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August 1, 2014

Time flies when you are older. It is more true than ever. The second half of the year is upon us, the sun has begun its descent and festival time is upon us in India. In the midst of summer's blaze, dance is more present than ever - in parks, gardens, lakes, galleries and malls around the world. In this dizzying world of change, blurring images and mind numbing information, we notice that as the world hurtles onwards, the system and methodology of dance training in India has not changed as much. Speaking on this subject in Chennai was Leela Samson- ever thoughtful and articulate - about how each teacher must be respectful of the student and realistic about expectations from the guru-sishya alchemy. An urban experience and diasporic histories must be considered when transferring traditional knowledge systems like the classical arts.

The big news/controversy in the dance world is the recent decision of the Indian Culture Ministry to divide the responsibility of selecting dancers for the international FESTIVALS OF INDIA. With the government committed to showcasing Indian culture through dance and music in over 15 countries over the next three years, the thorny minefield of artiste selection once again rears its head. The ICCR chairman Dr. Karan Singh is resigning and his successor will be named this month. Across the world, ministries and embassies are being asked to clear the backlog of paperwork and streamline their work culture. In India the four government funded institutions, Kalakshetra (Chennai), Jawaharlal Nehru Manipuri Dance Academy (Imphal), Koodiyattam Kendra (Trissur) and Kathak Kendra (New Delhi) have been asked to put forth their large group productions for these PR junkets. In a bid to de-centralise artiste selections for solo and smaller group presentations, the Ministry of Culture has divided responsibility previously resting only with the ICCR New Delhi, into two geographical divisions. Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi for North India and Kalakshetra in Chennai for the rest of the country. The thorny issue is that one organisation is a cultural apex body with a national representation of artistes from around the country (SNA) and the other a dance school teaching one style of Bharatanatyam (Kalakshetra).

The anger amongst dancers in 11 Indian states is how can Priyadarsini Govind - dancer and current director of Kalakshetra - be sole arbiter of standards when she only knows one style and is not conversant enough with the nuances of Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, Chhau, Mohiniattam, Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Andhra Natyam. All this as well as folk dance forms. Ms. Govind is already under scrutiny for her controversial appointment as director of this 75 year old institution and now faces even more wrath from her seniors who she must supposedly "judge" and "select". Facebook is on fire with protests and comments while senior dancers VP Dhananjayan, Chitra Visweswaran and Prathibha Prahlad have already expressed their concern, anger and disappointment. Dance activist Usha RK has raised a storm of protest from Bangalore. The Culture Ministry is getting a mini avalanche of mail, letters and vociferous responses from artistes from West Bengal, Orissa, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Ms. Govind, no stranger to controversy, may find herself further isolated from her colleagues. One wonders why she has plunged into these power games instead of doing what she does best. Dancing.

Is Kalakshetra becoming like the K-MART of dance? Their current tour of the US for dirt cheap artistic fees is colliding directly with another Chennai based production MEGHADOOTAM. If the historic Kalakshetra, with its 30 member ensemble, only demands a paltry 3 to 4 thousand dollars per appearance, then why would presenters want to pay more for another work that only has 9 dancers? And why would anyone then want to pay more for star soloists like Malavika Sarukkai or Rama Vaidyanathan? Can they ever hope to command top dollars again? Welcome to the bargain basement transactions in dance. Who wins? K MART or Macy's? People always love a bargain. (As I write this, news on the website of Bay Area presenter Sankritalaya mentions that the tour has been postponed to Spring 2015).

MEGHADOOTAM, an ensemble dance work inspired by poet Kalidasa's evocative composition of the same name, premiered in Chennai last month to great expectation and hype. The classic love story about a couple (yaksha and yakshi) deeply in love and separated by physical distance is a classic composition of the Kashmiri poet Kalidasa. The cloud carries messages of love from the man to his beloved. The journey of the cloud is over many landscapes and the description and image-drenched poetry is what makes this a classic. MEGHADOOTAM is produced by Uma Ganesan for Cleveland Cultural Alliance for whom I performed in JAYA JAYA DEVI tour in 1994. The show is already booked in several cities across the USA and the tour is being managed by AIM FOR SEVA, the social arm of Swami Dayananda Saraswati's global movement for Vedic values in rural education.

Opening nights are always prestigious. One expects most of the kinks and problems to be ironed out after a year of rehearsals. MEGHADOOTAM faltered on many fronts. Perhaps the high expectations of a good choreographer, good dancers, a brilliant music composer, costume designer and lighting director had raised our hopes. What we saw was poor dancer coordination, jerky lighting, over amplification of the music and sleep inducing dance patterns repeated ad infinitum. I expected to be awash with a tidal wave of sound, image and performance, where dance technique meets operatic imagination for a fulsome theatrical experience. The Chennai audience, itching to clap at almost anything, were left with silent palms, confused at many moments. Was it classical, neo classical, filmi classical, creative classical, folkish classical or quasi-modern? Wearing ankle bells and executing an awkward ballet curtsy for a curtain call?

