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February 1, 2015

PERFORMANCE. This one word jumps out at us from almost every sphere of human activity. The word plucked directly out of the world of live arts is now applied to industry, technology, sports, science and academia.

Yet it was through the prism of sports that I saw the close affinity between the sweat and toil of the arts and the exhilaration of a "show" well done.

January unveiled a feast of my two favourite subjects - dance and tennis. It was through the daily broadcast of the Australian Open tournament that I was able to watch and listen to the greats. Hear their thoughts about working towards uncompromising excellence, the unglamorous daily grind of practice and the ability to "improvise" in tricky situations. The sudden spurts of newcomers enjoying the limelight of centre court and the legends finding a way to win - the match and the hearts of the audience. One night wonders who upset the champions fade away so quickly we are left asking, "Whatever happened to him/her?"

How different is this from dance? At the recently concluded Music Academy Dance Festival in Chennai, several newbies charmed us. Aishwarya Narayanaswamy was delightful. Praveen Kumar and Vaibhav Arekar - not newcomers - continued to delight. Uma Satyanaryana was impressive... but ... but... can they endure the tough path studded with landmines? Seasoned senior stars like Leela Samson, Malavika, Valli, Sujata Mohapatra and the Nrityagram duo continued to dominate the programming. When will they give way to the next gen? At the Aus Open, the tournament accommodated a slot called LEGENDS. Why don't we see the one and only Vyjayantimala at the Academy mornings? At 82, she continues to astonish and stir audiences. Too old? Over the hill? Well, that argument can be made for many of our divas but not for someone like Vyjayanti. A festival that includes the changing of the guard, the young and old, the senior and the fledgling, the maestro and the precocious next star - this is the alchemy that makes for an interesting mix. Not the same old names being repeated again and again.

New Yorker Sonali Skandan held her own within her petite frame on her morning showing. Composed and serene, she was the perfect starter for the audacious Janaki Rangarajan who followed. There are many adjectives that come to mind when I speak about Janaki who is making her push towards international stardom. "Excellent" is not one of them. Athletic, aggressive, attractive, seductive, in your face? Yes. Superbly agile and pliant, Janaki's "Accro Natyam" left me more disturbed than exhilarated. People around me were either stunned or in raptures. Her Tai Bo kicks, Zumba moves and a hyper-mandi with Padma Subrahmanyam's Bharata Nrityam moves as "inserts," made Paddu Akka's lifelong study of the Natya Sastra 'karanas' seem more like a seduction than a conscious choreography design.

But mark my words. Janaki, whether you or I like it or not, is the next star of Bharatanatyam. I should know. In 1985, I told my TV crew in New York that soon everyone would be buying $5 coffee when Starbucks appeared and we would all be buying bottled water. Hmmmmm. Need I say more?

If Yoga can have so many versions - Hatha, Vinyasa, Accro, Hot, Jazz, Classic - why not Bharatanatyam? And BN dancers look out! Odissi has come to your heartland and conquered it completely! Why else would New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay devote an entire review to Odissi (Nrityagram and Sujata Mohapatra) who were featured in the evening slots and then an entire review for the REST of the week long Music Academy dance festival? It is obvious that Macaulay loves music. He raved about the ensembles that accompanied the Kuchipudi, Bombay Jayashri (for Valli) and other sessions but devoted single sentences to Rama Vaidyanathan and Malavika Sarukkai. What Alastair did, however, was to remind dance passionistas like yours truly about the extraordinary complexity of Indian dance. When I thought that Leela Samson was not her usual self, he used the word "muted". For the overlong Kalakshetra production, he referred to the performance as being of "vintage dignity". For Rama's brilliant standing ovation show, he wrote about her use of humour and satire. For Malavika's increasingly strident movements, she was described as "an authoritative performer." Macaulay also kept his distance from all dancers during his week in Chennai unlike our critics who become parasites on some hapless NRI dancers demanding more and more freebies!

At the Music Academy sessions, I recognised the enormous influence Priyadarsini Govind has had on many young dancers. The light footed moves, the poses, the diagonal stances and Lakshmi Srinath's costume combinations. Both Priyadarsini and Mythili Prakash were sorely missed this year by their fans and many are eagerly looking forward to their return next season.

Why is it that not a single Bharatanatyam dancer is looking at staging, lighting and production values like Nrityagram and Aditi Mangaldas? It is no longer enough to dismiss these essentials as gimmicks. Looking at these artistes on stage when every movement, every nuance is rehearsed and delivered with exquisite perfection, even the best of the BN dancers compare unfavourably. Bharatanatyam is the most sophisticated of classical dance forms. It has rhythmic complexity, spatial maturity, emotional intensity, a brilliant musical structure. I can go on and on...Then why are the dancers not focusing on an evening long experience? Why this over indulgence of over choreography (Janaki Rangarajan is one example), over dancing, under thinking and all round too much of everything all dumped together? Time to think divas, gurus and dancers... Think hard and long. Time is running out.

