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December 2021

Dance is the healing treasure within your spirit
That only movements of passion can set free

Sometimes in life confusion tends to arise
And only dialogue of dance seems to make sense

- Shah Asad Rizvi, author

Anita Ratnam

In my very last message of 2021, I look forward to writing about watching dance. In person. Not on the small screen. Night after night, seeking those moments of being in the same space as the artiste, watching a moving body instead of an ant size blip, flattened by a digital device and bleached of rasa. Breathing the same air, though masked, applauding and savouring the sound of multiple palms coming together at the end.

Theru Koothu

Bengaluru was calling and I responded. I headed to the city's jewel - RANGA SHANKARA. Created by actor Arundhati Nag and named after her late husband, actor Shankar Nag, this is perhaps one of the best theatres in India. Bristling with energy, vibrant with the chatter of so many young minds, I watched Tamil folk theatre THERUKOOTHU being performed by the KATTAI KOOTHU SANGAM of Kanchipuram. In a commissioned evening of contemporary content, the presence of young women performing male roles was a breakthrough that the KKS has achieved. The title of the play was TAVAM. It was a parallel narrative of Arjuna's penance to Lord Siva to obtain the deadly Pasupathi weapon before the Kurukshetra war. The main story was that of young women who were battling prejudices at home and the world to learn and perform KOOTHU. It was nothing but the fire of TAVAM (a sacrifice to the spirit and energy of Koothu) that kept these actors going every single day. KOOTHU is a word that becomes a pejorative, denoting something vulgar, uncouth and unaesthetic. The energy on stage that evening's gig was anything but. Led by the irrepressible Tamilarasi, TAVAM was a shining example of what persistence, patience and faith can result in. The five women, one 8 months pregnant, tore the stage apart with their electric singing, dancing and acting. Yes, they represented a true "triple threat" like how Broadway performers are described.

I jumped to my feet at the end, as did the entire audience that evening. I am excited to meet these artistes later this month as I lead a small group of rasikas to the home of the KATTAI KOOTHU SANGAM in Kanchipuram to watch a traditional play and meet the directors Rajagopal and his Dutch wife Hanne De Bruin. An immersive theatrical experience and meeting with the artistes soon after seems to be one way to rekindle the passion for the live arts.

Bijayini Satpathy
Bijayini Satpathy
Akshiti Roychowdhury and Prithvi Nayak
Akshiti Roychowdhury and Prithvi Nayak
Photos: Shalini Jain

Getting back to my second night in Bengaluru. This evening was dedicated to watching the incandescent Bijayini Satpathy in her solo presentation along with two pieces by her students Akshiti Roychowdhury and Prithvi Nayak.

Titled SAKSHI, the evening was divided into two parts. The first half was traditional Odissi repertoire BATTU and DASAVATAR, where I saw the clear influence of the NRITYAGRAM aesthetic on the duet choreography. After all, 25 years in an institution and dancing to choreography which was not her own cannot be erased from Bijayini's body. However, the reimagining of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra's dance arrangement was done with great care and attention to detail. With lighting by theatre director Sujay Saple, the SHOONYA space amplified the contours of the supple and superbly trained young bodies.

The voice of Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy was an apt collaborator for Bijayini's strong solo dancing in the second half of the evening. A familiar Ashtapadi was choreographed within a long diagonal for extensive floor work. The Bharatanatyam staple DESH TILLANA (of Lalgudi Jayaraman) was a surprising and lovely choice to end the evening. Adapted for Odissi by Bijayini's brother and musician Srinibas Satpathy, the intelligent juxtaposition of Carnatic scales to Odissi 'bols' made a very satisfying finale.

Bijayini herself revealed what her many years of daily training (diligently shared during the lockdown on her Instagram feed) had culminated in. Every move, every breath, every bend, every lunge, every shift of the feet and turn was executed with a rehearsed yet natural precision. Each descent to the ground and rise from a deep lunge was poetic. It was as if she was announcing to the world "Here I come!" As a soloist who is now in great demand all over the US and with a powerful agent by her side, Bijayini will soon be the artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and has been commissioned to create a full length solo by the Baryshnikov Arts Centre. WOW!!!!

