October 1, 2018
My castle, formed by bows of light
I led my armies to the field of existence
Melodic voices, my banners in the eternal war
Fine threads, my armour in the fluid body
- Greek designer Ionna Kourbella
You are all reading this as I am en route back home after a 5 week tour of two continents.
What does it mean to tour? To pack and unpack all the elements of costume, props, sets and SELF from one theatre to another? From one city to another? From hot and humid to dry and windy? What kind of toll does it take when you are not accompanied by a core team who understands and anticipates your needs? How do you communicate and coordinate the social, technical and artistic demands of the work, each time to a new set of people?
It has been exhausting, rewarding, irritating, gratifying, uplifting, depressing but overall, FULFILLING!
#1st stop DURBAN, South Africa
Some of my friends' circle may have already seen the stunning images by Val Adamson from the Durban shows.
The stage crew led by Julie Ballard of Hubbard Street Theatre in Chicago was a perfect blessing!
I did not have to do a single thing. Each prop was placed in position, set hung and fixed, lights adjusted and focused, Gobos installed and mikes tested.
We had a complete run through of the show 5 hours before opening night.
NOTE TO SELF- It is very rare for a dancer in India to have this level of support. Except ITFOK, the wonderful theatre festival in Trissur, Kerala. To just walk in and have everything already prepared and ready for a run through? Wow!
Besides the 2 performances, I conducted a breath and movement workshop for a mix of Indians, South Africans (Zulu) and white Afrikaners. This Rainbow Nation that Mandela prided himself upon is coming apart. There were some Zulu South Africans in the audience who had never heard Carnatic music before and were heard mocking singer Sharanya Krishnan's beautiful voice. In a city that is home to the largest Indian community outside India, it is shocking that the workshop students had NEVER seen Bharatanatyam or Kathak. And they had never heard of Bollywood!
What is the local Indian community doing about that?
Besides being notoriously racist and insular, we Indians are to blame for the ghetto like mentality and the huge anti-Indian backlash that I heard about during my weeklong visit. We were discouraged from walking alone, carrying our cell phones in visible view, hiding our handbags while driving since there was an epidemic of SMASH AND GRAB at traffic lights. With shops closing at 4.30pm daily, evenings were isolated except in pubs and sports bars where the Zulus looked at us in Indian finery with open curiosity/mockery.
Walking into restaurants and bars with faces painted and flamboyant headgear, I felt the rise of Black Nationalism like an open challenge to all other skin colours. As if to say, GET OUT OF OUR LAND.
It was the delicious energy of JOMBA and the stellar activism of creator Lliane Loots that has kept this event going for 20 years. Her sheer drive, zest and passion for contemporary dance and her will power to help the Zulu kids who live in the most poverty stricken, gun-shot ridden world is truly admirable. Lliane has been jailed for her activism against apartheid and the goodwill she has created in her home town is a palpable reality.
Sharanya Krishnan and L Subhasri learned a great deal about team spirit, stage setting, prop placement and the striking and packing up after the event. Normally, singers in India don't bother with any of these aspects. It is during touring that we really get to know one another beyond rehearsals and performances.
#2nd stop METUCHEN, New Jersey, USA
I always get off a flight and await my baggage at the carousel with trepidation and relief. When the luggage arrives, it is a huge exhale! My costumes and various paraphernalia are so vital to the performances and it is very difficult to cram everything into my hand luggage with increasing restrictions.
The performance at the historic 90 year old FORUM THEATRE in quaint Metuchen was a contrast to the Durban experience. Not renovated for several years, the lack of many lights and sound requirements were somewhat compensated by the alacrity and warmth of the hosts and volunteers. Don't get me started on the horrendous green rooms and toilets! Disgusting!
Traveling solo without my two women team of Sharanya and Subhasri (visas are getting increasingly tough for the USA), I was joined by the enthusiastic dancer/singer TANIYA PANDA of Atlanta. In 24 hours, she learned the music, movements and segues for the props and other interventions. Yes, it was not easy for a classical dancer trained beautifully by A Lakshman, to handle so many new aspects at once, but Taniya rose to the challenge.
Her melodious voice, calm presence and willingness to learn was a huge plus factor to the performance. Taniya made instant fans and I expect her to be visiting the East Coast more often.
As a fund raiser for Kerala Floods, the 400 seat auditorium was almost full with many making the trip from NYC, Washington DC, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. A huge thank you to my favourite choreographer and friend of 24 years, Hari Krishnan, for being there along with Kasi Aysola (hair and makeup), Kiran Rajagopalan (stage and lights) and my daughter Arya Rajam (who was handling sound for the very first time!).
