December 1, 2018
Creativity is not a will-o-the-wisp muse that visits erratically
Instead, Inspiration is a flower that requires pruning, tending, affection…
- American dance critic Erin Bomboy
Nambi temple, Tirukurungudi
I started writing this month's musings from the calm environs of my ancestral home in the small village of Tirukurungudi, deep into the heart of Tamilnadu. When softened by the clean air, misty mountains and gorgeous architecture, it is easy to smile at the world. And perhaps I too need to smile, after a month of furious accusations, historic bans and the Carnatic music/dance world aflame with sexual accusations and festival cancellations.
I needed to exhale and the NAMBI Temple deep in the heart of Tamilnadu provided the perfect setting.
#METOOINDIA - GAFFES AND BEYOND
Yes, it was a month where many of us recognised it as being a SEMINAL MOMENT in our social and cultural history. Some threw their weight behind the #METOOINDIA momentum while many chose to stay quiet or worse, shoot their immature mouths off in public.
Case in point. The Chennai meeting held by ABHAI, Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India, on November 4, featured a respected guest speaker, Retired Justice Chandru, who gave many interesting case studies of women who pursued their powerful predators and received justice after almost 20 years. He also pointed out a very important point that "WOMEN ARE MOSTLY AGAINST OTHER WOMEN!" This was proved almost immediately by ABHAI President Roja Kannan and Co-Vice President Janaki Srinivasan spouting the most inappropriate sentences that made many in the audience cringe in shame! I choose not to repeat what both women said since it is almost unbelievable - coming from 50 plus artistes! Enough said that the reputation of ABHAI is certainly in tatters as an organisation that can listen and perhaps intervene in cases of abuse in the dance and music world!
Fortunately, ABHAI's reputation is partially salvaged with the financial support extended to needy artistes like Margi Madhu during the devastating Kerala floods in October!
There is a @METOO lull in the air. Sabha secretaries are content with the stance they have taken against those publicly named sexual perverts. The December season is upon us and as an almost SURREAL moment, the opening of the Bharat Kalachar Sabha season features a Bharatanatyam student of Sudharani Raghupathy - SRIDEVI - in a BN version of DO A DEER from THE SOUND OF MUSIC!
Yes... in the name of NOVELTY!
What else are we going to be bludgeoned with, I wonder?
Meanwhile, dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh has drafted a CODE OF CONDUCT with the consultation of legal and social worker guidance. This should serve as a guide and possible road map for dance and music schools who are interested in implementing an ICC (Internal Complaints Committee). Being such a loosely structured area with no central guiding body and no specific general code of conduct, the performing arts world in India is fraught with so many loop holes. An individual like Swarnamalya, who has become the voice and face of the #METOOCARNATICA movement is also facing a push back from some quarters with cancelled appearances at festivals and conferences. This is expected and we hope Swarnamalya has the emotional stamina to face the patriarchal repercussions of speaking out.
In conversation with many of my colleagues who are performers and teachers, I realised that whatever their own personal reaction to the outrageous behaviour of some musicians and dance orchestra members, their PERSONAL OPINION needed to be held in abeyance in the interest of their students. Some teachers confessed that their students were bearing the brunt of their own high profile and press statements and being denied performance opportunities.
Being an independent artiste with neither an academy nor children who are following in my footsteps has freed me to write, speak and say what I feel. This is a luxury AND an opportunity. However, it is not for me to FORCE anyone to speak up when the stakes are very different for the majority! Still, the relative silence from my dance colleagues has been disappointing.
#TMK -MORE HUFF AND PUFF
Concerts are cancelled often. Sponsors pull out almost every day. Losses are incurred. These things happen. Krishna's tone of confrontational arrogance with media and the Prime Minister was a case in self aggrandisement and pomposity! Now watch how the western media will pick up this story! The other dancers have been left behind while only TMK is gleefully pulling all the strings to his benefit!
Charging 10,000 US dollars for an appearance, Krishna's presence at FETNA, the New Jersey Tamil organisation earlier this year, known for its anti-Brahmin stance, evoked a paltry 65 people to listen to his rants. Among them were friends from the New Jersey Tamil Sangam who stayed behind to listen - "feeling sorry" for the poor turn out!
Meanwhile, TMK's singer/wife Sangeeta Sivakumar keeps a low profile in Chennai and continues with her music career! Don't expect any quote or reaction from her!
ROSES AND THORNS section has the many views on the TMK issue.
