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January 1, 2019

I would rather be a meteor
Every atom of me in magnificent glow
Than a sleepy and permanent planet

- Jack London

Chennai was aglow and in full bloom in the last month of 2018.
All the cliché words used to describe this South Indian metropolis rang true during the month of MARGAZHI.
(Non Tamilians merrily said MAARGAZZZZZI with aplomb and we just smiled in unison!)

Silks, gold, jasmine, sandalwood, kajal, bindis, beaming faces meeting old friends and everyone discussing DANCE in excited chatter made us feel that WE WERE INDEED in the centre of the universe, even if it was just a 30 day illusion!

Between conferences and daily performances, culture tours and cuisine, Chennai was the hub of the Indian dance universe for a brief and glorious time. I was fortunate NOT to perform this season but promised to watch as much dance as I possibly could.
And I did.

Here are my observations. They are random and not in any particular order.

The younger generation are preparing and presenting very well. The lec-dems are rehearsed, timed and mostly executed very efficiently. Sometimes, the choice of costume and ornamentation could have been toned down for small spaces and morning sessions. All around there was a higher standard of aesthetics than 15 years ago. Both conferences - NATYA DARSHAN (Priya Murle, convenor) and NATYA KALA (Srinidhi Chidambaram, convenor) were resounding successes. Crowds were ample, attention spans intense and curiosity peaked. Most of the sessions did not leave enough time for questioning and were often hijacked by garrulous elders or the same suspects who haunt every conference and want to be heard.

The outreach events were all very successful. The opening dance from Mylapore Kapali Temple towards the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan was joyous. The writing workshop conducted by Chitra Mahesh got off to a good start with short performances by Shweta Prachande (over done and operatic Alarippu) and Radhika Shurajit (excellent piece from TILLANA MOHANAMBAL). Shweta Prachande is a beautiful dancer but her rendition of the Misra ALARIPPU, with the Tiruppugazh inserted into it and the unnecessary added flourishes of her guru Priyadarsini Govind tacked on, made for a cluttered opening item. Her later JATHI presentation with colleague Apoorva Jayaraman at the Natya Kala Conference was beautifully rendered. If only dancers did not wear full make up, flowers and jewellery for morning sessions!

I would like to divert a bit to add that most dancers are not aware of the history of the Alarippu / Tiruppugazh quilting. It was in the 1940s (or perhaps earlier) that Balasaraswati's teacher Kandappa used this device to echo the growing "Bhakti" fervour that was permeating Bharatanatyam. Likewise, when Mythili Prakash made the grand announcement about recreating the beloved 20th century Kannada DARU of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, MAATE, with her personal interventions, my first reaction was WHY GILD A LOTUS? The DARU is so musically rich and Swara-filled that the music choreographs itself. It was first made popular by singer M.S. SUBBALAKSHMI and in dance by the legendary Kumari Kamala. No matter what Mythili tried (and she did with great passion and intention) the final output was awkward.

I had the opportunity to watch many emerging stars of solo dance. Jyotsna Jagannathan is Malavika Sarukkai's mentee. At the KALAVAHINI dance festival, I felt like I was watching a dancer with great promise but someone who was filled with anxiety and haste. Jyotsna has recently been awarded the prestigious Yuva Bismillah Khan national award and many eyes are upon her. Bharatanatyam is over populated with too many Jyotsna-s. Slim, light skinned, technically precise and stamina-intensive choreography is being done at every turn. What can separate one dancer from the other is self reflexive moments of knowing that what suits one may not suit another; that imitation is not the best way forward and that a knowledge or at least an appreciation of music is an absolute MUST. Editing is mandatory and long rhythmic passages need not be dragged on for the sake of effect.

Jyotsna has evolved from the dancer I watched 4 years ago but I am still undecided about what motivates her to continue. Her choice of SANCHARIS was debatable (Andal plucking flowers and stringing a garland? Her father did that and she just wore it secretly. And that deplorable disrobing of Draupadi - AGAIN!) What will be her immediate pathway as she seems on the cusp of either a breakthrough or a collapse into the larger morass that Bharatanatyam has become! Am waiting and watching!