#3rd, 4th and 5th stop DENVER TAMPA CHICAGO
Colorado Fine Arts (CFA) was the first organisation that made this USA tour happen. Led by Ajay Chankramath and Vishy Lakshmanan, this pro active team made my very first visit to the MILE HIGH CITY a true pleasure. Addressing freshman students at the University of Boulder on the ICONOGRAPHY AND HISTORY OF DANCE - A performative paper on FEMINISM AND NEW DANCE IN INDIA at another university and finally performing A MILLION SITAS to a very appreciative Denver audience - 4 days filled with talk, dance, ideas and inspiration. This kind of fullness of experience in a city is what makes my travels worthwhile. And of course, several trips to Whole Foods Market!
In TAMPA, I was meeting (actually reuniting) with presenter Sheila Pitchumoni Narayanan, whose arangetram I emceed 35 years ago in New Jersey! A student of film star Padmini, Sheila has a successful dance academy and her meticulous approach to organisation was a boon. Between her attentive students and a professional tech crew hired for the event, the show was both smooth and stress free for me and new team member Snigdha Venkataramani. The Florida warmth and laid back lifestyle was just what I needed after criss crossing this giant country.
Flying into Chicago was a welcome change to the intense heat of Colorado and Florida. Finally I could wear my jackets, coats and booties - what I look forward to when I leave the humidity of Chennai. A day spent in walking around the city and walking into the amazing Chicago Museum of Art was like an energy shot! The SALVADOR DALI Museum in Florida was also a reminder about this Spanish artist's shocking creativity.
The Dominican Theatre was by far the most beautiful space I performed in for the entire tour.
A great student team kept pace with me every step of the way, and ensured that the final show was as fulfilling for everyone.
My performance improved gradually every time. The narrative and transitions were smoother. I continued to expand the narrative and take more chances with space and props symbolism. Both singers, Taniya and Snigdha became more and more comfortable with the new experience of handling props while singing and being true to the work as collaborators and story tellers. Snigdha's voice and performance in Tampa and Chicago won rave reviews and, like Taniya, I expect her to get many invitations to return to the Windy City!
Interesting comments arose from my performance. My depiction of Surpanakha was compared to the racist bias towards dark skinned women in the US today. The recently concluded US Open tennis tournament saw the ugly incident involving Serena Williams and the chair umpire. Confident outspoken women like Serena and Surpanakha are often "mutilated", physically or verbally by society and the media. The Chicago performance occurred in the heat of the sexual abuse allegations against a US judge Kavanaugh. Morality, male petulance, patriarchal pouting - race privilege - all seemed to find an echo in A MILLION SITAS.
Two young women, born in the USA, defended Rama's misogynistic comments to Sita after the war when he demanded proof of her chastity by saying SITA IS HIS SUBJECT FIRST AND ONLY THEN HIS WIFE! RAMA WAS RIGHT! SITA SHOULD NOT HAVE OVER REACTED!
This from 20 something girls in 2018!
In New Jersey, some women dressed in silk and finery with fake accents were stopped from recording the performance with selfie sticks! Such uncouth behaviour and so inconsiderate! And only from Indians watching another Indian performance! Try that at a ballet or a Broadway show!
Why is it that we devalue our own art and thereby all the hard work and creativity of our artistes? Organizers have to work harder to enforce discipline when there is apparently very little in the NY/NJ audience.
I spent two full days taking down the illegal video posted on social media after the New Jersey show. What a hassle!
In each city, it was the NRI Indian community that hosted me. I stayed in beautiful homes and was treated most graciously by all. Listening to some horror stories about bad behaviour from Carnatic musicians and dance orchestra made me cringe. It seems that universally, dancers are better behaved, more adjusting and easier to handle. Sometimes the dancer is forced to apologise to the host for the bad behaviour of their orchestra. Drinking, demanding Indian channels on TV, refusing to do their laundry, asking for snacks at all odd hours, free shopping trips to the mall, secret private concerts that violate contracts - each story was worse than the other. And yes, purist musicians who were actually closet gays prowling for prey! Pathetic and disgusting! Hats off to these professionals who continue to open their homes and invite so many artistes who turn their lives upside down! All in the name of supporting Indian culture!
Audiences for my tour were small but dedicated. From 250 to 400 attended in each city and standing ovations were spontaneous and heartfelt.
