February 1, 2019
HOPE has two daughters
Their names are ANGER and COURAGE
Anger at the way things are
And Courage to see that they do not remain as they are
- St Augustine of Hippo
When it's over, I want to say,
All my life I was married to amazement
I was the bridegroom, taking the world in my arms
- Mary Oliver, American poet
A loud round of cheers for two wonderful dancers we admire! NARTHAKI NATARAJ and PRABHU DEVA. Bharatanatyam has been their cornerstones and both have taken it in different directions with stunning success. On stage and on screen, these artistes have created an aesthetic and kinetic that is being admired and applauded.
NARTHAKI, student of Natyacharya Kitappa Pillai
PRABHU DEVA, student of Natyacharya Udupi Lakshminarayana
MILENA SALVINI, for her contribution to Kathakali
PADMASHRI AWARDEES - TAKE A BOW!
And congratulations to all the performing artistes in theatre, various music genres and other folk arts who were recognized by the Government of India.
#AND THEN THERE WERE MORE
The Chennai season was far from over as the New Year dawned. In fact, a second influx of visitors arrived just as the month began for the sole purpose of watching the abundance of dance featured at the annual Music Academy dance festival (January 3 to 9). The mornings were occupied by who the curating committee considered the emerging stars of tomorrow and the evening slots were programmed with established artistes sharing their individual journeys through mostly classical "MARGAM" based work.
It was the morning sessions that offered the breakthrough moments and this year was no different. Meera Sreenarayanan brought the audience to their feet in a sustained applause for her brilliant show. A petite bundle of dynamite talent, I had written about Meera last year and prophesied that she is a rare artiste to watch. Groomed by the intelligent and undervalued Indira Kadambi, Meera's DHANIKE varnam was a tour de force of subtle grace and beautifully held "sthayi'-focus. What an amazing artiste we have as a future star! All the kudos to Indira Kadambi whose talent was never acknowledged as a performer and who is now seeing one student being hailed as "fabulous", "original" and "exhilarating".
Others who scored during the morning sessions were Sreelakshmy Govardhanan, who wisely included more Telugu items in her repertoire, Parshwanath Upadhye who can draw whistles and full houses even if he dances in a cowshed, Harini Jeevitha, Methil Devika and Medha Hari.
I cannot write about most of the evening shows since I did not attend most of them. The divas mostly danced the same things about the same things. Enough said. A. Lakshman and Praveen Kumar seemed to have made an impact amongst the female brigade. Bijayini Satpathy, the heartbeat of the Nrityagram ensemble was sorely missed. Somehow, Surupa with her stilted accent and her dancers could not make up for Bijayini's incandescent presence.
The Academy has started a series of morning talks featuring issues that affect the dance world in India. Teaching 21st century skills through classical dance, Tradition and innovation in classical dance, Eco-system support for classical dance, were 3 topics chosen by Kami Viswanathan, a bright young committee member, in an attempt to push the discourse on dance and its eco system. The sessions were moderated each day by individuals who were not associated either with dance of the city,
Rajika Puri (New York
Chitra Sundaram (London)
Sushila Ravindranath (Chennai-business writer)
No matter how much people talk about these important issues, the truth on the ground has changed very little.
Lack of performance and rehearsal spaces
Lack of lighting support for special group shows
Lack of hygienic toilets
Lack of adequate payments to dancers
Lack of any audience development programme
#ACADEMY ON THE MAT
A detailed and closely observed article in MEDIUM about the lack of basic information, infrastructure and communication clarity from the Madras Music Academy got many of its committee members in a knot. After all, who dares find fault with this SMUG CLUB? Writer Vishnu Vasudev patiently pointed out flaw after flaw in the organisation's December festival system, citing glaring lack of basic information or courtesies extended to non members. Added to that was the often discussed but never stated APALLING THEATRE MANNERS of the Chennai music patron. Nowhere else do people stroll in and out in the midst of concerts.
The article also states clearly that unless the committee wakes up soon, it will become irrelevant, echoing global business icon Indira Nooyi who was Chief Guest at the 2018 festival opening.
"Change, adapt or you will become irrelevant".
Maamas and Maamis... are you listening?
Here is the link to the article: https://medium.com/@vishnuvasudev_63314/the-madras-music-academy-needs-to-try-much-harder-aa1e7dfa9031
#SHAKEN AND STIRRED
There were some brilliant shows in early January to boost my morale. One to mention was the multi talented Sridhar Vasudevan. This Delhi based artiste is much in demand for his nattuvangam, music composition, choreographic ideas and performance skills. Nearing 40, his maturity is evident in the fecund imagination of his "sancharis". Taking the advice of not explaining and introducing each item to a knowledgeable Chennai audience, Vasu was breathtaking in his exploration of his favourite varnam AMBA KAMAKSHI. An ode to the Goddess, his visual mapping was an intimate conversation with HER as woman, companion and finally, a child who is soothed and put to sleep by the devotee/elder. Vasu brought the audience to a cascade of SIGHS and TEARS towards the end.