As an aside, I recall a prominent Mumbai organiser who suggested that I change the title of A MILLION SITAS for fear of right wing reprisal. I politely declined and did not call the media to raise a clamour about "intolerance" or "hate". I continue to tour and perform this work when invited in India and internationally and want the art to speak for itself.
#MELBOURNE and MADRAS DIARIES
The month began with me in Melbourne. It was my last day of a filled 9 day professional visit. The trip was organised by NIDA - National Institute of Dramatic Arts - and the visionary catalyst Dr. Nithya Nagarajan, The most vibrant of Australia's cities, Melbourne is a haven for creativity in every walk of life - design, music, painting, street art, graffiti, dance and literature.
I started with a children's storytelling workshop where I created a group presentation on HOW THE PEACOCK GOT ITS COLOURFUL TAIL. Two hours of sheer fun and delicious chaos!
A full day spent in the company of brilliant woman - first portrait photographer IHAB and later the founder of LIMINAL, Australia's only online magazine devoted to Asian-Australian artistes. Founder and photographer Leah Jing took me to spots in the city, where, in my long pleated Japanese dress, I moved at a meditative pace while she clicked/checked and clicked again! The long and detailed interview is one of the best and most detailed that I have ever given and it was an honour to be featured in this prestigious and popular arts and creative space!
I then dived into 3 long days of movement exploration with a diversity of performers who came from Butoh, contemporary dance, Bollywood, Mohiniattam, Martial arts, Bharatanatyam and yoga. 6 hour long days were interspersed with a variety of techniques from classical, ritual and modern theatre techniques.
Evenings were filled with visits. Entering the beautiful home of the Bharatanatyam icon and my Guru Bhai, CHANDRABHANU brought back many fond memories of our early training with Adyar K Lakshman. An hour long visit turned out to be much longer and we promised to meet again. Chandrabhanu is now revisiting some of his Odissi repertoire and returning to Malaysia more often, the country of his birth. If only some of his dynamic and visually stunning productions were available for viewing like MEDEA! Dance history students would be greatly benefited at the bold and gender bending ideas presented 30 years ago!
Dancer/scholar Priya Srinivasan was the generous host to a high tea where several Indian and Sri Lankan dance teachers gathered to meet me. To be honest, I think they are more fans of NARTHAKI.COM than yours truly. Again, the topic turned to the distracted younger generation and the politically correct stances needed to teach youngsters today!
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that under the leadership of senior guru Shanti Rajendran from Kalakshetra, almost 30 gurus have now come under the umbrella of BAVA- Bharatanatyam Acharyas of Victoria, Australia. Solidarity is such a strength for the diaspora that is often accused of being self centred and individualistic. Besides having almost 70 Indian dance schools in the area, Melbourne also has an excellent set of musicians for dance and do not rely on the Chennai/India based artistes any longer.
The final day of the month found me at the famous CHUNKY MOVE theatre going through the mandatory tech rehearsal for MA3KA. One of the most ambitious and visually beautiful of my solo presentations, this avatar, several years after its premier and showing in Chennai and New Delhi, has been tweaked to include my own evolution as a dance-actor. With costume changes on stage and live speaking, this work now reflects my convergence as woman, mother, feminist and diarist.
For now I am concentrating on a new politically slanted work with my long time and favourite co-artistes Hari and Rex, while also preparing to host dear dance "Sakhis" and "Sakhas" from Cape Town, New York and London.
At this year's Natya Kala Conference, convened by Srinidhi Chidambaram, I will be in conversation with IP expert Gladys Rosette Daniel who will illuminate basic issues about the now hotly contested area of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) for performing artists. In the age of hand held devices, Instagram and Facebook Live, who actually OWNS a choreographic work and is it worth it any longer to hold onto footage without releasing it and thereby not controlling the narrative and instead allowing piracy? If a young guru teaches a traditional composition which is not copyrighted, then who owns that particular copyright when the same composition is performed by hundreds of other dancers? According to Gladys we should all be posting everything from rehearsals, photo shoots and recordings immediately on social media so that the date, time and authorship are established.
With performers getting their own copyright as late as 1961, this is a session that promises to be interesting. I hope the questions are equally short and to the point. We do have a tendency to stand up and pontificate or ask questions in full paragraphs.