Except in Chicago, every performance started late due to traffic jams caused by a local football game, Ganesh idol immersion in temples, a Bollywood show, a bachelorette party, a wedding, a SWEET 16 celebration or Pre Navaratri parties. It seems like the Indian diaspora live from one party to another! Arts are the casualty! With performances organised only on weekends means that the days in between were totally empty. That is why I appreciate presenters who try to create other opportunities for an artiste like me. Interventions in old age homes, academia, outdoor sites, galleries, museums - these can happen during the week and helps create a template for audience development. As the NRI Rasika ages, it is time for first generation presenters to rethink their audience demographic and include younger mainstream audiences for Indian arts.
#CRAZY RICH AND RACIST
I watched a short clip of diva Vyjayantimala speak about her childhood and deep connection with the Tamil poet saint Andal. This event was in Singapore for the DANCE INDIA ASIA PACIFIC annual immersion week. The very next day, I happened to see the current global hit film CRAZY RICH ASIANS, which focuses on a super spoilt Singaporean Chinese family with all their dysfunctional racism. How offensive it was to watch the only Indians in the film as goofy security guards and a couple of Malay maids! All in non speaking roles! I wonder if the DANCE INDIA conference organisers and participants could have reflected and perhaps responded with an improvisation about race and prejudice rather than the iconic KRISHNA NEE BEGANE BARO?
And do classical dancers really know the difference between Improvisation and Innovation?
I was upset to see a photo of this legend in a wheelchair at Changi airport! Neither Vyjayanti Akka nor the photographer should permit these moments of vulnerability! We realise airports are never ending walkathons, but let us protect our icons!
Singapore is perplexing. Is it sufficient for the bejewelled Bharatanatyam dancer to be featured on a poster displaying Singapore's multi cultural face, while relegating the industrious community to temples, festivals and Serangoon Road feasts? Why are the affluent expat Indians not willing to support the traditional arts? This new batch of Singapore residents, who live in grand homes, do not attend performances by visiting classical dancers and musicians, and prefer to party at Marina Bay Sands, like in the movie, dressed in LBD's and Prada. However, many South Indian parents DO send their kids to BN class to teachers whose husbands also work in banking or finance! "Let's maintain the status quo, shall we? Let's not mingle with those natives!" This is a lose-lose situation. Neither the art nor the Indian community can gain from this kind of inward racism! No wonder the Singaporean Chinese smirk at us!
The season for arangetrams has concluded. Musicians are back in India with a cool 25 to 40 thousand dollars in their pockets. Parents are scratching their thinning hair in exasperation. Annual vacations stand cancelled until the loans are paid. Now, do the dance gurus, who conduct these summer extravaganzas, also encourage their 'sishyas' to watch other dance shows? Will these young (mostly) women translate into tomorrow's audience? Why has the Arangetram become such a showy sham?
Sifting through my archives, I came across the simple invitation of a young girl set amidst a lotus flower. It was the 1980 Arangetram invitation from Singapore for 8 year old Kavitha Krishnan, student of my Kalakshetra guru Neila Sathyalingam. I recall being told every detail of the grand evening, resplendent by the quality of the dancing and the musicians - not by the dinner menu!
The grand orchestra, led by Neila's husband, musician Sathyalingam was a dancer's dream.
9 items choreographed by Neila and Adyar K Lakshman, a special LOTUS/Alapadma ALARIPPU, and mridangist Karaikudi Krishnamurthy as the percussionist watching his very first dance composition - a Tillana in Valachi- come to life. It was Neila's very first arangetram event after she moved to Singapore and established APSARAS ARTS. The evening also raised 10,000 dollars for the Spastics Society of Singapore!
What a sea change to the present day scenario!
#GOLDEN DHANANJAYANS @50
Here I must state that the dynamic chemistry of the couple has kept this team alive and vibrant. It is Shanta Akka's calm demeanour that held the institution together while VPD's fiery temperament forged the path for hundreds of male dancers today. His fitness mantra, based on annual Ayurvedic retreats, is a lesson for today's paunchy, overweight male dancers.
Team Narthaki salutes the couple and wishes them good health and energy for the years ahead.
Without his expert cut, none of us stepped onto the stage. DS AIYYELU, the legendary dance costumer is not with us but his son and heir, Sivakumar, is determined to remind us of his legendary father's contribution to classical dance. Aiyyelu's unerring eye would transform silk fabric into beautiful dance costumes that were worn by many legendary dancers. I remember him looking at one of my wedding saris that my mother wished to transform into a costume and saying flat out "NO. I WILL NOT CUT A WEDDING SARI". He would refuse to accept a fabric or a sari that he thought would not suit me. Numerous dancers trusted him completely. There were many moments when mothers would stand outside his little shop, opposite SIET COLLEGE in Chennai, waiting for the finished costume while their daughters were all made up and ready in their lingerie in the green room! Literally!
