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January 2014

Exhale or Inhale?

Do I collapse after what has been an incredible year, a marvellous season and certainly a path-breaking festival OR... Do I freshen up, straighten up and smile up for the year ahead? How do I process the cascade of images and comments, moments and moods that continue to flood my mindscreen? Excellent wine, the most imaginative cocktails and the comforting hug of family cannot divert my memory and muscle from the exciting month that was December!

And I am NOT talking about the MOST TALKED ABOUT CULTURAL EVENT IN INDIA – PURUSH: The Global Dancing Male. I am talking about the month that was December, for me – yours truly. So here goes.

I began December with a visit to my ancestral village Tirukurungudi – for the 15th revival performance of KAISIKA NATAKAM, the annual all night theatre offering to Vishnu / Nambi on the lunar night of Ekadasi. And it was a night to remember! 3000 devotees, dressed in traditional saris and veshtis, the vertical red streak on their foreheads – many Chairmen, and Managing Directors of important corporates from Bombay, Delhi, Jabalpur, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kochi, Kolkata, Jamshedpur and beyond – clustered without complaints, shoulder to shoulder – watching patiently as the 3 hour ritual unfolded before their eyes. The story of the low born Nambaduvan and his steadfast devotion to Nambi never failed to bring tears to all – including yours truly – although I had lived through the 20 year struggle to revive and remount this 15th century narrative from the remnants of a palm leaf manuscript.

The triumph of ritual in daily practice was displayed in the growing attendance and media attention given to this quiet event. Is it the increasing distraction that pervades our lives or the confusion about what is really valuable that drives us to cluster in masses at these places of worship? We see it in the growing throngs at religious shrines, in retro-fundamentalism that masquerades as “true” culture and in the shrill rhetoric of the “purists” during the dance and music festivals. What is “authentic” and what is “valuable”? “Pooh pooh with any experimentation.” “True classicism is true Indian culture.” And so on...

In a city that holds these answers in terms of absolutes, it was a challenge to conceive and curate the five days of PURUSH. Aided through long distance conversations and face to face discussions with co-curator Professor Hari Krishnan of Wesleyan University, I sought to sign off on an incredible three year journey as curator, convenor and artistic director of THREE signature events - MAD AND DIVINE (2011), EPIC WOMEN (2012) and PURUSH (2013).

The mix of short performances, talks, demonstrations, panel discussions that I put in place for the first conference/conclave continued to work this time as well. However, we tweaked the programming and the duration of the sessions to allow for more time for panellists and fewer sessions in the morning. The evening performance slots that began at 5pm drew crowds although some more than others. In all, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in the heart of Mylapore served as a landmark for a quiet cultural explosion. In the heart of Brahmin Madras - where the great masters of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music once lived - comments about sexuality, article 377, boys dressed in skirts, videos of dancers in G- strings performing Ted Shawn/Nataraja movements and speakers articulating, showing or confronting “normative sexuality” created a “DANCE QUAKE” of sorts. This was a seminal moment for Indian dance. Like the 1984 EAST WEST Encounter in Bombay that re-introduced Chandralekha to the world, the 2013 PURUSH seminar has reawakened us to the eternal possibilities of dancing gender, sexuality and performance. What is “normal”? What is “acceptable”? Is hetero-normative behaviour the only “normal”?

