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August 1, 2011

As we find ourselves smack in the middle of the sacred Tamizh month of Aadi (July 15 to August 15), the Devi temples all over South India are bursting with women every Tuesday and Friday. Amidst the sound of bells, multiple voices, vivid colours and ritual, the familiar sight of an inanimate stone figure being bathed in succession by turmeric, sandal, milk, yogurt, honey and fruits is always moving, as is the blaze of the “aarti”. The spectacle of faith never fails to move me in the simplest most fundamental way. It reminds me of the soil that birthed me and the familiarity that I miss when I leave home ground for more than three weeks.

This month, we focus on a troubling and growing trend that affects all young dancers, eager to make a living wage through dance. For the past ten years, we have been receiving numerous complaints from dancers who travel the oceans as guest artistes and choreographers for artistic directors who live in the USA, Canada and elsewhere. While most experiences are not unhappy, there are enough stories of exploitation, inhuman treatment and sheer cruelty that has shocked us. About ten years ago, a large group of Chennai based independent dancers were contracted by a woman in the Pacific Northwest of the USA to choreograph and tour with an ambitious project. Starvation, impossible work hours, threats of deportation, passports confiscated and forcible house cleaning duties created an atmosphere of fear and hatred. Upon returning to Chennai, the group held a meeting to which I was invited and the complaints poured out like a deluge. I suggested that they write their unhappy experiences and sign it jointly which would then be sent to the Arts Council of the US State that had funded the project lavishly.

As expected, no letter came and the musical accompanists, who had been pampered in contrast to the dancers, refused to sign. The event disappeared without a trace. Off and on, we hear many such complaints and most recently the charge has come from a guru in Canada. The shocking emotional exploitation and threats play upon the simple premise of “moolah.” Foreign engagements pay money. The dancers need money to survive. India does not recognize or honour the dancer in any constructive way yet and so distant shores will always be sought after without any thought about contracts, insurance and any kind of safeguard for the visiting dancer.

We have a timely and thoughtful article on this malpractice along with a legal opinion about what dancers need to know before embarking on any foreign assignment. With the current market economy tilted strongly against the dancer, it is vital that one’s rights are recognized as soon as possible. It also brings into focus the lack of a strong lobby for dancers. ABHAI is a Chennai based organization that is doing much but has not yet tackled such delicate situations as human rights violations across borders. The sooner these issues are brought forward and discussed, the better for all.

My travels to Kolkata and Cape Town, with the accompanying workshops and lectures on ‘Neo Bharatam’ and the ‘Feminine Sacred’ have evoked a flood of positive reactions from students, audience and media.

I premiere my Rabindranath Tagore production later this month in Kolkata. Titled AVANI- A Handful of Dust, this homage to Gurudev marks the first of three Tagore works in dance, theatre and multimedia. I am on a new voyage and excited about the unknown. By my bed is a brilliant book on Tagore titled TAGORE – The myriad minded man by Dutta and Robinson. It is a balanced and intelligent canvas of an astonishing artiste.

Live fully, love completely and dance with abundance!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Kolkata

Twitter: @aratnam
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