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August 2023

"Truly great dance can be a window to the heart and soul, revealing our deepest selves and giving forms to memories and dreams."
- Judith Jamison
Former Principal dancer, Alvin Ailey Dance Company

Anita Ratnam

It's August and time for the annual reflection and marking of yet another India Independence Day.
76 years after that fateful moment, there is much churning and tumult in this nation's tapestry.
Amidst the tumult, cheering, jeering, hooting and applauding, there is much to be hopeful about. And much to ponder as well.

As young best-selling author of Indic myths Satyarth Nayak said in his latest talk about his book MAHAGATHA, "Ancient India reveals that society was about a million shades of grey - not absolute black and white. Our ancestors spoke about how even the Gods were not above punishment and atonement. Arguments were prolific and the idea of Debate - Vivaad was essential - unlike the binary polarisations we see today."

Today we are assaulted with a million voices claiming, "My way or the highway!" Yet, there are so many wonderful moments of creative expressions being birthed and shared in India and beyond. Imagination, thought, inspiration, intention, wisdom - it is everywhere and artistes continue to be the keepers of hope and buoyancy for the people.

As I write this month’s column, hashtags about food choices and personal cutlery are trending on social media. Meanwhile, thousands of my colleagues around the world continue to persist in the face of increasing scrutiny and cynicism about the arts. As money dries up for cultural expression in many countries, there are resources to be tapped in heritage tourism, cultural re-enactment, ritual restaging and other areas beyond the urban lens.

Dancers are busy reinventing themselves for the new mediums that have emerged, making impressive livelihoods and earning incomes that were never imagined a decade ago.
Still, the charm of the classroom, rehearsal studio and the stage persists.

This month I speak about issues that surround our dance world and the pitfalls and seduction of social media.

My first report is about the salon performance of danced storytelling.

Ramaa Bharadvaj in Chitrapushpa
Ramaa Bharadvaj in Chitrapushpa
The Play-shop
The Play-shop
Over two sessions in Chennai, dancer and raconteur Ramaa Bharadvaj regaled her audience with the charming story of CHITRAPUSHPA, a new fable about nature and living in harmony with the elements. Using recorded music, spoken word, dance gestures, improvised movements and Tamil cinema melodies, Ramaa was charming, witty and thoroughly engaging. Here is an artiste who has found her niche in this overcrowded world of dance and performance. The connections with European anthropology and aesthetics, twinned with Sanskrit concepts of Bhava and Rasa held the mixed audience in a thrall through her performance and the Play-Shop session the next day. Many young dancers attended and listened to her ideas, while trying out several of her prompts (36 modes of walking!). To spend three hours in a process driven immersion without a finished ITEM & MUSIC at the end of the teaching is a challenge in today's Indian dance environment. Ramaa delivered with aplomb!

In many ways, Ramaa reminds me of the wonderful performer Revathy Sankkaran, an icon in Tamil media for her prolific imagination and knowledge. Ramaa's energy and directions are different from Revathy, but the ability to connect with audiences using popular culture at the right moment is similar.

The relief and joy on the faces of people who attended the evening performance and the students who enrolled for the morning session revealed how joyous it was to connect in person and offline.

Anita Ratnam
At Ramaa's performance and teaching sessions, journalists from 2 major print publications were present. I was very pleased to see the interest in writing about an offbeat performance that a mainstream venue would rarely present. A few weeks ago, a Bharatanatyam dancer premiered a new ensemble work and shared rapturous responses on her Instagram page. In a later conversation, I had enquired about a review being carried on her production in this portal. The response was, "There are no genuine writers today". Whatever may be the case, dancers need to understand that reviews of their work are crucial when submitting applications for visas, to the government for festivals, or for presenters to pay attention to their body of work. We have been told by several dancers that this portal has become one of the most important sources of validation for their visa applications. However many emojis and "likes" Instagram, Threads, Facebook or Twitter delivers, these digital platforms do not get any traction in the REAL WORLD of performing arts. YOU TUBE continues to be a source of checking a dancer's talent and proficiency but that is only to get an idea of the artiste. Wikipedia continues to be a source of validation and if anyone has a page, my suggestion is to fact check the information and update it if possible. (Wiki spins in its own universe and rules but it is controlled by humans and not Bots!)

Instagram has risen to become the 'visiting card' for many, but it is not recognised as a "credible" source of objective reporting.

So while today's millenials are cozy in their social media bubble, and resist any contrary opinion except rapturous adulation, the reality of a published review in an established or recognised print or digital publication is essential.

Which brings us to the same conundrum - How do we generate young writers to watch and respond to dance and the live arts today?

With the increased responsibility on this portal to reflect the rapid changes in the Indian performing arts around the world, I urge performers and presenters to encourage and invite writers to the discourse. Especially important is for dancers to step back from the completed performance and read the response with a level of objectivity.

