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February 2014

Dance was certainly not main stage in India last month. Too many exciting events are changing the landscape of public policy, noticeably the emergence of the brash new Third Front. Many American citizens were spotted participating in the protests in New Delhi led by the new Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The response from one New Yorker was “I wish the US had a Third Party choice!” Dancer Mallika Sarabhai continued her activist agenda by joining the new AAM ADMI PARTY and photographed holding a broom to signify “a clean sweep of corruption.” I was asked by many in Bangalore why I had not joined AAP yet! Public slurs by ministers against women, a possible homicide and growing audiences for writers and poets were the main observations during my month long travels that took me to five cities and even next door to the island nation.

The Madras Season is now officially over! Crowds for dance and music have certainly increased overall but music is the main beneficiary. There was less coverage of performances but larger photographs and previews visible across all media. Of course THE HINDU has reduced their arts coverage and many reviews of PURUSH performances were cancelled due to “lack of space”. But there was always space for the sari, restaurant, jewellery, rock concert, boutique, resort, travel, new apartment complex ads !!!!

In my previous editorial, I asked why NRI dancers continue to visit India during the season, pouring personal resources and dancing to poor audiences. I received a torrent of counter argument e-mails to the contrary. How these women “love” India, how returning to the “source nourishes their spirit,” how only the NRI based dancer is able to “preserve the purity” of the dance tradition and so on. I was chided about how I should be CONTENT and GRATEFUL with the phenomenal success of the PURUSH festival and my other achievements and thus curtail all criticisms or less than effusive praise about anyone or anything – especially dancers! PHULEEEEESE! What is going on? Is it like the toothless panels that have been held recently on DANCE AND MEDIA? All the invited panellists held forth on how important media discourse is to dance and music. How reviews should critique and not hurt? Huh? REVIEW? WHAT REVIEW? If nobody is allowed to say anything even marginally critical, the editors are immediately called up and harassed about how the critic is a “blithering idiot” and who knows “nothing” about culture. NOBODY on any of these panels spoke about the importance of online media. When the dailies are folding like nine pins and most newspapers have gone online or bolstered their online presence, THIS portal, that is adored and followed by so many of you across the globe, did not even get a mention least of all an invite to attend or participate in any of the media discussions that were held. One senior critic whose column appears regularly on this site even had the nerve to sit in my home, sip tea and tell me how insignificant online publications are compared to print. Hmmmm. Really????

PROTESTORS MUST MAKE THEIR OWN MEDIA. THEY MUST NOT LOOK TO TRADITIONAL MEDIA TO COVER THEM. Feminist writer Naomi Wolf-Author of THE BEAUTY MYTH .Thank you, Naomi. I heard your whisper 14 years ago and started this portal that has become its own persona.

As always, the most determined and resource-supported NRI dancers visited, performed and impressed. I was not able to watch the top five but will share some feedback on what I heard about these very talented and ambitious women. Aparna Ramaswamy (whose performance I DID catch the tail end of ) is a smart and pert dancer. Well trained by her mother Ranee and Guru Alarmel Valli, Aparna is a “hot property” in the US Midwest. Clean lines, good technique as arsenal, there is something unsettling about her blatant imitations of Valli’s mannerisms. It is one thing to watch the ORIGINAL having evolved her own style through an organic questioning and osmosis. But it is quite another to watch a copy. The prancing, skipping, preening and excessive “sundari griva” makes her otherwise good dancing hard to accept. From the great Valli, we can anticipate and receive her dance at many levels. From Aparna, it remains a pale copy and paste job.

With the others, Janaki Rangarajan, Navia Natarajan, Vidhya Subramanian and Bala Devi Chandrasekhar – no matter what the newspaper reviews say – and they were all unanimously rapturous – each displayed something wanting. Here I must add that Vidhya – of all the lot – seems the most ‘connected’ to her dance and music. Her performance reveals an inner quest and flutter that sometimes hits the mark and sometimes misses. At least one does not find a mechanical obsession with perfection that I find in Janaki whose ultra fast walking-running and some wrong interpretations were pointed out by several critics but were NOT well received by this emerging star! Bala Devi is clearly an obsessive researcher but it did not reveal itself in the final product. I watched Navia from the wings in a recent performance in Bangalore where we shared a triple bill along with Kavitha Ramu and I must say that she impressed me with the clarity of her movements. However, it is too clinical to appeal to my heart and senses. For me, it remained a pretty picture.

