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April 1, 2013

Over the past few months, I have been receiving an increasing number of responses to my monthly musings. I share my opinions and views of many dance related issues as I watch, read and absorb them through my own travels and ruminations. There are hundreds of dance related blogs in cyberspace and many spew out a myriad views. To give me so much credit for "speaking out" may not be the entire picture. It is, perhaps, a venting of many frustrated dancers and their families against certain performers and organisers that emerges as a lurking shadow of opinion. Over the past several years, this website and the content editors have stayed the course of the original vision. To reflect the nature, personality and changing avatars of India's classical, neo classical, contemporary and now its multiple manifestations around the world. To remain fresh, original, objective (hopefully) and readable has not been easy. Over the years, the chorus of blame has quietened down and this site has become the GO TO cyber-venue for news and information about Indian dance. And through it all, I have tried to keep the monthly message as an independent and candid commentary of MY reflections. In art, as in life, I am a soloist.

And so on to the month that was.

March began with an installation and live art event ideated by mythologist and illustrator Devdutt Pattanaik and gallerist Sharan Apparao. Visiting the Apparao Galleries in Chennai, the much sought after writer and public speaker filled the white walls with his sketches of Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati LSD as he cheekily called his presentation. I responded with movement spurred on by the melodious voice of Anusha Pradeep. Ghatam percussion from an adjoining room beckoned me to walk into the second space where a black outlined sketch of a benign Durga surrounded by her many arms smiled in maternal affection from the walls. To contrast the gentle beauty of the Goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi, I assumed a mood of alert aggression. This was mildly objected to by the writer who, hailing from Orissa, reveres Durga as the maternal and loving mother. Here, I will claim creative licence to create a dramatic arc to an evening. Sameness palls. A gentle L, S and then again a nurturing D would not have brought shifts in moods, movements and sound design. And for South Indians, Durga is not a benign mother, taken to the waters for immersion accompanied by her children. Our memories of Mariamman and Vettudiya Kali are too vivid to simply disappear from creative interpretation. For someone who has always maintained that myths are not mere fairy tales but that deeper aspect of ourselves that is most compelling, this resurgence of interest in mythology through contemporary writing and across various media is most welcome.

The very next day, I plunged into rehearsals for the annual Mahasivaratri festival at ISHA YOGA near Coimbatore. Since 2003, I have been visiting the serene and beautiful ashram envisioned and dreamed into reality by spiritual leader Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev. Popularly known as Sadguru, his energy has created an idyllic campus and a unique schooling system that admits children from age 5 until 18 to study the arts and allied philosophical sciences. Classical dance, music, drumming, yoga, kalari, fire work (using and playing with fire), vedic chanting, conch, rounded horns, ritual instrument playing and meditation are the sole syllabi for the boys and girls who presented themselves in a resplendent performance on a full moon night. Carrying the palanquin bearing the LINGA BHAIRAVI Devi of the ISHA centre, a cast of 90 students created one of the most dramatic and breathtaking spectacles I have ever witnessed. 27 young men standing in a strong martial lunge were striking the heavy Kerala cymbals for rhythmic pulse while the procession circled the main SIVA DHYANALINGAM shrine. Amidst a chorus of chanting, choreographed kalari lunges, leaps, coordinated foot stomps, aerial twists and turns - all framed against walls and trees alight with thousands of tiny oil lamps, Isha students carried and manipulated long sticks aflame at each end and large bowls of fire with effortless ease. Enormous drums struck by the Isha musicians, reverberated into our pores. Hollywood and Bollywood stars, politicians from all parties, corporate honchos sat on the floor amidst almost five hundred thousand people in awestruck attention. Isha students (ages ranging from 14 to 17), created a magical 45 minute heart-stopping pageant that should have brought all of us to our feet in raucous cheering, except that the entire mass sat in stunned silence, soaking in the very special experience under a glowing full moon. This was an authentic moment of pure spectacle -performance, ritual and theatre in one fabulous stroke of Sadguru's imaginative brush.

