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February 1, 2018

The arts of Asia are blessed with the syncretic traditions of interior monologues and societal change. Not so the European models of performance that relegated myth and the human spirit in the care of the Church and performance to only reflect secular themes. This dismissal of stylization and a relaxation into naturalism has caused so much of Western performance traditions to be lost.
- Joseph Campbell
The Ecstasy of Being

It was a month of tumultuous words and events that left many of us heart sick and exhausted. The volume and velocity of hate against women who are no longer with us to defend themselves or have their stories heard - vicious and unrelenting attacks against female performers and poets - in my home state of Tamilnadu has seen the ugly head of MISOGYNY and HYPOCRISY surface in the very first month of the year.

2018 is the Chinese year of the DOG - an animal that is considered intelligent, faithful and intuitive. It is also a synonym for CUR - a pejorative for a dumb, idiotic, addlebrained MAN who devours and demolishes creative women as “immoral”. The D word continued to haunt the cultural and political space all through December and January. D for Devadasi. D for Devouring. D for Destruction. D for Desecration.

Between the headline grabbing comments of musician TM Krishna about Carnatic musician MS SUBBULAKSHMI and film lyricist Vairamuthu against mystic poet-goddess ANDAL, the Tamil community around the world was up in arms and social media was afire with the most foul and vitriolic stream of diatribe.

Women today who dance, sing, sculpt, act, paint and write have all been inspired by those incredible women who held their own in a man's world conscripted by Kings, Nobles and Zamindars. To use these creative women as a deck of cards to be dealt and gathered up at will is both cruel and dangerous. To use caste again and again to either demean or insult other communities only reveals how little India has progressed in its 70th year of independence. What is even worse is to use the D for DASI word to slander not only the women featured in the speeches but also to tarnish an entire community of hereditary women as foul and tainted. How terrible and troubling this is!

It was also a month of revelations. That mystic poet/goddess ANDAL has power and commands collective devotion amongst ALL TAMILS who gathered in many cities and towns in protest of Vairamuthu's comments came as a surprise to many. For a week ANDAL became among the top ten searches on Google! The protest against TM Krishna's comment about MSS was contained to the dance and music community and relatively more niche in comparison.


Mark Morris, Lakshmi Viswanathan

They must be having the last laugh. Mark Morris and Mikhail Baryshnikov must be sneering at the fawning Chennai organisers who invited them to visit, chief guest, talk down to - while most of the dance public gushed and grabbed their statements like pearls of wisdom.

To be fair to Baryshnikov, all he did was visit quietly and refused to be held prisoner in his hotel room while one diva decided to “RECOMMEND” when he leaves his room and who he could or should meet! Misha and his partner were seen at several Music Academy dance shows in the morning and evening and did not make any fuss or demand attention.

It was bad boy Mark Morris who thumbed his nose at the starched collar formality of the Madras Music Academy by turning up in a worn Tshirt and a carelessly thrown scarf, talking off the cuff and expecting us to accept his self indulgent phrases like “I hope I am a cultural appropriator!” when asked about his interpretation of the MS SUBBULAKSHMI/Tyagaraja song O RANGASAYEE in 1984. While this long solo was hailed as brilliant by many American modern dance critics, I would like to know how this would have been received if any BROWN BOY had attempted this in a “komanam/tied dhoti”. Brown skinned daring would have been flayed nonstop. But not white American Mark Morris. Invited by his friend of 20 years Lakshmi Viswanathan to mark her being conferred the prestigious NRITHYA KALANIDHI by the Music Academy, Morris's comments about dance, music and his successful MMDG dance centre in Brooklyn, NYC were mostly irrelevant to the dance students and performers. I wonder how the epitome of Sadir/courtesan dance Lakshmi Viswanathan could “wink” at his remounted O RANGASAYEE at the Lincoln Centre India Festival that Morris curated 2 years ago!

Or maybe Lakshmi V was having the last laugh at the Music Academy for the bad blood that once flowed between the #MOMC (Mylapore Old Men's Club!) and herself!

