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August 18, 2011

A moment comes along in a generation that stops a nation in its tracks. A small, nondescript figure, shorn of glamour, PR machinery, corporate sheen or urban gloss. Not telegenic, no witty sound bites and certainly not targeted at a marketing demographic of 14 to 25 years. No giant leaps, jumps and twirls. No pirouettes and ‘abhinaya.’ No cash paid out to gather crowds. Yet, he has India transfixed onto the largest audience any dancer or politician would salivate for.

Drum roll please. A flourish of an ‘arudi.’ Enter Anna Hazare – ambling, senior citizen. Soon to be octogenarian. On India’s 85th Independence Day when all eyes should have been on our elected leader, all hearts were focused on this Gandhian. Within 48 hrs of the annual speech delivered by the Prime Minister from the bullet proof glass shelter of the Red Fort, all of India took to the streets in protest against what is now called the biggest faux pas of an elected government that has lost touch with its people.

Why would this mean anything to dancers? After all, we are supposed to be sensitive citizens feeding off our dreams and imaginations and dancing ‘jathis’ and ‘korvais,’ ’teermanams’ and ‘tihais’ to subjects like AIDS, warfare, sexual abuse and all the ills of the world! All from the safe haven of our rehearsal studios, auditoriums and now social sites. For the hundreds of our ilk, dreaming of a large, global audience, or at least a national audience that is never going to happen, Anna Hazare has usurped the space of all prima ballerinas and dance divas. His performance outshines the dull monotones of our many ministers.

Dancers take note. Watch the choreography of TEAM ANNA. Notice how the media, in tandem, has become a perfect orchestra to expose the government’s arrogant bungling of a basic constitutional right to protest. Never mind the cynics among dancers who are trying desperately to malign someone who is ‘the real deal.’ Suddenly when the national outrage against inept, corrupt and fascist myopia spills onto the streets of an entire nation, we hear that “a foreign hand is at work, destabilizing India.” Like we the citizens are apes and have suddenly been fed a genetically enhanced drug to rise against its own leaders!??

If we, the artistic community can learn anything from this moment, it is perhaps this. That we can put down our mirrors and our self publicity, put aside our cynicism and actually walk out of our comfortable homes and participate in any one of these protests and gatherings happening all over India, and perhaps in many other countries. The lack of violence in the Hazare agitation has amazed the world and even our own government. The power of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have once again reaffirmed the new power of public opinion.

I have been humbled and amazed at how many regular people of all ages and all levels of society are now demonstrating peacefully at the gathering in Chennai. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, autorickshaw drivers, bus drivers, street cleaners, industrialists, homemakers, chefs and students alongside geriatric freedom fighters. Mahatma Gandhi’s Tamizh secretary, Mr. Kalyanam inaugurated the demonstration days ago citing the disillusionment that Gandhiji felt about the Congress party weeks after the hard fought Independence movement in 1947. IAC – India Against Corruption - is now a genuine movement and an authentic moment of spectacular theatre. Do not diss or dismiss it.

As my beloved grandmother Saraswati turned 95 this month, her colourful stories of India’s independence and of rubbing cool sandalwood paste on Mahatma Gandhi’s bald scalp when she was a 9-year-old come flooding back. Many of her relatives, my ancestors, were jailed in the independence struggle. Now an entire generation of Indians is pouring their energies in joining Hazare’s movement against corruption. But will today’s India, spoilt for choice, lavished with branded goods and enjoying a lifestyle so different from their parents, be willing to spend even a single day in jail as Annaji calls out for “Jail bharo”(fill the jails”)? The jury is still out on that one.

Ironically, the premiere of my Rabindranath Tagore dance-theatre work also comes at this very moment. Immersing myself into the words of this visionary, whose foresight and imagination is being rediscovered by an entire generation outside Bengal, has been another adventure. As I attempt to bring visual coherence to his epic poem PRITHVI in an evening-length work titled “AVANI - a handful of Dust,” images of modern India jostle with Gurudev’s dark premonitions in his final days. As I dance, I am pulled by the spectacle outside my doors and beyond the darkened walls of the theatre. Politically conscious Bengalis have felt it keenly. They are resonating with the timeless words and echoing the global chant that Tagore’ artistic vision was fuelled by his political or a-political beliefs.

“The demon rules the beginning of your history with a might - rough, savage, insensate.
With mace and club in his fat clumsy hands, he played havoc with the seas and mountains, and muddied the skies with a miasma of fire and gas.
Goaded by him, you hurt your own creatures, ravage your own creations.”
- An excerpt from PRITHVI by Tagore, translated by Tarak Sen

Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Mumbai / Kolkata / Kerala

Twitter: @aratnam
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PS: The 80th birthday of my first guru Rajee Narayan was celebrated this month in Mumbai. What a joyous gift she gave me in the form of DANCE! Thank you, Rajee aunty, for all those early years of teaching me – as a friend, companion, playmate and teacher. It is because of you that I love dance, do not dread the classroom and enjoy every moment of my physical and emotional experience!

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