In comparison, the dancing of Swapnasundari and Swarnamalya are in a totally different league. A generation apart, both artistes are NOT visually compatible with today’s international LOOK of a dancer and are thus rarely visible outside India. Both are a “dancer’s dancer.” Abhinaya, hasta mudras, fleeting emotions across expressive faces cascade one after the other. Sentences are created wordlessly and communicate effectively. Excellent musicality oozes from every pore. There is a charming spontaneity of interacting with musicians, singing impromptu and a heart warming immediacy that blurs other distracting parameters one may feel as the performance begins. A style of presentation that certainly may not fit in with the curatorial designs of artistic directors of international festivals, my strong recommendations to all dancers is to try and catch these two women whenever a visit to India is planned.

And then there is Zakir Hussain. Not of the tabla fame, but a 41 year old former student of Chitra Visweswaran, who, following his passion for poet Andal and the Vaishnava faith, forged a new form of “Hari Katha” (a genre of singing, speaking and gesturing) which he has named VAINAVA BHARATAM. (He acknowledges as inspiration my 1998 naming of my style as NEO BHARATAM) During the December 2013 season, Zakir had over 30 appearances! Early mornings delivering his Andal ‘Tiruppavai’ (sacred songs) sermons, dancing on the many legends of the Vaishnava canon in the afternoons and evenings in private homes and sabhas AND drawing housefull audiences everywhere. Large numbers who are not seen at dance performances but older men and women who flock to this extraordinary man who seems to have dissolved all boundaries of faith and fake religious fervour to be accepted in the inner sanctums of the most orthodox temples across Tamilnadu! Zakir brings a bling inspired visual presence to his costuming but his performance – even at MAD AND DIVINE two years ago when he danced on his favourite ANDAL – touched many a heart.

Here, the name of Chitra Visweswaran emerges. She was Zakir’s first guru and also taught “cine-fame” Shobana. Shobana’s dancing is hard to accept as “classical” but her acumen in rhythm and group synchronisation is indisputable. Her 25 year old student Revathy Kumar is an artiste to watch. This makes her Chitra Visweswaran’s “grand daughter” student. Sishya of a sishya. Revathy (a computer professional) sings marvellously, dances very well and had BOTH music and dance solo ‘kutcheris’ during the December Chennai season. Could this be a first in many years? Revathy was part of a dance-theatre-spoken poetry installation project in early January for THE HINDU LIT FEST and composed swaras on the spot in Mohanam, Khamas and Bhairavi while dancing and responding to director Prasanna Ramaswamy’s complex orders. Simply wow!

So kudos to Chitra Visweswaran, honoured this year as NATYA KALA ACHARYA by the Music Academy, for grooming such diverse talents who continue to inspire. Of course, Chitra’s star student Uma Namboodiripad is also a triple treat – dances, sings and choreographs. These kinds of artistes are a vanishing species today!

As if sending a strong message to all those dancers who wish to become the next Malavika and Valli, these two divas more than held their own at the Music Academy shows. To housefull audiences (The Academy has the best audience of the season) these women performed brilliantly- proving yet again, that even though they are now doing familiar repertoire, that excellence is a continuing quest and TIME is always a friend to the wise! Leela Samson, enjoying her first season after the Kalakshetra melodrama, transported her audiences to the rare dimension of transcendence. What a fabulous evening she delivered!

In comparison, the group presentations were almost universally disappointing. The Bangalore dance style has now gained a patina of glam corporate shows. Lights, speed, applause -driven choreography made Nirupama and Rajendra’s presentation make many look around to check that they were not sitting in a five star hotel banquet room. The tussle with the power of cinema has forced many group presentations to resort to all these gizmos while forgetting strong choreography and good dancing driven content. Cinema is too powerful to compete with. The power of live performance is the integrity of the body in space – at once vulnerable, powerful and honest.

