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January 1, 2018

As we draw our loved ones closer
As we remember the dreams that poured into our pillows
As the sunlight peeks through the moonbeams
And the sand clings to tears
May the hopes of our ancestors and teachers light our lives…

Happy 2018!

As the sun gently rises beyond the vast Indian Ocean, thousands of New Year revellers mark this special day in a multitude of ways.
For dancers it is but another day. Perhaps one to pause and catch our breath before we hurtle into the next gig or the next rehearsal/recording/photo shoot.
Hopefully, our social media fingers are exhausted after a nonstop year of uploading images of our lives from first waking breath to the last smile, snore or laughter.
Maybe we can rest them - for 10 minutes.

My thoughts this month will focus almost exclusively on the Chennai Culture Season that threw up many new and not so new moments.


Carnatic musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Music witnessed historic audiences, with the Music Academy opening its ticket sales at 2.30am on certain days. Serving free cups of steaming coffee, rasikas waiting patiently in serpentine queues to buy tickets. The lucky ones were able to get in while many had to be content to watch the “kutcheri” via LCD streaming in the smaller hall next door!

It was much the same for the early morning religious discourse. Elders, heads wrapped in mufflers against the morning dew, would pack any hall that held these sermons on a variety of topics related to the poet saint Andal, the avatars of Lord Vishnu, philosophies of marriage, child rearing, work and old age!
In fact, there was a crowd for everything else in Margazhi except for dance!


IF one has to encapsulate the dreadful state of Bharatanatyam in Tamilnadu, one had to just attend the various performances at the newly rebuilt RR SABHA in the heart of Mylapore. Crores of rupees spent in designing the worst possible space for dance has to be seen to be believed! The green room will not fit an ant. The stage for the upper floor small hall has an unsightly ramp that is an eye sore and blocks a clear view of the dancer.

Add to that, the programming that included traditional padams like ADUVUM SOLLUVAL segueing into the Tamil film song ADUTHAATHU AMBUJAM in full Bharatanatyam costume and orchestra was emblematic of the situation. Young dancers, well trained under esteemed gurus, have settled for populist methods to attract audiences and applause. Visiting NRI dancers are getting from bad to worse. From Botswana to Fiji, from Reunion Islands to Johor Bahru, young men and women are flocking to Chennai - paying fly by night Sabhas for dance slots that start at 10am in the morning!

Odissi dancers performed to recordings of Malayalam singer KJ Yesudas while gyrating hips instead of showing a tribhangi. In Odisha, the corrupt racket of gurus fleecing students for arangetrams a la Chennai has begun! A really shameful practice that has no signs of abating.


Srinidhi Chidambaram with her husband Karthi P Chidambaram

Audiences for dance overall was poor this season but not for the NATYA KALA CONFERENCE.
Srinidhi Chidambaram has pulled off one of the most amazing 5 day events imaginable! Last year, when her name was announced as the convenor, I had my doubts about her organizing capacities. But did she prove me wrong! And delightfully so! With skill and tact, she handled the diverse panels, made consistent interventions throughout the year with all the speakers, convinced many to broaden their chosen subject, was tactful with time keeping and updated the sessions through technology and social media promptly.
House full crowds overflowed the Krishna Gana Sabha Mambalam location on all five days, with many staying on for all the sessions that ended on time at 1pm.

Branch out sessions of Abhinaya and Coffee Conversations added to the flavour of this year's topic SRINGARAM. Yes, there were some of the usual let downs. Speakers chose to use it as a performance opportunity, some were frankly a dead bore and others meandered. One speaker sweepingly declared that there is little or no MANODHARMA in dance today, making many in the audience bristle with anger.
In fact, most of the popular Bharatanatyam divas have rehearsed their routines down to the last drum flourish. They have absolutely NO MANODHARMA, no spontaneity and no improvisational skills due to this method.

The entire conference had a sparkle that all dancers felt and each day's session was discussed and dissected passionately on Facebook. Asked to continue as Convenor for a third year, Srinidhi admits that she has to think deeper and match the bar she has set for herself. With the Secretary of Krishna Gana Sabha, Y Prabhu very indisposed, this is the wisest decision made by the committee. Now, we can look forward to another December season where the conferences are better attended than the performances.

Here, I must add that I was so impressed with Srinidhi's Bharatanatyam performance, especially the execution and imagination of the Ananda Bhairavi varnam. Her negotiation between the Vazhuvoor style of her guru Swamimalai Rajararatnam and her love of Vaishnava poetry was intelligently woven.


Vyjayantimala as Andal

Sitting next to me was the queen herself, 84 year old Vyjayantimala who stunned a 700 strong standing room only audience with her performance of 30 ANDAL Thiruppavai Pasurams.

Each time she sat down in a full “Mandi” and got up, people clapped. Each time she reclined as Ranganatha, they clapped. When she stood in the arch at the final moment of “merging” with the Lord, people wept. It was a typical Chennai Margazhi moment and Vyjayantimala was the Empress of the season!