Speaking of Clubs, Ms Viswanathan managed to get the dress code overruled to entertain VP Dhananjayan and Shanta D at the starched Madras Club. Turning up without collared shirts and covered shoes, the club members are now in a tizzy about this special privilege when a former Cabinet Minister was turned away in his signature white dhoti!!!

Speaking of reviews, what can we say about THE HINDU pushing aside ALL dance reviews of the season to accommodate the Music Academy Festival? To relegate sabhas who have nurtured dance much earlier than the 10 year old January Academy festival is a direct conflict of interest. N Murali, Academy President, is the owner/shareholder of THE HINDU family-owned daily. Our Ramayana triple bill presentation of December 28th AH SU RA was featured a whole month later - by which time 4 reviews have been written and featured!




We could not believe our eyes or ears! The much loved and revered Nrityagram dance ensemble who have fired world audiences with their artistry, sensuous Odissi and resculpted kinetic, brought a shoddy and under whelming show to close the annual Music Academy festival. The darling of curator Ramjee Chandran of the dance committee, Nrityagram has always delivered high quality presentations - dance, music, lighting - year after year to packed audiences.

Did they take Chennai for granted? Did they think that a work in progress could pass off as a performance? Did Surupa Sen think that her cringe worthy English/phoren accent could be understood or even appreciated? “Damn you, Hari! Damn you, Krishna!” was her version of English translation of a Jayadeva Ashtapadi where Radha chides Krishna. The Dasavatar sequences were also interspersed with Darwinian references about evolution and the BIG BANG! And the soured icing on the stale cake was the familiar refrain JAI JAGADEESH HAREY being verbally clobbered as my opening hashtag suggests!

Did crumpled and dull rehearsal costumes represent “serious art in process?” PHULEEESE! Dance practice saris were re-formed when Chandralekha tore off the ornamentation from the Kalakshetra/Bharatanatyam body in the mid 1980s. The once dynamic Nrityagram kinetic now looks tired and limp. Nrityagram may need the fire and glow of Thaji Dias of Chitrasena/Sri Lanka dance company to give them a new fillip. Even the incandescent Bijayini Satpathy could not save the evening.

Are they allowed to make a mistake or stumble? Of course, yes. And they should also take the bad with the mostly good that these extraordinary women have received. Yes. SUCK IT UP!

With many in the audience walking out in frustrated discontent and demanding their money back (perhaps a first for the Academy) the furor in the foyer was more interesting than what was being passed off as a “performance” on the main stage.

Will the Dance Committee rethink their annual choices? While audiences for the Academy dance festival continue to be very good, most of the programming looks like it could have been 2015, 16 or 17 - the same names appearing again and again. Packing two margams in the morning sessions are also getting to be repetitive.

The younger performers stole the thunder from ALL the divas and Priyadarsini Govind's much awaited return to the Academy stage fizzled out. She has lost much of her sharpness in nritta and one had to wade through an hour of lacklustre dancing before she entered the second half of the evening. Her approach to abhinaya has always been her forte, but there was something missing from this year's season appearances. She appeared tired and listless. Nowhere near the luminous presence she once commanded. Whispers of her returning to helm Kalakshetra are still making the rounds as the historic institution enters its 7th month without a director!


Music Academy panel 1
PC Ramakrishna, Anita Ratnam, Padma Subrahmanyam, Alarmel Valli, Ashish Khokar

Music Academy panel 2
Priyadarsini Govind, CV Chandrasekhar, Malavika Sarukkai, Shridhar

Fueled by Kami Viswanathan, one of the Music Academy's younger committee members, the 90 year old institution started a 3 day early morning panel discussion format that once again skirted issues without delivering any clear solutions. DECLINING AUDIENCES FOR BHARATANATYAM IN CHENNAI was a topic for which there is a clear parallel in marketing mantras. Where there is a surplus, demand decreases. That is it. There is far too much BN in Tamilnadu and the energy for the art has now relocated to other parts of India and overseas. While 80 % of the morning audiences continue to be non locals, it is also time for organisers and artistes to stop dissing the diaspora. The energy for BN and Carnatic music is coming from overseas. The revenue models, the learning, the use of technology for classes, the attendance, the interest, the dedication and focus is not within my home state anymore. In spite of many wonderful artistes who call Chennai their home, the rampant mediocrity that taints every aspect of the art - hurried practice, chaotic learning, vulgar opulence at arangetrams, Sabha corruption, crooked organizers - Chennai leads the list.
It is time to have panels that include younger voices, that leave time for questioning, to stop talking down to younger teachers and practitioners and to allow newer voices to be heard. Let us look at solutions and not continue to whine or point fingers.


