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April 1, 2016

"Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong."
- N R Narayana Murthy
Founder, Infosys Technologies

With the fourth month of 2016 already staring at us, we must ask ourselves, what have we done since New Year? Have we stuck by our resolutions and become more dedicated, disciplined and rigorous about our daily practice? Have we looked around to find joy in the simple things that surround us? Have we taken inspiration from other dancers who are doggedly pursuing their goals - no matter what the impediments? Have we nurtured our spirit?

On this note, I must recommend a gorgeous site for all dancers.
It is soaked in positive inspiration that makes us all feel proud and blessed to be in the sphere of dance.


I needed to revisit the above mentioned site after two sessions of watching the recently concluded BANI festival of Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra. BANI or BANE? That is the question.

Of what use other than a museum curiosity is watching Vazhuvoor, Pandanallur, Kanchipuram, Tanjavur etc etc etc… No dancer today adheres to anything except the GLOBAL BANI! Nobody discussed THAT aspect in the conference which did throw up some gems like Vyjayantimala and Lakshmi Viswanathan. As always, these seniors are surrounded by adoring fans who want to "learn from them". As Vyjayantimala confessed to me in a private moment, "These young things cannot even sing! So how can they begin to understand what the words mean?"

Meanwhile, I add a note of caution. It is not wise anymore to claim one Bani over the other. It is not suitable to use words like "original", "pure", "authentic", "classical" and "traditional". The world is much more fluid and nuanced today. Cross illumination is everywhere - like my grandmother's puffed sleeve blouses inspired by British memsahib frocks! We live in a global community where art is contaminated every second by the intervention of human experience. Let us celebrate excellence and professionalism. Not empty grand standing!


As news of the demise of Odissi guru Ramani Ranjan Jena (Malavika's original Odissi teacher) came, I realized how much even the dance world has succumbed to the disease of celebrity. Guru Kalanidhi Narayan received two entire sessions for her abhinaya style at Kalakshetra's BANI event while Ramani Ranjan Jena has not even got a condolence meeting to date in Odisha or New Delhi. Mrinalini Sarabhai's demise garnered international attention while other important names in the crucial period of dance revival in independent India were totally ignored.


What dancers want to learn today is not process but product. What dancers want to do is just dance, not engage in anything else. Not the creative mind, not the engaged spirit or the body singing in tune with silence - or rhythm. Nothing except putting on the makeup, jewellery and getting on the stage! For this current mood, nothing but the workshop model that teaches one or two items with the music at the end of 3 days really works. Rama Vaidyanathan has cornered that market. Imitation of a beloved star is more rampant than paying attention to one's own ability and capacity! One more item to add to the menu card! Next workshop where???


Bumping into Malavika Sarukkai at Chennai airport got us talking about the sad state of Bharatanatyam. I applauded her decision to perform at a beautiful Chennai sari store which brought new audiences beyond the sabha environs. We discussed the fulfilling feeling of sharing our work with Lit Fest audiences around India and bemoaned the sad state of our annual Sabha season and the regressive mentality of the pseudo-curators!!!

We have promised to brainstorm upon our return home. Camaraderie with dancers in India is quite rare. Huge contrast to the support that female dancers and choreographers share in the West. I wish we could drop our paranoia and cynicism to share ideas and experience. I spent a rare private evening with divas Sudharani, Lakshmi Viswanathan and Vyjayantimala. The four of us were chatting about health, saris, family, travel and enjoying the freshly made curd rice with pickle! (I know, I know. it is such a TAM BRAM moment!) A fly on the wall would have enjoyed the laughter and memories that were shared! As I assume more responsibility at ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam dancers of India) later in the year, I seek to create more opportunities for these kind of encounters. Performance and learning items cannot and should not define the sole goalposts of a dancer.

