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April 2014

"Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths."
Dialogue from the play METAMORPHOSES

A long and grateful EXHALE... A week spent in the embrace of the cool mountains of Santa Barbara in central California. A dreamlike 25 acre campus of brooks, walking paths, organic gardens, sacred groves, historic libraries that stand guard to the life's work of mythology guru Joseph Campbell's magnificent imagination. Inspired and nurtured in this retreat, I send these thoughts on a month that has gone by too quickly but has yielded so many fruits across continents.

I have been away from home for all of March and my travels are not done yet. There is still a trip to Washington DC for a performance courtesy dancer/presenter Daniel Phoenix Singh's DAKSHINA, more performances to witness in San Francisco and New York and of course, friends and dancers to meet and greet. So let me begin.

London was my first stop. This time, with no special agenda except to watch work, meet colleagues and update myself on a constantly changing scene. In 10 hours, I changed time zones and climates. From 32 degrees to 12 degrees... Hello coat, hats, boots, gloves, scarves, sweaters and dry skin!

The day I landed, good friend Chitra Sundaram dragged my jet lagged body to THE PLACE Theatre for an evening of revelatory excitement. A brilliant, simply brilliant performance of the PROTEIN Dance Company in BORDER TALES. I was mesmerised at the ease and delicacy by which so many issues were illuminated. A mixed multi racial caste tore apart every popular misconception about Muslims (a backpack carrying Egyptian dancer was shunned by the group), dialogues echoing the fears of a large swathe of people about more "of those kinds of people" arriving in Britain, the pejorative "Paki" being used for all South Asians, Asian women are all submissive geisha babes or kung fu fighting Lucy Liu types - these stereotypes were expressed in witty solos and duets. The ideas flowed with relentless ferocity. We were all riveted and gave the 90 minute performance a standing ovation.

BORDER TALES can never come to India. Much like UK based Sri Lankan actor Rani Moorthy's moving performance- art solo LOOKING FOR KOOL, about her native Tamil culture and family being destroyed or disappearing during the 30 year conflict in the island nation. Performed in the bowels of the South Bank Centre four years ago for the annual Alchemy Festival, the moving work echoed of loneliness and the lifelong search for what it meant to be "home" when there was no physical memory of family, house and land except on the mind screen of blurred memory.

While in London, I had the delightful pleasure of meeting with all the grand divas of South Asian dance in one room! Imagine Mira Kaushik, Piali Ray, Shobana Jeyasingh, Sujata Bannerjee, Bishaka Sarkar, Stella Uppal, Anita Srivastava, Pushkala Gopal and Sanjeevini Dutta. Power women all. A gathering hosted by Chitra Sundaram, the delightful estrogen charged afternoon was coloured with laughter and the smearing of Holi colours. There is one thing that is a constant when women meet. No matter how important, successful or awesome they may be. Food, weight, hormonal changes, skincare, kids, education, spouses or significant others - these worlds somehow creep into conversations of funding, touring, presenting, deadlines, rehearsing, dreaming and dancing! In an afternoon where Tamil and Bengali flowed effortlessly across the room, I gave thanks for the glue that brought us all together - DANCE!

I had arrived in London days after MILAPFEST's presentation of SWADESH at London's Bhavan Centre. It seems of the three lovely dancers - Mythili Prakash, Arushi Mudgal and Monisa Nayak -Kathak dancer Monisa was flawless and impressed the most. The interesting programme notes read as follows: "When I say 'my country' what exactly do I mean? Is it the place I was born? A place I've lived? A place I've never lived? Is Swadesh a thing of the imagination? A feeling within? A feeling without?" My initial reaction was why were there no UK based dancers in SWADESH? Perhaps it was a question about "putting bums on seats" as is the primary requirement of audience building for the performing arts. Are the UK based dancers lacking in charisma to draw crowds? Did SWADESH allow the personal stories of each of these India-based dancers to be heard? Does dancing to Siva, Muruga, Ganesh, Durga or whichever God/Goddess, really represent family histories? Can't the producers nudge dancers beyond these predictable formulae to probe a deeper, more individual 'swadesh' inside their psyche? MILAPFEST is an ambitious and highly successful Manchester based arts organisation which has so many anvils in the fire. There will be more to come in the summer months with their international conference SANNIDHI.

