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"Every day brings you the chance to take a deep breath, kick off your shoes and Dance
When you hit a wall, climb over it, crawl across it or just dance on top of it."
- Oprah Winfrey


We live in an age of crass cacophony. When a 29 year old priest slaps a 50 year old female devotee right in front of the sanctum in the CHIDAMBARAM temple and immediately flees the scene, we are staring at a scenario where there are no safe spaces and no automatic sanctuaries. When the #METOO accused just one year ago are not just roaming around scot free but also performing in several December sabhas and receiving awards, we are facing a dire landscape of broken rules and splintered hopes.

It is not enough anymore for our politics to be separate from our art. No amount of dancing and praying to Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, and Devi can sublimate the anarchy of our times. No shouting and screaming about disrobing Draupadi or humiliating Sita will suffice. The praise of BEAUTY is just not enough anymore. For our art to be in sync with our lives we must embrace the turmoil of our times and find a way to enfold it in our artistic practice.


#INAI- The Connection
It is a privilege to watch senior dancers in action. Not one but two.

INAI - the entwining (embrace) featured Chicago diva Hema Rajagopalan and Global dance nomad Astad Deboo in a first time co-feature. Supported by the lithe and well trained dancers of Hema's NATYA DANCE THEATRE and Astad's long time co-artistes Shamsul and Pawan Waghmare as dancers and puppeteers, INAI promised much and delivered on most of the expectations.

The programme notes spoke about “coming together at a time when walls are being built to divide humanity”. The literal narrative of religion and race as divisive elements could have been stretched to include sexual preferences at a time when DIVERSITY is the buzz word. Well, perhaps not as bold as Hari Krishnan's new choreographic duet of WHEN SIVA KISSED VISHNU, but at least a hint of the various ways in which LOVE is breaking down walls and bringing people together. Touch, caress, tenderness were three elements that I would have liked to see more of.

The vintage Padam, PAYYADA, the jewel of the Veena Dhanammal / Balasaraswati school of hereditary music, was beautifully staged with Astad and Hema coming together very slowly from either end of the stage. This is where I longed for the sense of touch. This song is all about the lament of a woman who is not being held by her lover. The solo VARUGALAMO denoting class hierarchy was evocatively performed by Hema Rajagopalan.



However, I felt that both Astad and Hema are star soloists and work best alone. This coming together was certainly a very special moment for Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance. Special mention has to be made of the voice of Sikkil Gurucharan and George Brooks on the saxophone. In fact, it was the sax that gave the score a special texture that mridangist Vijayaraghavan's strident jathis could not.

All 3 shows were sold out and the artistes received a standing ovation with Hema's daughter Krithika Rajagopalan stepping in at the last minute as Third Eye, Dramaturg, Director. I watched the final rehearsal of INAI before the team moved in for tech and opening night. Up close in the dance studios it was most interesting to see how Astad and Hema had tried to get both teams to become witnesses and catalysts for the various ideas that unfolded.

Such mammoth projects require enormous resources. INAI deserves more shows to mature and ripen. The ideas about separation, distance, prejudice and suspicion need to be fleshed out. Hema's solid fan base in Chicago, built over 45 years of steady work, will always support her dance inventions.


#DEVADASIS NEVER FADE

While in San Francisco, I was also able to watch the final dress rehearsal for a new ensemble production called ASHRUTAM-The Unheard Voice, produced and choreographed by Surabhi Bharadwaj. This lovely Bengaluru based dancer, now relocated to the Bay Area, had chosen the now too often flogged subject of the Devadasi. (Sigh! Why can't they leave these women alone?) Anyway, the stage at a professional downtown theatre was transformed by some evocative pillars and temple doors. Platforms erected upstage promised an evening of well crafted dramaturgy and choreography.