So, are we once again at another cross road for Bharatanatyam? What works outside India does not necessarily succeed within its borders. The West wants perfection – almost too much of it. A mechanical monotone of super fit, lean bodies executing every step and every move to an over-rehearsed robotic form. Watching a wonderful Ukranian Ganna Smirnova open the Bharat Kalachar sabha season, Rex (my visual, costume designer and idea collaborator) and I were struck with her talent and her ability to make us forget that she was not ONE OF US. She brought a natural warmth to her innocent, fresh performance. Except Mythili Prakash, who has that ephemeral X factor in her dance, we are still not convinced about the other young dancers from distant shores. At least I am not. That does not mean that these women will not succeed, tour internationally, get rave reviews, bookings and be surrounded by an increasing fan following. I must add here that all of them had increasing audiences this season- some of them excellent crowds. Perhaps it is just me - #JUST SAYING!

From dancers let us move to the sponsor. Why should we always thank the sponsors for their support? When will they actually thank us – the artiste - for giving them the opportunity to participate in the entire dialogue of the ARTS? The 2014 opening night of the Music Academy Dance Festival held an unpleasant surprise. Title sponsor, Sreedhar Potarazu, CEO of Vital Springs in Washington DC, took the mike and lashed out at the media and critics as ungrateful beings. (We already have many comments in our Roses and Thorns section about his outburst and the consequent response in the media that followed. The matter has now subsided and handshakes exchanged across phone and cyberlines. But the event and the larger questions remain).

What makes the NRI patron and dancer more desirable than a homegrown one? Is it because we are still captivated by the very idea of A-BROAD? When returning to Madras 25 years ago from New York, I was scolded and advised to live in Delhi or Bombay. “Not in Godforsaken Madras of all places,” I was chided. After all this time here I am still asked why I don’t live elsewhere. “You must be seen in Delhi.” “You must come to Bombay more often.” Why is being somewhere else or closer to the power centre mean so much to so many? In Bombay, Amitabh Bacchan was on several hoardings advertising a new apartment complex with the words, “It feels like living in London or New York.” Really? Anything is better than living in India? In Madras, we have new buildings called 10 Downing Street, Chelsea, Whitehall??? Patrons for dance and music in my hometown are headed by two generous individuals, Nalli Kuppuswamy Chettiar and Preetha Reddy (Apollo Hospitals). Neither of them attend all the festivals they support and neither of them are given the microphone year after year to expound on the “role of the divine classical arts.” Their munificence far exceeds that of Mr. Potarazu and they have NEVER railed against the fourth estate.

During the Manic Margazhi Monsoons, film maker Sharada Ramanathan released her new film NATYANUBHAVA on classical dance. The film, scripted by Janaki (Sruti) and Chitra Visweswaran, featured many prominent dancers and the history of classical dance and its journey from temple to the proscenium stage. Funded by the Government, perhaps this will be screened on board Air India flights in the future.

TOURISM, TRADE, TECH, TALENT and TRADITION – this is the fivefold mantra created by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in his rousing party speeches across India. Already the BJP has cast its net on classical traditions as being “mirror to Indian culture” and dance as “the closest approximation to the great ideals of ancient India.” All these claims are troublesome since this is just a further distortion of the distorted history of Indian performing arts. Here we shout out to scholar Davesh Soneji, whose book UNFINISHED GESTURES has been selected for the Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize.

Most dancers don’t tweet much – yet. Although I established my Twitter handle in 2009, I was not too active on this medium until I participated in the three day HINDU LIT FEST over a weekend in January. In just two days, with tweets being used freely to publicise the many events at the international event and my own sessions on all three days receiving a healthy amount of online publicity, my own twitter followers increased by 176! The following weekend when I conducted another session on water based choreography, 27 attendees responded solely to my tweets! When singer T M Krishna spoke about his new book and classical music, Twitter was on fire and book sales soared. When I introduced feminist celebrity author Naomi Wolf, Twitter began to buzz about Wolf’s controversial topic “BEYOND THE VAGINA.” During her Town Hall style presentation, hundreds of reactions emerged about her provocative take on female sexuality and the V word that, in her words, is like Voldemort – that which shall not be named !!! The Twitter=verse was agog with reactions.