I visited the Tamil school in North Wembley to watch Kalakshetra alumni Stella Uppal teach three hours of non-stop classes to the Sri Lankan women and children. Two of her classes were filled with women in their thirties - dentists, film makers, writers, computer engineers and doctors. Women who danced before marriage and immigration and who were now returning to dance as exercise and a weekend getaway from family and professional responsibilities. The second class had housewives who loved dance, who were denied the opportunity while growing up in Sri Lanka and who now rushed to Stella's Sunday class to experience Bharatanatyam. Stella is a passionate and intelligent teacher - dissecting the Kalakshetra body technique into digestible bite size pedagogic capsules and showing how the style, while concentrating on clean lines and suited for both genders, had the seeds of yoga, breathing and a holistic ideal that has since been forgotten. I was delighted to see the one hand 'tai hat tai" adavu in one of the crisp 'teermanans' of the varnam. Later, we both chatted about how Sarada Hoffman was the physical clay for Rukmini Devi's choreography. It was she who 'mused' Athai's ideas into physical reality. Years later, I was in her class at Kalakshetra and remember the clarity with which she would explain single turn and the extension of arms and legs. She would demonstrate it beautifully and we would stand amazed.

I also visited dancer Anusha Subramanyam's new home. It was an adventure of brick, debris and clutter. Her own room is beautiful- full of light and air, but the adventure of living in a space while the house comes to life will take emotional stamina and a sense of adventure - both of which Anusha and her photographer husband Vipul have in plenty.

London delivered glorious weather for me. Every day was full of sunshine and cloudless skies. I walked, ate my favourite English breakfast sitting outdoors, sipping macchiatos, red chilli dark chocolate (the TATE MODERN museum shop has a delicious brand) and enjoying the buzz of this fabulous city. The British Museum, Tate Modern, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum and Mason and the uber exciting Dutch shoe store UNITED NUDE made up for many memorable London days.

In the USA to attend an introduction to Joseph Campbell's Mythology Centre in Santa Barbara, I was drawn to this place which has a completely new way of learning that is part university, part psychotherapy and all humanism. Imagine dancing in your first class to ABBA's Dancing Queen! Well, feminist Jungian scholar Susan Rowland makes her students do just that. With so many interesting modules focused on the relevance of mythology and mythic tropes in our daily lives, this centre has shadowed my life for more than 30 years. I had the privilege of meeting with Joseph Campbell and his dancer wife Jean Erdman at the Indian Consulate in New York City in the early eighties. His presence, voice and measured wisdom still stay with me. His writings sparked my interest in world mythologies long before Devdutt Pattanaik, Ashok Banker and others arrived to stimulate our imaginations all over again. It was Campbell's inner eye intelligence of ancient cultures whose stories and archetypal tropes recurring repeatedly in so many ways that drew me to exploring mythology as the spine of my dance work.

On a free evening in Santa Barbara, I chanced upon a theatre presentation of Ovid's METAMORPHOSES. This is a highly imaginative tale that collapses 250 popular myths of the Western world and movement director Jonathan Fox brought a sharp modern relevance to this gorgeously staged production. Pools of water, metal stairways leading to the underworld and up above and large empty spaces made for so many evocative stories about spoiled sons, incestuous fathers, impatient lovers and over confident women. Eros, Psyche, Narcissus, Poseidon, Zeus, Orpheus, Eurydice - all these characters had direct resonance with Indian myths The characters are named differently but the stories carry through time and geography with the sub-current of familiarity. The top Hollywood blockbusters, full of 3D marvels, are actually "moving the muse of myth forward," using superhero, villain, heroine and trickster characters to build the storylines that echo through time.