Sadly, the promise was not kept. With a clunky script that was high on proclamations and low on facts, it was the energetic dancing that kept the attention focused on the unfolding narrative of the once glorious temple/court dancer who subsequently fell on hapless times due to circumstance and history. The potential impact of episodes where the Mughal invaders attempt to desecrate and plunder the temples which some brave Devadasis attempt to save were immediately diluted by the add-on scene of a DURGA LIKE dance for courage! The Halloween type scene of the harassed hereditary artiste having recurring nightmares was cringe worthy.

Producer, choreographer and star dancer Surabhi Bharadwaj stood out for her beautiful performances and immaculate execution of Padma Subrahmanyam's Bharata Nrityam style. Now, what that style has to do with the Devadasi art is another question! With a well rehearsed ensemble, it was the sparkling dancing that managed to ride over the now irritating Bengaluru music of over orchestrated tracks, rhythm pads and a below par rendering of the Todi ragam. ASHRUTI opened to mostly favourable reviews but the production has a lot of loopholes to plug and a fresh script to be written along with updated information about how Mahatma Gandhi rebuked and insulted these courtesan artistes during the independence struggle.

If we have to tell the story of the Devadasi, we must look beyond the simplistic stereotypes of the rise and fall. It is time to tell the tragic, messy and complicated lives of these amazing women, whose lives were imprinted with trauma and deceit of the colonial powers and caste struggles. At least we can acknowledge them every time we wear our ankle bells and step onto the stage and stand in “SAMA PAADAM” - feet together and hands on our waists.

In Australia and Canada, most gatherings begin by acknowledging that the land has been stolen from the indigenous peoples. Can we also salute those amazing women without whom millions of us would not be dancing today?

I was struck by how many well trained Bharatanatyam dancers there were in the Bay Area. Good technique, a readiness to collaborate and a willingness to work hard augurs well for classical dance in the USA. Already the Carnatic music scene in California is at an excellent standard. What dancers require is a THIRD EYE, a mentor and a good dramaturg to help them negotiate their own restless minds towards fleshing out ideas and impulses. Cross training in other movement techniques, opening out the body and mind to newer ways of thinking and moving will bring a fresh bouquet of possibilities. Certainly, the current ITEM MENU CARD is not the way forward for those seeking to make their mark. And dancers who are also wearing the other hats of choreographer and producer find it harder to separate themselves from the core of the work!


#THE GREEN ROOM

So many of us spend more time backstage in the dressing rooms than on stage. And that green room experience is so important as well as the first impression for a visiting artiste or any performer. I can write my own stories of the various experiences backstage. Once, my stage manager in New York City did not turn up for my contemporary solo SEVEN GRACES. I was all alone backstage while the theatre filled up and the tech crew was in place. I have never felt so alone ever! The silence was deafening! The solitude was not calming.

In the diasporic experiences- especially across the USA, it is mostly all the DESI women wearing their new silk saris, chatting endlessly and chattering nonstop in the foyer or backstage, not caring for a dancer's need for reflection or prayer. I have been in situations where the organisers did not supply water or any snacks for the entire duration of the performance. Airport pickups and drop offs were also not organised. Tech support promised but not delivered by a high school team. The list can go on and on.


I was pleasantly surprised in San Jose where I was performing 2 shows back to back. It was a standout experience of warmth and professional courtesy in the right mix. ENACTE, a theatre company in the Bay Area was supported by LAYADHWANI, a music and dance organisation founded by Snigdha Venkataramani. Now Snigdha is the actor/singer/performer in my acclaimed A MILLION SITAS. Her team took over the tech support and backstage arrangements for the show and they truly delivered. I discovered the hidden gems in Vandana and Ramalakshmi as they took over the sound and stage management with aplomb. It was a surreal delight to chatter endlessly in Tamizh about sound and light cues in far away San Jose!

