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December 2022

Dance there upon the shore
What need have you to care
For wind or water's roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool's triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
And he, the best warrior, dead
And all the sheaves to bind!
What need that you should dread
The monstrous crying of wind?

William Butler Yeats

Anita Ratnam

In the last month of 2022, much has happened. And I share my thoughts.

New York is celebrating a special theatre event titled UNITED SOLO. This honours outstanding actors who have created ONE PERSON shows. Outstanding solo artistes who create captivating performances with sensitivity, audacity and wisdom. They remind us of the immense power of a singular performer, and the possibilities of solo storytelling.

The Indian dance tradition has always honoured the solo form. While this has dimmed in popularity due to several reasons and group shows are in demand even for international travel, it is the solo format that is the ultimate test of a performer's skill and versatility. Even in my own trajectory of NEO BHARATAM and its modern reach, I have developed solo shows to amplify my potential and to test my own limits as a performer.

As I work with so many younger bodies, I never forget to remind them of the power of the individual - even in a group work. ONE is alone and yet together. To be aware of the other while maintaining one's individual space and energy is a challenging task - one that classical dance does not teach in the classroom. It is developed through after class exchanges, ensemble choreography with intelligent artistes and experience. It is an unlearning and re-learning that is a constant exercise.

It featured prominently in a city newspaper. Celebrity transgender activist Apsara Reddy surveyed the changing tastes of Rasikas in Chennai. While live performances have been arranged in hotel ballrooms, terraces, cinema theatres, art galleries, sports stadiums, streets, subways, buses, trains, cafés and restaurants, it cannot make for a full length evening or performances that require attention and quiet. These alternate venues are excellent for "introducing" the live arts to today's post Covid distracted generation that seeks to make up time with Revenge shopping, Revenge Travel, Revenge eating and other Revenge activities with a frenzied intensity. Dance and theatre require a certain quietude of the mind. These noisy, social spaces do little to foster that.

Having stated this, I recall an earlier experiment by Cape Town based choreographer Jay Pather who envisioned a public arts venture called INFECTING THE CITY where dance, installations and performance happened in the most unexpected places. The word INFECTING has taken on new meanings post Covid but the idea was radical since South Africa is racially charged with very separate economic and social zones. This year, the Instagram posts by PICKLE FACTORY, Kolkata, are very infectious. Young bodies moving in free style dance to Bengali film songs on the streets, buses and basketball courts is certainly a new optic for Indian eyes, I have been photographed in such surroundings in Melbourne and Cape Town. Under the open skies, the body feels free and feisty. Can this be a way of intersecting dance with everyday life and pry it loose from its "precious" pedestal? As #TAKEBACKTHECITY is the hashtag for the Vikram Iyengar led arts collective, I wish for every kind of dance and physical theatre to exist and jostle each other with camaraderie and joy instead of suspicion and guarded grins. The trick is intelligent and careful curation.

Passing through Singapore on my recent US visit forced me to watch large television screens playing snippets of the Singapore Ballet Company in rehearsal. Close ups of feet practising the "plié", the toes elevated "en pointe" and interviews with the principal dancers. I have seen such videos of Kandyan dance playing in Colombo airport as one stands in the immigration line. If small island nations like Singapore and Sri Lanka can show off their Soft Power at such venues, why can't we? After a flight, one is tired and these videos of beautiful bodies in motion can distract from fatigue, besides being a ticket to a new country through the arts. Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai have sculptures in various yoga asanas posted in various places, and even misshapen folk dance sculptures at traffic junctures (Chennai).

For several years I have wished that the Tamilnadu Government would put up hoardings or signage to herald the world's largest privately funded dance and music festival. Now in its 75th year, the mega event - still chaotic and unruly in parts - has continued despite rumbling criticism about favouritism and jaded curation. In hotels, restaurants, malls and stores are great ways for tourists to be alerted about this event. The wishful thinking continues..

Meenakshi Chitharanjan's group
Meenakshi Chitharanjan's group

What an irony! The Ghats of Benares (Kashi) are overflowing with Tamilians. A month long project by IIT Madras and Benares Hindu University (and supported by the BJP) have brought the ancient links between the holy city of the Ganga and Tamil classical arts to the fore. Inaugurated by the Prime Minister with film composer Ilayaraja as chief guest, the opening performance featured Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar and his many compositions that were created in and inspired by the Ganga. Ilayaraja praised the sacred waters as a source of endless inspiration through time. Hundreds of dancers, musicians, actors, students and devotees have filled trains, buses and flights from my home state to Kashi. November has seen a cultural and political initiative of mega proportions.