The high points for me were too many to list here. But on a quick mental scan, I was thrilled with the continuing artistry of Astad Deboo, the explosive energy of Suresh Kaliyath (Ottanthullal), the nostalgic recording of Vempati Chinna Satyam and Kanaka Durga during Pasumarthi Mrutyumjaya’s Kuchipudi performance, the brilliant cross gender subversion of Hari Krishnan’s UMA and the delicate mastery of Kalakrishna’s Stree Vesham, the seamless coordination of Odisha’s Rudrakshya ensemble, the excitement of the Therukoothu performance at the Nageswara Rao Park , the astonishing physicality of ADISHAKTI’s Vinay Kumar and Nimmy Raphel (THE TENTH HEAD and NIDRAVATVAM); the unspoiled traditional demonstration of Herambanathan and his son Hariharan of the Tanjavur Kitappa Pillai Bharatanatyam technique; a morning of rare film clips of Ram Gopal and other Deva/Divas by Ashish Mohan Khokar who reminded us that Ram Gopal was dance’s first fashionista with a red turban and yellow pants in Mylapore; a beautiful Sunday morning with the music of star duo Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan, a fabulous and honest final day panel where Sooraj Subramaniam, Jay Pather, Hari Krishnan and Ramli Ibrahim spoke honestly about sexuality and finding Bharatanatyam as the mode to begin their own divergent artistic paths – AND to cap off a dream five days – the sheer majesty, masterful spell that 80 year old Birju Maharaj cast on a standing room audience on the final day. His Baithak/Bhav enthralled, engaged and enraptured a hypnotised audience across many generations. AND as icing on the cake, for 45 of us who continued to remain in his magic circle into the wee hours of the next morning, Maharaj-ji continued his story telling and humorous anecdotes at my residence over a simple dinner of curd rice and pickle! His hilarious episodes of asking for flour/flower in frozen Moscow for the tabla and getting maida/ all purpose flour instead and his imitation of how the tabla lost tune in the middle of the performance with bits of dried flour flying into the musician’s mouth had us all rolling in laughter. As Leela Venkataraman observed, “I wish the young dancers who were fortunate to be present realise what a gift this moment has been!” It was a rare and precious evening, one that reminded me of the true great masters. Maharaj-ji, an eternal child, ever curious and always seeking. A lesson to the young ones!

During PURUSH, writer Malini Nair observed astutely that female dancers are choosing stronger role models while the male Bharatanatyam dancers are becoming more effeminate! Perhaps she was referring to the evening of dance by Chennai’s star male soloist A. Lakshmanswamy. His penchant for nayika bhava has garnered him critics and fans. Scholar and cultural commentator Rustom Bharucha made pertinent and very succinct comments in his summing up. Taking each word - GLOBAL, DANCING and MALE, he made brilliant observations as well as commending the final day’s panel for being honest, nuanced and non evasive about important areas of caste and sexuality.

As the young newspaper boy would cry out as he rang his bell through the streets of cities – READ ALL ABOUT IT! READ ALL ABOUT IT! The copious reviews, blogs and comments that flood our site this month will take you all of January to read and perhaps fully absorb the amazing diversity and sweep of PURUSH. I am still stunned by the immense success of this cultural event.

What PURUSH achieved – as did the other two previous conference/festivals – was to bring a level of professionalism to dance events, a range of thoughts and ideas to performance practices, and an interdisciplinary template to audiences accustomed to watching a “mono chromatic sameness” in classical dance performance during the Marghazhi season. As dancer scholar Chitra Sundaram (who attended all three events) generously commented on an e-mail to a British dance colleague, “Anita’s conference/festivals bring internationality, provocative programming, interdisciplinary curation and a nuanced diversity not seen in many cultural events today.”

No success that pours in my direction can be complete without my acknowledging the support and imagination of REX, the absolutely brilliant scenographer and set designer for all THREE EVENTS, the technical team led by Victor Paulraj, the academic insights of Dr. Ketu Katrak (Mad and Divine & Epic Women) and Hari Krishnan (Purush), Lalitha Venkat and Raksha Patel (my two über efficient Lieutenants), the quiet Sumathi and Sandeep Varma who continue to marshal our online presence, Mohan and his efficient hospitality team, the alert back stage group led by Charles who ensured smooth changeovers between sessions, Team Evam who manned the Front of House, the PR team led by Akhila of Aalaap, senior critics like Leela Venkataraman, Sunil Kothari, Manjari Sinha and enfant terrible Veejay Sai who attended, watched, commented, tweeted, facebooked and lauded each effort. More than 40 people worked silently behind the scenes to ensure the festival’s success. And, of course, the unstinting support of Kartik Fine Arts Chairman L. Sabaretnam and secretary Sekar, who stood by my mad vision and expanding budgets. Without this dedicated and visionary teamwork, none of these accolades would have been possible.