Aditi Mangaldas (Photo: Dinesh Khanna)

In an intense month of traveling, performing and speaking, I also managed to watch some performances, one of them being Aditi Mangaldas' current version of WITHIN. Having seen the premiere 5 years ago, I recall sitting next to dramaturg Morag Deyes from Edinburgh and discussing the horrific Nirbhaya rape incident that had occurred in December 2013. Aditi's work seemed to reflect her rage and unrest of the event. This updated avatar of WITHIN/KNOTTED seemed somewhat dated to my eyes. It contained the same taut dancing, the dynamic tensions, the muted lighting, pounding music and relentless swirls to signify chaos and doom. Aditi seemed overworked and tired and I missed the sharpness of Fabiana Piccioli's lighting. Perhaps I expected something to be updated after 5 years. After all, violence against women has only increased since.

Gauri Diwakar (Photo: Anoop Arora)

However, what was heartening to watch was the maturing Gauri Diwakar. She was poised, confident and an excellent interpreter of Aditi's movement philosophy. The packed Kamani auditorium, filled with many young people and VIPs, was also a testament to Aditi's popularity in her home town. I did not stay for the second half which was traditional Kathak. I wish the darker and unsettling first half could have been the ending of the evening but knowing Delhi audiences, they would prefer a HAPPILY EVER AFTER beautiful Kathak/ghunghroo/Chakkar evening to close the show!

Rama Vaidyanathan should be more circumspect in her sweeping statements that “BHARATANATYAM CAN EXPRESS ANYTHING!” I don't hear any other classical dancer of other styles making these proclamations! To privilege one style above all others and to arrogate to themselves the right to represent every aspect for society is totally unjustified.

Look at the daily headlines and try to replicate all the horror and injustice with hastas, abhinaya and jathis!!!!!! And that too, dressed in silk, zari, ornaments and bells on ankles!!! Theatre and cinema handle social issues much better than classical dance. Live with it!

Why are most Bharatanatyam dancers still so mindless about what they perform and speak about? Is it enough to do one new item and re-arrange the jigsaw puzzle with that new addition and then proclaim it as something NEW? As you read this, please note - most Bharatanatyam dancers are preparing ONLY ONE MARGAM for the entire year. JUST ONE. Full time professional dancers who have made Dance their everything only prepare 5 to 6 pieces for the entire year. Over rehearsed, over thought, over choreographed, over dramatised - it is becoming boring to watch the same aesthetic over and over again. Looking at the images that media selects and the discussions about “new themes”, “fresh inputs”, “novel interpretations”, seems like rats running on a circular treadmill just to keep from falling off! So much energy and effort for what?


Indira Kadambi

In all this cacophony, some dancers shone. Meera Sreenarayanan, Praveen Kumar, Vaibhav Arekar, Parshwanath Upadhye, Meenakshi Srinivasan, Christopher Guruswamy were the names on most lips. However, the quiet star of the January season was Indira Kadambi.

With an impossibly brave foray into recreating the ENTIRE MARGAM - all 4 plus hours of it - she proved, with the POORNA MARGAM, that Bharatanatyam contains the sophistication and complexity of a truly great form. Without fanfare, Indira performed to an elite audience of dancers and gurus who watched patiently and gave her a well deserved standing ovation at the end.

Meera Sreenarayanan

Her two students, Meenakshi Grama and Meera Sreenarayanan also shone in their respective solo performances, proving how an intelligent guru can shape and chisel each student as per her potential.