In Chennai, there are many performances where the artiste is not greeted by the organiser. In fact, nobody is there to receive them. Forget about water or any snacks! I am talking about this happening RIGHT NOW. In 2019/2020. In this much touted MARGAZHI season, there is almost ZERO support backstage. Sometimes there is only one person who turns on the lights! Why don't artistes talk about this? Is this not also an important component of “southern hospitality” or just basic professional courtesy to a performing artiste?


#OF WOMEN WHO ARE DISAPPEARED

With Chitra Bannerjee

Have we ever wondered why these iconic women in our history and mythology never grow old? Why they are not allowed to enjoy and share the wisdom of their years? Were SITA and ANDAL too difficult to allow more years in their tumultuous and significant lives? Both “disappeared” in legend or were they made to “disappear”? Young, feisty, stubborn, intelligent, loving, daring, bold and transgressive - perhaps this was too much for patriarchal memory to allow. As I visit and revisit these two characters in my works A MILLION SITAS and NAACHIYAR NEXT, I always reach for those words and moments that could have been the spark for a patriarchal society to say ENOUGH.

SITA and ANDAL have reappeared in our collective imaginations. My conversation with acclaimed author Chitra Bannerjee in Los Altos, CA, was a reaffirmation to our belief SITA was calling out for her story to be told in her voice. And ANDAL is everywhere... on posters, products, stores and songs.


# TA KI TA TOM


Has Bijayini Satpathy moved to the USA? Her very long stint of performance and teaching had many an eyebrow raised with her incessant Instagram posts. But this former Nrityagram soloist is back in India and continuing her rigorous sessions of Odissi and body conditioning that is making dancers exhausted and energised!

Surupa Sen's newest offering AHUTI did not cause much of a flutter although it is now on a world tour. With the superb THAJI DIAS of the CHITRASENA DANCE COMPANY as its star, the show which, according to reports, is mostly just a cut and paste of old pieces, will continue to cement the Nrityagram brand.

Taking of brands, it seems all Akram Khan needs to do now is to launch a series of perfumes, men's accessories, health products and swanky cars! It seems BRAND AK turns into gold anything it touches! The recently concluded CLASSICAL INTENSIVE brought Kathak and Bharatanatyam dancers from across the globe (including India) to spend a week and learn from morning until night. That is an experience that is rare and the collegiality that is formed between the dancers is something irreplaceable! An interesting observation was that Akram is a better performer than a teacher and Mavin Khoo is an excellent teacher with his knowledge of the anatomy and the ability to convey the right guidance to the Bharatanatyam students.

Aditi Mangaldas is on a roll. Or rather on a continuous CHAKKAR. Relentless and driven, this almost 60 year old is everywhere. Singapore's Esplanade KALA UTSAVAM festival where over 500 people cheered. Then London Sadlers Wells for a LEC DEM to a prolonged ovation and soon to NYC for Rajika Puri's prestigious DANCING FOR THE GODS event in 2020. Aditi stepped into the DARBAR FESTIVAL in the UK when abhinaya legend SWAPNASUNDARI pulled out at the last moment. Reasons unknown.

Priyadarsini Govind seems to have made Australia her second home. Her continuing collaborations with scholar/performer Priya Srinivasan in Melbourne was recently cemented with another successful 3 day event titled SANGAM. Curated by Priya Srinivasan, Uthra Vijay and Hari Sivanesan, this confluence of narratives from the South Asian diaspora artistes and artistes from the motherland, was with a focus on spoken word, dance and music.

Malavika Sarukkai's latest solo THE BATTLE WITHIN was received in Bengaluru with acclaim and now goes on a national tour. Her ensemble work THARI-The Loom travels to Houston and other US cities next year.

Ananda Shankar Jayant presented her colourful and lively TALES FROM THE BULL AND TIGER at the Kalakshetra auditorium. Nonstop visual variety and narrative variations ensured a successful evening and a welcome home to a celebrated alumni.


Kathak/contemporary dancer Madhu Nataraj returned after a successful visit to Japan where she visited the remote north eastern region of TONO and participated by dancing the little known Kagura in the MATSURI festival.