The endless night of Mahasivaratri saw a never ending stream of classical and folk musicians performing for the crowd, with live video streaming across the world. Sadguru punctuated these performances by dancing to the throbbing drums of the wonderful Isha orchestra and telling unusual stories about Siva. For the past ten years, I have been visiting Isha each time Sadguru wanted his myths visualised through dance and theatre. Along with my 12 member dance team, we worked through two nights with the Isha drummers creating a pulsating interpretation of the Nataraja image, and several mythological tales of Siva. Upon Sadguru's request, I played Siva in one story where a young girl student of the Isha dance centre played Parvati. Standing upon my feet, we improvised on the idea of Ardhanari-Ardhanara. The 9 year old was attentive, silent and observant during rehearsals and quick to absorb the idea of sitting on my lap and improvising as we interpreted Parvati's "merging" into Siva. How different from the distracted city dancers I work with in Chennai where incessant tweeting, texting, call tunes and chatting are now the mandatory mudra/sangeetam/abhinaya of most students.

While at Isha, I missed the much anticipated Chennai performance of Aruna Sairam and Malavika Sarukkai. The standing room only audience at the Music Academy watched a lively evening with singer Aruna "performing" so animatedly with her hands and voice that it often distracted from Malavika's own dramatic intensity. The evening had its magic moments when the popular Marathi Abhang ended with the choric "Vittala" and Malavika mirrored the audience mood and danced as if in trance. Aruna and Malavika are divas and huge stars in their own firmaments. Large international followings and cultish fans hover around their every move. However, the physical positioning of musician and dancer sharing equal space on stage divided the eye and several rasikas were left wanting more from each artiste. Malavika was performing five days after her mother's passing. The very act of surrender and submission to the spirit of dance must have been the first step in her journey towards healing.

My question about these high profile collaborations is this. Why is it that musicians do not understand that dance needs a COMPANION sound design and that it is NOT about personalities outshining each other on stage? If this important coming together does not bring about a new level of aesthetic experience, then what is the purpose other than another high profile event that features on the party page 3 and attracts the A- listers, wannabes and rasikas? Why not dance to a great recorded track of a superstar singer? Questions float in the air... Still, we should, I suppose, be grateful when superstar singers agree to perform with dancers!!!

On board yet another international flight to London and New York, I switched on the in-flight movies to pass time. I browsed the short documentary section to find some wonderful films on the arts. Why is it that we are not able to make and present films on our dancers and musicians for captive viewing on such platforms? It is such an ideal outlet for young film makers and for the Indian cultural sector to commission and produce. I watched a terrific short film on an Australian contemporary choreographer who died in a tragic car accident and whose company members completed her last project and toured the UK a year after her passing. A poignant and searing documentary about the fragility of an artistic life. Even on that small aircraft screen, the effect was numbing.

And now that the Chennai sabhas have already started booking the December 2013 dance and music season, I have a question for all of you out there. After reading my rather critical assessment of the just concluded Music Academy dance festival, I want you all to join me in supporting a growing chorus to bring back some of the seniors in Bharatanatyam to the main festival. Why is it that the likes of Vyjayantimala, CV Chandrasekhar and Lakshmi Viswanathan cannot be headlining at least one morning or evening session of abhinaya, nritta and rare items? Why has the art of Abhinaya all but disappeared? Why do the same names appear year after year without adding anything to the festival other than regurgitating repertoire already performed in other sabhas earlier in the month? What is the huge mental block against inviting seniors who can share other styles of performance rather than the now monolithic Kalakshetra military drill style of dancing that has erased all individuality from BN? What risks and responsibility will the Music Academy take to introduce Gen Next while simultaneously illuminating the contributions of the seniors? Do they actually believe like the advertising world that nobody wants to watch an elegant senior body on stage? (I did not say FAT) That men and women want to gawk at only slim and sprightly women wearing tight pyjamas and prancing around in the name of pure classicism? Ask the audience and they will answer with a resounding NO. What we all want is excellence -to be shaken AND stirred. The divas of today are NOT delivering it anymore. They are too famous, too honoured and too caught up with their own media hype to dare, provoke thought and inspire. To expect them to reinvent themselves now is not possible. It IS possible, however, for the esteemed Music Academy to curate better, to be visionary and to take the initiative.