Meenakshi Grama

Indira bids farewell to Chennai, a city she has called home for 25 years. As she prepares to move to Bengaluru, where she has already created the necessary infrastructure for teaching, artiste residences and rehearsal spaces, her small clutch of students must now prepare to make the weekly commute to receive her thoughtful guidance. Chennai did not appreciate Indira enough and we rarely got a chance to watch her perform. On the rare occasions that she did, there was always something interesting and engaging.
Thank you, Indira... We will miss you but look forward to your art shining through your students.


After the dignified and impressive awards event presided over by President Ramnath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the following days when the awardees performed could not have been in starker contrast.

With 5 dancers crunched together on a weekday evening, I opted to go first with recorded music and limited set elements. The new solo dance-theatre work STONE/AHALYA is still very new in the repertoire and knowing the cramped space in MEGHDOOT 3 theatre, I simplified much of the set elements. Assisted by long time collaborator Sandhya Raman, we fashioned a stool in the place of the large golden rock that I sit on. Milind Srivastav stepped in at the last minute to help me with a new lighting plan that could barely accommodate the gobos that were designed to make a political point of the women's movement in protest.

The green rooms were cobbled together clumsily, the bathrooms left a lot to be desired in terms of hygiene and the backstage was utter chaos. With the Chairman, Vice Chairman and Secretary of the SNA being conspicuously absent from THEIR EVENT, the five artistes and their teams were left to fend for themselves. I recall being all alone at 1.30pm in the green room and thinking about WHY I continued to do this… to dance, to create, to collaborate and share. IT WAS A MOMENT OF UTTER LONELINESS. Until the help came from the smiling faces of Natya Vriksha students, Sandhya and SNA dance-supporter Helen Acharya!

That most of the visiting artistes exceeded their allotted time of 40 minutes only added to the frustration of those waiting. Why was Ratikant Mohapatra allowed to use recorded music for his Odissi presentation when I had to argue with the officials to use my recorded score for AHALYA? “We do not permit recorded music, Madam” was the response I received. I asked the said official to kindly look up previous contemporary dance awardees - Astad Deboo, Daksha Sheth, Mallika Sarabhai, Tanusree Shankar to check what they had done!!!

Adding to the lacklustre organization was the recalcitrant slide projector for Dr. Sunil Kothari's presentation which did nothing to enhance the reputation of the SNA-India's premiere arts body!

Even before the haphazard evenings, there was the embarrassing moment for awardees immediately after the distinguished function at the President's national residence. In the biting cold, the awardees and selected guests were entering the lawns of the India International Centre for a special celebration dinner. Many of us were literally accosted by unknown photographers with large colour images of us receiving the SNA award from the President of India just two hours before! And we were expected to PAY for these images! Imagine the confusion! No official photographer from the Sangeet Natak Akademi was present at the function and we, the national award winning artistes, were desperately searching for cash (no receipts furnished) because of course, we wanted the special moment for our records!


In complete contrast was the experience at the ITFOK. If anyone has to see what camaraderie the world of theatre creates - then the celebrated International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFOK) in Trissur is a shining example. In its 10th year, the festival has constantly pushed the boundaries in programming and choice of creative content. This year groups from Tehran, Palestine, Chile and South Africa represented the cultural resistance against governments and establishments through artistic engagement.

Situated in the sprawling and impressive campus of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi, the multiple venues - indoors and outside - provided opportunities to watch performances throughout the day. Mandeep Raikhy who presented his acclaimed QUEEN SIZE - a direct response to the criminalization of homosexuality in India with Article 377 in the constitution - spoke admiringly of how the entire stage crew wired and mounted his 50 light bulbs in 2 hours flat, something that would take him half a day at least in other cities!

Say What

I watched the beautiful physical theatre work from Mumbai called SAY WHAT? Created by Avantika Bahl and co-performer Vishal Sarvamaya, the hour long work saw half the audience comprised of deaf mutes who not only watched and applauded (waving hands and shaking fingers is the sign language for APPLAUSE) but engaged in an animated 30 minute post performance discussion.