Aditi Ramprasad
Aditi Ramprasad
Aditi with Lakshmi Ramaswamy
Aditi with Lakshmi Ramaswamy
Returning to Madras that was literally drowning in record breaking rainfall, I managed to arrive at a water logged Vani Mahal auditorium to watch 19 year old Aditi Ramprasad being featured in her debut solo by guru Lakshmi Ramaswamy. I have veered away from attending or being a special guest at these dance debuts since they are mostly a mediocre business racket. However, I have been watching Lakshmi Ramaswamy's steady rise in the competitive world of Bharatanatyam with interest. She combines research, academic prowess, a deep love of Tamil literature, choreographic abilities and a calm control over her art and students.

It was refreshing to see a Jathiswaram with the old world gestures and movements during the interludes between the "NRITTA' sections. The 'sanchari' elaborations were not overdone in the varnam and the modern "Surya" Sabdam, written by Professor S Raghuraman, was neatly performed. A very tall and attractive dancer, Aditi is a technology student and will hopefully carry dance in her life. As her proud father remarked, "working towards an Arangetram is an example of motivation, dedication and passion. These qualities should accompany Aditi in the future."

It was quite a lovely note to have two of Lakshmi's senior students Nivedita and Pragna act as compères for the evening. "Articulate" and "cute" were the words that came to my mind as both girls displayed confidence in their delivery. The debut dancer read out her own THANK YOU speech, another trend these days, much like a graduation speech that a student gives to her family and friends.

Anita Ratnam and team

Anita Ratnam

It was a delightful weekend spent in sharing my interpretation of a rare Annamacharya composition ENTA CHENAVU in which the poet wonders while marvelling at ANDAL's sway over Lord Venkatachalapathy of Tirumala. Using my training in theatre and visual imagery, I was assisted by Victor Paulraj and L Subhasri. We created a small black box space in my dance studio and with 6 lights showed how abhinaya with props and theatre inputs can be used for traditional sacred poetry. The expressive voice of G Srikanth enhanced the mood greatly. The tremendous response for the 5th edition of the TAMRAPATRA series was indeed heartwarming with so many wanting to learn from me. Flattering yes, but this ZOOM system is truly uninspiring. Staring into a glass screen while trying to be animated and engaged for two evenings was exhausting. Maybe 2022 will see me in another mode!



For the 23rd consecutive year I will return to my ancestral village to oversee the all night ritual theatre performance of KAISIKA NATAKAM. Last year it was a closed door event with no outsiders or devotees allowed into the NAMBI VISHNU temple in Thirukurungudi. This year the rains have lashed the little village so severely and there has been much damage due to the flooding. The performance will again be limited to a very small audience from within the temple itself. Still, the return to roots is an important marker for me and a reminder of how quickly time has passed since I first began the reconstruction project 25 years ago. Many of the first generation of performers are no longer with us and this year we have trained yet another set of artistes to hopefully take over for the next 6 to 7 years.

The fragility of the performing arts is one of the challenges of our times. The body that ages and fades is inevitable, but the power of faith never fails to astonish me when I encounter it away from the big cities. It grabs you by the shoulders and enters the pores. The shining eyes of people who gaze upon the standing idol of NAMBI SUNDARA PARIPOORNAR (the One who is Beauty embodied) and find solace just in standing for a few minutes in silence is a phenomenon of human experience. The palpable presence of the Sacred. A feeling that these eyes tainted by cynicism cannot dismiss. A feeling that dancers seek to evoke each time we perform.


Look out! MetaVerse is here! A whole new way of receiving and responding to the arts and life via the digital world. With an enthusiastic young population driving these trends, the dancing body will be increasingly intersected by AI (artificial intelligence), VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality). What is opening up is a new world of entertainment and economy, which throws up challenges for all humankind.

We will all have a chance to create a DIGITAL AVATAR. This can enable us to check in and derive all the joys associated with an event.
The market for this new medium is estimated to be $800 billion US dollars. And it is coming as early as 2024.
Why is this relevant for dance? Because this leads us to the larger question that we as a community should be asking ourselves. Who are we dancing and making dance for in the next 20 years? Will the solo format survive? For how much longer? Teaching has already changed with technology. Young men and women who flock to Indian dance classes every Vijayadashami / Dussehra just to fulfill their parents' fond dreams now have so many more choices to pick from.

