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December 2023

Where do stories come from?

They come from other stories
From deep within ourselves and from the cave of memories
Stories bind us and release our imaginations to swoop and soar
- Author SALMAN RUSHDIE award acceptance speech, Germany

We ask that same question each December!

"Where did the year go?"
"What? Already?"
"Gosh! How time flies!"

Anita Ratnam
While we take close looks at our ONE YEAR OLDER selves - inside and out - this is a season for rejoicing, gifting and coming together in many ways.

For us performers, it is THE time to share and yes, show off, our accumulated training and experience to a global audience. Here in Chennai, citizens still pride themselves on having the best "KAAN SENSE" (a keen listening ear) for music. And, by association the most discerning audience for Bharatanatyam. There are many dancers who will disagree with this assumption but there is one aspect that cannot be denied. In the month between December 15 to January 15, it IS still possible to watch most of the celebrated Bharatanatyam dancers in one city. Never mind the awful acoustics, lack of tech rehearsals, no parking facilities and deplorable infrastructure. People still arrive from other cities and shores and dancers still look forward to ascending the Chennai stage.

As expected, the programming is one sided. It is a torrent of one style - Bharatanatyam - and a mono aesthetic - gymnastic, fast and applause evoking. In spite of repeated discussions and suggestions from various experts (and my constant writing about it) there seems to be very little change on the ground.

What is interesting is that the large crowds ready to pay high ticket prices are for those dance artistes who are not part of the "serious" dance programming. As audiences grow for these Instagram friendly artistes, festival organisers must acknowledge the tectonic shifts that have occurred in Bharatanatyam.

As the season schedule for Carnatic music is announced, long lines will be seen outside some sabha halls with eager music fans ready to purchase season tickets. No such crowds are expected for any of the dance programmes, although some artistes will draw significant crowds. How I wish we could have a format like they do in Las Vegas. Before the headline/main event, there will always be an excellent but relatively unknown youngster to "warm up" the crowd. These artistes are given the benefit of a large audience and are able to hone their talent to prepare for their own time in the spotlight.

This year, I have noticed something different. More and more India based dancers across age groups and experience are working and touring outside India for longer periods of time - only returning towards the very end of November or early December. Does this mean that the NRI appetite for India based artistes is growing? More Master Classes and less performance based sessions? More "expert" mentoring? Is the hunger for ITEM teaching waning?

There are other mini festivals in the works. Event managers who once ideated weddings and anniversaries have become cultural festival curators. Private and public spaces in the city are being booked for alternative performances smack in the middle of the main festival season. My own home is officially part of the city wide initiative called KUTTY KUTCHERI (curated by Laasya Narasimhachari) to bring audiences into a more intimate setting and an opportunity to watch and interact with the artistes after the show.

Throughout India, culture festivals are exploding. The cooler weather and the holiday mood are infectious combinations. SERENDIPITY FESTIVAL in Goa continues to accumulate a variety of Indian and international talent that makes it an attractive destination. Elsewhere, New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru (UNBOXING BLR HABBA) and Kolkata are brimming with music, dance, theatre events across genres which makes me wonder if the once all important Chennai cultural festival is losing its sheen.

A Million SitasA Million Sitas
A Million Sitas

However, it is a time for senior performers like myself to get back in the game! I find myself facing a calendar that is daunting. Reviving a 2010 production like A MILION SITAS that has already undergone several "avatars" since its premiere during the Chennai Margazhi season is proving to be challenging. The story of Rama and Sita is constantly throwing up newer interpretations as the epic stays firmly in the centre of political and cultural debate. With trolls, cynics, right and left wingers on the prowl, I have to be very focused and careful while navigating between performance, dialogue delivery, script, humour and technique.

Uma Satyanarayana
Uma Sathyanarayanan

The 2023 version of A MILLION SITAS has dancer-musician-actor Uma Satyanarayana as my co-performer and it is a delight to work with an artiste who is a TRIPLE THREAT (Broadway lingo). Between a corporate woman's convention, a private event and a mainstream Sabha Kutcheri - the story of SITA and her sisters continues to have legs and travel!


The NATYA DARSHAN conference with Roja Kannan as convenor shines the spotlight on the remarkable achievements of the diaspora with awards and presentations by legends like Hema Rajagopalan (Chicago), Rathna Kumar (Houston) and Ramli Ibrahim (Malaysia).

