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December 1, 2013

What are the many ways to say DELUGE? Any which way, the rains are here. The monsoon may have come and gone in Madras, but the gush of performances, the inflow of dancers and rasikas and the cascade of awards has begun. In many auditoriums across this city, dancers and musicians are dressing up to receive honours. Natya Ratna, Nrithya Choodamani, Kala Seva Ratna, Sangeeta Nipuna, Natya Padmam... the titles go on and on, each sounding vaguely similar to the other. For most, it is a special moment - a significant time for recognition and applause from peers, seniors and rasikas. Congratulations to all the awardees of the season and also to those artistes who have been selected for the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi awards!

While Madras may feel like the centre of the universe for many old timers, the truth is that all of India is celebrating with music, dance, festivals, weddings and family gatherings. In nearby Bangalore, Ashish Khokar felicitates several important dance names, in particular scholar Avanthi Meduri and contemporary choreographer Jayachandran Palazhy. When it is mostly classical musicians and dancers who receive the accolades this season, the ATTENDANCE awards spotlight those whose words and dance designs have found universal acclaim.

My mind is wrapped around the ambitious five day conference/conclave/festival PURUSH-The Global Dancing Male. The most ambitious in size and scope compared to the previous two years, (MAD AND DIVINE WOMEN & EPIC WOMEN) this year brings the focus on the male dancer and the historical, sociological, cultural and psychological dimensions of men in dance. A fairly recent occurrence in India - today there are so many men attracted to the world of dance and so many have committed to a life of struggle and constant tension by opting to be a dancer. What does it mean? How do the classical, folk, traditional and contemporary dancers approach performance, preparation, creation? What does it mean to come from a family of dancers and how does that change the social/economic dynamic? Village vs city? Training methods? Are men better teachers? How does one negotiate content that is predominantly written by men but in the feminine tense? How do men negotiate 'bhakti'?

With almost 100 artistes invited from all over India and overseas, the conference desk is now working overtime. Press and media are beginning to buzz with the news and we are hoping that the five days - spread over three venues and 12 performances, including 9 academic sessions and several short performances - will attract a wide range of visitors to these events.

The entire month of November whisked me away from India. Between teaching and rehearsing at Wesleyan University, Connecticut and preparing for my special presentation at CORD (Congress on Research on Dance) in California, battling the cold weather, and keeping body and mind together on these interminable flights across oceans, I found the time to watch some amazing shows. In New York, Rajika Puri and I were among the many amazed and thrilled at BAM's showing of French choreographer Angelin Prejlocaj's new work AND THEN, THOUSAND YEARS OF PEACE. Featuring visual and set design by Paris based Subodh Gupta, the stunning ensemble work examined violence, prejudice, fascism, fundamentalism and gender politics fuelled by Prejlocaj's reading of the Apocalypse of St John. Co-produced by the famed Russian Bolshoi theatre, the shared history of bloody violence between both countries also provided a deeper vein of information that the dancers could mine from. The 21 member cast held "the book" between their teeth, tore pages from it, threw women against walls, stepped over them, prowled in alien helmets and with clockwork precision. Metallic walls that moved and silver "thalis" that reflected light and caught dripping blood were some fantastic images. The opening moment of women crawling under sheets of sheer plastic followed by men stomping in with robotic precision was riveting. Groups, duets, endless dance shapes - AND THEN brought the crowd together in a long and heartfelt standing ovation. I was inspired but also thoughtful about why Indian dance is unable to attack issues head on and despite all the claims of being "moved," "inspired" and "galvanised" by horrific incidents like rape and violence in our society, our dances never move beyond posturing and skimming the surface. Perhaps it is in the very form itself, where the principles of harmony and beauty are so deeply embedded and valued.

If spectacle is the mantra of the hour, the Singapore premiere of ANGKOR WAT-The Untold Story was a triumph of visual design and team work. Over 65 artistes from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India and Singapore slogged for months to realise this fictional story to stage. The projection standards were impeccable and the dancers from Cambodia and Sri Lanka stole the evening with their superb dancing. For one who has never been a fan of the Singapore based Bharatanatyam dancers - finding them too robotic and uninspired (who can blame them when they live in a highly regulated and automated society?) the sheer discipline of rehearsals showed on stage. Guest artiste Priyadarsini Govind, played one of the key roles and almost universally the first comment that emerged from some of the audience members who watched her was, "Nothing fell off her costume!" That seemed to say it all!

