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February 2023

I use Dance to give expression to my inner vision
It is not mere exercise nor as escape to get away
From the harsh realities of life.
Its significance goes much deeper.
The physical exercise and the mental discipline
Are means to realising the highest experience given to man
This is the real meaning of dance.

- Sri Lankan cultural icon GURU CHITRASENA

Anita Ratnam

And we quietly slip into the year of the Rabbit.

After much tumult, I welcome the leaping out of the year of the Tiger as the Rabbit hops its way in! The Tiger definitely roared, pounced, clawed (and occasionally purred) its way through 2022. After the last several months of daring adventures, we are more than ready for the kind hearted rabbit to get going.

Lakshmi Viswanathan
Lakshmi Viswanathan

I begin by saluting a true icon and a bonafide ORIGINAL in the global world of dance - Lakshmi Viswanathan. Her sudden passing on January 19, in the early hours of the morning in her Chennai home, left the global Bharatanatyam community in shock. For more than 2 years, Lakshmi bravely battled the dreaded C disease and emerged smiling with her wicked sense of humour intact. Frail and silver haired, I would see her often at the Madras Club (her second home) with her walking shoes on the track or enjoying a drink with her friends. For her generation of women, Lakshmi was perhaps the only person I know who could cut anyone to ribbons with her sarcastic wit, smile intact! She was incandescent on stage and the life of any party - across generations. Besotted with her beloved Lord Siva, and especially with the Kapaliswar temple in Mylapore, and the Brihadiswara shrine in Tanjavur, Lakshmi was a perfect example of a woman who lived life on her own terms. Ask her about the intricacies of cricket or the comparative merits of red wine; the hidden gems of Bali or the best of Chopin- Lakshmi would converse with knowledge and aplomb.

Her writings, speeches, performances, research, musical abilities and collection of silk sarees made her a true aesthete. I wrote a few months earlier about how wonderful it was to see her back on stage at Kalakshetra. The audience broke into a spontaneous applause when the lights illuminated her. Much has been written about her Abhinaya but not as much about how supportive she was to many young dancers. I remember when I first returned from the USA in 1990, unsure about how and where to begin my tentative steps back in the world of dance, having been away for 15 years. It was Lakshmi who convinced me to return to the stage for an IDA (International Dance Alliance) show in Bangalore in January 1990. Out of shape and short of breath, I danced the Hindolam Tillana composed by my gurus Madurai N Krishnan and choreographed by Adyar K Lakshman. She was always kind to my daughter Arya who pursued different dreams as compared to young girls of her generation and never left a room without illuminating it with her presence.

I remember the expert comments she made at the PURUSH conference in 2013 when a galaxy of male gurus were honoured. For each person Lakshmi had a special memory and a particular quality of greatness that she highlighted. Her final stage appearance was on January 15 to honour the memory of her friend Usha Subramaniam who passed away due to COVID in New York. Lakshmi's speech was tender, sparkling and peppered with a range of anecdotes that made the late Usha come alive to the audience of 1000.

Throughout December 2022, she was like a meteor. Blazing through keynote speeches, performances, panel discussions, performances and even mentoring two young dancers in the famous Husseini Swarajathi. And, like a meteor, she whooshed out, leaving behind a whiff of her special fragrance. It was Pradosham, the special day for Lord Siva - perhaps a timely and blessed passing for one so full of life.

Her family mounted a graceful tribute that brought back memories of Lakshmi's life, her various collaborations and clips of her performances.

Lakshmi Viswanathan - DANCE will miss your presence, intelligence, charisma and inimitable wit. You truly were one of a kind!

Guru Kalyanasundaram
Guru Kalyanasundaram

When the annual PADMA AWARDS were announced a week after Lakshmi's passing, I wished that she was among the names (even posthumously). There was nobody more deserving of the national honour than she. I also wished the award for KJ SARASA but it was not to be.

The sole dance honour this time was for veteran guru K Kalyanasundaram who both Tamilnadu and Maharashtra have claimed as the son of their soil. The youngest of three brothers in the Tanjavur / Thiruvidaimarudur dance tradition, the sprightly 92 year old has ensured the lasting legacy of the Raja Rajeswari School of Bharatanatyam in Mumbai. Innovative, imaginative and bold, the numerous pieces added to the classical dance repertoire from his baton is impressive. Social media was flooded with congratulatory messages from students across the world. His son Harikrishna Kalyanasundaram said that 6 women from this unique family of hereditary performers are superb dancers. However, all of them have chosen other professional pathways (and excelling in them) rather than focus on dance. We last saw one of the young women Sruthi in Chennai who is a full blown professional in a totally unrelated field of expertise.

Tamilnadu float on Republic Day
Tamilnadu float on Republic Day

The official float from my home state that travelled across the majestic avenue in New Delhi was adorned by statues of women from the arts and society. Hereditary performers MS Subbulakshmi, Balasaraswati were placed alongside Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy and Muvalur Ramamrutam. Even though all four women shared a common heritage, their official stances and actions were polar opposites. MS and Balamma continued to blaze their own paths and Dr Reddy and Ramamrutam fought passionately for the abolition of the practice of dedication of dancers. It was ironic and powerful that they were arranged in the same tableau - history compressed in one combined image. Leading the float was the iconic medieval Tamil poet and savant Avvaiyar, whose wisdom and knowledge gave her the secret key to the inner circle of kings and noblemen.