Purva Dhanashree

In a stunning short morning session, another national awardee, Narthaki Nataraj proved that staying within her classical idiom pays rich dividends. Others who shone in brief presentations were Purva Dhanashree (Vilasini Natyam), Swarnamalya Ganesh (Sadir), Madhu Nataraj (Kathak), Sooraj Nambiar (Koodiyattam), Sanjukta Wagh (neo Kathak). Both Purva and Madhu's seated presentations were refreshingly subtle and powerful, reminding us that it is only the FACE and EYES in Indian live arts traditions that are so alive and expressive. Which other dance culture empowers the performer with so much technique and expression? To sacrifice it all for the sake of the body seems fruitless.

Madhu Nataraj

Madhu Nataraj's interesting observations about the syncretic nature of Islam and Hinduism in Kathak was important. That one Deccani Muslim King had a small town called NAVRASPUR and published a volume called NAVRAS. That the peacock feather and Krishna's flute were transformed for the Mughal invaders into a single hand gesture featuring the Begum's smile and the now famous Kathak image of right hand raised and left hand extended.

Sridhar Vasudevan & Meera Sreenarayanan

The session on MANODHARMA was particularly impressive, given that almost every star dancer claims to use the improvisational aspect of dance but always sets every movement to the last flourish or swara. During this brisk morning session curated by Srinidhi Chidambaram, dancers were asked to pick an emotion or a word from a hat. On the spot they had to create scenarios with the musicians as they unfolded the scene they had planned to perform. Singer Sridhar Vasudevan shone as he effortlessly followed all the dancers. Meera Sreenarayanan rocked the house with her hilarious take down of RAVANA failing to lift the bow of Shiva and his abused man servant celebrating with glee. Dakshina Vaidyanathan imagined RAIN as the devastating Kerala floods.

Crowds in all the halls for music and dance were on the rise this year. With Chennai having reeled with 3 successive natural disasters each December, this year we were greeted with great weather and dry skies. Stores and coffee shops were crowded with visitors indulging in nostalgia and aggressive retail therapy.



The much hailed Parshwanath Upadhye brought a house full audience to his show on the epic character of SITA in his production titled ABHA. His wife SRUTI is a STUNNING DANCER. Compact, restrained and effective. If only she was allowed to dance without Parsh or his colleague Aditya constantly hovering around. The final scene of Lord Vishnu in Vaikunta after the Rama avatar concludes and segueing into the Krishna avatar was a charming touch. In the midst of his universal applause and fandom, I wish to add some notes of caution.

Parshwanath's choreography lacks dramatic arc. His face is not emotive and he masks this cleverly with great physicality. Beautifully executed with interesting exits and entrances, the music is typically BENGALURU LITE - a soft-light music-wafting of Carnatic ragas. Against this, the trio's nonstop movement seemed to be a tad too monotonous. The precision, dynamic partnering and team work were admirable. However, after 50 minutes of this endless movement, I longed for some quiet and measured stillness.

If Parshwanath and other male dancers choose to wear their sacred thread with their Bharatanatyam costume, then they should make it a gold version of the caste mark. But why wear it? For me, it cuts the line of the masculine torso. Male dancers need to relook at their on stage persona. Hairy chests are just not acceptable any more. The male beauty business is growing 4 times faster than the women's vanity world. Waxing, bleaching, facials, mani-pedis are all very normal today. So just get that unsightly chest and underarm hair off! For the sake of the audience!

Can someone please help with redesigning the male dance costume? Other than the off white "veshti" that offers a timeless drape, I have seen more outrageous colours and cuts on men this season than on women.

Tiruvottriyur temple

Time-keeping at both conferences were beautifully maintained. Priya and Srinidhi tried to crack the whip with smiles and gentle prodding. Both conferences had well designed hand outs and brochures. Team AALAAP, led by founder Akhila Krishnamurthy were run ragged with the many venues and events during the NATYA KALA CONFERENCE. I watched videos of the dance tour to the Chennai suburb of Tiruvottriyur where historian V. Sriram spoke about the significance of the Siva shrine that witnessed numerous musicians and dancers offering their homage to Lord Siva.
At the venue, hereditary dancer Nrithya Pillai performed a lovely Tiruvottriyur Kavithuvam.

I doff my hat to the many volunteers and helpers who made both conferences a resounding success. With Rama Vaidyanathan becoming the next convenor of the NATYA KALA and Priya Murle continuing with her final year of the NATYA DARSHAN, let's see what will unfold!