It is here that I MUST mark a very important anniversary that occurred. It was in the year 1995 when I conceived and curated my first international event PURUSH-Dancer, Actor, Hero. It was also the year when I met Hari Krishnan (a shy dancer in Toronto, recently relocated to Canada via Singapore), Sandhya Raman (whose first costume I still have but never wore - ever), Lalitha Venkat (a Fine Arts graduate who was and still is all business efficiency with a penchant for travelling), Victor Paulraj (a reticent trainee under the late director Mithran Devanesan), Rex (the charismatic visionary who takes over a space and magically transforms it every time). It all happened in the year 1995, and PURUSH 2013 marked our collaboration turned friendship of 18 years... EIGHTEEN YEARS and counting. Here’s to each and every one of you... Thank you and let’s keep the magic going.

Of course, there were curatorial mistakes. There are these blips that occur every year and this is not the place to comment on them. The audience got it when highly visible dancers flopped badly with simplistic choreography and bad dancing. When muscled men became circus performers… when overweight men – who looked like footballers caught in the spotlight – jiggled their man-boobs to a houseful audience who did not know whether to giggle or moan. Thankfully, these moments were brief and soon forgotten when masters eclipsed them with their command and charisma.

Some trends emerged during PURUSH. The rise and rise of social media and online discussions. The never ending SELFIES taken during the conference and barrage of tweets that clogged our handhelds, the incessant online chatter by the youth brigade and the general smugness of the global male dancer was so evident. Anuj Mishra, Parshwanath Upadhye and Pavitra Bhat are three in demand male artistes whose style and presentation techniques have developed a gloss over content. It is their circus-athleticism that has made them global stars. The Chennai audiences were measured in their response and received the quieter and more innocent showings of Sinam Basu and other lesser known artistes with warmth.

Elsewhere in the city, it was clear that so many NRI dancers are willing to make the long journey here to dance in sub human conditions. It takes a mammoth effort to transform each of these sabha spaces into professional performance possibilities (ask Rex and Victor what their travails were in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Krishna Gana Sabha!). Why do the dancers continue to suffer so? What is so important about having a performance opportunity, paying for the chance, dancing to an audience of less than 50 and returning to their homes overseas to gloat over their achievements? Is it a notion of returning to THE SOURCE? A coming home to AUTHENCITY? Do they not recognise that each of these imagined ideas are all reinvented in the first place? I know that I ask these questions in a market oriented dance economy where the dancers outnumber the available platforms.

The answers are not clear but one thing is. PURUSH drew a totally different crowd of people than the Natya Kala Conference. Local city dancers were largely absent from the PURUSH sessions and even the students of the ten senior Bharatanatyam gurus who were honoured failed to turn up on Day Two of the conference. When Janardhanan and Balagopal, two of Kalakshetra stalwarts were being felicitated, I expected some of the Kalakshetra students to be present. I expected too much it seemed! What was even more shocking was that none of the senior gurus attended the final day when Birju Maharaj was honoured and performed. We know that December is a manic month in my city but failing to honour the Lifetime Awardee with even a mandatory attendance raised many eyebrows!

So, I ask this question again. What is up with Chennai dancers? Are they so busy or so happy with their mediocrity to even recognise a colleague or a senior from whom they can perhaps imbibe or learn? Their absence was noted and negatively remarked by many visiting dancers and scholars. A serious flaw in the entire system of dance training, teaching and grooming. Their lack of interest in anything except ITEMS and JATHIS to be copied or imitated is irritating. It is plain rude. For the past three years, each of the conferences MAD AND DIVINE, EPIC WOMEN and PURUSH drew international acclaim with many remarking that the events were among the best seen anywhere in the world. Already other cities are asking for this template with NCPA Bombay staging STARK RAVING MAD four months after MAD AND DIVINE in 2012. So where were the Chennai dancers??? If you know the answer, please share it with me!