At ITFOK, I participated in a panel about CURATION along with Jayachandran of ATTAKKALARI and Abhishek Pillai of National School of Drama. Together we voiced distinct but clear concerns about the blurring role of curation in India that also folds into the multiple responsibilities of producer, artistic director, hand holder, stage cleaner, fund raiser, audience cheerleader among others. Of accepting institutional funding, of programming big names on opening and closing nights for media attention, of searching and nurturing interesting work throughout the year, of not creating schisms between right wing and left wing art, of looking at traditional theatre and ritual forms for continued inspiration rather than borrow and imitate - many important ideas that needed to be voiced.

To see the power that festival directors command over performers was interesting with several theatre groups approaching me for performance opportunities - 10 years since THE OTHER FESTIVAL ceased to be, its reputation is still resonant among many in the theatre community.

Did I miss being Producer, Fund Raiser, Director, Curator, Hand Holder etc etc etc?
I completed my Phd since 2007 and curated/convened 3 international conferences soon after - EPIC WOMEN, MAD AND DIVINE and PURUSH. Travelled and spoke at several theatre and dance forums and watched multiple presentations in Asia, Europe, South Africa and North America. The world of dance, performance and live arts continues to engage me… But it does not complete me!




- Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accompanied by 100 CEOs of Indian companies on his recent visit to the World Economic Summit in DAVOS in Switzerland. THERE WAS NO SINGLE INDIVIDUAL TO REPRESENT INDIA'S CREATIVE SECTOR IN THE CONTINGENT.

- Mallika Sarabhai's spectacular history of Ahmedabad in KADAK BADSHAHI 2 opened in her home town to great acclaim.

- Nandini Ramani/Dr V Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts celebrated the birth centenary of her guru T Balasaraswati with a 2 day festival.

- Malavika Sarukkai's KALAVAHINI TRUST will hold the first of its DANCE SERIES with a Bharatanatyam festival at the IIC, New Delhi, featuring young dancers.

- A global outpouring of grief and condolence messages erupted after the passing of Vempati Ravi, younger son of Kuchipudi legend Vempati Chinna Satyam. With Ravi's passing, questions again arise about the future of the famed dance academy.

- Kalakshetra has rebuilt the RUKMINI ARANGAM theatre and inaugurates the remodeled space with the 9th edition of the KATHAKALI Festival.

- Mira Kaushik's UK theatre production THE TROTH-Usne Kaha Tha, was received with great acclaim in Jaipur and New Delhi. This is a special commission for the UK INDIA 70th year of FRIENDSHIP.

- Ananda Shankar Jayant's Bharatanatyam APP NATYARAMBHA celebrated its first year online.

- Vikram Iyengar launches his ambitious PICKLE FACTORY in Kolkata from March 4th whilst seeking to engage a wide circle of creative physical practitioners and scholars in all the movement arts. (

- Padma Subrahmanyam achieved another feat by assembling 2000 dancers at Chennai's Rajaratnam Stadium for the NATYA-THON for the HINDU SPIRITUAL FAIR.

- BONJOUR INDIA- the exciting and imaginative French cultural feast for Indian rasikas has kicked off with edgy and captivating performances in 12 cities across India.

Telling Tales, Oxford Junior Literary Festival, Kolkata

A Million Sita-s, at Tata Steel Literary Meet, Bhubaneswar


Meanwhile, let me leave you all with the images of my hectic January. Speaking, performing, teaching, directing... It has been 31 days of creative endeavour which has filled me with immense gratitude and joy! The BEST MOMENT of course was on January 17th, the awesome Rashtrapati Bhavan, the impressive armed guards, the gorgeous band playing a harmonised National Anthem (my eyes filled!) and the moment of receiving the SNA award from the FIRST CITIZEN OF INDIA....

SNA Award

Thank you all for the outpouring of congratulations on the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Contemporary Dance. To have the communities of classical and contemporary dance, film, theatre, literature and visual arts celebrate the moment has meant a great deal to my family and myself. It has dulled the naysayers, given a fresh fillip to my journey and an added spring in my step.

