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December 1, 2011

It is countdown time again to what is being talked about as the “largest concentration of music and dance in the world.” Larger than Edinburgh, Adelaide and any other performing arts event anywhere on the planet. Except, it is a great secret with the government that governs the state where it all happens.

Most readers know that I am speaking of the annual Chennai Music and Dance festival – or, what it is called - THE SEASON. In a city that hosts over 700 events in 30 days – where every space is crammed with the best of Carnatic music and classical dance - the Tamilnadu government has maintained a distant silence. A history of political protests and conflicted Tamil identity based on communal and caste based issues has chipped away at the true beauty and power of the margazhi festival. Though the month long event continues to draw thousands across the world to my hometown, it has lost its premium position of watching THE BEST OF THE BEST. Too many sabhas and too many performers have made THE SEASON a minefield of uneven talent and chaotic programming. The average ‘rasika’ now plans a day of music and dance revolving around which sabha canteen serves what delicacy!
THE LARGEST FSTIVAL OF MUSIC AND DANCE ON THIS PLANET IS THE BEST KEPT SECRET OF THIS CITY that proudly declares itself as the DETROIT OF INDIA. Don’t scratch your heads - Tamilnadu is the automobile capital of the country, with the largest industries, manufacturing units and component factories.

World dance icon and a living goddess in Europe, Alarmel Valli unveiled yet another documentary film on her life. Titled KAVYA RASA, three theatres at the new Escape multiplex cinemas were packed with friends, socialites, fans and young dancers. This latest addition to Valli’s archive is not as interesting as the previous film directed by Arun Khopkar with cameraman Madhu Ambat. As expected, Valli was at her eloquent best and the target audience which is not the dancer but the foreigner and her worshipping fans, melds history, fact and personal mythology to etch Valli’s place permanently in dance history. The most charming segments were the backstage scenes of crowds and fans, her meandering walks in the verdant ancestral property and her sessions with her musicians and students. I only wish that Valli had shared the arc of her choreographic process and not chosen blatant testimonials to her artistic immortality. Here is a diva with a deep understanding of music and poetry, whose contribution to Bharatanatyam and the rising international profile of India’s performing arts is monumental. However, her choice of filmed dances, except for the beautiful Kshetrayya padam, did little to reveal any pattern or inner workings of a prodigious artiste at work. Still, expect the DVD to become a best seller and an award winner on the international festival circuit. One now waits for the commissioned films on Malavika to also be screened in such a venue for greater access to her legions of fans. Both women receive the Viswa Kala Bharati award this month from Bharat Kalachar sabha for their almost 40 years of contribution to dance.

A new and exciting book has been released - SWEATING SARIS - by scholar Priya Srinivasan. She argues convincingly about the generation of NRI dancing gurus as ‘cultural labour’ instead of the oft repeated image of cultural producer. This book, coming fast on the heels of Dr Ketu Katrak’s CONTEMPORARY INDIAN DANCE, makes for very interesting reading for the growing legion of dance scholars. Now what we need is a scholarly study of Bharatanatyam - its impact and imprint on global dance and its many avatars.

The release of the feature film DIRTY PICTURE starring Vidya Balan this week across India, also highlights the position of the dancing ‘item’ girl in cinema. With voyeurism being the central focus on the film, it makes for an interesting comparison while watching our classical divas performing on mainstages this month. Cinema and classical dance are blurring borders more than ever and unlike the mid 20th century when there was a conscious cross-illumination between both worlds, the present preoccupation with glamour and seduction among the classical dance community is directly inspired and appropriated from the silver screen, although not publicly acknowledged.

Scholar Saskia Kersenboom, whose seminal work on the Devadasis changed the tone of scholarship in this sensitive area, is quietly working with Amsterdam University and bringing her self- reflexive optic to the practice and theoretical study of Indian dance. “When the body is all song” is the title of her course that seeks to bridge the fascinating possibilities of Bharatanatyam in the intersecting worlds of theatre, dance, physical movement, music, text and theology. Still, a patina of western academic jargon does not completely work in the Indian context. Kersenboom agrees that it is in India where the dance still needs to find a critical sensibility from within its nurturing shores.

I have been on the road for the entire past month, taking AVANI- the Tagore work, NEELAM, the Vaishnava work and rehearsing simultaneously for ANDAL ANDAL, my reunion with sister Pritha after 17 years. Varying venues in Kerala and Bangalore were exhausting and eye opening for our team. Arriving hours before the show on a slow train and rushing to set up immediately, waiting for the inevitable opening ceremony of long speeches and garlanding, revving up again for performance mode and then hurrying back immediately to catch the return train in the middle of the night was totally chaotic, exciting and draining. The very next day we set off for Bangalore and the ebullient Maddhu Natraj’s first NAMMA BENGALURU DANCE UTSAV - a rocking event that riveted UB city retailers and mall rats and many pockets of the city!

