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August 2022

The future belongs to the young
We must not only trust them with responsibility
But must thrust it upon them
Whilst they are still young and full of energy, zest, hope
And even illusions

- JRD TATA, Industry Icon

Anita Ratnam

It is the sheer force of young India that caught my eye last month. The papers are full of catchy images of dancers reshaping the idea of classical performances. Affluent 20 and 30 somethings who are spending extravagantly for that exclusive AHA moment (not on the Arts!) to notch one over their neighbours. Mixologists blending strange flavours like Basmati rice, cake and Tamarind with beer (?????) and the IN YOUR FACE images of Chess boards. Yes, Chess boards.


With my home town of Chennai hosting the prestigious Fide Chess Olympiad, the local media was flooded with videos and images of the connection between ancient Indian traditions of this strategic game (Sathurangam in Tamil and Shatranj in Hindi/Urdu). One historian even found a link between Lord Siva in a Tamilnadu temple where he is worshipped as CHATURANGA VALLABHANATHAR. According to legend, the king of the region had a beautiful daughter RAJA RAJESWARI, who was unbeatable in chess. The challenge was declared that only the man who could beat her at the game would be eligible to marry her. SIVA plays and wins (of course!) and the marriage is celebrated.
This is certainly an interesting and unusual story for a sanchari elaboration that dancers can use in their repertoire.

Continuing with the discussion on chess, Bharatanatyam dancer and bureaucrat Kavitha Ramu who heads the Pudukottai district in central Tamilnadu initiated an interesting promotional video for the Olympiad. Using traditional folk and theatre artistes, the large chess board came alive as Knight, Queen, King, Bishop, Rook and Pawns assumed their positions. This creative effort was certainly far more interesting to watch than the official video with composer A R Rahman, Chief Minister Stalin and thuggish looking black and white filmi dancers hopping between the black and white squares.

Watch the Pudukottai district video here

With grandmasters Viswanathan Anand and Pragyaananda holding the Olympic torch, chess is enjoying a boom time. It is a game that my father, uncles and brother played seriously for several years - each claiming that it helped develop strategic thinking and clarity of decision making.


Indian flagAmritam Gamaya

Through the first 2 weeks of August, leading up to Independence Day - August 15th - all the government agencies were instructed to present continuous cultural programmes to commemorate 75 years of India as an independent nation. AZADI KA AMRIT MAHOTSAV is the brand that is sweeping Indian embassies and High Commissions across the world and each city has mounted their own version of the historic moment with mostly young local artistes. In fact, each Raj Bhavan (the official residence of state Governors) is like a Chennai Sabha. Dancers, tech teams, musicians and their entourages are streaming into these majestic residences, with the added burden of Covid protocols and security screenings.

My alma mater KALAKSHETRA has become a positive example of Public-Private Partnership. Working along with events team at BANYAN TREE, director Revathi Ramachandran has curated an extremely interesting music and dance festival that is touring three Indian cities - Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Dehra Dun. AMRITAM GAMAYA is the title of this performance event with artistes from Egypt (Tannoura), Spain (Flamenco) and Indian artistes from Kashmir, Bengal, Gujarat and Tamilnadu among others.

Covid delays have pushed this important celebration into 2023 as all the international government offices are filling their calendars with tour dates for India based artistes until August 2023. After a long hiatus, the ICCR is also busy with schedules. Spain seems to be a favoured destination as are many other countries in Latin America. With the Southern Hemisphere entering a summer season, it makes practical sense to tour these parts of the world instead of Europe. We will share more news of artistes and their destinations as information is made available.

I just wish that the idea of "freedom" and "independence" can be interpreted in various ways and not just the expected narrative of those who fought and sacrificed for India's independence. Also, why are not theatre artistes, painters, potters, poets, writers and puppeteers being invited to tour? Why only dancers and musicians? (I am NOT complaining, just asking!)

Leela Samson
Leela Samson

It is heartening to see how many young people show an eagerness to learn from the masters. I start with the much admired Leela Samson who surprised many dancers by reaching out to them individually. The prompt was a rare varnam composed by Vadivelu of the Tanjore Quartet in ragam Yadukula Kamboji in adi talam and performed by Rukmini Arundale in 1955. Leela has revived this varnam with jathis composed by Karaikudi Krishnamurthy and taught it over 8 days to 20 dancers at a Chennai terrace at 6.30am every day.

Priya Murle was among the students and she shared her admiration for the meticulous approach and patient teaching of each line by Leela. Priya commented on how much knowledge Leela has acquired about the anatomy and how easily she shared her body awareness tips with the students.

Malavika Sarukkai
Malavika Sarukkai
Aditi Mangaldas
Aditi Mangaldas
Another senior dancer eager to gather Bharatanatyam dancers at an immersive retreat is Malavika Sarukkai. Her 3 day event is slated for end August at the idyllic Adishakti Theatre premises in Auroville.