In all, ANGKOR WAT seems to have succeeded in sweeping the Esplanade audiences off their feet and continued to raise the profile of Indian dance in this city state. Opening the pathways was Bhaskar Academy's staging of POORNIMA and I-CYCLOPS performed earlier in the year in collaboration with InDANCE of Toronto. Heartening to see Bharatanatyam becoming global in this dynamic country and stepping out of community circles and right wing temple societies.

What happens when a single word conjures up a timeline of endless images? I speak about the word SRI. The Sanskrit word that means "auspicious" also means "honourable," "respected" and a prefix to towns and people (Sri Villiputtur, Sri Rangam). When dancers hear the word, the first images that invade our mind is invariably Chandralekha's seminal choreography in 1991. It was a beautiful and brilliant commentary on women and gender politics in India. Any other dance production that takes the same title will forever be informed by my own memory of Chandra's work. That is why I am constantly surprised when successive dancers continue to title their productions by the exact same name. Whether you hold 10 arms behind you, step out of a golden lotus or imitate calendar art by posing as Goddess Lakshmi, dancers today need to have a critical understanding of what names and nomenclatures actually carry. Feigning amnesia to our own dance history is unforgivable. Worse is pretending that the word SRI as a title of a dance work is a "new idea."

"Step out of the ghetto," exhorts film maker Sharada Ramanathan, a national award winning director, whose new venture NATYANUBHAVA is ready for release. Speaking at the Creative Business Cup event in Denmark, she lamented the lack of entries from India, the world's most cultured hub with an unbroken tradition and civilisation. Copycat aesthetics, a lack of engagement with Indian issues and conditions and a general patina of cynicism and immaturity have all contributed to this, she says. "Don't be infatuated by the corporate. That honeymoon is long over." Sharada adds that culture does not satisfy the bottom line of profits and that is why the Madras season is so remarkable. It reflects the non presence of state and government funding for the largest cultural festival in the world.

The season line up features new names in the Music Academy roster. Two divas are absent from the programming and many young dancers have been invited. The curator's insistence of performing the 'margam' format needs to be re-examined since most dancers seem incapable of interpreting the traditional lyrics in a convincing manner. Also, the imposition of live music will soon have to be re-examined as more and more dancers are using good recorded music with the sabhas accepting this transition without any whining about "tradition" and "preservation." Speaking of tradition, I must commend Los Angeles based Ramya Harishankar who surprised me with a wonderful interpretation of the traditional javali "Yarukkaagilum bhayama?" At the annual CORD conference in Los Angeles that was titled DECENTERING DANCE STUDIES, Ramya sang effortlessly as she negotiated the lyrics, memory of her classes with Kalanidhi Mami and her guru Rajaratnam Pillai - all the time speaking to herself and ruminating on the role- playing that the song called for. It was a mature and bold interpretation, catalysed by scholar/dramaturg Priya Srinivasan whose new book SWEATING SARIS is a must read. Dressed in a simple kurta pyjama with short hair framing her pleasant face, Ramya's relaxed ease reminded me that most Indian dancers today cannot sing and many don't understand music. This AND the global fetish towards physical agility and kinetic excitement has robbed the dance tradition of its inherent poetics. While Kathak seniors lament that the style has become reduced to "chakkars" and Bharatanatyam is all about posing and leaping, it will do well for emerging stars to remember that older generation of artistes could sing, dance, compose, play several instruments and conduct concerts. This all round ability is what made their art and the transmission of the tradition so rich and potent.

Technology has emerged as the most powerful connector for the preparation and curation of the PURUSH conference. Alongside co-curator and academic consultant, Professor Hari Krishnan of Wesleyan University, we have watched video links on You Tube, communicated via skype, texted endlessly and connected via Facebook and Messenger for countless hours. The instant decisions and conversations we have had without being in the same physical space has been remarkable. For myself, having grown up in a generation without any gadgets, the amazing positives of this cyber world for artistes never ceases to amaze me. And yet, I notice a shrinking of the emotional and imagination band widths that come with such an overload of stimuli. My reservations about live streaming and copyright issues shared in my last editorial elicited many passionate responses and as the season descends upon us, I must say that this new avatar is here to stay. Those living far away take delight in being a part of performances and those who want to steal will do so anyway. So for PURUSH, we will be live streaming ONLY the folk theatre performance of THERUKOOTHU from the Nageswara Rao Park premises in Mylapore on Saturday December 21st from 8pm onwards. Watch the home page of and all other social media sites connected to our event for more details. All other developments during the festival - photos, tweets, comments and images will be shared through our various social media platforms as well as daily updates on this site.