In conversation with traditional Natyacharyas like Herambanathan of Tanjavur, I find that there is huge interest in the compositions of the Tanjore Quartet and vintage choreography in countries like Malaysia and the Reunion Islands! I do hope the sabhas can extend an invitation to one of these hereditary artistes to present their historic repertoire for the now jaded Chennai rasikas whose nerves are at an edge with the robotic and jerky Bharatanatyam that is the norm!
I am immersed in the creation and performance of yet another Triptych. This month it is the rebel girl Goddess ANDAL. Envisioned as a joint collaboration between poet-translator Priya Sarukkai Chabria, storyteller Geeta Gopalakrishnan and myself, the evening has been envisioned as a fundraiser for the TATA CHILDREN'S CANCER HOSPITAL in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. While the world of ANDAL is familiar territory for me, I find myself reading and embodying her world with a relaxed detachment. It is HER season of Margazhi dawning this month (Dec 14 to January 14th).
The word has become a symbol of the classical music and dance season - as Chennai as our jasmine, filter Kaapi and Kanjeevaram silks!
Surrounded by almost 2000 people in my ancestral temple of Tirukurungudi last month, I was reminded of the power of faith. CEOs, accountants, factory workers, MBAs, college students, school kids, women of all ages crowded the giant Vishnu/NAMBI temple to watch Manipuri dancers preface the fabulous 4 hour ritual theatre of KAISIKA NATAKAM. Now in its 20th year of revival, the 15th century all night performance has grown in reputation and quality with the repertory artistes drawn primarily from Guru Herambanathan Bavupillai's school in Tanjavur. The power of music to overcome the prejudice of caste and fate is the essence of the play and watching the audience, patiently seated on the floor was a reminder of how potent and strong the moment was! Embodiment of text, ritual, performance and faith.
#SEVENTIES AND NOT OUT-YET
As we come to the end of another year, I wish to start a DRUM ROLL for two amazing artistes - both so different from one another, but who have both weathered and withstood the tide of change to stand as emblems of tenacity and talent.
ASTAD DEBOO is into his Nth avatar. Now in his seventies, he continues to collaborate with amazing musicians, deliver stand out solo shows around the world and persist in his path of a solitary voyager. I watched his deft maneuvers at the glitzy JADE fashion show last month and his rehearsal videos of a new work INTER-CONNECT that just premiered in Mumbai. Now he embarks on a MacArthur Foundation funded new initiative with Chicago diva Hema Rajagopalan. What can Astad NOT DO?
I salute this artiste, a friend and creator, who has shown the way for lone dreamers.
Thank you, Astad, for all that you have done and continue to do!
PADMA SUBRAHMANYAM AT 75 is a definite milestone. This stellar dance actor is being feted around India for her 75th birthday - AMRITA MAHOTSAV.
PADDU Akka has inspired me - as has Kanak Rele - to explore all the weapons in my arsenal. No matter what she does - picking lice from her hair, performing an open heart surgery, holding a rifle, imitating actor Shivaji Ganesan - she pulls it off with such aplomb that even the diehard critics are left speechless or collapse into uncontrollable laughter at her bravado!
I salute this dance maverick for inspiring several generations of dancers and acknowledge her fascinating pedagogy of body training and KARANA research that is being seen on stages across the world.
In Los Angeles, Mythili Prakash is creating a new solo - HERE AND NOW- after being selected by Akram Khan as one of the 4 CHOREOGRAPHERS OF THE FUTURE. Her performance will premiere in the UK in October 2019.
In London, Mavin Khoo has set a Bharatanatyam duet on Renjith Babu from Chennai and Nehaa Mondal Chakravarty, for SWAPNA GATHA for the DARBAR festival at Sadler's Wells. Also featured in the event is a duet between Sujata Mohapatra (Odissi) and Gauri Diwakar (Kathak).
In New Delhi, Prathibha Prahlad continues to defy trends and forges ahead with the 12th edition of the DIAF (Delhi International Arts Festival) in December. Spread across the capital in multiple venues with numerous international troupes attending, Prathibha plunges into this annual adventure that always seems to burn her out at its end!
In Hyderabad, Ananda Shankar Jayant celebrates 40 years in dance with multiple events, the most recent being her exhibition of photographs and costume designs - AHARYA DARPANAM.
In New York, Sonali Skandan is preparing an ambitious premiere of her new FOUR HORSEMEN, based on the Old Testament, with guidance from Maya Chatterjee.
Also in New York, Parijat Desai celebrates her selection at the MOVING TOWARDS JUSTICE FELLOWSHIP by Gibney Dance Center. Her new work 0.0.F.3.0 presents choreography incorporating living plants, phonetics and movement to explore the current mood of fear and anxiety.