There has been much talk about Kuchupidi becoming quasi-Bharatanatyam. That young dancers are trying to make this vibrant and vivacious style become more "elegant" and "appealing," that is the danger. The saucy "lachak" and swagger is an inherent part of this dance form and any attempt to subdue or alter it does not seem to work. The flirty flick of the long braid, the sway of the hips and the darting eyes that made every head of state want to rush onto the stage when Yamini Krishnamurthy performed has disappeared. Today, we watch a version of Kuchipudi that seems anorexic and pale. Sreelakshmi Govardhanan has all the ingredients of becoming a lovely interpreter of the style but she should also watch out for the temptation of mainstreaming. I would also like to see more Telugu padams included in the repertoire.

As the Sanskriti Ashtapadi becomes the go-to "abhinaya" piece in all the dance styles today, it was refreshing to watch California girl Divya Devaguptapu devote an evening to the sensual/sexual poems of Kshetrayya.
Composing at the glorious pinnacle of the Bhakti movement in the 17th century, this Telugu poet's words are drenched in imagery of love and devotion to his beloved Muvva Gopala (Vishnu-Krishna) as a visceral and embodied form. Divya performed at the intimate setting of The Dhananjayans' BHARATA KALANJALI dance space and the jam packed gathering were drawn into her world of nuanced abhinaya and wonderful music steered by Carnatic vocalist Sowmya. I mention this evening because Divya is an under 40 NRI whose approach, body language and face is naturally evocative and responsive to the subtle detailing that good abhinaya demands. This session was curated by Priya Murle for NATYA DARSHAN and deserves special kudos.

Alarmel Valli & Hari Krishnan

Another intelligent Priya initiative for her conference was the discussion on poetry by the iconic Alarmel Valli. In her only season appearance since her illness, Valli was not at her eloquent best while talking about her favourite subject - poetry as visual dance. The gorgeous ambience of KANAKAVALLI, the high end sari store inspired by Valli's name, was packed with her well wishers, fans and family. Professor Hari Krishnan from Wesleyan University conducted the interview and we heard a vulnerable, sensitive artiste echo her passion for words and images that she has etched onto her dancescape and our minds.


After watching so much dance from morning to evening, I am convinced that what emerging dancers need is not just mentors to address technique or discussion. They need DRAMATURGY. They need help in how to create and plan a programme. How to plan a series of dances when sharing a double or a triple billed evening. How to occupy space instead of almost falling into our laps sitting in the front row. How to step back and look at each piece as a part of a garland or a necklace. How NOT to pour everything into every piece but how to gradually build. How to revisit imagery and most importantly. HOW NOT TO CLUTTER EVERY SYLLABLE AND CHOLLU WITH FOOTWORK OR MOVEMENT. And I am tired with military style jathis as if World War 3 is approaching and then sloppy half held MUDRAS and dropped elbows as if one is into advanced Alzheimer's! Very irritating and unsightly! Unless they are guided in those aspects, this increasing physicality will only result in frayed knees, backs and shortened careers. As solo dance is getting less and less demand except in few venues and international producers are impatient with far too much Bharatanatyam coming out of their ears, it is imperative that those spouting mantras about MARGAM and DIVINITY come to terms with the reality of their situation and accept that there is a third space beside GURU and MENTOR.


As we enter a brand new year, I want to urge all dance lovers to remember that our performance traditions are not only about skill and ability but also imagination and possibilities. Against the growing scenario of filmi Bharatanatyam, it seems overstated to add multi media and literal staging of bringing dancers dressed as cows and sheep onto the stage! Conducting "real" marriages, replete with a green faced Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Siva with huge crowns and giant moustaches on female dancers is plainly ridiculous! I cringe but around me, the crowd goes wild with applause! Why not watch the iconic films like TIRUVILAIYADAL and the countless NT RAMA RAO mythological hits instead? Have the rasikas lost their minds or am I just out of step?

The Chennai season is not yet complete and the dancers are still pounding their feet in early morning and late night rehearsal sessions. Which brings me to the point of almost zero rehearsal space in the city for the hundreds of dancers who arrive and want to practice. My own home was turned into a veritable DANY STUDIOS (New York City's now defunct dance studio space) with "clackety clack" noises starting from 7am! The front porch also doubled up as a rehearsal space.
Something for ABHAI (Roja Kannan, Priya Murle, Janaki Srinvasan) to think about for the next season - which is coming up in 11 months!