The presence of Indian dance overseas has not yet been adequately documented and registered as a significant social impact group. They have shown tenacity, faith in the arts of the homeland and made noteworthy inroads into the societies they live in. We, who live in India, can see a definite shift in money inflow/outflow from their resource centres and the changing tastes in styles and aesthetics. I remember the book SWEATING SARIS by scholar Priya Srinivasan as one of the examples of dance in the diaspora. More writing and surveys are required to map a coherent image of how vital their patronage and presence is in the domestic arts scene.

There is also a dire need to map the number of non-Indians who are learning, teaching and performing Indian classical dance. From various identities and faiths, it is a fascinating social study of how artistic traditions travel across geographies and onto culturally different bodies.

Rama Vaidyanathan
Rama Vaidyanathan

More and more performers are being asked to become "bi-lingual". To create social impact alongside cultural capital. Art makers are expected to fix climate change, pollution, domestic violence, ageing, mental health and everything else through their art.

Rama Vaidyanathan's NATYA KALA CONFERENCE throws light on the less glamorous aspect of dance making. TRANSCENDANCE is the title for her third turn as convenor and Krishna Gana Sabha is preparing for yet another year of good crowds and a different patina to the oldest dance conference in India.

Focusing on social issues and important voices swirling around the dance world, Rama has curated 5 days of engaging conversations and short performances. Art is expectedly married to aesthetics and art making cannot avoid the idea of beauty. Social impact artistes are not concerned about creating a pleasing product. Rather, they are preoccupied with delivering a clear message. This year, all the presenters and speakers will be focusing on areas of healing, trauma, physical ageing and other aspects of the arts that are normally brushed aside and devalued in India.


80 is a magical number. One has witnessed 1000 moons as the elders say. It is a momentous milestone that few are fortunate to arrive at. We have 3 such dance legends in our midst that own this number. First to touch this mark is Paddu Akka. Padma Subrahmanyam whose impact on the dance scene is undiminished. Arriving very soon are Sudharani Raghupathy (March 21, 2024) and Sonal Mansingh (April 30, 2024)

Of the three, Sonal Mansingh has enthusiastically embraced social media since the pandemic and has been consistent in sharing her talks and performances online. Unafraid of the camera lens, her erudition in English, Sanskrit and Hindustani are formidable.

Sudharani Raghupathy has been a mentor and a guide during an important phase of my dance career. Searching for a woman who could guide me when I returned to India in 1990 from the USA, she took me under her wing and we dreamed up the name for my foundation ARANGHAM TRUST in her living room. She was among the first trustees and helped me in my maturing abhinaya and ARAYER SEVAI research. She is an elegant example of how to remain graceful and accepting of change as the only constant.

All three women represent an important and historic era of transition and change in Indian dance history. No amount of cynicism and naysaying from the Cancel Culture brigade can diminish their contribution to classical dance in India and elsewhere. All born before India became independent, their individual histories serve as a document of exceptional talent wedded to opportunity and uncompromising hard work.

We bow to these women and send our gratitude for their impact on Indian dance.

Prabal Gupta
Prabal Gupta

It is everyone's nightmare. To breathe your last in solitude. To have nobody to mourn your passing or claim your body. It was the distressing situation with Kathakali dancer Prabal Gupta. Driven to carving a niche for his career as a non Malayali student of the theatre form, Prabal faced many hurdles in his career. Never afraid of reaching out to senior dancers for conversations or suggestions, his life was cut short by a severe pneumonia attack and a fall that caused a head injury. When news of his passing arrived, it came with the fact that his body was lying unclaimed at the NIMHANS hospital in Bengaluru. It was dancer Veena Murthy Vijay, Imran (dancer Madhulita Mohapatra's husband) and several Bengaluru dancers who rallied together to ensure that Prabal got the cremation and closure he deserved.

This was a heartening display of rare solidarity which was further augmented (Prathibha Prahlad's initiative) with the news that Sangeet Natak Akademi would bear the entire cost of hospitalisation and treatment given to Prabal.

Of what use is this life in the spotlight if all goes dark in a flash and there is nobody - not a single soul who is waiting when the auditorium is shut and the crowds go home. Nobody to help you step down from the pedestal and the stage? Nobody to talk to, to cry and laugh with, to argue and hold close, to miss you and wait for your return?
Prabal's death is tragic but it reminds us of the solitude of our profession. That performers are ultimately alone, with their bodies and minds as sole companions. If only we can make peace with that thought.