Walking through the vast archives of letters, writings, manuals, photographs and etchings of famous mythologists, cultural theorists and depth psychology specialists at PACIFICA, has made me realise how critical documentation is for India's arts. Is there a single center where artistes like myself can donate our videos, books (I have over 700 books on dance alone), photographs, reviews and other memorabilia of our dance lives? Is the New York Public Library still the best focus for our life's work? Here at the Joseph Campbell Center, access to books and papers are free by prior arrangement. A climate controlled room (69 degrees Fahrenheit) protects the paintings and other perishable files of great thinkers and cultural archaeologists. Rows and rows of tall cabinets and steel cabinets bear the thoughts and work of these remarkable people. Nothing has been digitised yet but we could hold and read copies of Campbell's actual notes, scribbles and ideas on mythology. Anyone can request access to all this material with a prior appointment and read them wearing special gloves. A qualified librarian is in attendance 24/7 keeping in mind that serious students do not keep regular hours of waking and resting. Such is the respect and care given to accumulated knowledge of 75 years.

On less pleasant matters. I have been approached by some right wing groups "suggesting" that I am "anti-Hindu" since I initiated and supported the online petition two years ago to reinstate Leela Samson as Director of the Kalakshetra Foundation. Since that decision and subsequent outpouring of support across the cyber globe, my actions have been noted it seems. Now, with national elections looming large, the spectre of fascism is alive and well in all parts of Indian society and especially in the arts.

Tamilnadu has never had a history of intolerance, the calm of the Triplicane locality in Chennai being a prime example. Home to parallel streets of Brahmins and Muslims, the historic Parthasarthy temple is located mere yards from fabulous Muslim embroiderers and merchants, the palace of the Nawab of Arcot and the home of freedom poet Subramania Bharati a two minute walking distance from one another. During the worst religious riots that racked other parts of India, Tamilnadu had perhaps a single incident of violence.

But this has ended. A local theatre company, EVAM, awarded one of the best start ups in our cultural map, created an original play called BEING ALI J, a mono act play that was invited to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. After 35 successful shows in Scotland, the play has been repeated under siege in Mumbai (cancelled at the Kala Ghoda Festival due to death threats), performed under heavy police protection in Bangalore, and CANCELLED in Chennai - again due to death threats to the director, Karthik Kumar, who is also the actor in the play.

The artistic community has commented in the local papers about this but the moment has a larger significance. The struggle is still on for creative independence but for now the verdict does not seem positive for free thinkers. Who knows? I may have to change the title of one of my recent works - A MILLION SITAs! And the sword continues to swish here and there, cutting off imagination, decapitating fresh ideas and prohibiting the democratic right of the Indian citizen to freedom of expression under the constitution. Citing "possible violence due to the elections," the state has stepped in to strong-arm and scrutinise every possible cultural activity.

The future of cultural institutions is also in the spotlight this month. As the new board members of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the ICCR, and other bodies like the Kalakshetra Foundation are being formed, we hope that the artistes and citizens nominated to these positions realise the weight of responsibility in these confusing times. We have been informed that Bharatanatyam dancer/doctor Srinidhi Chidambaram is the Government nominee on the Kalakshetra Foundation. Perhaps she can fathom the recent decision to request the international consultancy company McKinsey's appointment to study the potential of Rukmini Devi's vision. But, as Satya Nadella, the new Indian CEO of Microsoft said in an e-mail to the employees: "Our world does not respect tradition. It respects innovation." He meant the exploding potential of computers and their role in changing our lives.

What would McKinsey bring to the 75 year old table of Kalakshetra? Their entire mandate could be "monetize", "maximise assets", "become globally competitive" and all the normal mantras that corporate and private enterprise have sought their prodigious expertise for. KALAKSHETRA? What could be the obvious assets? The first answer could be the land - acres and acres of it. So what COULD be the plan? A mall, a restaurant, a wellness centre, a coffee shop, a membership for an evening walk like the Theosophical Society in Chennai, spaces for rent to outside parties, dance competitions (SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE?). Twenty years ago, the TATA cultural jewel, NCPA in Bombay, ran into financial trouble. The corpus did not anticipate plummeting interest rates and the TATA Foundation was running out of money. So the unexpected happened. Part of the prime land was sold to developers who constructed expensive high rise apartments on the property and income was also generated by allowing wedding, engagement and private parties to be held by the affluent. There were actual incidents of bawling kids running around the Tata theatre during mehendi and sangeet functions while playback singer Sonu Nigam belted out Bollywood songs.