Krithika Subrahmanian

The other convenor, Krithika Subrahmanian, a successful architect, did not have the same success with her NATYA DARSHAN event. To begin with, the location of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan does not lend itself to any kind of discussion in the foyer or the grounds. Also, Krithika's corporate demeanour did not filter down to her team. With every good intention, she insisted on charging money for the morning sessions which FREEBIE loving dancers and students hesitated to pay!

Not even 300 rupees???
What were they waiting for?
A free Pressure Cooker?

Krithika received criticism for her decision but I applaud her for sticking to her guns. If only the sessions themselves were handled better with time keeping maintained. Audiences became restless and the final memory was that of a poorly managed event, one that hard working Krithika and her able team certainly did not wish to create.

Backstage at the Bhavan was sheer chaos. Furniture everywhere and little room to move or maneuver. Krithika also curated the evening programming that was very uneven in choice and quality. The worst aberration of them all was the highly FILMI Rukmini Vijayakumar, who stunned the audience with her atrocious dancing. Watching a film romance scene of splashing water and running around trees, sticking her tongue out as a “young girl” playing with her boyfriend - it was one cliché after the other and that too after a pompous introduction about how jathis were interfering in the narrative flow of the poetry! I am not a purist in any sense of the word, but why do these lazy and self obsessed dancers think that they can take a traditional varnam or a Padam and insert their own ludicrous imaginings into it?

Two dance critics seated next to me used the word “troubling” when discussing her performance. I would say use much stronger words but arts editors have instructed their critics “not to hurt anybody's feelings!” So younger dancers will now take tennis and badminton racquets and play sports on stage- running helter skelter chasing balls or boys!

Attakkalari, Samudra, Divya Vahana, Agathi - all hyped shows with high profile companies. Each of them disappointed on many fronts. Promising much and delivering safe and cozy packages. Of course, some dancers shone above others but I am noticing a certain “show off” tendency among the younger set. Impatient to make a mark and grab attention, even the good artistes are over smiling, over dancing and over choreographing!

Shining above all this hyper melodrama was Sanjukta Wagh's JHEENI, a musical performance with the spirit and tone of poet Kabir as its spine. Wagh is becoming a dancer to watch. I have written about her before and am glad to see her maturing very quickly.

The afternoon breakout sessions of the NATYA DARSHAN involved 6 dance groups being mentored by yours truly and paired with creative artistes from other disciplines. Titled REVIVE, emerging dancers were paired with a writer, film maker, advertising guru and theatre director. Dance groups were from various genres and were given English poems to respond to. This too, was not wholly satisfactory for me. The groups could not find the time for proper mentoring and the entire exercise proved somewhat pointless since most struggled to cope with the spontaneity and imagination that was demanded. Eventually, dancers just danced - not going out of their comfort zone. Which proved that dancers need theatre training to learn the democratic art of discussion and listening. And that ideas that seem like fun and ahead of the curve, actually need more time on the ground to percolate and take root.

PECHA KUCHA, a Japanese form of condensed storytelling and picture presentations was a bold effort but also very unevenly executed.
Technical difficulties abounded with too many groups packed together needing more tech time. Organizers must realize the practical challenges of hanging, focusing and having tech rehearsals. One needs at least 30 to 45 minutes between shows to change and adjust to the next performance. Solo classical dance has not needed nuanced lighting and common sense dictates that ensemble with tech requirements cannot be programmed back to back.

Still, the NATYA DARSHAN conference was a bold effort with the title NOW OR NEVER as its tag line. Many interesting discussions were had outside the sessions. The JATHI conclave and photo exhibition at ART HOUZ were better appreciated than most events inside the Bhavan. Krithika Subrahmanian has interesting ideas and the energy to dream them. It is up to dancers to also rise and match her vision. I hope she continues to be a presenter and a dance patron. We need her presence more than ever in this parched landscape.


Wayne McGregor

British Council fell flat on their faces with the recent underwhelming dance tour of UK artiste Wayne McGregor. Having discussed the opportunity of celebrating 70th anniversary of the UK INDIA partnership (read India's Independence), the tax payers of Britain should know that the high profile expensive dance star of their country flopped on his India tour. What a wasted opportunity not to send the exciting young and successful British South Asian artistes on a double or triple billed tour. Vidya Patel and Connor Scott charmed Goan audiences at the SERENDIPITY Festival mid December. The festival is growing and is so spread out that audiences are missing out on some interesting events. Prateeksha Kashi got a glowing response to her work and Aranyani Bhargav also impressed with her stage presence.

Mark Morris

As ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov visited Nrityagram and almost made dancer Madhu Nataraj swoon in delight, American modern dancer Mark Morris is chief guest at the Music Academy January dance festival. Now, before you all raise your eyebrows and wonder what the “bad boy” of American modern dance is doing speaking at a classical festival, please note that Morris has loved Carnatic music for many years and shot to fame with his long solo set to the voice of MS Subbalakshmi's Tyagaraja Kriti O RANGASAYEE.
Now, watching the video, you can decide if you like a much younger and slimmer Mark gyrating in a “Komanam - adult diaper” to a Bhakti soaked Kriti to Lord Vishnu Ranganatha at Srirangam. Some are aghast at the 1984 performance but the fact that he is presiding over the annual dance festival is more to felicitate his good friend of many years, dancer Lakshmi Viswanathan who is being conferred with the NATYA KALANIDHI honour.