My former Kalakshetra guru Neila Sathyalingam and musician husband S Sathyalingam headline the new online TAMIL CULTURE archive in Singapore. Indian culture departments are still awaiting a museum and any kind of thoughtful archiving and preservation of the performing arts. Meanwhile, the TRIBAL ART MUSEUM in Bhopal is a treasure and well worth a visit while we wait endlessly for a digital archive of our priceless dance history.

ESPLANADE theatre complex in Singapore is building a new mid size theatre to accommodate 550 seats. Between their main stage of 2000 seats and their small theatre for 100, programming was becoming a challenge.

ATTENDANCE dance publication continues its annual awards event every Nov / December. Initiated by dance scholar Ashish Mohan Khokar, this year the award for OVERALL CONTRIBUTION goes to the Italian theatre company TTB-Teatro Tascabile Bergamo, for their continuous engagement with Indian dance, especially Kathakali.


Relentless in his drive to find a place and a space for his Specially Challenged artistes, Syed Sallaudin Pasha has garnered accolades, awards and acclaim wherever he travels. His breathtaking choreography on wheels for his Specially Abled performers has been a standout hit in several countries and the recent spate of awards is well earned.

Sangeeta Kalanidhi Carnatic vocalist S SOWMYA has a brand new sari wardrobe for her award winning December season. 48 new sari looks selected and styled by textile enthusiast Mathangi is perhaps a first for a classical musician.

The 80th birthday celebrations of prominent arts patron Nalli Kuppuswamy Chettiar was marked by a dance presentation conceived by dancer Zakir Hussain. CHATUR VYUHAM featured four dance artistes (Gayatri Kannan, Parvati Ravi Ghantasala, Zakir Hussain, Gopika Varma). It was the unanimous opinion that Gopika Varma stole the show that evening.

Cultural workers and PR team ALAAP founded by Akhila Krishnamurthy in Chennai, were recognised for their sterling efforts with an award from Anitha Guha's Bharatanjali.


My long time technical director Victor Paulraj made his directorial debut with the hit play MIDNIGHT HOTEL in Chennai. The play was earlier directed by his guru and mentor, the late Mithran Devanesan 30 years ago.

ART ON THE TERRACE, a singular cultural initiative conceived by former Chandralekha dancer Meera Krishnamurthi, is having its own December “season” of classical music and dance shows on a Besant Nagar rooftop.

All those brave hashtags that sprouted last month about #PAYTOPERFORM #NEVERPAYTOPERFORM #PAYFORTHEARTS have quietly disappeared. For every 10 dancers who take a stand not to pay and dance, there are 100 waiting to take their place, checks in hand.


A - LIST and ARANGHAM STUDIO SERIES

Geeta Chandran

Indira Kadambi

Shanmuga Sundaram

Manasvini
What can mentors and senior dancers do with the current avalanche of mediocrity that will flood our city this month? It feels like puny David vs the Goliath of THE SYSTEM. However, we can fire away from our cultural slings by selecting and encouraging those rare and intimate experiences that have vanished from the main stages. After all, mentoring does not mean only encouraging but also opening doors and making opportunities happen.

It is with that idea in mind that I first began presenting artistes in my small home dance studio from 2000. Simultaneously, I invited out of town classical artistes who are rarely presented by the sabhas to perform on the Brahma Gana Sabha and Krishna Gana Sabha stages during the annual season. The artistic fees, backstage management, media communication were all the responsibility of my cultural foundation - ARANGHAM TRUST.

Recently, I have branded both events. ARANGHAM STUDIO SERIES engages with a wide range of live arts - rap poetry, standup comedy, music, theatre, dance, storytelling.... This year, on December 25th we present THE UNIVERSAL SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS - a morning of ABHINAYA by celebrated artiste GEETA CHANDRAN.