Obviously, the BOYS CLUB of Chennai Sabhas comprised of mostly geriatrics are NOT aware of these shifts in consumerism. Just look at the line up for the quasi "SEASON" that has been cobbled together hastily at the last minute. Celebrated Carnatic singer Sudha Raghunathan says that organisations are scrambling as late as last week to get her dates for both online and live stage shows. The same old same old names are appearing on the dance festival calendars, and each dancer is gushing about how "wonderful" it is to be returning to the stage again after a long hiatus.

While the NRI audience will once again be almost nil this year, every Sabha is hoping for online ticket sales for their star names and their global fans. I tell myself that it is a good thing to have dance once again on the festival calendar after a miss last season, but after nearly 2 years of a lockdown and so much that has turned the world upside down, HAVE WE NOT LEARNED ANYTHING? Why should I pay to watch the same "Margam"-ISH type show that will certainly not be filmed and edited imaginatively for online viewing? Do I want to watch my favourite dancers on my hand held device and filmed in sometimes unflattering angles? Or unsightly close ups? I would rather wait to see her/him in person.

Also, why have the sabhas (Music Academy in particular) not taken the 12 months to actually COMMISSION one new piece from their dance favourites? ONE piece that is a collaboration between dancer and camera! It does not take rocket science to figure out that chronic digital fatigue that has set in everywhere. Weddings, holiday travel, festivals and family gatherings have all contributed to a severe drop in attendance of virtual shows.

Finally I would like to call upon all the writers and dance bloggers who have been harping on the CASTE issue for not raising their voices or using their platforms to point out this lack of imagination in programming. Bharatanatyam in Chennai during December should offer a plurality of approach and diversity of aesthetics and content.

Russian model in a Kanchipuram sari
Russian model in a Kanchipuram sari

I watched with irritation and anger at a Russian model wearing a traditional Kanchipuram silk sari for a very famous Chennai retail brand on Instagram. Why are we not celebrating the various body shapes and sizes, skin colours and the dazzling differences of Tamil women? What is this white skin fetish that marketing clusters are rushing towards? We are entering 2022 and are still salivating over white skins? No wonder so many young women are grumbling about the lack of visibility in advertising and main stream media when their appearances are not compatible with what "the market" allegedly wants. The saree is the most elegant, forgiving and ageless piece of unstitched cloth in the world. Why are saree stores not waking up to the fact that a middle aged woman, a grandmother, a working executive, a student, a home maker and a non binary person can all be featured in saree ads? I have now put out an official idea that I hope someone picks up and runs with.

The malaise bleeds into the accepted BODY TYPE in Bharatanatyam. Hyper slim, athletic, agile, gymnastic and the need for speed and aggression. Fair skinned (mostly) and certainly not curvy. Don't blame BN for being biased or myopic. Look around and see how the idea of BEAUTY itself has changed so drastically!

Taj Hotel burning on 26/11
Taj Hotel burning on 26/11

It was by strange co-incidence that I found myself in the lobby of Mumbai's Trident Hotel on November 26. Now referred to as "26/11"- the day the Lashkar terrorists wreaked havoc upon many important sites in South Mumbai. Pianist Schubert Vaz, a veteran musician and a city fixture, was playing my favourite tunes from Hollywood films. During the break, he shared his miraculous escape on that fateful day. 13 years ago, he was huddled inside the service entrance with the gun pointed at him. At that very moment, the shooter had run out of bullets and was trying to reload when Vaz jumped into the closing doors of an elevator in the nick of time.

Dancer Mallika Sarabhai was herself holed up in the Taj Hotel for a harrowing 60 hours.

It reminded me of how ephemeral life is. How quickly one can vanish. Breath stilled. Eyes dimmed. The beauty of this crazy life on this ageing planet wiped clean from all minds. While we try to decipher life's mysteries, we can move, create and dance. And evoke those moments of personal truth - at least for ourselves. Who are we dancing for? If not for our spirit. Our body. Our essence.

This is my final message as we end another topsy-turvy-tipsy-troubled-traumatic year. With Omicron looming, we must find ways to continue living our lives while adapting to newer and newer challenges to the arts.

Goodbye 2021.

Hello Hello 2022.
What do you have in your secret bag of tricks for us?
Please make it good - safe - healthy - creative - peaceful - joyous - exciting - dynamic!


See you around the corner as we step into Chinese YEAR OF THE TIGER.

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Delhi / Thirukurungudi / Bengaluru

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

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