Medha Hari, a child prodigy of guru Anitha Guha, was very impressive in the brief glimpse I had. I was struck by this skinny dancer who oozed maturity and poise in her 27 years. Beautiful technique, sustained abhinaya and convincing gravitas augurs well for Medha's future. Now she needs to gain weight, get a costume advisor and find a way to structure her dancing so that she too, like most classical dancers, does not fall off the stage when she completes a sequence!
#ONE ART, MANY BODIES. ANEKANTA, NANDALALA
In January, I also watched several group productions. I noticed the challenges that dancing gurus have when they position themselves inside the work and Anitha Guha has received continued accolades with her extravagantly costumed aesthetic supported by excellent ensemble precision. NANDALALA, a work on the life and exploits of Lord Krishna, concluded a very successful fund raising tour of the USA and had over a dozen performances in Chennai in December. Watching the highly entertaining show along with rapturous applause that accompanied each of Krishna's familiar feats of bravado reminded me about the power of faith and cultural memory.
However, the multimedia was lacklustre and superfluous to the original vision. Using songs from various Indian languages was effective, perhaps, to a mixed NRI audience but not to a Chennai rasika. The uniformity of dancers and their movements was admirable but placed alongside performances of dance groups from other cities in India, Anitha's choreographic imagination seemed tame. Her dancers are so well trained that they actually look more powerful and beautiful in their practice saris rather than the over made up faces they often perform with. When I watched them in the chaotic multi-style production called BHAGAVADGITA, it reminded me that just having excellent dancers does not mean that the end result is positive. Like Shijith Nambiar's ensemble work SAMYOGA... a disappointing pastiche of good dancers (Mythili Prakash and Lavanya Ananth), poor imagination and lacklustre execution makes everyone on stage look less than their best selves.
Spatial intelligence is something learned by dancers and not automatically assumed. Watching ANEKANTA, conceptualized by the luminous Geeta Chandran was a reminder that sometimes LESS IS MORE. While the production was not flawless, it contained several moments of SUGGESTION instead of DECLARATION. The final episode of NAVAGUNJARA with just one dancer rising (amidst silhouettes of birds and animals) to suggest VISHNU holding a lotus and Geeta falling prostrate was stunning. No overstated imagery with four armed, crown, mace, conch, discus paraphernalia. Just two movements while the rest of the ensemble of 7 remained totally still.
Chennai Bharatanatyam dancers must look at out of town groups to realise that they cannot rest on the smug assumption that they know and can do it all. Vaibhav Arekar and his company are an excellent example of how a Mumbai based team of Bharatanatyam artistes can present superb work as a cohesive group. There were so many beautiful moments in the choreography I saw that I wished that more Chennai dancers were present to see his theatre-based ideas come alive on stage.
Let us return to Kalakshetra as an example. Watching SHAKUNTALAM or any of the legendary RAMAYANA series is a wonderful reminder of how Rukmini Devi used the examples of Russian Corps de Ballet choreographic structure with timely entries and exits and varied patterning, to create onto her well trained students. Amidst this current sea of convoluted ideas getting twisted like spaghetti into an inextricable mess on stage, watching a time honoured vision and aesthetics stand the test of time.
Even the normally sedate Meenakshi Chittaranjan seemed fresh and soothing as she stayed within the framework of her guru Subbarya Pillai's style - like a sea of calm amidst the fluster and flurry around us in Chennai.
Is it only Bharatanatyam that is being assaulted by so much nonsense in the name of innovation? Odissi music has become unbearably filmi in Odisha and Kathak has been reduced to one endless mind numbing calculation of 'chakkars'. Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kuchipudi are not trying to change much - and thankfully so. However, I feel that it is Bharatanatyam that is at its confusing worst.
January brought us the much awaited avalanche of Lit Fests. I wait eagerly to leave the dance world and plunge into another universe of ideas and possibilities. Over the past 7 years, these conclaves have become vibrant spaces for all generations. Riveting talks on current affairs, food, music, politics, caste, gender and social issues have made these LIT FESTS across India THE place to be seen and heard.
THE HINDU LIT FEST, in its 9th edition, brought several fresh voices to the platforms. The spaces of the LADY ANDAL SCHOOL were brimming with classrooms being transformed into interactive spaces.
One session that was very moving was a tribute to Tamizh playwright Na Muthuswamy. Reminiscences, memory and anecdotes from his colleagues and students brought to light his radical view of thinking about the actor's body even before they began to speak.
Another excellent session was collage artiste V V Ramani, who once designed beautiful costumes for dancers, in conversation with renowned Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam. In a spontaneous combustion of visuals ranging from NAVARASAS to Ramani's favourite deity Krishna, Aruna watched and instantly broke out into song, bringing the audience to rapturous applause each time. Hymns in Tamizh, Latin, Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali - her voice and rendition on that afternoon showed what an edge she has over other vocalists.
#ARUNA ALL THE WAY
January was most certainly Aruna Sairam's month. Besides being conferred the prestigious Sangeeta Kalanidhi award from the Music Academy, she shone in three interview sessions. One that I mentioned above and two more.