The suicide of 16 year old PRANSHU from Ujjain, shook up the internet last month. A self-taught make-up artiste, PRANSHU, who identifies as Queer with pronouns THEY, died after a video was posted wearing a red sari for Diwali. The over 4000 blood curdling hate comments received prompted Pranshu to say "goodbye" to life! Even after (his) THEIR death, the Instagram page @glamitupwithpranshu is continuing to receive more hate comments. Ironically, the follower count has jumped from 10,000 to 36,000 after the suicide! Macabre for sure!

Many of us have called out Meta and X platforms for failing the LGBTQ+AI communities and for not checking the hate and homophobic comments. Arthur Bejar, a former META executive has testified to US senators that Meta is "fundamentally misleading" the public about safety for its teenage users and that Instagram is "not appropriate" for anyone as young as age 13.

It is really shameful to know that there are so many (mostly men!) who carry such vile rage against members of the non binary community. As performers, we are part of the larger creative world where so many artistes of various identities feel safe expressing themselves through art. We all know of at least one individual in dance, music and theatre culture circles who is afraid and feels trapped- trying to be “normal” in the eyes of society.  If we don't reach out as allies, how can we hope to create a space of equity and social justice? Just writing and speaking about it is not enough. We need to step up when we see dangerous signs around someone who is emotionally fragile and vulnerable. We should be part of the solution. Not the problem.



A recent Instagram post on my handle spoke about the rot in the Chennai sabha system during December. It is now a well-known fact that some organisations demand money from dancers for a performance slot. The post has brought on a torrent of comments and many shared their personal trauma at the hands of corrupt officials. It is truly distressing that this situation has gone unchecked for so long. One post suggested that we seniors are accepting "blood money" since the sabhas are paying us with the "donations" they are receiving from the desperate dancers.
Most comments lay the blame squarely on over anxious parents. Some point fingers at gurus who are forcing their students to pay for slots so that they (the guru) can get to perform in a prime evening slot. One teacher from Europe suggested that paying for a slot is cheaper than renting a hall to self-present!

And the cynical comments are still coming - tarnishing the Chennai December season and making it more a business arrangement and not a cultural landmark.

As I was concluding this editorial, two out of town dancers contacted me saying that after watching my post, they were refusing the 10am morning slot in one sabha due to zero payment. Sadly, the majority do not seem to care. Just to dance in Chennai- no matter what the cost- is still a badge of honour!


I came across a humorous clip on YOU TUBE where dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh shared her tutorial with her students who were all GEN Z (born between 1997 to 2012).
Swarnamalya is an Associate Professor of Practice at KREA UNIVERSITY and confessed that she was taking down notes like a student herself!

I am going to apply some of these new words that are used by this generation to the coming dance season.

In that varnam, she was just SLAPS (wonderful!)
Food in sabha canteens during December season is always BUSSIN (delicious!)
She was looking SNACK in that costume! (looking great!)
I was laughing so much that I was DEAD (just too funny!)

For anyone who does not understand this lingo - you will be dismissed as BOOMERS! I am in that category!

I do not profess to understand ANY of these words and my English teachers would certainly be aghast at this language, but I do not hesitate to admire GEN Z for their sheer audacity and ambition. More power to them and may they become supporters, funders and enablers of high quality cultural production.

Kaisiki NatakamKaisiki NatakamKaisiki Natakam
Kaisiki Natakam

I end on a note of gratitude. The 25th performance of the KAISIKI NATAKAM concluded in a grand display of profound devotion and applause. The crowds at the Tirukurungudi temple sat in rapt attention - ages 8 to 80 - including infants. The almost 4 hour theatre ritual enjoyed its 25th staging on November 23. It was a particularly emotional moment for me, having journeyed with the process since 1996.

Revival requires persistence, determination, dedication, focus and yes, faith. The atmosphere inside the AZHAGIYA NAMBI temple through the evening was electrifying and emotional. In the midst of magnificent architecture, created by unknown hands and supported by visionary leaders, this citadel of faith came alive with Rasa and Bhava.

Kaisiki Natakam
For all performers, it is important to leave our urban cocoons and travel at least once a year to these kinds of spaces to energise our creative batteries and to be reminded of the power of performance outside auditoriums and the collective energy of multitudes. To forget what normally consumes us - like the recent World Cup cricket final between India and Australia. It seemed like the entire country was watching television. Except in Tirukurungudi, where no television set blared the scores from the modest homes on the temple streets. There was no whooping or mourning when India lost tamely. It felt surreal to me but also put things in perspective. Sports always has a victor and a loser. The Arts only has winners.