In beautiful Siena, Italy, Saskia Kersenboom is holding another teaching residency titled DEVADASI REPERTOIRE. Her knowledge sharing has been attracting more and more young dancers who have grown up with little or no knowledge of Bharatanatyam's checkered history.

Aditi Mangaldas is holding an online workshop where she will share both the music and the choreography of select pieces from her repertoire.

All this is good news for today's emerging professionals. I wonder, however, how much each student can learn from a 3 day weekend, however intense of immersive it may be. Perhaps, a thorough plunge and soak method is the only way to kickstart an inner flame that these legends have been able to constantly nourish and tend to. To think that we have clocked nearly 50 years on stage and stayed on our path is no mean feat. Will it be possible to have this kind of longevity with Gen Next or Gen Now? Life is so challenging and costs have become prohibitive and daunting. The road ahead seems strewn with more questions than answers.

Why don't we senior dancers consider having our own retreat - away from teaching, mentoring, choreographing and supervising? We too need to clean the slate, empty our minds and get refreshed. Having all the answers all the time is not possible and it is exhausting. When corporations hold such refreshers for their senior management cadres, why not in the Arts?

In a recent article, politician and writer Shashi Tharoor wrote about the most creative phase as not the 20s or 30s but from age 60! According to recent studies, the time between 60 to 80 is the BEST phase for human creativity. Shorn of the daily responsibilities of house, family and home, it is this quieter time of sunset that the mind can bloom, bristle and blossom! So here's to our ageing bodies but fertile minds!

The Dhananjayans, Bharata Kalanjali's book OFF STAGE

The Dhananjayans, Bharata Kalanjali's book OFF STAGE

Trust younger minds to conjure a creative twist to the time honoured biography or tribute to dance legends. The latest publication from the house of Dhananjayans' BHARATA KALANJALI is a volume titled OFF STAGE. The striking cover image was a manipulated photo, originally shot by Raghavendra Rao in Bengaluru of the dancing couple, almost 45 years ago!

The Dhananjayans, Bharata Kalanjali's book OFF STAGE

The Dhananjayans, Bharata Kalanjali's book OFF STAGE

The Dhananjayans, Bharata Kalanjali's book OFF STAGE

The Dhananjayans, Bharata Kalanjali's book OFF STAGE

Instead of releasing a dull souvenir to mark 50 years of this iconic Bharatanatyam institution, CP Satyajit, a former dancer turned professional photographer and son of the Dhananjayans, decided to turn the tables on a predictable outcome. Inviting 3 graphic artists to express their individual stories and impressions of Shanta and VPD's creative and personal journeys, the result is a delightful collage of moments and impressions of a storied career. I loved the image of this visibly uncomfortable and unhappy couple holding on to the handles of an overcrowded bus in Ghana. Shady impresarios who left them stranded on foreign shores and guardian angels who appeared out of nowhere to give them refuge made for entertaining reading. These backstage narratives are what make biographies and histories more colourful and human.

OFF STAGE is a zest filled and exciting book that can appeal to anyone - not just dancers. Inspired by the Japanese genre of ANIME as a trigger, the three different lenses of the graphic artists bring you a triptych of mood pieces and images that fit into the larger puzzle that shapes the final narrative of the Dhananjayans - Bharatanatyam's devoted and dedicated couple.

I was also able to visit the new premises of Bharata Kalanjali within the precincts of the Spastics Society of India. Leaving their familiar home in Adyar after 50 years must have been very difficult, but the new school, 20 minutes further away from the city centre, is airy, spacious and filled with promise. Artistic director Shobana Bhalchandra showed me around and I look forward to visiting more often.

Rama Vaidyanathan
Rama Vaidyanathan
Roja Kannan
Roja Kannan
The two year stupor is wearing off. The Chennai December season is ON! The two conferences NATYA DARSHAN (Kartik Fine Arts - Roja Kannan, convenor) and NATYA KALA CONFERENCE (Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Rama Vaidyanathan, convenor) are being planned. It will be interesting to see hereditary artistes Aniruddha Knight and Nrithya Pillai in performance as well as Swarnamalya Ganesh on stage. UK scholar Avanthi Meduri will also speak as will several other notable personalities in academia and performance studies.

Priya Murle's brainchild PARIVARTAN - a research initiative - has announced its second year of grants. Aimed at young dancers and scholars who can bring their profession and their dance passion together in an informed and conscious way, this programme is being managed by Shreya Nagarajan Singh.

Priya Murle
Priya Murle
Masoom Parmar
Masoom Parmar

Congratulations is due to a family member of TEAM NARTHAKI. Writer, dancer and artist manager Masoom Parmar has launched his own label ALIF ARTS CONSULTANCY. Masoom was Line Producer for our acclaimed Lockdown digital series BOXED. It is always good news when dancers play on their strengths and mobilise other aspects of their skill set. We know that we need more managers, agents, grant writers and experts since we are overcrowded with dancers waiting in the wings.