For now, it is all about deadlines, visa tensions for some international guests and soothing the frazzled nerves of my team. Male dancers are greater divas than the women. This we have discovered with both dismay and amusement. Just pinning them down to send bios, abstracts and appropriate photos on time has been a real headache. PURUSH has been my most ambitious event to date and makes the 1995 PURUSH festival almost tame in comparison. In August 18 years ago, the evening of classical dance featuring 6 styles was watched by almost 1500 people who sat in the aisles and stood against the auditorium walls of the Music Academy. Cars were parked a kilometre away at Narada Gana Sabha! The very next day new audiences thronged the Alliance Francaise spaces on all three levels to watch performance art, Yakshagana, Thang-ta, Kalari, Silambam and Thudumbu drumming demonstrations that ended with a film on Kelucharan Mohapatra. It was at that very same space on College Road that audiences watched the fabulous solo - IMPRESSIONS OF BHIMA by Vinay Kumar. It was organic physical theatre in a completely new avatar with devised text and movement. 18 years later, Vinay returns with his newest work TENTH HEAD followed by NIDRAVATHWAM (Nimmi Raphel) - two remarkable physical theatre solos from Veenapani Chawla's Adishakti Repertory.

A special shout out to the brilliant sets, visual and costume designer REX who has been my collaborator for 18 years and whose genius will once again be on full display during the upcoming PURUSH conference. REX has changed and radicalised so many silhouettes for me and other performers, and I bring you a slide show of some of the magic moments he has created for me over the past 10 years. We are all waiting to see what exhilarating magic he will conjure up in the difficult terrain of "sabha - mama" mindsets and the chaotic December season madness. Hidden from all of us - even me, the producer of the event, the PURUSH set has begun to take shape. I remember the collective gasp of astonished amazement when the EPIC WOMEN set was unveiled last year. Nobody exhaled for three days!

Special Note: All PURUSH performers can be seen ONLY at the festival. They are not performing anywhere else during the season. So if you miss them at our event, they are GONE!

Last year during EPIC WOMEN, we were stunned with the horror of Nirbhaya and the Delhi gang rape. This year we are transfixed and devour all news like piranhas about the 18 year old journalist being molested by her 58 year old boss. In this atmosphere of increasing, casual violence against women and a coarse and brutal society, what is the purpose of art, of dance, of imagination and ideas? Having become more engaged with feminist poets, filmmakers and writers over time, I am watching these questions hover over me like pesky mosquitoes. But for now, I must swat them aside.

We welcome all the performers, speakers, presenters, rasikas and the tireless team that has stood by me for the past 3 years of ideating and executing my vision through these three conference / conclave / festivals. It has been a privilege and an adventure. Lalitha Venkat, the super efficient content editor of this forum joined me in 1995 for the first PURUSH. Kathak guru Arjun Mishra who danced in the 1995 production now enjoys the fact that his son, Anuj Mishra performs in this edition. So many circles and spirals. With PURUSH, my foundation ARANGHAM TRUST has completed 20 years, 5 international conferences, 15 years of festivals, presented and invited more than 1000 artistes, scholars and performers, birthed a world famous dance portal and published five books. Through these past 20 years so many artistes have found a voice and a touchstone to experiment, create anew, dream afresh and an interested audience before whom to present their ideas. 20 years down… another 20 ahead!

December is also the month for my annual pilgrimage to my ancestral village Tirukurungudi for the KAISIKA NATAKAM ritual performance in the AZHAGIYA NAMBI temple. It was two decades ago that I became involved in the revival and restoration of this unique tradition. Some visuals are here for you to look at and information about this unique tradition.

For now, our smiles are in place, our homes are open, the steaming hot coffee is waiting with its special aroma, the idlis are steaming and the silk saris are being ironed. The traffic is worse, the streets are jammed, prices are soaring, parking is impossible and the chatter deafening.
Come one, come all to Madras, the Melam, the Talam and the delicious madness that is THE SEASON.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Madras / Tirukurungudi

PS: A note to all organisers of future conferences who are inviting international speakers. The Indian Embassy will not issue visas for any invitation that contains the word CONFERENCE unless it is cleared by the Ministry of External Affairs. Now who outside Delhi will venture to get these permissions each time? Some of our speakers have already been rejected for visas and we are trying to scramble to find alternatives. Those already holding visas - you are fortunate.

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