It is AIYYELU's 90th birth anniversary and we need to take a moment to remember this unassuming genius!
# 100 markers
Balasaraswati's 100th is being marked in New York City early next year and grandson Aniruddha is celebrating the occasion this December in Chennai.
Time for a dance quiz for our millennials. Dancers who are under 30 need a quick history lesson on
WHO IS BALASARASWATI
WHO IS MRINALINI SARABHAI
WHO IS RUKMINI DEVI ARUNDALE
WHO IS BANGALORE NAGARATNAMMA
WHO IS E KRISHNA IYER
With Bharatanatyam now saturated globally, it is getting more and more difficult to separate oneself from the herd. It feels like a never ending WILDEBEEST CROSSING. A giant swathe of pounding feet and blinding force going nowhere! The physical posturing, chest thrust, legs splayed, aggressive movements are all on the rise as if to say LOOK AT ME. I AM IT.
Meanwhile we are mostly looking at our hand helds, swiping left and wondering what next outfit or bauble to order online or our next meal!
I heard about Alarmel Valli's cancelled US tour due to ill health and wish her a speedy recovery!
Revathi Ramanchandran's production JAGAT PAVANI GANGA was also on a USA tour with mostly positive responses.
Asia Society is preparing to present 3 Indian choreographers who are DISRUPTERS. NICE!
PECDA, founded and produced by Prakriti Foundation, hosted its annual contemporary dance showcase in Chennai with 100 dancers who gathered for the 3 day event. As disturbing news circulated about the founder, we hope that Indian contemporary dance can continue to be supported and encouraged without interruption in the coming years.
Several independent dancers and gurus from India were lodged in various USA basements - teaching, choreographing and hoping/waiting for performance gigs. Kudos to their relentless stamina. How many days can one continue to consume curd rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, stale pizzas, potato chips and endless pasta while being away from home!
Meanwhile, Facebook has become somewhat of a danger. Open it and you are BLUDGEONED with dancers sharing videos, rehearsal footage, intimate secrets, new born babies, karaoke impressions and what not! The FACEBOOK LIVE component and the Instagram video capability means that all dancers can post almost any aspect of their performance and rehearsal in short bursts. So much is blather so my finger swipes and I move on. No point in responding since each post already has fans like a swarm of fawning bees!
Mythili Prakash is the universal icon for all US based dancers. Her global success is a horizon that all want to reach.
Ragamala Dance Company of Minnesota is the envy of all dancers. Their US success, and now embarking for a global footprint, is phenomenal. What they have achieved this past decade has many gasping at the speed and force of their drive! Don't look too closely at their content and PR blather. Your eyebrows will not unknot!
California seems to be the hub of creative activity for Indian dance. Beyond the saturation, politicking and sniping, this one state has more Indian academics, teachers, performers and innovators than any other in the USA.
The standards of classical dance in the USA have improved dramatically. Musicians are excellent and many are making a mark with collaborations in the areas of jazz, symphony and western composers.
I listened to a wonderful album called CALLING ALL DAWNS, arranged by Christopher Tin in which Taniya Panda and Roopa Mahadevan sang a Sanskrit chant at Lincoln Centre, New York. It was an amazing audio experience and something that both young women, born in the USA, can feel tremendously proud of!
# 9 DAYS 9 NIGHTS
The festival season is here!
Having missed the charming rituals of Ganesh Chaturthi and Krishna Jayanti due to the US tour, I am so delighted to be back home and awaiting the swish of silks and smiles in the air. Navaratri is upon us. It is the days of HER BLISS. Music, visiting homes and watching lavish displays of dolls and mythological scenes, delicious snacks, gossip (never goes out of style!) and catching up with my gal pals makes this my favourite time of the year!
The 18th of October is the tenth day... VIJAYADASAMI. As the idol of MA DURGA is taken for HER annual immersion in the waters, thousands and thousands of students across the globe will begin their journey in dance and music. To all those young lives who have chosen to experience the glorious magic of the performing arts - congratulations!
To all teachers everywhere, who will meet young minds and begin to mould them through the live arts, here's wishing you continued energy and enthusiasm. May you be blessed with good health and good students.
May HER grace saturate us with hope
May HER wisdom seep into our skin
May HER courage shatter all barriers
Until next month
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Mumbai/Kuala Lumpur
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
I found Anita Ratnam's column very interesting: where a modern mind is surveying the traditional dance scene, with very intelligent commentary!
- Dr.Utpal K Banerjee (Oct 1, 2018)
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