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January 1, 2013

Another year slips into our lives... just like that... silently... while we are asleep or at a party or at a temple or with friends, slightly drunk and sharing the memories of a year that has gone by all too quickly. In Chennai, where the annual music and dance tempest does not seem to abate, we are seduced into believing that all our favourite singers and dancers are demi-gods or "avatars" of the divine for a moment. With one deft movement the clock shifts and we change the dates on our checks and anticipate our own coming a little sooner.

I should be over the moon and exultant over the stupendous success of EPIC WOMEN- the four day conference/conclave and performance festival that stunned the city and created a stir in the heart of Mylapore. Sandwiched between the historic Kapaleeswar Temple and the famous Rasi silk sari store, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan played host to a path-breaking event that brought contemporary and classical dance, scholars with performers and thinkers and a slew of world premiere performances with an ambitious cocktail of seeing, listening and receiving. It all came together... and beautifully. 60 artistes and participants from across the planet assembled and many more attended just to absorb the astonishing variety of ideas that explored the idea of EPIC in more ways than the expected linear image that most imagine. There were too many wonderful moments and our excellent team of 25 dedicated staff ensured that - through sleepless nights and days –that the best service and attention was given to the myriad demands. Except for two performances – which I cannot accept as curatorial errors – rather the mis-steps of the performers who did not respect the forum that was presented to them – the entire event was a runaway success and the talk of the town. In a city where nearly 3000 performances take place from 6 am to 10 pm (although at the witching hour of 8.30 pm, an exodus occurs from halls where droves leave to catch buses and autos to get home and end the day with curd rice), to have the media support us and the cream of rasikas and brand new audiences making their way to crowded Mylapore was truly rewarding.

I should be revelling in the after-glow of this fantabulous event. But questions linger. WHERE WERE THE CHENNAI DANCERS? They were non-existent. They did not attend any of the sessions – not even the important one that featured the students of Balasaraswati, Rukmini Devi, Indrani Rehman and Chandralekha. What are these dancers doing and what can be that important to miss these rare opportunities? The sad answer lies in the fact that most of them are rehearsing to perform for less than 30 people watching, training students who have paid for performances or rehearsing themselves with overworked musicians who give them practice times that start from 5 am! The dance scene in Chennai is at its nadir- bad dancing, bad aesthetics and mostly mediocrity.

At EPIC WOMEN, I cannot single out any one session or presenter as excellent since there were so many of them. I take this public opportunity to thank all those who attended and shared their knowledge and ideas. EPIC WOMEN was a major step up from last year's MAD AND DIVINE WOMEN and now we look forward to PURUSH - celebrating the global dancing male from December 19 to 22, 2013. But more on that later.

The euphoria of an event well executed, attended and applauded dimmed immediately upon hearing the tragic news of NIRBHAYA, the 23 year old who succumbed to the brutality of a gang rape in New Delhi. On the day of her demise, Vyjayantimala Bali dedicated her performance to the young girl's courage and exhorted the house full audience to remain angry and protest until change occurred. I asked myself - How can dance or any art respond to this kind of savagery that has shaken the world? How can we even SPEAK about 'imagination' and 'ideas' and 'creativity' and 'hope' when as parents we fear as our children leave our homes daily to go forth and live their lives? How can I continue to have hope and want to create and perform in a mood when my country seems at war against its own women? In Tamil homes, the woman of the house is addressed not by her name but by the word "Aiyi- Inga Vaadi." (Hey, you. Come here). I have to recall that famous moment of rupture that Chandralekha faced when, in the midst of a drought in Chennai, she was dancing about lush forests and rain. She paused. That was the start of a singular journey for her in art. What will happen to this cynical world where one life is not valued and that too, a woman's life. What theme can we create about this and what kind of jathi or adavu or padam can we dance to?

As I stand before the glowing image of Vishnu as Parthasarthy in the teeming temple in Triplicane – my annual New Year vision – (except last year it was at sunrise at Angkor Wat), I send a prayer up to HIM as the divine charioteer who exhorted Arjuna and thereby all of us to do our bit in life. As artistes and cultural workers, we must believe that our work has the power to transform and change lives. That music and dance can soften and refine. And that sometimes it is powerless and impotent against sheer malevolent evil.

I also want to send out a New Year thought to our divas and devas. Please do NOT take yourselves so seriously. If you ceased to exist tomorrow, the world will go on. I spent the time between 10. 30pm and 11pm on December 31 with none other than Vyjayantimala herself. Where? At the Madras Club's New Year's Eve Party. At 80 she remains radiant and inspiring. We were both tapping our feet to "Opa Gangnam Style" while watching the dance floor crammed with floppy wrists and circling hands. She was sipping lime juice and I was feasting on hot jalebis and melting lichee ice cream. We were both having a great time away from manifestos of "divine dance" and "classical purity."

Life is short... Life is wonderful... Life is more than any one of us can fathom or grasp. We are not in this world forever and a tidal wave, a hurricane or a pack of wolf-men can end it with a lecherous gaze, an avalanche of violence and an iron rod jammed up our intestines and our dreams. Time to ask Kali and Narasimha to rip the entrails of the true asuras and cleanse our cities and governments with the colour of sindoor.

My profile photo on this newsletter reflects my state of mind at this time. I apologise to those who may feel it is inappropriate for a New Year message. But then I am emotional, wear my heart on my always fashionable sleeve and speak my mind. This also means that I continue to hope that my country, once the Light of the World, rediscovers its humanity towards its women and children and does not flinch from changing its outdated laws and responding quickly to justice.

Speak up. Stand up. Look up. Act up. Sing, dance, create... spread joy and create many more moments of Adbhuta... but never forget that there is a HULK lurking inside many of us and when it is unleashed, no art can stop its poisonous flow.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam

Twitter: @aratnam
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Blog: THE A LIST /


Jan 2, 2013

Dear Anita,
Your question, "How can dance or any art respond to this kind of savagery that has shaken the world?" is highly relevant. I request you to work on it. You will find a way out. Artistes must react. Great revolutions have occurred through literature, plays etc.

Permit me to quote a humble incident.

The Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit had formally announced the commencement of 6 study centres in the name of Aadi Sankara, Sree Narayanagur, Mahatma Gandhi, Aagamaanda Swami, Chattambi Swami & Dr. Ambedkar. Owing to the usual known pressures the project was withdrawn. Various cultural units made very decent protest against this move. In such protests one item was a Mohiniattom, 'Aacharaysmaranam Sharanam'. I wrote the lyrics highlighting the works of the great social workers. Together with Ms. Sudha Peetambaran (Director, Sree Sankara School of Dance, Kalady) I choreographed the same and presented on few stages, as a part of the decent protests. This idea came from Prof. P.V. Peetambaran (Sudha's husband and coordinator of the dance school's activities). Even, the VC of the university commented that Bharta muni has said, Naatya should not be used for such purposes. But, during 2012, after 4 or more years of constant decent protest (you may call it, 'Aesthetic protest'), the University decided to restart all the centres, which are functioning now. We congratulated the University and celebrated the occasion, also by honouring the concerned office bearers.

I do understand that the issue under discussion is not as simple or light as the one I did quote. But, if we believe in the core objective of Natya, "Dukhaarthaanaam shramaarthaanaam... vishraanthi jananamkaale Naatyametat bhavishyathi," great wisdom will show us the right way.

Prof. (Rtd.) C.P. Unnikrishnan

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