The 15th century story of KAISIKI NATAKAM is especially relevant for the fractured time we live in today. The salvation of the Rakshasa - a high born Sanskrit speaking, Veda chanting Brahmin being cursed and needing a Tamil speaking, Kaisiki raga singing low born bard to release him from the cursed form - makes a strong statement in the current debate about Dharma and social justice! If only governments focused on these tangible examples instead of grandstanding and creating a more divisive environment!

With the significant amount of money coming into the city with ticket sales, saree purchases, hotel / restaurant /car / flight bookings, jewellery, music recordings and payouts to musicians - we are looking at a minimum of 2 million US dollars of revenue being generated by visitors just in one month! Why would the state government not pay attention to the economics? Two Chief Ministers have inaugurated the Music Academy festivals and promised to promote it at an international level. Nothing yet!
As I conclude, the much touted LARGEST FESTIVAL OF DANCE AND MUSIC IN THE WORLD stays within the location of south Chennai - Mylapore, Adyar, Teynampet, T Nagar and Mambalam. A tiny well within a small pond!

Congratulations to all the awardees! May the titles and recognition give wing to your artistic dreams!

Welcome to my city. Where the ocean meets land.
Where many artistes live, dream and create
A very, very warm welcome to every visitor

Vanakkam - Namaskaram - Namaste!

Vaango! Vaango!

Dancers and musicians! Bring on your A game!
It's Show time Y'all!
Drum roll!
Lights on!
Chinna Melam is happening once again

Best for a joyous season and a smooth transition to 2024.

- Anita R Ratnam

Catch my PODCAST - Episode 3, December edition 2023

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I have truly admired you as an artiste and enjoyed working with you. Your remark against Kali Veerapathiran, an absolutely brilliant dancer was casteist. Removing your remark without an apology was far worse. This cannot be an unintentional remark made by you, knowing how wonderful a writer you are. Please apologize to him immediately . I still see the good in you and hope you can reclaim your respect by doing the right thing.
- Snigdha venkataramani (Dec 9, 2023)

Thank you for the comment. We have made a statement on the NARTHAKI INSTAGRAM page.

Thank you so much for highlighting Pranshu's story, as many of us would wonder what is the interrelation of a young queer makeup artist with the world of dance. But here are few beans which would help us realise how it's interactional. Dance being an art form is the early exposure to gender performance for people like me who are trans and or queer, however trolling has to do with the gender performance of the person involved and gender performance beyond the idea of binaries is always questioned and ridiculed.

I started classical dance at the age of 17, and somewhere my dance was the reason I was bullied and harrassed, and this means somewhere or the other way, one's choice of gender expression itself is being questioned. And with digital social media, this easy way of leaving self opinions, comments and hate made it even more worse. Hate comes from a space of jealousy as more queer people come out as the world to see them, there is a fear of losing space, power and politicality of gender/ hetero majoritarianess is what ignites hate.

Pranshu was just 19, he may not have actually figured out his own gender or sexuality but just being a male assigned at birth choosing makeup has pulled so much of hate. Now in an industry of dance where we often question the idea of makeup and its limits to use it as a tool, it can be an easy slipaway for a dancer to trigger hate within and outside the fraternity for merely considering to choose a way to express. And someone's queer identy just adds up to hate. It's high time to realise that dance is not only for male and female persons but with ideas of inclusion and diversity, dance has opened space for queer individuals too. But ignoring and saying this topic isn't relevant is itself a question one has to ask if they themselves had unchecked their bias towards LGBT community

Indeed, there are many dancers, who are being trolled brutally for their choice of dance, a man wearing a gharara and performing / teaching garbha made viral content online, but often gets hate comments for just showing their authentic style. Many male belly dancers are put out as a meme material for just choosing an unconventional dance form and all of it dials down to the attitude of majority in art and its gender visibility. This should be an experience for dancers to learn on how they could overcome trolling and hate, which may not be visible upright (as usual classical dance is seen as sacred ) but eventually may trigger hate just when gender is at display (for dancers who are assigned male at birth specially).

Mental health is as important for anyone as for queer individuals and Art is NOT a therapy. You need to intervene professional help to address your mental health and incident like this helps us realise how serious mental health and trolling is and take a stand as a community to address issues within this space.
- Patruni Sastry (Dec 1, 2023)

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