The names I would like to see in the coming years at the annual festival besides the legends would be Zakir Hussain who has created his own style of Vainava Bharatam, Swarnamalya who now holds one of the most interesting repertoire of rare padams and javalis (the Parsi Javali is really precious), Lakshmi Athreya, Sudarma Vaidyanathan and an opportunity to see the rare padams from the Balasaraswati family. And what about Geeta Chandran and Ananda Shankar Jayant? Yes, some of these performers may not be tall, slim and sprightly and dance as if eternally 16, but then THIS is the opportunity to watch a diversity of styles and approaches within the Bharatanatyam world. And what is this discrimination against male performers? Again, is it because the committee has caved into the myth that nobody wants to watch men dance? This most well funded sabha in the city is now looking to extend its footprint internationally. No other organisation carries the original and direct weight of dance history, especially Bharatanatyam, like the Music Academy. If you have any more suggestions for the Academy, please send it to us at We will gather them over the next month and forward it to the Dance committee. Never underestimate people power.

While at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, teaching and working on my new solos for the coming year with choreographer and collaborator of 18 years Hari Krishnan, I watched some of the film clips that are used in his "Critical Theory Indian dance and Cinema" class. One of the most recent song sequences that caught my eye was from Mani Ratnam's newest flop KADAL (ocean - A R Rahman has attempted a marvellous Blues style sequence for the song "ADIYE" where the ensemble perform on the sands in a direct inspiration of Alvin Ailey's celebrated "REVELATIONS" with the heroine holding her hands apart exactly like Judith Jamison in her iconic solo "CRY." Beautifully shot by Rajiv Menon and convincingly danced by the new hero Gautam Karthik. I also spun back in time to watch the entertaining HELEN-VYJAYANTIMALA dance duel in PRINCE I recalled my guru Adyar K Lakshman recalling how hard Vyjayantimala worked on and off the sets to maintain the individuality of each of these styles while shooting. Now THIS was a truly bold attempt in 1969. Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kathak sparred with Flamenco, Belly dancing and Cabaret. AND... going back further to 1958 to the hit song APPALAM CHAPPALAM (which made fun of South Indians through food - where the dynamic duo Sai - Subbalakshmi dazzled with a Bharatanatyam performance choreographed by Muthuswami Pillai. What fun!

This month, Arangham completes 20 years. The dance trust founded by me in 1993, began as a conversation in the Mylapore verandah of celebrated dancer Sudharani Raghupathy. She spurred me to merge my ideas from media, management and dance into a charitable arts organisation and gave me the name over a steaming cup of coffee. In these two decades, Arangham has organised theatre, dance and film festivals, conferences, stage productions, seminars, published books, supported international collaborations and visiting artistes, initiated writing and choreography hubs AND founded this portal that you all love and follow. Over 20 years, Arangham has earned its stripes as one of the pioneering arts organisations in India. Thank you all for recognising professionalism and my team's relentless pursuit of excellence in a scenario where the arts are increasingly trivialised.

And so, after we have drenched ourselves in the colours of HOLI and committed to another season of summer, sweat and dancing, let us welcome the warm weather and continue to take the joy of our lives into other areas. For all those who teach (in person or on SKYPE), mentor, coach, train, watch, design, tailor, adorn, light, stage manage, organise, publicize, fundraise, sponsor, review, blog, sing, play, record and LIVE WITH DANCERS THANK YOU. Without all of you behind us, we could never step onto the stage.


Dr Anita R Ratnam
New York/ London/ Chennai/ Kozhikode/ Guruvayoor/ Colombo

P S: New York based Myna Mukherjee brings her acclaimed ENGENDERED multi arts event to Chennai in a theme called RESIST. Inspired by the events of the horrifying rape case of Nirbhaya in New Delhi, this live art event at FORUM Art Gallery will bring high profile designers, dancers, actors and visual artists to a three day event of defiance, resistance and daring. I have conceptualised one performance-art section called UPROOT an ode/parody/satire on the history of tresses.

PPS: PURUSH is the theme for this year's Natya Darshan dance seminar-conclave in Chennai. Dates are December 19th to 22nd. Mark your calendars now and watch for all confirmations on another exciting edition of dance and discussions.


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