Performance for Obama

She may have performed more than 2000 times in her long career but has never made front page of a newspaper until she resigned. Leela Samson was in the thick of political intrigue in January, due to the hasty clearance given to a film called 'Messenger of God.' She, along with several members of the CFBC (Film Censor Board) resigned in protest. For the week that followed, Samson was on national TV daily defending her decision. Within one week of her resignation a new chairman was appointed. In sharp contrast, Samson's resignation as Chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in July 2014, saw the seat vacant for six long months until a few days ago, when BJP loyalist and theatre director/actor Shekar Sen assumed charge. The importance of cinema over dance, music, theatre, folk arts and puppetry was never more obvious! And yet, when US President Obama and Michelle needed to be "entertained," classical dance was trotted out at Rashtrapati Bhavan and then totally blanked out for the Padma awards. Why not take the Obamas to see an Amitabh film? Why classical dance?

On Republic Day came the shocker! Perhaps for the first time ever - the PADMA awards list did not contain a single dancer's name. So much for all jockeying and campaigning by many Delhi divas. For many years, artistes were in the majority when the annual awards were announced. Slowly, from 2007, when the arts were clubbed as "entertainment" by the media and the Indian government made all creative industry selections under the single umbrella of "arts', dance lost the already difficult battle. Cinema names crept in and have now overtaken the "arts" category conclusively. Which makes many dance festivals in India a remarkable achievement of private financing and crowd funding. When the annual Chennai festival, despite all its mounting problems, continues to endure for 70 years without a single paisa of state support, it is all the more obvious how crucial public opinion needs to be reminded about the power and potency of India's performing arts traditions. In conclusion, perhaps it is time that dancers realised that they cannot automatically EXPECT that awards and favours will flow their way. There is a new wind in New Delhi and it is does not carry the beats of an 'adavu'.

The recently concluded GATI contemporary dance festival in New Delhi enjoyed success with its many new initiatives like events on the street while managing to raise 15 lakh rupees in a last minute crowd funding effort to cover ballooning costs. ATTAKKALARI's biennale in Bangalore grows in stature and recognition with each edition with larger funding and more and more support. This year there is a special focus on South Asian contemporary dancers and choreographers with a host of known and emerging names that deserve to be watched. However, if one looks at the list of sponsors, they continue to be from countries like Norway, Switzerland, Germany, UK, Netherlands. Why should the accent always be from those governments with deep pockets who can fly in artistes and dominate the direction and accent of these festivals? It is more difficult to get Asian countries with troubled histories to support the brilliant artistes they contain? The one performance at the GATI event that had people talking was the collaboration with the Indonesian performer. Congratulations to TEAM GATI and ATTAKKALARI with a corollary - LOOK EAST.

How can we keep updated about the exciting times for contemporary performance in India? The mainstream media certainly does not either understand or give space to the performing arts unless there is a high price tag attached to it. Like contemporary art. And Dance loses out to Art Fairs. The Kochi Biennale and Delhi Art Fair grabs full pages and offers great photo ops for the interested and so do Lit Fests. The HINDU LIT FEST was a runaway success and even though it was ignored by all other media organisations, the reach and influence of this national paper in South India ensured that the third edition was a talking point for the city. For the theatre and dance performances held during the event, there was a whole new audience interested in the performing arts.

WRITING FOR THE ARTS is a subject being discussed and acted upon. In one such session in which I participated, cultural writer Geeta Doctor spoke about how Twitter and Facebook have made "every man a cultural critic." Sadanand Menon, who is now the GO TO GUY for all opinion on dance, theatre, film and society, spoke about the gradual MORONISATION of the media. Various dance organisations have started publishing their e-newsletters and small groups of writers have started mentoring wannabe wordsmiths.

My question remains. While there are so many who enrol in the writing programmes, why are we not reading new names and listening to new voices? Why are the same old voices and bylines being repeated by the mainstream media with only one point of view? What happens to those who join in so many writing courses? Where do they go? Knowing that arts writing does not pay as much as covering cinema, sports, entertainment and politics, what makes them even enrol in arts writing courses?

A vibrant democracy needs a healthy opposition. The question still hovers in the air between creator and audience. Who will be the mediator? Why has the role of the dance critic been suppressed? WANTED. Writers, interlocutors and more commentary on the arts. Photographer Dayanita Singh insists that it is a collaboration with a critic that helped her shape her politics on photography. Menon lamented the disappearance of the iconic ECONOMIC TIMES Arts Page. Today, he claimed, there was absolutely no space to discuss the mismanagement of cultural institutions or share ideas!!!!

The Arcade, Colombo

Mid January found me in Colombo, a day after the new government was voted into power. The roads were spotless and several buildings had been restored carefully allowing many walking tours in historic districts. On one such tour in the old Fort area of the city, I marvelled at the quality of the restoration of 17th century Dutch architecture. However, the sad reality is that it took a stern dictator army man Gotabaya, the former President Rajapakse's brother to effect such a change. India needs such an intervention to save its many historic residences and structures that speak of great musicians and dancers. I have written earlier about the pathetic state of legendary musician M S Subbulakshmi's ancestral home in Madurai and the horrendous mockery of freedom poet Subramania Bharathi’s house in Chennai. How far can democracy be upheld when entire histories are being wiped out before our eyes?