To place these two moments, the Padma award for guru Kalyanasundaram and then the Tamilnadu float on Republic Day along with last year's Padma award to another hereditary guru Viralimalai Muthukannammal and you have a pattern that seems to be emerging. Perhaps inadvertently but it is certainly interesting to note. Has the Tamilnadu government, with its current folk dance extravaganza across the state, made a conscious decision to remember and recognise eminence in a field that their own ancestors inhabited? To shine the spotlight on rural artistes and thereby force our lazy urban eyes to look at the diversity amongst us? Granted, Guru Kalyanasundaram is a Maharashtra candidate but the coincidences are too prominent to ignore.

With the increasing interest in dance history and the many layers of Bharatanatyam's own interwoven story, it is high time that we urban viewers and practitioners put aside our dearly held sense of aesthetics and opinions to welcome the many 'avatars' of this form. 20 years ago, Lakshmi Viswanathan said in one of her speeches that "Bharatanatyam is like a powerful Hydra - with more than 1000 heads. Which is more beautiful than the other is up to the Rasika".

Dancer/scholar Swarnamalya Ganesh put it beautifully. "Everyone is eager to consume the life, art and history of the hereditary dancer. The "stage" version of the hereditary dance is what today's dancer is ready to consume. The simple, complete, austere dance that will not garb itself in warped intellectual heft often leaves the expectant dance world disappointed. This is the PROBLEM. But it is OUR problem... Our privilege prevents us the eye and the mind to nurture difference and reject sensationalism. As a collective, this new generation of dancers from hereditary communities breathe freshness and we must drum roll their entry for a seat at the table."

Mangatayaru, Yashoda Thakore, Muthukannammal
Mangatayaru, Yashoda Thakore, Muthukannammal

If anyone wanted physical evidence of the fascination with traditional performers and their individual stories, the packed audience in Chennai for the "meet and conversation" between Andhra and Tamilnadu hereditary dancers was proof enough. Produced by SNS ARTS CONSULTANCY with support from Malavika Sarukkai's KALAVAAHINI TRUST, the session tilted UNSPOKEN REALITIES brought together Annabatula Lakshmi Mangatayaru and Viralimalai Muthukannammal on a stage to speak to the audience and to converse between themselves.

Beautifully and generously moderated by Yashoda Thakore (a hereditary artiste herself), the conversation was certainly a "first" for the millennials as well as for my generation of dancers who were focused more on performance in our early years with aspects like theory and dance history entering our creative space many years later.

There were similarities and many differences in the session. The two hour event was filled with numerous take aways. The more apparent being that both women inhabited very different geographical and aural settings -The Kalavanthulu / Telugu tradition and the Tamil/Devadasi world. Both were gracious, confident and articulate in their own languages. Translation took up a lot of time but nothing could detract from the importance of the event.

To learn more, please read the special article by Aniruddha Knight on this event.

While THE HINDU continues to be the sole daily that covers the Chennai season, it is severely limited by the reduction of pages and the space allotted to reviews. As dancers wait impatiently and writers remain anxious about their reviews, inside news is that the editorial board has asked writers to give ONLY POSITIVE REVIEWS for senior dancers and musicians. Seems that when even a single word of criticism appears against Carnatic musicians, their fan groups fly into a rage. Dancers have their fond "others" to lodge complaints if they choose to. Add to that the identity politics around "dominant caste" and "marginalised caste" and you are served a pastiche of ideas that is more akin to a report rather than a review. No wonder many prefer a well-placed preview to a sanitised review!

I ask the question. Who is writing? Who is dancing? Who is watching?
For most of the Chennai season, it was dancers performing for dancers. There has been little reflective writing and the dance conferences also focused more on performance rather than academic papers. That is why quieter initiatives that are taking place beyond the purview of the main stages and national dailies become important. It is in the bylanes of India's dance cities that many gems are being unearthed. Like the FOUND IN TRANSLATION project that is taking shape in Bengaluru between two performers. Writing, creating, questioning, analysing - these process driven collaborations become the strong pegs upon which the frame of any work is built on.

A prominent article about the changing aesthetics of Bharatanatyam by writer Gayathri Iyer of THE HINDU featured a photograph of Rukmini Vijaykumar in a dramatic full split set against the black and white images of stalwarts like Sudharani Raghupathy, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Padma Subrahmanyam. The article spoke about the changes that had "arrived", where a leaping Parshwanath Upadhye was also featured. If a full split in Bharatanatyam costume is considered "welcome" for Bharatanatyam, then why not include aerial spirals, Kathak like chakkars, toe tapping Kuchipudi footwork and the choreography of the current global hit NAATU NAATU danced in traditional costume? Just add a couple of mudras here and there. If anything and everything can be considered "an open season" for Bharatanatyam, then where is Bharatanatyam headed? No wonder the quiet and stark quality of traditional Bharatanatyam is staging a comeback.