Perhaps opening night in India should be considered like the first full run through with lights, sound and costumes and the REAL show actually begins on the second day. (Reports from day 2 were far better and the show should get smoother and tighter over the 6 week tour). MEGHADOOTAM does prove that despite a hugely talented roster of artistes, consultants and producers, getting it RIGHT needs a whole other level of discipline, rigour and intention. (Note: Please hire a rehearsal director AND is there no other way to depict clouds other than twitter toes and endless 'dola hastas'?) Of course, this is my opinion and it will perhaps be diametrically opposite to the newspaper reviews that will flow into superlatives.

Following the journey of a cloud by B Sudarshan

I was reminded of a production Neila Sathyalingam created in the late 1980's in Singapore with a 50 member multi cultural orchestra. Lush instrumental music and layered choreography depicting clouds in many moods, played on horizontal and vertical illusions with strong dancing and Kalakshetra inspired cluster choreography.

July also witnessed the 45th anniversary of my guru Adyar K Lakshman's academy Bharata Choodamani. The evening, held at Kalakshetra where Lakshman Sir was a student for many years, was organised by his daughter Induvadana, and presented like a school annual day concert. More than 20 students of Lakshman Sir came together from across the globe to dance his famous pieces. It was a pure nostalgia moment for me, watching the iconic Nandi Chollu and Nitya Kalyani varnam, composed and choreographed in the early 1970s by the dynamic duo Trichur P Ramanathan and Adyar K Lakshman. Memories of my sister Pritha and myself being drilled as teenagers by Lakshman Sir's terrific nattuvangam, araimandi demonstrations and short, crisp 'teermanans' surfaced. I enjoyed watching Bharatanatyam 'nritta' and traditional adavus - something that nouveau choreographers have abandoned in search of the "new". Walking out of the auditorium on a humid night and searching for my slippers (another Kalakshetra tradition!), I realised that straightforward simplicity is more endearing and meaningful than attempts at wannabe modern, contemporary or whatever. "Kandapadi" as Lakshman Sir would say.

Money has dried up for dance in Tamilnadu. It is outside this state that dancers are being paid good money for their art. And so, many travel to nearby Kerala, Maharashtra and other parts of India to collaborate and get compensated for their hard work. It is a sad state of affairs when dancers have to actually pay bribes for performance slots in my home state. A bizarre and ugly practice that is now discussed almost as casually over a cup of coffee as politicians comment about rape. And yet, Bharatanatyam dancers crave for an opportunity to perform and be recognised in this city, the mecca of their art.

Watching Bharatanatyam for two consecutive days made me realise how smug Chennai dancers have become about themselves and their art. "Manufacturing Consent" is now the name of the game. Writers are selected in advance and are instructed by the editors to praise a show. The producer or dancer can actually transfer the preview and programme notes as reviews and a ubiquitous "By Staff Correspondent" is added at the end. Friends of the dancers and musicians feel awkward about expressing their opinions after a show. Everyone smiles at everyone. As the Japanese artist Yukio Mishima says, and I am paraphrasing, "The longer one wears the mask, the mask soon becomes the face itself". So here's hoping that intelligent dancers, choreographers and arts producers don't believe their own mythology when the mainstream media use words like "enthralling, impressive and fantabulous" to describe mediocre works.

Here I must cite the successful example of PULSE magazine UK. Editor Sanjeevini Dutta has started a DANCE ADDA, a group of people who love dance and who attend a performance and discuss it later over drinks and dinner. The collective opinions are then collated and a review/response is printed in the print and online versions of PULSE. This could be one way of having productions assessed by those who really love dance.

My disappointment at the state of BN in Tamilnadu is perhaps what made me locate my current dance project in Bangalore. After holding a nationwide casting call last July for a new contemporary work, not a SINGLE dancer from Tamilnadu applied. Of all the 29 who applied, 28 were from Bangalore and so PADME became a Bangalore-centred work. It premieres at the NGMA-National Gallery of Modern Art- on August 9th. A prologue called FLOAT created and performed by pianist Anil Srinivasan will introduce the evening. Drawing from the current international fashion rage in IKAT prints, the costumes, visual design and choreography have been remounted and reframed for Indian dancers by Brussels based choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman. Will the dancers commit to 8 hour days without a USA tour dangled as carrots before them? Will they find the time and intention to cross train throughout the year to keep their bodies supple and fit? This is what the PADME project is exploring. Is there a space for solo trained classical dancers to move beyond their initial training and develop a group performance consciousness? How does one sustain dancers financially and emotionally through the year and beyond? I don't have all the answers but am proud to have been the spark plug to ignite a new kind of pattern for Indian dance. Beyond the guru-sishya / principal choreographer / company dancers paradigms, PADME hopes to ask new questions and seek new answers for the many potholes in the eco system of Indian dance. Chennai audiences may see the work in the December season in a site specific space.

