University.
Caste issues emerge again on cue for the December cultural season. This time it is against the recent negative comments against musicians MS Subbulakshmi and Saint Tyagaraja by musician TM Krishna.
Kalakshetra enters December without a new Director to guide and give it a vision.
Chennai has been declared UNESCO CREATIVE CITY OF MUSIC. Usha RK led the effort.
#MISSING ARAIMANDI IN MANDI HOUSE
This is the birth centenary of the great Tanjavur Balasaraswati
Also the birth centenaries of T Mahalingam Pilla and Sivanandan Pillai
It is the 150th anniversary of the grand matron of the Tanjavur Bani, Veena Dhanammal
It is also the 250 birth anniversary of the musical saint composer Tyagaraja
What is happening at a national level? Tanjavur is at the centre of all this great talent and New Delhi is comatose! The national body for the arts and culture has not unveiled any plans for commemorating or marking these amazing artistes and the cultural hub of South India.
AH SU RA...
This is my newest offering for the season. AH SU RA. Reuniting with my long term collaborators of 22 years, Hari Krishnan and visual maverick Rex, I share the evening with two celebrated soloists, Geeta Chandran and Sharmila Biswas. Soon after receiving the news of my national award in June this year, I spoke to Geeta Chandran to wish her for having been selected for the Bharatanatyam award. I suggested the possibility of sharing the evening and it soon became the possibility of a triptych - a triple bill where 3 mature women share an evening without being forced to create jugalbandis or trigalbandis... We each chose one piece that was close to us. It happened to be characters from the RAMAYANA. I elaborate on the myth and contemporary resonances of AHalya... Sharmila performs her understanding of SUrpanakha and Geeta her recently celebrated RAvana.
The title itself plays on the names of the three characters. AH for Ahalya, SU for SUrpanakha and RA for Ravana.
In early Vedic times, the word ASURA meant king or ruler. It later became synonymous with demon. The Persians reversed this. AHURA was King or God and DEIVAS were the demons.
In essence Devas became acknowledged as the idol form for worship while ASURA/AHURA meant the formless or unseen!
In any event, AH SU RA does not play on either GOD or DEMON. It hopes to thread the silhouettes of these three often maligned, misunderstood and under-appreciated characters of the epic. I am excited to share the evening with women I admire and respect. I am assured of being amidst colleagues who believe in exemplary quality. I hope you can join us on one of the three days in this unique celebration of life, art and camaraderie through performance.
I am also excited to return to my favourite venue, KRISHNA GANA SABHA which has hosted each and every one of my premieres starting with SEVEN GRACES, NEELAM, FACES, MA3KA, A MILLION SITAS and now AH SU RA. It was also the same Sabha that honoured me with the prestigious NRITYA CHOODAMANI for Bharatanatyam in 1996, an award I cherish. It was Sri Yagnaraman, the Sabha's founder and the father of the present boss Sri Prabhu, who saw my restlessness and encouraged me to present "anything I felt passionately about" at the T Nagar stage!
To see the temple filled to the brim with pilgrims from all across India - many CEOs and several NRI South Indians wielding the latest cameras, phones and selfie sticks was a performance unto itself. KAISIKA NATAKAM has single handedly revived this magnificent temple town - Tirukurungudi - winner of the cleanest village in India before the national initiative of Swach Bharat was announced. To personally experience the power of performance, the value of art and live theatre blossom in the presence of a packed audience is a personal validation of what my stubborn persistence and tunnel visioned focus has yielded. To see the children of the village take to theatre arts with enthusiasm and emerge with short performances has increased their parents' belief in the arts as a personality building tool.
So as we sign off on a tumultuous year when politics inserted into the creative space at every available opportunity, let us safeguard our spirits from becoming coarse, cynical and morose.
Shine, shimmer and glisten...
Dance and embrace the fluttering butterfly within
Keep your mind abuzz and your heart as wide as the ocean
Celebrate... Margazhi, Vaikunta Ekadasi, Christmas, New Year's Eve
I sign off with big hug and a smile...
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
PS: While most dance performances in India are either free or by invitation New York's Joyce Theatre has initiated a PAY AS YOU FEEL policy. Audience enters for free and while leaving they can pay the amount of their choice!
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