In the writer's own words, "In an era when cell phones become obsolete in a few months, how do we expect a dance form that is centuries old to remain monolithic?" Gurus, teachers and dancers - please remember this and get to it! Jatiswaram in Jeans and sneakers? Hell Yeah!

68-85-45+ 12
Rukmini Vijayakumar (Photo credit: Christopher Duggan)

This is not a critique of the enormously popular Rukmini Vijayakumar (who has an eye popping number of social media followers and who is filling theatres wherever she performs) or Parshwanath. Both are enormously popular dancers. Rather, I am questioning the writer's analysis of the present Bharatanatyam field. To herald these mostly kinetic shifts as "necessary and inevitable changes" does enormous disservice to the seniors and current teachers and performers who do not subscribe to that kind of spinning, leaping body dynamics. So much BLURRING and MIXING makes the original tenets of the form indistinguishable.

There is BALLET and there is CONTEMPORARY BALLET and programme notes state it as such. How can EVERYTHING be included in Bharatanatyam just because the costume and the music adheres to the form? Such articles only confuse today's young dancer more because it deepens the insecurity of those who do not subscribe or cannot apply these extreme physical maneuvers to their own bodies.

68-85-45+ 12

In the thick of the season came the presentation of theatre tornado Prasanna Ramaswamy. A lover of Tamil literature, Carnatic music and a national award winning director, Prasanna weaves eloquent and powerful narratives about displacement and the marginalised into compelling stage performances. Her latest with the difficult to remember title 68-85-45+ 12 lacks deep dives into historical incidents about caste atrocities in South India. The searing 100 minute play in Tamil with a sprinkling of English, re-stages the uncomfortable incidents of burnt bodies, manual scavenging, folk stories highlighting caste tensions in temple traditions, the disappearance of land allotted to Dalits during Independence and the remarkable legacy of Dr. Bhim Ambedkar.

Set against the chilling montage of two women sipping wine and indulging in "drawing room politics", this play has set minds and fingers in Tamilnadu aflame. Watched by senior writers and activists, Prasanna's play has been heralded as a MUST WATCH by all to understand the curse of caste distinctions still afflicting Tamilnadu. Using movement, dance, music, choreography and scripts drawn from multiple writers (including Prasanna herself) this single play settles all superfluous arguments about "what does caste have to do with it?" conversations.

My own opening prologue was the casteist retelling of the KAISIKA NATAKAM tale from the 15th century about a humble devotee of Nambi/Vishnu setting an example for an dominant caste person cursed into a demon form for mispronouncing a single mantra.


January ended with my own solo performance for a tribute to Guru KJ SARASA. Feisty, generous, gutsy and bold, her students are a testament to her incredible skills as a guru and a teacher. Her student Shanmuga Sundar has faithfully mounted this annual celebration in her honour.

Revisiting sections of my 2016 performance NEELAM, I was able to find more moments of quietude and silence in the already meditative sound track created by Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan This has been a good way to start the year and rediscover my early forays into NEO BHARATAM and the braiding of the many strands of my interest. It was also an opportunity for me to include some of the adavu interventions that Sudharani Raghupathy taught me from the Kittappa Pillai style 30 years ago.

Shri Shivani
Shri Shivani

Preceding my own performance was V SHRI SHIVANI, grand niece of Guru KJ SARASA. This lovely young artist is yet another addition to the current crop of hereditary performers. Students of the Balasaraswati School of Bharatanatyam also delivered a sparkling performance to a well attended and appreciative audience.

This is the month of SIVARATRI. Numerous temples in Tamilnadu will host all night dance festivals with younger dancers across India and even from overseas making their way here to travel the circuit. Sometimes performing in 4 venues in a single day! These performances are openly considered "offerings". While I have no issue with this, I resent the same sentiment being followed by the city sabhas and other presenters in India who expect dancers to perform as an "offering" of their "sacred art!"

In concluding, I must say that no matter what the problems of the current scenario of dance in India and elsewhere, the recently concluded Chennai season has proven that there are more and more dancers who are NOT defined by their presence or absence in the programming roster. The opportunities and venues far beyond the ill equipped sabhas have opened up across the world and many are seizing these chances. Today's generation are smart, tech savvy, articulate, politically aware and unbowed by seniority or experience. They are ready to call out any hypocrisy and refuse to be shut out or shut down. There is energy and enthusiasm in this group and I wish to cheer them on - even if many are not my fans. My years as a journalist in New York has trained me to step away and look at opinions and comments with a fairly objective view. I am constantly evolving (to borrow a phrase from Serena Williams) and an occasional stumble is part of that journey.

So.. let's move into Spring with joy in our hearts.
Let the soft and tender Rabbit guide us in its path..
A hop, skip or a jump is what we need to be ready to do
In our minds, hearts and bodies.

Until next time,

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Mumbai / New Delhi / Bengaluru / Puducherry

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

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