Watching us both drag our hand luggage through the airport, one fan remarked how strange it was to see "two divas, who look like Goddesses on stage do such ordinary tasks!!!" Oh really? Watch us lug our suitcases through metros and tube stations, on cabs and dark hallways of theatres, putting our makeup alone in silence of a green room and after the applause, photo ops and fans, imagine us removing the paint from our faces as we stare at tired eyes and dull skin in the mirror. There is only us who look at the receding hairlines and darkening circles around the eyes that make up skillfully conceals. As we close our doors to the comfort of silence and darkness, we run through the performance on our mind screen and find it hard to sleep. Tired? Not when the adrenalin is pumping and it takes some of us hours to calm down. Even our partners will never quite understand the loneliness and vulnerability of the dancer. Glamour? Only for the viewer and the media. Our lives are more about doubts, fears and inconsistencies. The best of us are also masters in covering up the foibles and gaps with experience and panache!


This is my favorite part of any dance sequence. Watching rehearsals. And I got to do that in two cities, two countries- over 3 days. In sweltering 40 degree heat, I spent a Saturday afternoon watching Upekha and the Chitrasena dance family put their young students through the paces for an upcoming concert. Outdoor drumming classes were being conducted for boys and girls. Drumming and chanting the syllables is an early part of the training at CHITRASENA DANCE ACADEMY. All agreed that teaching the young today is getting harder and harder. Still operating out of the makeshift shed structure on land donated by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga (a former student!), Upekha knows the rise and fall of patronage. Once the darling of the government and the country's cultural icon, the school is unable to secure funding for a modern building, studios and residences for visiting artistes. With the Sri Lankan economy deep in debt, money for tours and travel is harder and harder to come by.

At one corner of the large studio, Upekha, daughter of the legendary dance icons, was drumming while barking out the "bols" for the "adavus". The nubile and supple bodies were lunging, bending, swirling, leaning in all directions in a system that reminded me of modern dance training as well as Pilates and yoga. Matriarch Vajira Chitrasena - now 83 and watching the classes intently- was the architect of this dance fitness routine which is now shared with women in their 30s every week in Colombo. What an idea Sirjee!

At the other end of the classroom, niece Thaji Dias (the electric dancer who captured our hearts in SAMHARA) was teaching a folk dance routine with long sticks. Watching her agile body articulate every bend and curve was in itself a performance!

After the rehearsal sessions, I shared a simple Sri Lankan lunch with the family and listened as they each expressed anguish and concern over the decreasing attention span of the young and the parents who are ready to pull their children out of dance lessons as soon as they grow older. The intensity of training needed to prepare a dancer to perform alongside Thaji in Nrityagram's SAMHARA is now not possible after Mithilani Munasingha left the company. Imagine Upekha coming to terms that it would be an impossibility to remount that stunning show that left audiences breathless!

I thought about the same situation in India where even a lesser talented performer would be asked to step in so that show can continue! I have had to make several adjustments to the original 7 member PADME team. Dancers drop out, throw a hissy fit, make unreasonable demands, get married, move away, gain weight… so many issues crop up. However, I also understood what Upekha meant about the rigor and the demands of being a professional dancer. Something Malavika Sarukkai is talking about in a creative roundtable at the Madras Club (yes.. the snooty Brit inspired Club!) next month.

Returning to Kuala Lumpur on the invitation of my "guru bhai" Dato Ramli Ibrahim, I delivered the keynote address at the 2016 premiere of his acclaimed GANJAM Odissi dance spectacle. It was a gala evening, with Malaysian royalty resplendent in enormous emeralds and Swarovski glitter gliding into the auditorium while we stood in respectful silence.. My talk titled HYPHENATED - THE REALITY OF OUR DUALITY, focused on Asian economies that are the new birthing ground for billionaires and yet are so immature when it comes to supporting the Humanities in education. Citing Aristotle, Tagore, Steve Jobs and Paul Allen, I drew comparisons with India's IIT and USA's MIT where creative think tanks are emerging as important counter points to brilliant but brittle minds from logical left brain thinking. The ovation and remarks received were an indication that more and more people are keen on knowing what the "other half" thinks!