In an intimate setting at Chennai's favourite coffee hub CHAMIERS CAFE, Aruna opened up to Rajika Puri's carefully crafted questions about Aruna's early inspirations for collaborations with dance and European music. Her years of teaching in Germany, her impromptu session with a hair dresser in the basement of a NYC apartment complex (where the super's wife was a part time stylist) and her moment of performing the now iconic KALINGA NARTANAM TILLANA, 30 years after she first learnt it from her guru-mother.
At the HINDU LIT FEST, she followed up her very successful visual arts session with another interesting conversation with Shekar Sen, the chairman of the SANGEET NATAK AKADEMI. Sen who is a musician and actor in the tradition of Sugam Sangeet, spoke of his solo theatre creations on famous male figures, Vivekananda and Kabir and the process of crafting and sharing.
#FITNESS AND FABLES
I returned to my favourite city Kolkata for the fourth year in a row for the AKLF event organized by Oxford Book Store. In its 99th year, this Priti Paul led initiative, brought 400 school kids to attend my FABLE FUN and FITNESS sessions in one exhausting morning. Working with kids was easier than dealing with their angry mothers and teachers who turned up in large numbers at the last moment and insisted on sitting in the sessions in an already overcrowded space!
I lost my voice, but regained a lot of zest while teaching and moving with this large and motley bunch. For the fitness session, I taught old and young the moves of film stars Shammi Kapoor and Helen. Cannot go wrong when every bone and muscle in your body has to SHAKE SHAKE and TWIST TWIST!
Note to self - YES the sessions were a hit and NO... I am not returning unless I am given two able assistants who know what they are doing!
My hoarse voice is still not back to normal after all that shouting!
But O Kolkata… how you charm me!
Can Indian musicians actually embrace theatrical direction? I thought it could not be done until I watched an Indo-French collaboration on the flute between Samuel Bricault (flute) and Rishab Prasanna (bansuri) Attempting to create a dialogue between breath, movement, pulse, sound and emotion, both performers brought their A game to the Alliance Francaise auditorium.
When Bharatanatyam dancer Tanya Saxena completed one of her short performances, she gently rested her back onto Rishab's back while he was still playing. It was both tender and vulnerable, collapsing space and time while humanising both performers and infusing the moment with sensual power.
The French Bricault was brilliant in his solos, standing upright and swaying, bending, twisting - his body as pliant as his notes. There is a natural theatrical flair that he brought to the collaboration that was very effective. As for the talented Tanya Saxena, perhaps a costume rethink towards a more natural silhouette will pull it all together.
Les Flute's Enchantes (The Enchanted Flute) was an interesting collaboration of a European fairy tale reimagined for a new generation of audiences who are interested in the possibilities of classical music. I wish that Tanya's generation of dancers are able to be self reflexive and not fall back onto a kind of classical trap that makes them look unidimensional and merely decorative. However, I was pleased to see Bharatanatyam (a French audience favourite form for decades) situated alongside a European and North Indian musical traditions.
# NAACHIYAR NOW
The process of remounting a group work after 17 years is daunting. Especially when I played the central character for so long and was passing the baton to another artiste - almost 40 years younger! ANDAL has been my shadow companion from my Arangetram in 1964. Over the years, I continued to read her poems and respond in dance. There have been 4 evening length shows based on her life and words and this version was an updated 'avatar' of my successful production - NAACHIYAR- in 2002.
A whole new generation of talented dancers, many of whom were not of Tamizh origin, for whom the language was not familiar but who auditioned eagerly for the project, were put to the task under my guidance. Each had come to me from a different Bharatanatyam guru. Making the nritta and abhinaya appear seamless, choosing adavus that would suit every body type and introducing them to theatrical interventions took all of 2 months. Rehearsal timings, orchestra tantrums, health issues - they were all part of the challenge.
The very act of NOT playing ANDAL - of writing myself out of one role and into another was a big question mark. Was my presence even necessary? I still felt possessive about Her words and Her life. During this past season, there were several dancers, who performed ANDAL's poetry, so why was I wanting to make yet another statement? Why was nobody seeing ANDAL as a broken mirror - brave, passionate and bruised? Not merely coy and blushing!
Premiering the 80 minute work at a small village MANJAKUDI, near Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu, was a blessing. Much like an Off Broadway premiere, this work needs more time to mature and settle. The response from the audience was rapturous but I know what we managed to achieve and how much more we have to journey.
As Cupid flexes his muscles, let us hope to continue the spirit of hope and positivity. This past Republic Day saw a galaxy of female pilots, army officers and soldiers march along Rajpath in New Delhi as an example of STREE SHAKTI. The best gift we can give our 70 year old Republic is to be the kind of citizen that our armed forces feel like fighting for!
As Ramli Ibrahim and many dance troupes trudge to the KUMBH in PRAYAGRAJ, we wish that this mythical confluence of the three sacred rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati flow through all of us and channel our inner rivers to course through negativity, hate, suspicion and blame.
Be prepared for CUPID'S ARROW.
May it hit the mark... in our hearts AND our heads!
So let's dance on the streets, in the bylanes, on terraces and patios. In escalators, galleries, seashores and mountain tops. Let us dance and let us make others jealous of our craft and our art.
- Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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