Dancers marching up to the office of an online culture blog with parents in tow and DEMANDING that a less than rapturous review be changed, is troubling. We know, since we have been pressured on more than one occasion and have had to walk the thin line between standing by our writers and leaning into the rising debate about identity.

Earlier this year, I participated in a session about learning to write in 100 words or less. An image was shared with a small group of dancers and they were encouraged to write a response. A surprising number showed potential. However, dancers writing about other dancers is always a sticky issue. Especially if they are from the same generation. Still, dance needs observers, commentators, critics and interlocutors. Without genuine feedback and a timeline of writing and critiquing, every artiste cannot track their careers. Facebook can only serve as one of the personal archives. Not for professional use.

Finally, it is up to the individual to decide who to align with and who to avoid. I am speaking about the return of several #METOO offenders into the limelight and onto the stage to be feted and garlanded. I found myself in an awkward situation last month with a well-known #metoo enabler seated next to me on the dais at an event. I was not aware of his presence earlier and had to quietly sit through the function due to the immense respect I had for the founder of the institution who was being celebrated.

When dancers invite me to watch shows at spaces being managed by #metoo deniers, enablers and oppressors, it is up to me to steer clear of the event and the space. I do realise that public memory is short and that dancers are now busy commissioning those very same offenders with music scores for their next productions. Will I not watch these shows just because the tainted composer is associated with it? Where does one draw the line? It is finally about optics? Or about a personal decision? Where does this end? When there is no clear censure from the organisers or the public against such individuals, then am I simply over-reacting? Am I being too sensitive when so many are looking the other way? Am I overthinking this? Am I standing on the sands of the moral high ground? What am I trying to prove? And to whom?

As I said, it is finally up to the individual to decide where he /she /they stand on such issues.

Grey- a million shades of it.... in India for sure!

We had stage dancing, film dancing, reel dancing, You Tube dancing, and now onto the stadium.
A Rasika from New Delhi made the astute observation that "from solo to group to screens, digital and now stadiums, the training of the classical dancer has not changed. However, with politics and entertainment being the main object at the expense of Art, the aesthetics of Indian dance forms is seeing a major shift."

India as the leader of the G 20 consortium has led to a major shift in the tone and type of cultural product being assembled and mounted. Event after event is witnessing enormous stages, hundreds of dancers from various styles and a concerted effort to evoke the RASA of patriotism. Subtlety, nuance and intimacy are pushed aside for the sake of spectacle. 2000 seater auditoriums with large LED screens with mostly politicians and bureaucrats in the audience are the now customary formula. Sangeet Natak Akademi, the apex cultural body of India, is busy organising, directing and facilitating such mega events in collaboration with other cultural arms of the government.
The annual Republic Day parade is another example of dance, music and performing arts being masqueraded alongside military might.

This phenomenon should be examined by academics as a significant shift in the Indian cultural personality. Diaspora dilemmas and identity politics aside, this kind of public display of culture can be a compelling subject for further study.

Warrior Women
The special project ideated by Prathibha Prahlad returns for one more show in New Delhi and two dance legends celebrate milestones.

Shanta Dhananjayan
Shanta Dhananjayan

Turning 80 is Shanta Dhananjayan and a resplendent 90 is Vyjayantimala.

Looking at both women should inspire us to live our lives with elegance and dignity. They are both very different in personality but adored and revered by so many around the world. Their legacy to dance is to BELIEVE, INSPIRE and PERSEVERE.

And yet another platform to engage in... maybe. While Twitter morphs into the ubiquitous X and heated debates surge around the change, I have fallen victim to a determined hacker. Since both my Facebook and Instagram pages were verified by META in August 2022, one individual has targeted me repeatedly. My situation was brought to the attention of META in Silicon Valley, since blue verified pages (before the now pay-the-blue-tick situation) were attended to with greater attention. Or so we hope. META has millions of followers and since the massive lay off of over 10,000 employees a few months ago, the hacking crisis has escalated. There is a full blown business on Twitter/X with "ethical hackers" restoring accounts for a payment of $150.

My own Instagram handle was compromised on too many occasions and is currently still out of my hands.
I have since switched handles but am keeping these experiences as a teaching moment. If I was 30 years younger, this could have become a huge personal crisis. However, I am not running a business on Instagram like so many others and only use the platform to share my life and ideas.

I still breathe and live, as a human being, a mother, sister, daughter and friend.

Life before 2004 was simpler and perhaps less stressful. Social media has made us cannibals - ever hungry and never fully satisfied. Beyond these various platforms, there will be people who can reach me through six degrees of separation.

So, for now, here is my new handle. Please disconnect from my old handle immediately and look up from your digital devices to enjoy the world in all its colours.

Until next time,

Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Bengaluru / New Delhi

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

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