GANJAM itself was a complete feast. 26 dancers in various stages of Odissi training were ingeniously arranged and staged to represent the best of rustic, earthy, vibrant Odissi that most of us have not seen. The syrupy versions performed by the current divas were nowhere near the movements I saw in GANJAM. Inspired by the late Deba Prasad Das, Ramli's guru, some of the choreography resembled Bharatanatyam hastas and foot positions. Ramli demonstrated some of the adavus during one of our long talk sessions and reinforced the importance of mainstreaming a part of Southern Odisha that had been neglected or pushed aside in the modern reinvention of Odissi. As expected, Sivarajah Natarajan's lighting and staging were impeccable, as were the tech rehearsals, my own rehearsed "namaste" to the Sultanah and the voice levels for my microphone. When will we in India ever learn the essence of professionalism? Why do auditoriums and organizers not realize that a good tech and dress run through is VITAL for the success of a show! Here in India, dancers are charged extra for a tech and dress run. Imagine that!

Everywhere in Malaysia, the name of Dato Ramli Ibrahim rings loud and clear. Even from the immigration official stamping my passport. But, I wonder if a statue or a street or a building will be named after him? Will the city of Ahmedabad erect a statue or name a street after the diva Mrinalini Sarabhai? I cite this as I take my daily walks in Bombay, Madras or any city I happen to be in. I see monuments and pathways named after dead generals or governors. Roads named after political leaders and freedom fighters. In my city we have a weekly circus of some caste leader being celebrated via a statue and blocked traffic. There is a golden image of the late Carnatic musician MS Subbulakshmi that greets all visitors to Tirupati. There are statues of other musicians like Chembai Bhagavathar in his native village, Narayana Das in Vishakapatnam, Bangalore Nagaratnamma in Tiruvarur and Balasaraswati's mother Veena Dhanammal outside singer Mukta's residence in Adyar, Chennai. Significantly, Kalakshetra and Santiniketan have the statues and busts of Tagore and Rukmini Devi in both venues. Unlike Austria whose entire population identifies with the genius of Bach, Strauss, Salieri, Mahler, Schubert and Vivaldi, can we today even name 10 of our great musicians and dancers?

Like in Vienna, Chennai based historian V. Sriram has resurrected the popularity of Carnatic musicians with his sold out walking tours, exploring the former homes of musical greats and having a young singer accompany him while rendering famous compositions of these stalwarts.

If only we can have something for the dance and theatre community!

PS: Statues of almost all famous western composers are frequently sold out on E-Bay!


Aesthete and art historian Saryu Doshi has instituted a commendable scholarship for those who wish to study art and allied subjects overseas. The prestigious VINOD SARAYU DOSHI scholarships have set an example of how business and the study of arts can come together to create a meaningful partnership.

Other than Bombay's NCPA, I don't see any other organizations that open out memberships and gift subscriptions to any art lovers. The existing structures in Chennai are all centered around the annual December season where life members like yours truly (at the Music Academy) get relegated to balcony seating while the choice seats are sold as daily tickets. We do not have an annual calendar of monthly shows to choose from and are left scouring the paper (or now Facebook) for the interesting show to catch!

I received a frantic call from New Delhi. It was a friend who was trying to enlist my support for the government's drastic fund squeeze for culture. First, we have to separate "culture" from "arts" in India. Culture is too broad a term and it is the Arts and Performing Arts specifically that we are focused on. New Delhi based organizations and performers have for too long been at the receiving end of the largesse while other parts of India - West Bengal and Tamilnadu for example - have been pointedly ignored for the major grants and subsidies. In fact, the oft quoted mantra would be "Madam, all of you are doing so well. Why do you need our support?" Answer "We also belong to India, Madam. Not just New Delhi!"

So if some fat cats are being put on a money diet, you will not hear a hue and cry from most South Indian artistes. For too long we have been ignored and our requests shoved aside. If vocational training is being concentrated on now and Gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's recent mega jamboree receiving generous government grants, it is a sign of the times. For too long we have watched wastage, arrogance and smugness being on display by those who are geographically close to power centers. Now let's see how the fittest and the most PR savvy survive. Zuckenberg does not realize the monsters he has already created in India!