Back home, I am pouring myself into massages, extra vitamins and all day sessions devoted to the choreography and composition for ANDAL- ANDAL (got to keep the body in pace with the restless mind!). In the 1970’s, Pritha and I were blissfully unaware of being the dancing sensations of South India. Years later, we are still being told about how our performances inspired an entire generation of young urban girls whose mothers attended our performances (with daughters in tow) to imitate our costumes (designed in collaboration with the Kanchipuram weavers by my brilliant mother Leela and constructed by the legendary Aiyyelu). Now, we are two entirely different women with varying world views. She is a full fledged corporate and a CEO of a family business and I have only entered a boardroom in my father’s arms as a toddler. Still, it is these differences that are most interesting on stage. Another sister-act is at work this month. Malavika Sarukkai and her poet sister Priya Sarukkai are teaming up. Priya, the elder, is working on sensitive translations of Andal’s erotic poetry which are truly imaginative, erotic and contemporary.

I officially announce my love of SKYPE. I am actually REHEARSING with my musicians through this technology when the Chennai rains have flooded the city making our already terrible roads, a death trap for vehicles, especially two wheelers! Thank Devi for the arrival of the ever positive and brilliant scenic and costume designer REX who is hand-holding me through the last phase of rehearsals. I am waiting for Rex to work his unfailing magic on stage for ANDAL- ANDAL. He is simply one of a kind! His work for Ma3KA, A Million Sitas and AVANI (Tagore) has transformed the “blah-bland” Chennai sabha stages into frames of magic! Only Rex could persuade me to return to wearing a Kanchipuram silk and gold sari all over again as I force myself to remember the days under the stern eye of Guru Adyar K Lakshman.

The annual all- night theatre ritual performance of KAISIKI NATAKAM unfolds on December 6th to greater and greater excitement. Thousands flock to the magnificent temple in the small village of Tirukurungudi in southern Tamilnadu, where my paternal great grandfather, Sri TV Sundaram Iyengar began his remarkable life. Since 1995, I have been fortunate to become engaged in the revival and reconstruction of this unusual ritual offering. The original temple artistes were sought out and supported through the revival and reconstruction process but have all, sadly, passed away. Since the very first revival performance in 1998 after a 55 year hiatus, KAISIKI NATAKAM has become the focal point of scholars, musicologists, film makers and my own Phd dissertation. A contrasting experience of a true village with generous locals, simply brilliant food and clean air is a much needed toxic cleanse for my spirit. It is here that I truly realize the deep connection of the people to faith, of the role of temple in everyday village life and the connection of nature and spirit. Just what my urban cynicism needs!

My pet peeve has not diminished. The state of our sabhas, the green rooms and their loos. I am concentrating on a single location – Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium in Mylapore. Ensuring that the space is clean and suitable, in seen and unseen areas for the conference itself is a huge task. Even with the offer of corporate support, the Bhavan management have not been able to agree to close their facilities for three weeks just to renovate their green room and other facilities. Media is finally realizing that the much touted SABHA season leaves much to desire from the performers’ point of view. I completely agree with Union Minister Jairam Ramesh who says that “India is the dirtiest country in the world.” Squalor and artistic splendor perform a jugalbandhi daily during the annual Chennai season. Nobody really cares and the show goes on!

From December 23, the MAD and DIVINE conference co produced with Kartik Fine Arts, unfolds this month. As convenor, I am excited and on edge with a variety of issues to deal with. Starting with a media campaign on radio, net and print that should at least bring the event greater visibility, I am expecting the normal inflow of interested NRI dancers and gurus and some surprising visitors to enlarge the scope of the audience. A variety of speakers and performers will examine and intersect the phenomenon of women saint poets and their ’divine madness.’ Backstage many young dancers will serve as volunteers, wanting to get closer to the pulse of the three day event while gaining experience into another dimension of dance and scholarship.

Guru Shanta Dhananjayan led NATYA KALA CONFERENCE at the Krishna Gana Sabha (Dec 26th onwards) is dedicated to all those great Natyacharyas who have passed on but left behind a magnificent legacy of dance, music and an unlimited treasure.

Welcome to all who travel to Chennai this December. My friends, gal pals and dance lovers, rasikas and fans – welcome to steaming idlis-vada-pongal breakfasts, to the lobby of Madras Woodlands hotel becoming an alternate sabha for excited visitors connecting after a year – to autorickshaw drivers making a bonanza, and mobile phones working overtime with excited commentary of each and every performance - to silk saris being aired daily and shops being flooded with new designs and ringing cash registers - to laughter, gossip, good times and great art.

Let the ‘melam’ begin along with the ‘talukku, minikku and kulukku.” (For non Tamilians, these words cannot be translated)

- Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Colombo/ Tirukurungudi/ Delhi/ and beyond…
(yes.. am not kidding.. this is all happening this month- totally Mad and Divine)

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