On January 2, 2020, as part of THE A-LIST series, I showcase 3 classical performers INDIRA KADAMBI, SHANMUGA SUNDARAM and MANASVINI RAMACHANDRAN. From suggesting the flow of the entire evening, to the announcements, pauses between items and segues from one act to the next, lighting and sound checks - I am trying to bring a sense of basic professionalism that I find sorely lacking even today in most of the season shows. It may be one of the many lone voiced Davids but I strongly feel that audiences sense when they are being treated with respect and respond with better attention and appreciation.
AND
All the shows are ticketed! Even the Studio Series at my home studio! Better to have a small and committed audience rather than those who stroll in and out at whim!


#DECEMBER-MARGAZHI-DOWNPOUR

It is literally and metaphorically a downpour. Conferences that begin at 8am and go on and on...
Side shows of smaller sabhas that spring up in basements and cowsheds, clogged roads choking with traffic and water, rabid shoppers trying to grab the best bargains, furious networking over coffee and dosas, nasty gossiping about this and that, fanatic fans who are selfie crazy...

Do not be surprised if timings are suddenly changed due to the solar eclipse or some political announcement. The Ayodhya verdict in November saw a flood of performance cancellations across India.

Welcome to the annual CHINNA MELAM, Dance and Music Mela in Madras!

Take a deep breath… because you will only exhale on January 20th. After 1000 performances (mostly Bharatanatyam) storm the stages, your eyes and ears, and hopefully linger in your minds. However, I cannot guarantee that you will not be awoken by nightmares either!

Hold your noses if you enter some places. Hold your breath daily from 8am until 7pm when conferences start as the morning newspapers are delivered and end past the time when the cows come home! Get toothpicks to keep your eyelids open even while you are yawning with either boredom or fatigue - or both! Open your mouths to savour the delicious Sabha canteens. Forget about diets or parking. It does not exist on our streets and in most sabhas. Prepare for clogged roads and perhaps soaked streets. Strut in your latest saris. Match your petticoats. Gossip in public places. Shop till you drop.

Welcome to my home city... Madras-Chennai - VAANGO! VAANGO! Dancers, musicians, fond parents, significant others, tourists and everybody else. Welcome to the largest and longest running privately funded performing festival in the world. Which is still the best kept secret in the world's cultural calendar! It is such a secret that it's almost 2020 and we still don't have a digital calendar of events and programmes! We at NARTHAKI.COM are being bombarded on an hourly basis about what is happening when!!!!!

My own home becomes DANY STUDIOS, NYC for the next 6 weeks. Many out of town dancers converge on to my front porch, studio floor and even the garden to rehearse from 6 am until 9 pm.
After many years I am performing, presenting and lecturing almost nonstop through the month of December!
AND
I take a much needed boost at my ancestral village in Tirukurungudi for the 21st revival performance of KAISIKA NATAKAM. This 15th century all night ritual has become a magnet for thousands of visitors from across the country.

We at NARTHAKI.COM are GIVING AWAY 5 conference tickets to those who are interested in BLOGGING about the Natya Kala Conference. Contact us @ narthakionline@gmail.com or reach us on our Facebook pages.

Christmas cheer, holiday bonhomie, Margazhi dreaming and New Year merriment. In the spirit of the season, I along with many of you, must hold compassion and generosity in my heart even as I watch mostly sub standard dancing that may be paraded on stage as “new original and innovative. Devi Meenakshi / Durga / Saraswati - help me find something good in every work, a spark in each artiste. Give me the right words to say, the right smile to make and the right tilt of my head to greet!

Congratulations to all the awardees. May these moments spur you on to excel and inspire!

This month has it all... and more... because there is more dance in one city than anywhere else in the entire globe!!!

Until the new year...

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Tirukurungudi


Twitter: @aratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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Touchingly written monologue.
More strength to you and your creative juices!
- Raj Rangarajan (Freelance writer, New York), Dec 1, 2019






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