For the second year, ADISHAKTI is hosting the theatre and performing arts festival at their space early April. Chief honcho and celebrated actor Vinay Kumar is grappling with the organizational demands of a festival. I would advise him to not stress and instead concentrate on inviting performers who wish to share in the dynamic spirit of Veenapani. Running after sponsors, reluctant donors who behave like artistes are all beggars and handling the egos of spoiled actors is soul destroying.


"Nobody else seems to care while India takes this day so seriously". This was the remark made to me in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Whatever be the reason, I am happy that we dancers have woken up a decade ago to marking this day. Of course, it is during the blazing heat of an angry sun where temperatures force us indoors and into air conditioned comfort. NCPA celebrates the occasion with their annual MUDRA DANCE FESTIVAL that focuses on solo classical dancers. NATYA VRIKSHA continues their 11 year annual event in New Delhi showcasing young dancers.

Who said dancers are not in demand? Perhaps not for performances but their grace and moves have constantly been the inspiration to sell many products on TV. Take a look at these clips where choreography and dancers are featured…even in the digital format for UTV pictures or babes in diapers!

Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk AD 'Dance GIRLS classic BHARATNATYAM' tv commercial ad



The New UTV Brand Identity!

Meanwhile, the more important question we should be asking is "WHY IS IT THAT DANCE IS NOT A PAYING PROFESSION IN INDIA?"

Why are institutions like the IIC in New Delhi still offering only 7000 rupees for a classical performance which means that the dancer has to spend 20,000 rupees more for her orchestra and cannot charge tickets? (nobody buys tickets in New Delhi)

Why are gurus not stepping up to support senior dancers who have graduated from their academy and who are struggling to establish their reputations as soloists or independent creators?

Why are we still comparing ourselves to Shiamak Davar?
His USP is unbeatable now and sponsors and crowds flock to his ensemble presentations.

Why, instead, are we not cheering Odissi dancers who perform at the T20 Cricket finals in Kolkata or attending actor Atul Kumar's hit play PIYA BEHRUPIA at the Phoenix Mall in Chennai?

Is this the new reality for dance?

Is this the time for individuals to activate small private spaces with fewer and more discerning crowds?

Is it not time for private enterprise to link hands with the arts since CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is an important initiative of every business and not just building temples, churches, mosques or donating to orphanages?


It needed the savage deluge in December to galvanize artistes and citizens to donate to ABHAI which has resulted in 125 artistes of all genres in being helped, rehabilitated and their artistic environments revived. The donations received were timely and the help extended crucial to so many in Chennai and outside. Steered by President Chitra Visweswaran, who steps down later this year, ABHAI has emerged as a dance organization that has worked outside the workshop and membership template to become a true NGO in the spirit of art. Bravo to the entire team of ABHAY-AMBIKAS!

My altruistic touchstone Ashwini Karthikeyan reminds me often that we have to "feel a fullness within" to even continue to remain in the creative space we find ourselves in. Living between idyllic Auroville and Chennai, this dancer often cautions me about tempering my writing tone and urges me to "implode with the beauty of the dance-art!"

While this is not as easy as she suggests, I am delighted to wish my 16 year old child a very happy birthday this month.

You were born 16 years ago on April 14, 2000 and are now the constant companion and "hand-held" shadow of so many dancers around the globe. You have morphed from an idea to a wonderful cyber reality. Your immense knowledge and connectivity across borders, age groups, colour, faith and race is a testament to the enduring power of India's dance traditions.
I may have "birthed" you but you have been "co-parented" by two very capable and talented women

Three cheers for
LALITHA VENKAT... Content Editor
The silent and stoic SUMATHI... Web Manager
and addition to our team
SANDEEP VARMA... Social Media Manager

Thank you all for nurturing this wonderful presence in so many lives!
Thank you all for the support, trust, respect and love shown by the many contributions, e-mails, remarks and citations.


Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Tanjavur/ Chandigarh/ Pune/ New Delhi

Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST /

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