Congratulations to all my fellow awardees and the exalted FELLOWS of the SNA. Bravo!

Congratulations to Datuk Ramli Ibrahim for the latest honour- Padma Shri
Also to archeologist and historian, Professor R Nagaswamy - Padma Bhushan
Folklorist Vijayalakshmi Navaneeta Krishnan, Folk Music - Padma Shri
Music composer Ilayaraja - Padma Vibhushan


Let the flames of courage ignite our spirits
Let the THIRD EYE of vigilance be watchful for disparity and discord

In the flurry of comments, instant opinions and reviews of the much awaited PADMAAVAT, we once again focus on women, honour, war, the plunder of a woman's body and her fight to retain the choice of her limited and constricted life.
SATI, JAUHAR, SUICIDE, DEATH... right or wrong?
Dancers are getting into the debate, while focusing on the gorgeous visuals and lush costuming.


Until next month, I say goodbye with a heart filled with pride watching the glorious BEATING OF THE RETREAT in New Delhi. 26 bands from the Armed Forces can teach us about teamwork, synchronised choreography and discipline in the biting 5 degree cold of winter. What a visual and aural treat! What a magnificent moment to be alive, to be in a land that once taught the world!

And now?

Dr Anita R Ratnam

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

Must respectfully disagree with the commentary about the Nrityagram Dashavatar performance. I am a nobody, just a rasika, a dance enthusiast, and I spoke to and observed many other such nobodies like me, and the Dashavatar piece was refreshing. What reached out and grabbed me, was their incredible training but also that they were truly enjoying themselves. With humour and humility, ryhthm and rhyme and a crispness in choreography, they drew a lot of the audience in. Mamis sat up from slumped positions, and turned off their cell phone screens for once. A few 'Somebodies' chuckled at the references. The stuffy air of Music Academy was let out a little... The storytelling was clear, concise and marvelously edited. Surupa Sen's sophisticated diction and flawless cadence was a huge plus in my mind, not sure what you are objecting to there. Far from being stale, this was some of the freshest fruit, on offer that I saw. Just wanted to present a differing opinion to your readers.
- Latha, An ex-Chennaiite ( Feb 2, 2018)

I was in the audience. I heard people in my row and a couple of rows behind me chuckling when Surupa Sen said "the gods had a funny notion" and proceeded to rhyme it with "milky ocean". They actually laughed out loud when she repeated "big bang theory" the second/third time. I think by then their shock had worn off, and they had realized they were free to laugh and enjoy themselves. I remember that when Bijayini Satpathy walked in as Vamana, people clapped from the entry until she reached center stage. I overheard two people next to me eagerly (and quickly) discussing why Krishna was not a part of this dance. I remember the sudden, terrifying moment of Narashima -- I knew of course that there was going to be Narashima because I was looking at the Prahaladha story, but somehow I didn't expect it in that moment when it happened. I think this was true for others also, because they broke out in sudden, stunned applause. And the rapid scene switches in the Ramayana!!! Only later, while trying to recall that segment accurately to my mother and groping for words to describe my experience did I realize the meticulous precision with which the choreographer had directed the viewer's eye in that segment. I especially remember the lightning switches from Surpanaka going to Ravana's court, to Sita being dragged by Ravana, to that spectacular battle between Rama, Lakshmana and Ravana, when the audience again broke out in claps. After it all ended, when I got up to join the standing ovation -- honestly, it was an endless ovation -- I saw widely grinning faces all around me.

There were several things that I found utterly fascinating in this performance and talked with friends endlessly about (about art, tradition, classical-ness, costume, storytelling, how we perceive our myths, etc), but I'll skip those things. This is not an account of Nrityagram's artistry. I want to present a single fact that is easily verifiable: I heard the audience clap several times in the middle of Dashavatar and they stopped each time because Surupa Sen continued the narration. There is nothing subjective about that. You can see/hear it in the academy video archives when they show up soon. Since this account differs wildly from the one presented in, I have to assume that Anita walked out early and missed most of the recital.
-Yazhini (Feb 2, 2018)

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