This has put the ruling Tamilnadu government in a bind. While Chief Minister MK Stalin hails from the community of hereditary performers, the elitist tag associated with Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music post-independence, has distanced the Dravidian party from supporting or recognizing the annual December Chennai season. With this Kashi extravaganza, DMK is watching its position of "defender of Tamil language and culture" being threatened. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cleverly "used" the classical arts to further the image of goodwill among Tamils.

In all this, artistes are the winners. Dancing on the Kashi ghats is on the bucket list of many. Never mind the large hoardings behind them. A chance to dance, sing and perform for the powerful is a moment never lost on the Chennai dancers. Meenakshi Chitharanjan opened the celebrations and describes the moment as being "surreal and soul stirring." Priya Murle, who also performed, was euphoric.

Madras Music Academy

Let us wait to listen to what MK Stalin says in his speech as chief guest at the Madras Music Academy's annual conference event on January 1st! His predecessor J Jayalalithaa promised her support during her tenure and said that she would ensure that the Chennai event became internationally prestigious. Nothing has changed. Years later, this city continues to consider itself the navel of the cultural universe during the month of December but its global reputation rests solely on the diaspora dancers and a geographical pocket of Mylapore, Adyar, Alwarpet and T Nagar.

Sangeet Natak Akademi
The 3 year accumulated list of Sangeet Natak Akademi awards has finally been released with some very worthy names on the list. I was delighted to see Guru Nirmala Paniker, Neena Prasad, OS Arun, Meenakshi Chitharanjan, Charumathi Ramachandran, Sudha Raghunathan, Jayalakshmi Eshwar, Shama Bhate, Prema Ramamoorthy and Lalitha Srinivasan in the list. The special AMRIT award category was initiated for 75 artistes who are over 75 years old.

Some of the Bismillah Khan young awardees raised several eyebrows and social media is already buzzing with sarcastic comments about "non talented", "undeserving" dancers. Chairperson Sandhya Purecha has come in at a challenging time. She has to steer a rudderless ship, a drastically altered scenario and a government that is bracing for a global recession. The previous chairperson Shekhar Sen was from Maharashtra as is Sandhya Purecha. So a tilt towards favouring artistes from the home state is to be expected. However, we do not expect some totally undeserving names to make the list. But then who said that awards are fair?

The contemporary award category continues to raise questions. Bhushan Lakhandri is a known name, not in the dance world, but in Bombay film circles. His early years were spent in New Delhi's Bharatiya Kala Kendra as principal performer before Hema Malini whisked him away to Film City. He gained his fame and reputation by choreographing and performing for her mythological stage shows. So does film based choreography become eligible for contemporary dance? By that logic Prabhu Deva should qualify since he learnt Bharatanatyam from Guru Udupi Lakshminarayana and so should Kamal Hassan and Madhuri Dixit! Will Shiamak Davar be next followed by Terence Lewis and Ashley Lobo? Popular and social dancing cannot be lumped into the category of CREATIVE/MODERN DANCE (that is the outdated nomenclature still being used by SNA).

Tamil film composer Ilayaraja was selected for the SNA awards nearly 2 decades ago under the category of CREATIVE MUSIC. If cinema (which is tremendously creative but is its own distinct genre) continues to make inroads into the SNA awards CONTEMPORARY DANCE & MUSIC list then it speaks of how out of sync the current committee is. With nobody on the panel having any background of the burgeoning modern dance scene in India, it is little wonder that this category is now delegated to anyone and everyone who does not make it in the classical dance slots!

The other category that is being devalued is OVERALL CONTRIBUTION TO THE ARTS. This calls for serious introspection and the selection of those individuals who have built institutions, created a legacy, written continuously about the arts, organised, ideated, curated, archived, taught - in short, artistes who have enriched the field with sustained commitment for at least 30 years or more. The list of names we read were far from qualifying for any of the above mentioned criteria. Except for writer Utpal Banerjee, the other names (with an unnecessary leaning towards Kathak) came as a total surprise! This is a category that carries the weight and legacy of stalwarts like Leela Venkataraman, BVK Sastry, Shanta Gokhale and Sunil Kothari. Performing artistes should not be considered for this award unless they have contributed to the NATIONAL SCENE in a significant way.

Has the SNA committee become blind to worthy individuals?
Has this OVERALL CONTRIBUTION category become a rubbish bin? Throw in anyone who does not qualify in the other sections? Is there not a constitutionally recorded procedure to make a selection that represents the best of the best even when the awarded individual does not feature on the nominated list? We know that the PADMA awards can go to some totally unworthy people. The SNA is special because it is artistes who select artistes for this national honour.