Still, I bristle at the ongoing GORA fetish!


Vasudevan Iyengar

Navia Natarajan

Aniruddha Knight
Informal spaces like rooftops, terraces and small salons attracted small but more engaged audiences.
Serious critics attended and wrote reviews thereby demolishing the notion that only formal Sabha or auditorium performances can get commented upon.

Aniruddha Knight, Navia Natarajan, Jyotsna Jagannathan, Swarnamalya Ganesh, Vidhya Subramanian and Dakshina Vaidyanathan - all with unique aesthetics made their mark. Vasudevan Iyengar, dancer and musician, made a great impact with his singing for several visiting Delhi dancers. Now Chennai wants his talent to help embellish their shows!

Alarmel Valli returned to dance after the passing of her mother. I sensed a deep loss within her. All through the varnam, she seemed to be channelling her mother's spirit and only came into her own in the Sangam poem she chose to elaborate. It is good to see Valli back where she belongs.

The morning dance lec dems at the Music Academy mini hall were jam packed. Hema Malini Arni, a senior student of T Balasaraswati, charmed the attendees with her quiet knowledge and nuanced abhinaya.

Visiting young gurus and dancers are getting fed up with not having the space and the time to have their voices heard. Elders of the NRI community like Hema Rajagopalan and Rathna Kumar continue to be invited year and after year while the next generation teachers listen with impatience. Both Hema and Rathna are dignified and successful artistes and my friends. I am sure that they too realise that it is time to move on with the choice of panelists.


Sharmila Biswas

Anita Ratnam

Geeta Chandran
The genesis of the triple bill that was conceived over a phone call in June 2017 has completed two successful showings in Chennai and Pondicherry and will end its lovely limited run with the final show at SPACES on January 2nd. The mandate that I set with 2 dance colleagues performing their favourite solos challenged me to create my own AHALYA against the other two well rehearsed and widely performed classical works. Premiering a new contemporary work with activist overtones at a December Sabha is not unusual for me. I was very fortunate to have the freedom to do so by the late Sri Yagnaraman who gave me full reign and a platform to follow my path. However, the challenges of mounting a brand new work -with my two brilliant collaborators Dr. Hari Krishnan and Rex - are intimidating. AHALYA/STONE is new, raw and developing. Set against and alongside SURPANAKHA and RAVANA, it stirred something very different in some and disturbed and confused others.

The image of me in the gold sheath created immediate resonances of Martha Graham's LAMENTATIONS, a now iconic 4 minute solo created in 1930. The original choreography was intended to represent universal grief, “an ability to stretch within your own skin” according to Graham. I represent a generation that admired and adored Martha. I wanted to be a Graham dancer before marriage stopped that dream. Before and after Martha were Isadora Duncan, Pilobolus and many others who moved with and within the stretch Lycra.

What I do is to use the Ahalya myth as a springboard to tell the struggle of women wanting to break out of the narrow confines of patriarchy.

Through AH SU RA I wanted to offer three very different perspectives - 3 styles - 3 senior artistes in 3 different narratives. The evening was exciting and provided the canvas for the audience to make the connections to a time honoured story.

That we did not have a PAT and convenient “ending” was disconcerting to some.
Two friends exclaimed that they wanted us to end with a TILLANA!!!!! AIYOOOOOOO!
How Bharatanatyam centric can Chennai be?
And how entitled can dancers be when they expect free passes to a paid event?
Many did not attend the Krishna Gana Sabha show expecting me to dole out free passes.

As I immerse myself in the work and the canvas AHALYA offers, I realize the dangers of easy comparisons and safe answers. I look forward to deepening the experience as in the journey of A MILLION SITAS that has evolved over the past 7 years.
AH SU RA was never conceived to be a touring production.
It was imagined to be 3 friends sharing a stage and enjoying the synergy of dance.
I wish to thank Sharmila Biswas and Geeta Chandran who trusted my invitation and who shone in their respective characters in beautifully realized solos and hope they take back very pleasant memories of their stay in my city.


Let us take a moment to tell ourselves that we will stop body shaming, colour shaming, gender shaming and caste shaming.
We are all different. We must celebrate our art and each other despite all the pressures that media and society tells us.
If our dance does not deepen our emotions and open our hearts, we cannot persist in this uphill challenge that we face on a daily basis.

Thank you all for being part of this cyber family through 2017.

Your love and faith have given the NARTHAKI.COM team the courage and determination to continue our 18 year journey which begins its 19th year very soon.

In 2018 ARANGHAM TRUST completes 25 years of service to dance and the live arts!
KAISIKA NATAKAM completes its 20th year of revival performance.

There are more mountains to climb
Let us climb them together

All the best for the next 12 months…

- Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Kolkata/Bhubaneswar/New Delhi/Thrissur/Chennai

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

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