So what can we expect of the new board steering Kalakshetra's future? Individuals who have little or nothing to do with its history and almost...? Does anyone represent a continuity of the first seed planted? Who among those have experienced the wisdom of the institution's cultural ecology? Will it become another "interesting" venue? Book releases, modern and classical dance events, talks, exhibitions... The Kalakshetra quarterly journal has been revived and handed over to the competent Lakshmi Vishwanathan to edit. Rehearsals are on to tour the USA with one of the Ramayana productions in the Fall. Should they not be seen at the magnificent Kennedy Centre instead of community Tamizh Sangam-like organisations? Can the original 40 member cast be reduced to less than half and still convey the majesty of the original vision? Stay tuned. The Kalakshetra chapter, as are the stories of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indira Gandhi Centre of the Arts will continue to be written!

When is dance and music not enough for a performing artiste? What drives some of us to do so much outside the realm of actual performance? To speak, write, be activist prone and engage in many spheres outside the core area of creation, rehearsal, execution. I have always confessed that while dance sustains me, I have always believed that it does not completely describe me. And so I throw myself in many adventures - not all of them fully planned or thought out. From another generation Carnatic musician TM Krishna has emerged as the self professed man for all seasons. From newspaper columns about civic consciousness, to politics and cricket, his voice is everywhere and he is now hailed as the 'Bhagavatar' (a nickname his fans have given him) of anything and everything. Who is listening to this 38 year old with an ego and ambition equal perhaps to Vladimir Putin? Seems hundreds are. His book on Carnatic music is in its second edition. He is quoted about the sad state of Carnatic music to Delhi journals and his concerts are sold out all over the world. As actress/dancer/writer Shirley Maclaine said so succinctly, "You have to earn the right to be a bitch". Temperament cannot masquerade for talent. In TMK's favour, he is a brilliant musician. However, is anyone listening to a performing artiste beyond the stage? Ask Mallika Sarabhai, who has been relentless in her activism but who has been sidelined by the political party she has just embraced.

From New Delhi comes the news of the beautifully mounted celebrations of Madhavi and Madhup Mudgal's Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. 75 years of continuous presence in dance is no mean feat. It has been done and done well. Bravo! The future of institutions that have endured time, a changing century and a whole new avatar of students requires a cautious mixture of planning and vision. Perhaps it is time for the government to pay heed to what seniors like Leela Samson have been advocating for some time - a private public partnership in the arts and to create more stakeholders in the cultural fabric of a modern India.

Don't miss an exciting new section that we started recently. ROVING EYE, a collection of curated images and experiences from my travels. If you see something incredible or unusual, do send it to us. I will select from the most quirky and eye catching.

In this edition of ROVING EYE, look at Paris based artiste Subodh Gupta's stainless steel installation at the Delhi Art Fair and another by a Belgian installation artiste of Indian coloured plastic bags. This is art !!!!!!! While the Indian design world is hopping mad with Tory Burch ripping off our humble Kolhapuris and Paul Smith appropriating the comfortable Peshawari sandals in their new shoe collections, I wonder what the owners of Ratna Stores in Chennai and Ravi Steel Works in Coimbatore will say when they see their traditional merchandise in this avatar! That and many more moments of my travels are shared, including my new gourmet experience - espresso martinis! Soma rasa for a new millennium?

April is the month of many celebrations. While Lord Siva weds Meenakshi in Madurai and Prince Rama celebrates a birthday, many communities celebrate a new year and fresh beginnings! We send our greetings across the globe to those marking these special days. It is also the month when India begins to vote. Perhaps the most important and significant moment for many of us invested in the creative life. I am delighted to hear of many young dancers in Bangalore actively enrolling citizens to vote as a civic responsibility. So dancers - get out of your rehearsal spaces and cast your vote! It is a privilege and a responsibility. Jago Re Jago Re Jago!

- Dr Anita R Ratnam
From Santa Barbara and onto San Francisco, New York, Chennai and Bombay


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