Which brings me to the outdated idea of conservative Madras. Huh? What are we talking about? In the heart of Mylapore, there were discussions during PURUSH about the Indian Government’s archaic ruling on Article 377, homosexuality, men running around dressed in skirts and a transgender stepping onto the Margazhi sabha stage. Across town, Naomi Wolf spoke about every possible private part in the woman’s vagina in a riveting discussion that had the audience shaken AND stirred. And all in Namma Madras – where the rest of the world, including New Delhi is convinced that we spend our days studying maths, science, music, dance, eating dosas and vadais, braiding jasmine, walking around temples and discussing ragas! So there! A strawberry all you Birkin bag entourage wannabes who pretend that other metros are far more “open” and “accepting” or whatever!

Good news for Kalakshetra alumni and fans of the Ramayana productions. The K repertory will be seen in California this September with SITA SWAYAMVARAM, one of their iconic works. Of course, photos on the website carry the coy image of the new director and no photos of the splendid Rukmini Devi choreography. The question will be how many dancers will be able to travel in this originally conceived work that contained almost 40 artistes. Wardrobe, make up, rehearsal directors, dancers, musicians – the Kalakshetra company was like a travelling mini township! A truncated version almost has never worked outside the Kalakshetra ambience in any auditorium even in Chennai. The clever entries and exits and group dynamics using space imaginatively were conceived in the actual Rukmini Devi Arangam where Bharatanatyam’s modern dance history was created. Kalakshetra’s annual December season is always a sell out with the magical Adyar atmosphere itself as the star of the show! The USA performance and others in the proposed tour are sure to be subsidised since the NRI organisation presenters may not be able to offer more than the average $3500 for a group show. A far cry from the $ 25,000 fees that Nrityagram commands. Quite simply, Protima Bedi’s group has become the single most successful dance company– artistically and financially - from India. And remember it is only four women – Bijoyini, Surupa (recovering with a displaced kneecap) and Pavitra Reddy. Manager, lighting designer and mother hen Lynne completes the quartet.

Meanwhile, it is positive news for Kalakshetra and a wise decision by Priyadarsini Govind who has publicly announced her withdrawal from active performance for a while to concentrate on her new administrative responsibilities. For a company that once took The Bolshoi theatre by storm, it is about time they are seen in international venues. Updating and editing the repertoire will need a dispassionate and critical eye with a view to modern audiences and rapidly changing tastes. Perhaps a group trek with board member and celebrity singer TM Krishna into the mountains will clear many a cobweb and bring a fresh perspective and focus to my alma mater.

Kalakshetra’s programming director continues the work initiated by Leela Samson. The crafts fair, saris and weaving exhibitions, book releases- the historic campus is abuzz with all sorts of events and activities. Those wonderful saris with the 18” wide borders were so showstopper stunning. I wish I had held on to some of those designs that were created during Rukmini Devi’s time. I often wore them on TV in the USA for my broadcasts and was always complimented on the vivid colours.

January also found me spending almost 10 days in Bangalore watching a new group of 8 dancers being trained for a choreography project by Brussels based dancer Kalpana Raghuraman. Auditioned in July and making departures from classical dance for the first time, it was fascinating to watch the young group absorbing the many layers of movement and shifting aesthetics. Working 6 hours a day was a first time for them and after a few days of aching bones, enthusiasm triumphed taking them to the finish line. Trained in Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance, Kalpana patiently found ways of connecting with their diffidence and was able to boost their confidence. We rented Bharatanatyam guru Padmini Ravi’s charming studio in Malleswaram where I had the opportunity to meet this wonderful woman who is once again on the cusp of yet another creative path. NATYANCE? What is that? Well. That is what Padmini will unveil in the coming months.

Bangalore is a happy city for dance. Great attitudes, friendly people and dancers, who talk and exchange ideas and actually attend each others’ performances and socialise and party afterwards. Such a healthy atmosphere compared to other cities. Contemporary dance is alive and kicking in that garden city (now choking with malls and crowded streets). So many independent artistes creating and searching. Keep it up, guys and gals. See you all soon!