Sri Lanka's Chitrasena Dance Company has completed the premiere of its new show DEVANJALI at the Sydney Opera House and can look upon better times for their dream dance centre. This fantastic dance company started by Kathakali and Santiniketan trained Chitrasena brought the beauty of Sri Lankan dance traditions to the world. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was a student and gifted them a small piece of land. Yet, to this day, this company which has thrilled the world and whose two dancers were the star of the Nrityagram collaboration SAMHARA, have been functioning without a proper dance centre for many decades. Out of favour with the previous government, will the change of power also help their dreams come true? Politics and art are still in a close dance.

The PADME project continues as changes occur within the group. Marriage, motherhood and moving to another city has galvanized the Bangalore based dancers to take the lead in training and helping organize an audition for the second phase of the project. One dancer took the wonderful actor training course at Adishakti, another has launched her own organisation RASABODHI in Bombay and a third has enrolled in lighting design at Attakkalari. This is the fillip I wanted them to have. To realize what it takes to be a professional and to multi-task. That being on stage is NOT the ultimate goal but to become excellent artistes and not merely good dancers! The audition is already oversubscribed which is a testament to the great buzz this work has generated among the dance community. Well done, team PADME! I am looking forward to what 2015 unveils!

A looming cloud appears on the horizon in the form of arts grants. Several thousand artistes and organizations in India are dependent on the monthly salary grants given to gurus and their students, as well as modest production grants sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture. Those with realistic expectations and management abilities know that prior arrangements have to be made before the money actually arrives into the designated bank accounts. For example, the salary grants are dispensed once in 6 months. The remaining salaries do arrive, but only after several repeated calls to the relevant department and more copious copies of the original documents dispatched for the nth time. Many senior Chennai based teachers have given up in disgust since proximity to New Delhi and the corridors of power mean expensive flights to and fro several times over. When a production grant is sanctioned, the procedure used to be a signature for the entire amount and only 75% released initially. After the completion of the project the balance is supposed to be made. Invariably it either does not arrive at all or arrives very, very late.

The last time I applied for any grant was 18 years ago. It was too much effort for too little money. It was for the early version of 'AHALYA - Once again Stone', an experimental dance theatre work performed at the Soorya Festival in Trivandrum in 1997 and later reworked for the Natya Kala Conference's Ramayana series in Chennai 7 years ago.

In this current scenario, several established organizations are being threatened with closure since the 2014 elections and the reluctance of the new government to act on any policy other than economics and foreign policy. Salary grants to some reputed organizations are now up to 8 months behind schedule. The Swach Bharat Clean India campaign has had some Ministry officials allegedly "suggesting" that artistes should be photographed holding brooms to strengthen their grant applications! Is this going to become an official policy with the Ministry of Culture? Brooms replacing ghunghroos? Wow! That is surely a new one! While none of this is confirmed, the air is thick with rumour.

Shekhar Sen, the new chief of the SNA has a lot of catching up to do. A new committee to be appointed and all the backlog attended to. More awards to be selected and a rapidly changing scenario to be reckoned with.

One cannot conclude without doffing one's hat / dupatta to my Prime Minister. Denied a visa and then vilified by the US government, Modi has made a remarkable turnaround to have the US President as the honoured chief guest at India's 66th Republic Day Parade. It takes guts, determination and tenacity to achieve this PR coup! Apart from the comical vision of our diminutive President Mukherjee standing up to Michelle Obama's waist and almost getting lost in her billowing skirt, the visit of POTUS to our land of the LOTUS was a triumph!

Obama spoke about the deepening bonds between India and the USA. Little did he know that the existing trade, travel and knowledge exchange through dance and music between the two countries can equal a small nation's GDP. Just do the math!

Do dancers actually take time off to watch a movie while munching popcorn? Dangle their feet in a pool or sip decadent chili chocolate at a cafe? Savour a bite of melted dark chocolate, cheesecake, almond burfi or a ghee soaked dosa? Wander around a mall? Shop for silly stuff that you don't need. Sky dive? Bungee jump? Get drunk on wine, wicked cocktails and laugh out loud. A true hearty laugh that does not stop at the shoulders. I wonder?

Dance is the ultimate adventure of the body and spirit. There is so much to dare and to dream. On stage. In rehearsal. The sentence DANCERS ARE THE ATHLETES OF THE SOUL is never more true. I recall these words of Martha Graham while watching the finalists at the Australian Open tennis tournament grunting, yelling, screaming, whooping and leaping with joy or frustration.

What a PERFORMANCE it was and continues to be! And after it is all over - the sweat and the triumph - it starts all over again.

Until next time.
Sing with your heart,
Dance with your breath
Feel the sunlight on your face
The moonlight in your spirit.

- Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Bangalore/ New York

PS: Just as we get ready to send out this monthly newsletter, Akademi's new website on South Asian Dance UK has gone live at Well done Anita Srivatsava and group. Clear, catchy and elegant. Here's looking forward to more news and updates from the exciting and edgy world of South Asian dance in the UK.

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

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