As someone who received the 2016 award for Contemporary Dance and who served on the Executive Committee for 5 years, I am aghast and distressed at the way these two categories have been insulted. And why must there be an OVERALL CONTRIBUTION in the Bismillah youth category? That is an age when you must perform. That category was scrapped a few years ago. Now why reintroduce it and award those who have not proved their mettle yet? Dancers who have been appointed in government institutions 6 months ago, the wife of a 2019 awardee, a dance teacher in a university... Must I go on or should I take an Aspirin for my headache?

Adding to the disappointment is how the awarded dancers are publicly thanking the Chairperson and other individuals on social media. Really? Do show your gratitude and happiness but thanking individuals? Thank the committee for the honour. Show some dignity, please! For yourselves and for DANCE!

Panel discussion in DelhiPanel discussion in Delhi
Panel discussion in Delhi

Elegant lighting, comfortable seating and a well-attended session was the experience in New Delhi. Radhika Hoon, granddaughter of Kamala Lal, the founder of Natya Ballet Centre, was at her elegant best as she hosted the 3 day dance event with several performances and workshops. Founded 60 years ago by visionary women Kamala Lal and Guru Maya Rao, NBC has encouraged, supported, and commissioned various dance artistes through the years. The session I moderated was held at the Meghdoot black box theatre (now beautifully renovated). Titled TABULA RASA - BLANK SLATE, we discussed returning to ground zero to reboot Indian dance. The discussion contained a tilt towards the present classical dance scenario with panelists, arts writer Suanshu Khurana (Indian Express), Dr Naveena Jafa (Cultural historian) and Vikram Iyengar (performer/curator).

Why do dancers not attend the performances of other dancers? Does the classical dance pedagogy, that does not accommodate cross illumination and collaboration with plastic and visual arts in its core curriculum, have to change and adapt to the current scenario? What about rights of performers? Moving beyond WHAT'S NEXT to WHO'S NEXT? Vikram Iyengar spoke of the multi sensorial curation at a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata which was planned with a stage, a food court, a space to gather and chat and an overall aesthetic which drew the crowds into the area and held them with more than one experience. Navina Jafa spoke about economic intelligence and upskilling even for the senior teachers and gurus. New money streams from social media that have emerged that are ideal for some dancers who are adept with the digital streams.

Learning from Bollywood on how to shoot dance was an area agreed upon by everyone. Suanshu Khurana lamented the lack of any arts writing training in India which then led to shoddy articles and untrained journalists being sent to cover a show with little or no knowledge of the subject.

Finally, the responsibility of the dancer to constantly create and try to engage with newer audiences was an enthusiastic endorsement by speakers and audiences. However, as Rama Vaidyanathan pointed out (after the session), it was always classical dancers who were being blamed for sameness of content and asked to create something new all the time. Nobody questions a classical musician if he/she sings the same composition in every concert! I respond by saying the dancing body is a tool, a political weapon and one that is viewed in very different ways to music. You can close your eyes and listen. You cannot with dance. The mind imprints visuals more powerfully than sound.

In the end, the fact remains that as the community of dancers is growing, paying audiences are not and the state of dance advocacy needs to gain strength and momentum.

Andal in Issey Miyake
Andal in Issey Miyake

Is it only me or are other choreographers and gurus finding that the very same dancers we worked with in 2019 are now in a different mind and body space after the two year Covid hiatus? With the talented group who are now training hard for the reprise of NAACHIYAR NEXT, I am finding an increased distraction, more chatter and a heightened sense of anxiety. This results in louder voices, agitated laughter and a longer time taken to quieten the mind. It is evident that attention spans have been impacted as I am tightening the original 80 minute production to 60 and 70 minute versions for touring.
ANDAL continues to spread her magic. Copies of her translated poems are flying off the shelves and painters are imagining her in such different ways. Her life story and poetry are being performed in several cities in India as I write this. I am delighted. My own collection of ANDAL images is growing. I even have an art work featuring this rebellious teenager in an ISSEY MIYAKE styled outfit by Chennai artiste Biswajit!

Andal painting by Himanshu Srivastava
Andal painting by Himanshu Srivastava

Delhi based Bharatanatyam dancer Himanshu Srivastava is creating a series of 12 ANDAL paintings for the Margazhi season.

Invitations are streaming in from across the world for NAACHIYAR NEXT but with visas becoming near impossible, it is time for me to think of a solo/duet version of this heartwarming/wrenching story.

Rama Vaidyanathan
Rama Vaidyanathan
Roja Kannan
Roja Kannan

Record crowds are expected this year at the 40th edition of the Natya Kala Conference taking centre stage. It was in 1982, when Dr Padma Subrahmanyam inaugurated the first edition of the event, bringing together performers from folk, theatre, classical and ritual arts in a landmark event. (Sadly, no records exist of this visionary curation except for the prominent names who participated).