As for the media, they are coming under increasing criticism. Taking a huge leaf from the Margazhi month mayhem, each paper is filled with images of singers and dancers placed amidst hotel celebrations, fashion shows and jewellery ads. Cinema openings and other commercial notices fill the pages and coverage for performances has noticeably decreased. This leaves us with the veritable Mahavishnu of Mount Road –THE HINDU – who has taken their responsibility towards the arts very seriously for more than 75 years. But even they are reeling with decreasing interest in the arts pages and allegations of giving too much publicity to some artistes like Carnatic singer TM Krishna who is now holding forth on anything from cinema, cricket, music and politics. Dance critic Vidya Saranyan continues to confuse us all with adulation of the most mediocre shows. When I find a particular performance she praises surprising, is it because I am out of touch with public taste or could it be that mediocrity reigns in Chennai or that the audience just wants a dumbed down version of a temple visit? I realise that being critical of the media who have been very fair and kind to dancers like me can be construed as being ungrateful. However, not having an objective voice does huge disservice to the arts. As N. Ram of THE HINDU told me years ago, “Indians have no critical faculty. We are too used to a feudal mentality.”

As I handed over the role of convenor of the Natya Darshan conference to Malavika Sarukkai, this diva was measured in her comments and response to her new role as organiser. She is also aware of some dancers turned convenors who only invite –in a quid pro quo gesture - all the organisers and presenters who invited them in the past. Malavika’s performance of the season drew a full house with the presence of so many young male dancers who have held her as a role model for over 25 years. She was in full flow during her performance and is well aware of her responsibilities as convenor and ambassador for Bharatanatyam – a form, and life partner she dearly cherishes.

Over the past 6 months, there has been a growing murmur among alumni of Kalakshetra to link hands through the miracle of cyberspace. In fact, it is surprising that such an august institution does not have an Alumni Association already in place. With students and stellar performers occupying important positions across all five continents, and a style that has become the visual trademark of ensemble Bharatanatyam, former students of Rukmini Devi’s institution are gathering to form an association that will look into scholarships for poor students, medical and other health care issues for ailing elders who taught at Kalakshetra, mentoring of dancers and the institution of a long awaited RUKMINI DEVI CHAIR FOR CULTURAL STUDIES. Athai was a visionary, whose imagination ran far beyond a mere dance academy, which is what Kalakshetra has now become. With her keen insights into philosophy, organic farming, painting, theatre, western music, dance and textiles, past students would like to form this association to pool resources, energies and revive some of the founder’s dreams.

To all alumni across the world who studied at the Kalakshetra College of Fine Arts, now renamed as the Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, please send in your contact details, year of being in Kalakshetra, and the stream you studied to

I ended my month with a return to my sole performance of the season. NEELAM was my personal meditation to my roots and to all the songs and traditions I had grown up with. With updated choreography, new and edgy costumes by Sandhya Raman and a brilliant stage design by Rex that was uncluttered and deceptively simple, the wash of blue and the stillness in the entire auditorium was palpable. One of the greatest joys for a dancer is when the audience waits for the end to applaud. No unnecessary interruptions, no restless comings and goings and a rapt audience made for a beautiful evening. NEELAM was my way of giving thanks for an incredible year that has seen me visit four continents and expand my own horizons as dancer, teacher, speaker, presenter and friend.
Here’s wishing all of you the very best in 2014. Remain open to change, be ready to flow with the energies of dance and always, always be prepared for the unexpected. Improvise... the best among us know how to do just that.

Until we meet again. I can now EXHALE.

In gratitude to Dance and Life,

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Colombo/ Bangalore/ Mumbai

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

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