In Bengaluru, Madhu Nataraj has been selected as the sole dancer in the reputed list of young leaders at the Aspen Institute.
In Kalahasti, Andhra, pianist Anil Srinivasan, who has composed many scores for me, joins the new KREA UNIVERSITY as faculty for a system of integrated liberal arts education.
In New Delhi, Radhika Hoon of NATYA BALLET CENTRE presents another edition of her elegantly curated dance festival. Always thoughtfully prepared and presented, the founder Kamala Lal encouraged so many wonderful dancers and choreographers in her time. I recall the beautifully organised performance of VAITHARANI/DUST in 2001. Today NBC continues to plan and present with rare elegance and quality that is sorely needed for dance.
In London, dancer Arunima Kumar pulled off the feat of presenting a Kuchipudi festival of 60 dancers including the scholar Avanthi Meduri who was once a performer.
In Chennai, Priya Murle launches the first edition of the NATYA DARSHAN dance conference titled KADAMBA. Using the many small spaces that have opened up to host cultural events, well known and emerging names in dance, poetry, painting, writing are lined up to throw up myriad ideas and images for the curious rasika.
As an aside, Priya was the guest artiste in the 20th edition of KAISIKA NATAKAM in my ancestral temple in Tirukurungudi. She interpreted two songs previously performed by the beauteous hereditary performer Durai Kannu. She blended with the traditional performers with ease, revealing her maturity and willingness to adapt.
Hosting her 3rd and perhaps final edition of the NATYA KALA CONFERENCE, is the lovely and multi faceted Srinidhi Chidambaram. Having surprised many skeptical at the fantastically organised and attended two previous editions of the same event in 2016 (STITHI GATI) and 2017 (SRINGARAM), this year's ANEKA promises to showcase many interesting and provocative sessions. Ably assisted by TEAM AALAAP and its creative head Akhila Krishnamurthy, the combination has gifted dancers with a hat-trick of well ideated sessions.
The responsibility of the convenor, is often to position and frame each session and ensure that the presenters and panelists stay engaged and coherent. Time keeping is also a challenge every time. Not every session is satisfactory but ANEKA's offering across 5 days draws an ambitious arc across many topics of caste, gender, modernity, creativity with a Pan Indian macro view. Being seen in the city are Sanjukta Wagh and Shilpika Bordoloi, both performers I have been following with keen interest. Chennai-vasis and dancers should applaud this doctor/dancer for the excellent events she has ideated and presented during the December season.
Attendance at these morning conference events has grown significantly with the bonhomie among the international dance fraternity at a bubbly high as news-gossip-ideas-networking-fashion points are discussed and shared. Nostalgia is high for the diaspora community and it is always wonderful to meet my friends who live and work around the world. I personally wish to be inspired by what my home town can offer beyond more mindless Bharatanatyam and tired ideas in many cases.
As we prepare to watch a never ending stream of dancers in classical attire - jewels, bells, gold, silk and attitude, let us remind ourselves that India's dance traditions should rise above power and prejudice, that patriarchy feeds on despair, that the hypocrisy of the elite should not be able to live-stream fears and demolish the syncretic culture of our past.
I end this month's editorial from exciting Melbourne where the past week has been filled with great moments and memories.
I acknowledge the unforgettable journeys of 2018 - four continents - Asia, Australia, North America and South Africa - where my voice and work have travelled; the numerous friends, old and new, the young generation who are looking for leadership and guidance in an increasingly fractured world; the value of life experience over youth and the wisdom to accept the aging body and still agile mind - these have been my gifts and lessons of the year.
Thank you for all the faith, trust and affection.
Enjoy the holiday season and the final month of the year.
Presidents, Prime Ministers, Royals and Dictators may come and go.
Artistic forces will continue...
But it needs our increased vigilance and mentorship.
Let us soak in Hope
Let us surrender to Beauty
Let us surround ourselves with Love
And let us net our dreams with the fragrance of tenderness
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
P S: My home state of Tamilnadu is drowning once again with the fury of cyclones and floods. When the rains hit Chennai in December 2015, the world took notice and rushed to help. This time it is the marginalised and powerless in rural areas that have not made national headlines but whose lives have been completely shattered by the relentless rains. Once again, we are looking to send aid through legitimate channels to rural areas.
Blog: THE A LIST /
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