40 years later, R Yagnaraman, the bold founder of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, would have been proud to see his vision realized in the largest dance conference in India. His granddaughter, Shaswati Prabhu (who celebrates a special birthday this year) holds the reins of history and with convenor Rama Vaidyanathan pulling out all stops for an exhilarating event, we are in for a wild ride. The 2019 conference (pre Covid) was like a rock concert. I had never seen so many vociferous young dancers thronging the auditorium and voicing their appreciation with gusto. Two years later, the voices may soar louder and the celebration decibels pushed up a notch with travel and socializing returning to pre-pandemic levels. I am airing out my favourite saris and getting ready to celebrate this 5 day event and many others this month.

ROOTS is the theme with several social media interventions flooding the handles of all those involved in the conference. PR is being managed by the unflagging energy of Akhila Krishnamurthy (Alaap Concepts) and there is palpable excitement building up with the diaspora dancers I met in the US.

Sadly, I will miss Roja Kannan's conference the week earlier, since I will be away for performances. NATYA DARSHAN, organized by Kartik Fine Arts, is a more recent conference event and this year focuses on DVI NETHRAM- THE VISION OF PARAMPARA.

However, I am convinced that the yawning gap between what is being curated in the larger festival throughout the city and the beating pulse of what dance and theatre is, is not in sync.

In 1998 when I co-founded THE OTHER FESTIVAL, it was because of this precise situation. Chennai was Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music saturated. Nothing else seemed to be happening. And then TOF emerged and it was a resounding success. Times, tastes and attitudes have changed hugely and post Covid there seems to be a need to curate not just a performance but an experience around the event. Food, talks, post or pre show interventions, open rehearsals, more dialogues and more interactive participation is needed.

We see very little of this and certainly not to a larger audience with a more democratic demographic. The recently concluded SHORT AND SWEET theatre festival in Chennai threw up such an astonishing array of local theatre talent. Uneven in quality - yes - but the sheer variety was incredible. We are yet to see a consciously curated event that combines classical, modern, dance theatre, movement arts and contemporary performance. We are all still boxed into our silos.

My December begins with a return to my own roots. Back to my ancestral village of Tirukurungudi and the 24th re-enactment of the 15th century ritual of KAISIKA NATAKAM. This year will be the first time that all the elders who initiated the journey are not with us. We have lost 3 of our seniors and will watch as the next generation of hereditary performers receive the blessings of the temple JEEYAR (pontiff) before starting the performance on December 4 at 10pm.

For me, it is a source of continuing astonishment and gratitude to watch the development and popularity of this ritual form. Several PHD studies, numerous films and study templates, books and recordings have been created about KAISIKA NATAKAM. Still, the effect of performing for a seated bronze deity in full regalia with the audience parting ways on either side is a very special experience. Performance becomes an offering and a reminder to all of us about the true nature of being passionate about our life's purpose.

And so.. let us raise a glass to that passion that binds, haunts and delights us. DANCE!

Welcome one and all to MARGAZHI in Chennai. Watch for the terrible roads, endless construction, one way streets and traffic jams. And of course, the rains!!!
Wear matching petticoats, in case we have to lift our silks to wade through the puddles. Remember that now every moment is an Instagram moment!

And, usher in 2023 with hope and gratitude!

- Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Tirukurungudi / Goa / New Delhi / Mumbai

...and you thought I was staying put in one place for the entire month?????

Twitter: @aratnam
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Anita R Ratnam Akka, as forthright with true facts!
I always wondered, in the process of breaking stereotypes, are we making youth icons who are not consistent in their learning process under a Guru/Teacher, merely 8-17months at the most and in a productive career spanning 3-5 years having changed 3 Gurus or no Guru especially for Performing Arts. So ironic, though born talented from the womb, still needs a mother and not a teacher... even if this is acceptable what about those who are consistent, follow a legacy or from a lineage, pedigree, one who believes in loyalty, merit and is equally or more talented, will it be unfair to them!

How is it that artists sitting in the councils giving awards to artists lack market intelligence... if the supply is more why not do background verification of candidates like in corporates to atleast verify if their tutelage in terms of knowledge and experience or certificates submitted are authentic and true? Atleast in corporates you can fire the resource but an award, will that be taken back?
Questions that will always linger in the minds...,Change in Performing Arts fraternity - is it good for the relevant times we are in today, what makes these changes while there are no paradigm shifts in innovation or globalization in creativity.

Reminds me of a grandmother's story.
A mother who lets her son steal little by little finds him jailed for life and the question son asks the mother, "Why didn't you lead me in the correct path by giving me a tight slap? I would have had my freedom today."

Dance is liberation, hope the meaning is understood.

-  Deepa Narayanan Sashindran (Dec 1, 2022)

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