PADME was shown in a 20 minute section at the Ashish Khokar/DANCE DISCOURSE event at the Alliance Francaise to a housefull crowd and an appreciative audience of dancers, musicians, photographers and martial artistes. Khokar’s monthly events are well attended and he never fails to remind us of the importance of dance history. The PADME dancers came with a small entourage of family and friends – each of them thrilled that their special person was making his/her debut in a contemporary work. Wearing pants, shifts, dresses and leggings bought off the rack in a Bangalore boutique, the PADME 8 showed a promise that I hope continues through the premiere in August. This is perhaps an unusual convergence of an independent producer, an independent choreographer and 8 independent dancers. They are not my students and do not belong to one single company. There is no hierarchy of guru and sishya. Each dancer is busy with solo classical performances, teaching aerobics, Bollywood, or whatever pays the bills. They are all young, eager, raw and raring to go. Is this sufficient alchemy for creation? Compared to Indian dance timelines, where thematic work has a short life span, an internationally touring work has a life span of 5 to 8 years. Will the group stay together for even 2 years? As producer and artistic director of the project, it will be interesting to observe while creating PADME’s marketing path. I stopped working with a group in 2003 and the world is a very different place today. For now, I want you to share the joy of this experiment and watch some images of PADME here.

February is full of travel, lectures, performances, speeches, training programmes, and chief guest appearances in schools and colleges. Every day the media calls to ask about an assortment of quotes –should statues be moved, ministers blustering about rape, homophobia – on anything but NEVER about the arts! At no point have I felt so irrelevant as an artiste than now. TV screens show screaming debates, failure of the state to stem growing violence and a cynical malaise of ageing friends who are celebrating milestones- anniversaries, birthdays and weddings with increasing garish spending. If only they would commit 5% of the liquor bill for dance! We have to find solutions and not whine about problems.

As I hesitate, The British Dance Edition is tearing up UK stages with a South Asian focus, Rajika Puri prepares to premiere her improved version of ELENI in New Delhi and Anandavalli showcases her new CHI UDUKA in Sydney. Malavika Sarukkai’s lovely film THE UNSEEN SEQUENCE has opened the DANCE ON CAMERA film festival (introduced by Hari Krishnan). I reach out to young students at TEACH FOR INDIA, telling them my story and hoping to inspire them. Friend and design “sakhi” Sandhya Raman celebrates a 20 year anniversary of our costume collaboration that began with PURUSH in 1995. So it IS happening amidst all the doubts and pulls and pushes. So, cheer up Anita! (note to self)…

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ New Delhi/ Bangalore/ Baroda/ Bombay

PS: Congratulations to the four dance Padma Awardees - Rani Karnaa (Kathak), Kalamandalam Sathyabama (Mohiniattam), Geeta Mahalik (Odissi), Elam Endira Devi (Manipuri). I am thrilled with the Padma Vibhushan to my yoga guru’s guru BKS Iyengar (age 95). What an innovator!

PPS: For all those who were intrigued about celebrity feminist writer Naomi Wolf’s visit to Chennai, I have only this to say. A smart, savvy, fully engaged and articulate woman is given an international passport to our hearts. Naomi was fun, fearless and feisty… even when she was trying on a turquoise blue sari or talking about the Vagina! I have a new sista friend!

Twitter: @aratnam
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"Celebrity singer TM Krishna into the mountains will clear many a cobweb and bring a fresh perspective and focus to my alma mater.”

First I would like to thank and appreciate Anita Ratnam madam for highlighting Zakir Hussain, a richly deserving, scholarly and sincere natya exponent as well as Vaishnava scholar but I may be excused for my observations especially with regard to praising TMK and especially some of his comments and observations and all these under the aegis of Kalakshetra whoever is presiding over all these for whatever reason I feel is in bad taste and born out of lack of understanding and confusing arts, politics, publicity seeking and doing all these in a very superficial way with hidden agenda and smacks of ulterior motives.

I am very well aware that tradition has to transform through some very logical, artistic, aesthetic process of transition but must not be shattered by bombs of Marxist ideology. Everything especially the art forms which are tirelessly repeated, like our breath itself, have or must have had some inherent significance or value, otherwise they would not have survived this long and would have been consigned to the attics of a museum like Indian brand of Marxism which is practiced by some in certain forums as they have lost their hold on their own native terrains.

First, we must reason out, review and respect the inherent attributes and intrinsic values of long lasting things. And second, we need not follow anything blindly because it is religiously ordained but at the same time remember that any art, especially aesthetic ones, are the manifestation expression of human relationships with things, humans, other beings, spirits, souls, etc.

Balayogi Venkataraman (Feb 1, 2014)

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