In my experience, most dancers who join Arts Management teams end up being a disappointment. They are mostly there to bide their time as they wait for the next performance opportunity. In fact, it is this dilettante attitude that makes professional event managers distrust dancers. They speak about being truly interested in learning other aspects of building a dance career but fail to apply themselves adequately for the tasks allotted to them.

Ask me! In all my years of curating conferences and festivals, I could not convince a single dancer to assist my team back stage. They were either late, lazy or just did not show up. One excuse after the other would cascade until I turned to college students who delivered magnificently.

Anita Ratnam - KA, the wise serpent

Sri Aurobindo has written in his publications ARYA that there are no new discoveries. Rather, minds tap into the universal field of ideas to arrive at a similar conclusion - often at opposite ends of the world. It seems to be the season for THE JUNGLE BOOK to be played and performed simultaneously on two continents. Akram Khan has reclaimed this colonial favourite by Rudyard Kipling and turned it into a cry for environmental conservation. In the USA, ENACTE ARTS California is staging this classic as a production for all ages. I have been invited as the international guest artiste to recreate the role of KA, the wise serpent - the matriarch of the jungle. This story has been told and retold multiple times and I am looking forward to finding nuances in movement, music and acting.

As I head off for a long stay in the Bay Area, I am excited to be a part of a theatre ensemble after a long break. No worries about production details, fund raising, event management or any other aspect of organization. My only focus will be on creation and performance. And I am truly excited to be working with composer George Brooks who I last saw in Chicago (2019) when he was performing in the Hema Rajagopalan / Astad Deboo production INAI.

The last three day of July saw me in idyllic Puducherry where the first MANIFEST DANCE FILM FESTIVAL was launched. As the digital partner for the event, I was privy to some exciting dance films made expressly for viewing on the screen. With entries from Finland, Switzerland and France, it was the Korean film PIN DROP that won everyone's hearts. A witty commentary on how glued we have become to our mobile phones to the point of dysfunctionality was beautifully captured through a contemporary dance company of women. Losing her phone drives one young woman to a hysterical breakdown.

Ideated and presented by Ashavari Majumdar and Abhuday of AuroApaar, this week long event combines film screenings, a competition and an interesting incubation between dancers and film makers. The attempt is to make short films within one week and also to enquire about an "Indian" aesthetic for dance films. To also ask the larger question of WHAT IS DANCE if it is manipulated through a lens where time, space and a sense of gravity can be collapsed and altered.

Sitara Devi
Sitara Devi

One session was dedicated to the unusual dance-film career of Kathak diva Sitara Devi. A star in the 1930s and 1940s Hindi cinema, Sitara Devi's exuberant torso movements (described as "Kasak-masak" by the film historian Madhuja Mukherjee) created a stir amongst audiences. Using a single film ROTI directed by Mehboob Khan in 1942 as an example, we watched a typical Bollywood appropriation of Hawaiian-Flamenco-Hula dancing with Kathak 'bols' - all of which Sitara Devi pulled off, wearing a skimpy bikini style top covered with leaves and a grass skirt.

Her biography reveals that Sitara was first named Dhanalakshmi at birth and that her mother was a hereditary dancer from Nepal. Sitara Devi herself was a student of Kathak greats like Shambhu Maharaj and was hailed as "Nritya Samragini" (empress of dance) by Rabindranath Tagore.

As DANCE ON CAMERA in NYC celebrates 50 years, MANIFEST just begins its first step. Dance writer, cultural organiser Arshiya Sethi has been arranging Dance Films events for several years but a serious look at this new medium and opportunities for collaboration with Indian dancers and film makers has never been considered seriously. A special call out to classically trained dancers who find it hardest to break out of their muscle memory or learned vocabulary. This genre is ideal for mature bodies who are unafraid to reveal their vulnerabilities and fault lines. The closer the camera gets to imperfections, the more moving the effect is.


WOKE PEEPS... step aside... here comes the latest taboo words from the Indian Parliament. Words that eerily echo what a bad review can also contain. At least they could in the era of Subbudu or even Shanta Serbjeet Singh - a time when culture critics called a spade exactly what it was!

Corrupt. Ashamed. Drama. Gaslighting. Eyewash. Fudge. Hooliganism. Hypocrisy. Fraud. Betrayal. Incompetent.

But the more colourful words were in Hindi.

Shakuni (cunning based in the Mahabharata character)
Baal Budhi (childish mind)
Jumlajeevi (making false promises)
Vinaash Purush (a destroyer)
Khoon se Kheri (harvesting blood)
Dramabaazi (acting out)
Chamchagiri (mindless followers)

Now, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, don't these words sound like a caustic review? Or what we mutter in exasperation at a bad performance? Or the writing of some academics? I don't know if editors will also be disallowing these words in writings about dance, but to think that the normally raucous Parliament will be expunging these words that comprise 75 % of the politicians' vocabulary!

Meanwhile, we can try to string them all together like a rap rhythm. Or a Konnakkol beat!

Until next time,

Good health, caution with the growing next virus wave and of course, DANCE!

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Bay Area USA

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

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