Why are we not encouraging more of our children to pursue classical music instead of dance? They are so few accompanists in ratio to dancers and they are the new millionaires in the performing world. Flautists, percussionists, vocalists and violinists from Chennai are presently crowding the USA where the "arangetram" season is in full swing. Each guru in at least 20 cities is hosting 5 to 6 musicians from India in motels for 2 to 3 months where they rehearse for 5 to 6 performances over the summer season. For every performance, each musician is paid $1500 (that is almost 90,000 rupees!!!) In Chennai, an arangetram means that each musician charges a minimum of 10,000 rupees. WOW! Add those numbers up. Many BN dancers are also on the road earning good money for 'workshops' and 'abhinaya' demonstrations. But dancers' fees pale in comparison to what dance musicians receive. Except Pandit Birju Maharaj who commands rock star fees wherever he goes!

In Chicago, I met Hema Rajagopalan after many years. A windy city icon, her Natya Dance Theatre has established itself in Illinois and the Midwestern United States with numerous awards and enviable collaborations with the likes of Yo Yo Ma, symphony orchestras and world music groups. Now led by daughter Krithika Rajagopalan, NDT is at the crossroads between deciding its next 'avatar'. Does the 40 year old academy continue to teach and groom young dancers to their arangetrams and beyond? Should the professional company profile be enhanced? How can Indian girls commit to a life in dance when the immigrant experience is still enamoured with the idea of a "serious job"? Hema admits that a full time commitment from the diasporic community, however talented they may be, is almost impossible. It is the non Indian students who seem more willing to commit to dance as a life choice. Daughter Krithika is making her own decisions about her artistic future. Here is the time honoured paradigm of pioneering mother and talented daughter with different visions. My article about the subject was featured in the April issue of ON STAGE magazine produced by the NCPA Mumbai. Kudos to Hema Rajagopalan for maintaining her poise and equanimity through these past 4 decades. She represents a generation of pioneering women who literally hacked through the bushes to create a space for a new generation of NRI men and women to learn classical dance.

Pianist Anil Srinivasan and yours truly were featured on the cover of a city magazine called BREW. A freewheeling conversation about our respective generations and the lens through which the 30s and the 50s generation look at performing arts was the topic. Here is the e- version of our talk.

Set for Savion Glover's new production 'OM'

Not everything I see during my travels is thrilling or satisfying. Sometimes I am drowned in a cascade of clichés. In "the city that never sleeps" I watched star tap dancer Savion Glover in his latest work titled OM. The title itself screamed SAY WHAAAAAAT? The stage, drenched with flameless candles and several Buddhas, threw soft light on blown up photos of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr and Gregory Hines. The brilliant, non-stop tap dancing for 90 minutes by Glover - stage centre throughout - was framed by two Japanese dancers in slow motion Tai Chi and two women in yoga poses (vajrasana and padmasana). The Anglo Saxon audience left after 20 minutes leaving the remaining audience of colour sighing in ecstasy and giving Glover a standing ovation. The New York Times gave him a lukewarm review!!! I gave myself a splitting headache!

Glover's mis-steps were quickly forgotten when I watched Europe's famous Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. This famous 54 year old Belgian dancer-choreographer presented a retrospective of her landmark works at the Lincoln Centre Festival in New York. Keersmaeker's ROSAS DANST ROSAS is her most famous work, being shown in classrooms and festivals around the world ever since its debut in 1984. Even Beyonce was accused of plagiarism of the haunting images for her music video COUNTDOWN.

Beyonce - Inspiration or Copy?

I watched ELENA'S ARIA and was struck by many moments. A host of mature women - proudly in their thirties, forties and Keersmaeker herself - dancing with grace, grit and fierce intelligence, playing out inner landscapes of loneliness, isolation and violence. The classical music wafted as if from a distance and emanating from their pores. The repetitive movements and pedestrian everyday gestures - became both sensual and powerful in their intensity. It was at the final seated line on chairs downstage where I felt a moment of pure "abhinaya". A single gesture was expanded and held. A glance, a tilt of the head and a shift of the heeled foot felt like a grand jete. Perhaps that was what I have missed in several classical performances I have seen this year. The building of a single idea and a gradual choreographic development. The trust in silence and simplicity rather than overstatement. Like the haunting spaces created by Bombay Jayashri's Oscar nominated song in LIFE OF PI. The pauses, the gravitas, the depth, the reach for that something intangible and ephemeral. Is that not why we journey to a darkened theatre? To breathe like the dancers on stage, to watch bodies like ours move and emote in ways that most of us cannot, to deliver to us a sliver of the eternal that lies beyond our imagination. To free us, even for a moment, from the madness of bombed bodies, raped children and mutilated babies in the desert sands.

So let us hoist our glasses to 'quelque chose' (the only kind of toast to make) and watch the rest of the summer fade away... Continue your dance... on stage, in the great outdoors and in theatres, in rehearsal studios and always reaffirm your faith in what you have chosen to do with your mind and body.

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Bangalore

Twitter: @aratnam
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