Gladys Daniel and Anita Ratnam

My sole appearance during the season was at the NATYA KALA CONFERENCE. A brisk ONE ON ONE session with IPR attorney Gladys Rosette Daniel where we discussed the much needed information about COPYRIGHT. Armed with the 2000 issue of PULSE magazine (UK-Sanjeevini Dutta publisher-Chitra Sundaram editor) opened up the shadowy world of what to expect when a dance piece is commissioned. Photography, live streaming, social media, music composition, group choreography, costume design were all covered like a rapid fire round. More thought needs to be paid regarding written contracts and the Indian legal system acting more quickly on copyright violations.



January looms ahead with so many Literature Festivals. I travel to Kolkata for the second edition of the ANDAL dance-theatre work and to help high school children animate well known Bengali folk tales at the AKLF (APEEJAY LIT FEST).
This month will also witness the remounting of my 2003 group work NAACHIYAR - the dance theatre story of GODA-ANDAL.Yes, yes, I know. It is ANDAL season all around. The experience of revisiting a very successful production and looking at it with the lens of today has been very challenging. The video viewing seems tame. The urge to change, speed up the choreography is compelling. But I remind myself of the small town and modest shrine that Srivilliputtur once was. Not the grand tower we see today. That the cluster of huts and the gentle pace of life that this remarkable girl-poet lived in should be marked in the remounting. Andal used a parrot and not WHATSAPP to send messages to her beloved Krishna. How did this 8th century teen icon compose her fabulous outpouring of sensual abandon? Was she a composite or a sole voice?


As I gathered more than 50 dancers at my family home to bid farewell to 2018, we reminisced about the year gone by and felt grateful that we were all dancers. That dance demands sacrifice rigour. In the moving words of Aniruddha Knight, Balasaraswati's grandson, "Traditions demands the blood of a performer". Yes, it demands that and much more. It demands that we abandon family, children, home and hearth for something that pulls and tugs at our body and hearts. Don't expect anyone to understand this madness. It drives us and together we should become the creative engine to engage humanity.


In January, Sydney dance diva Anandavalli has a very personal moment of pride. Her son Shakthidharan Sivanathan is the architect of a fascinating theatre production that maps a family's dislocation and rebuilding a life after the Sri Lankan civil war of 1983. The 30 year struggle ravaged the existence and hopes of millions and Australia became one of the second homes for the Tamils fleeing the violence. COUNTING AND CRACKING premieres at the prestigious Sydney Festival this month and immediately after at the Adelaide Festival. The much awaited play follows four generations of one family from Colombo to Pendle Hill. Premiering at the Sydney Town Hall with Sri Lankan feast in accompaniment, this play has been a cathartic 10 year journey for Shakthidharan. Anandavalli has sourced costume materials from India and Sri Lanka and will be front row centre as another generation takes centre stage! More on this play is featured in our preview section.

Also travelling from Australia for the OZ INDIA festival is Priya Srinivasan's CHURNING WATERS. Featuring Priyadarsini Govind and an Indigenous artiste, this performance will have its Chennai viewing in early February.

2019 is the Chinese year of the PIG. Hmmmm. The less said about this the better. I know of several dance gurus and seniors who have behaved like the above mentioned animal. The PIG is a symbol of stubborn persistence. Let us choose to remember THAT instead.

NARTHAKI.COM enters its 20th year very soon and we continue to cherish your faith and support.

Let your New Year resolution be to engage more people around you to watch dance. Let us become dance evangelists - not just preaching but DANCING EXCELLENCE!

Dr Anita R Ratnam

PS: As the year sound down, I watched ANEKANTA, the gorgeous ensemble dance presentation by Geeta Chandran and her beautifully trained dancers. That lasting vision followed immediately by a very special DARSHAN at my favourite Vishnu temple welcomed a brand new year with 365 days holding much promise.

Twitter: @aratnam
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Blog: THE A LIST /

Beautifully written. Unbiased. Shows your eye for detail. A true artist in every way.
- Divyatha Arun (Jan 11, 2019)

Always enjoy reading your observations and look forward to it every month.
- Indira Kadambi  (Jan 10, 2019)

Nice review. Such open write-ups always help the artist to grow in a better direction.
 - Nathania Laji (Jan 8, 2019)

Lovely observations and wisely addresses issues - what a keen reader takes from your writings.
- Gullapudi Raman Kumari (Jan 4, 2019)

I loved reading your essay on the Chennai season. It gave me a thorough summary, interesting critique and refreshing comments on much needed topics. I liked an artist’s take on the present scenario.
- Sujatha Srinivasan (Jan 3, 2019)

Thank you. Very nicely written summary of events at Chennai with careful observations.
- Mahesh Kedlaya (Jan 3, 2019)

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