The BEST WAY
PREDICT The FUTURE
Is To CREATE
2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries.
For all its eventfulness, 2020 has, for most of us, been a lost year. In several senses of the word. On top of the enormous loss of human lives, the pandemic paused many people's progress on long-plotted family and career goals. It forced countless celebrations, festivals and family gatherings either onto Zoom or out of existence. And it warped many people's sense of time, causing months-long stretches to seem interminable in the moment but like they passed in a blip in retrospect.
We have crossed over into a New Year. Like war time citizens, we too have yearned for a return to "normal." But, like the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, this pandemic may have far reaching repercussions for some time to come. That volcanic catastrophe caused major climate upheavals all across the Northern hemisphere including the USA. Water froze in the heat of summer, agriculture was wiped out, and snowfall was seen on July 4.
What has this "lostness" caused the artistic community? For the first time, each of us in the creative industries was in the very same boat. Out of work, performances cancelled, tours postponed, livelihoods threatened. Prima donnas, divas and devas, emerging dancers, fledgling actors, novice singers, newbie musicians - all faced a bleak scenario.
The delayed timelines, evacuation of public life, the absence of human bodies physically present for the live arts - these characteristics have made this lost year that we have lived through as a unique time, never experienced before in our lifetime.
And TECH swooped in - calling out to the nimble, adaptable, flexible, malleable bodies and minds. Nuance was out. Flash was in. Minimalism was pushed out by the grand gesture.
#REMEMBERING ASTAD & SUNIL KOTHARI
Photo courtesy FB of Astad
How is it possible for two legends to depart in the same month! What a huge vacuum they have left which can never be filled!
What a loss to the world of dance, music, cinema, fashion, photography, travel, differently abled and choreography! What a vacuum Astad has left in his passing! How much this lone warrior has journeyed - pushing the stone uphill like Sisyphus, the Greek who was forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top.
The marvellous, brilliant, mercurial, silent dance adventurer - who never stood still - whose gentle smile belied the many taunts, rejections and dismissals he faced early in his life. His undaunted spirit, his relentless pursuit of his unique signature, his stunning rebuttal to the decorative frames of classical Indian dance in the 60s and 70s.
The national media heaped praise upon him, his friends' circle that spread across the globe recounted numerous personal incidents of his kindness and thoughtful gestures. To have lived at the same era as this superstar is a privilege. To have known him, and to be considered a friend was a distinct honour. There will never be another like Astad Deboo. Now let us celebrate his legacy with a book, a film, an endowment, a University Chair and an annual award for Contemporary Performance. Who wants to get it going?
Photo: KK Gopalakrishnan
Lonely, depressed and afraid is how we can sum up the final days of iconic dance scholar and adventurer, Sunil Kothari... as the Tamil saying goes, "There can be no wedding feast without lentils." There can never be any dance event across this planet where Sunil Kothari has not attended, watched, expressed his opinion and written about. We were honoured to have his by line on this portal for several years and have also argued with him on many an occasion. He would insist on covering any event that he walked into, refuse to edit his 2000 word reviews and continue to write, comment, travel, laugh, chatter and regale his global fans on his innumerable dance adventures.
His vast collection of books and photographs also wait for a home.
While the official state cultural bodies did not have the courtesy to respond to the demise of both Sunil Kothari and Astad Deboo, it is left to the dance world to remember, honour and pay tribute to these two giants who walked alone, creating roads and avenues for generations to walk upon.
Two loners, two dreamers, two stars - now twirling in the skies... Astad wearing clouds, lightning and storm clouds for his voluminous drapes (thank you, Chitra Sundaram, for these beautiful images) and Sunil, wearing his black long Bandhgala with an Assamese/Manipuri red shawl, bag on shoulder, smiling and applauding with his trademark "Bravo! Bravo!"
Initiated by Mallika Sarabhai, there is now a FACEBOOK page called CELEBRATING SUNIL KOTHARI where tributes, photos and anything connected with this ebullient spirit can be posted and shared. Dr. Kothari's contemporary and favourite sparring partner KUMUDINI LAKHIA inaugurates the page.
Courtesy: Sadanand Menon-Chandralekha archives
With December 5 as her birth anniversary, culture commentator and former arts critic Sadanand Menon spoke in detail about the woman he shadowed, collaborated with and observed during 30 years of her life. Dancers attended on the RE-COGNISING DANCE platform from across the world, including her former dancers and admirers.
'Decoration leads to decadence,' was one phrase that stayed with me. Something Chandra believed in when she discarded all the ornamentation of Bharatanatyam to arrive at her stark silhouette, shorn of every "aharya" except the presence of the female body on stage.
"Lack of curiosity beyond self obsession" is what Sadanand Menon expressed at the current condition of classical dancers. The arduous work of setting up the archives for Chandralekha's "oeuvre" awaits more interest with the current community of dancers in Chennai and elsewhere. Many of the younger dancers who attended were asking earnest but well known questions about Chandra's motivations, impulses and inspirations for her 10 iconic works. Rustom Bharucha's book on her life and art is worthy to remember and revisit.
Listening to the story of the Japanese designer who created a set of tender green bamboo was riveting. It was a collaboration for the Japan tour of SLOKA. That the time line of the tender bamboo slowly ageing and turning brown during the tour and the impossibility of transporting or recreating that effect in India made Chandralekha abandon the entire project after returning to India.
# ANCIENT FUTURES
The discussion on CASTE is growing feet like centipede and allowing discussants to find new ways to step into dog turd with every sentence and fleeting thought. 2020 raised the level of toxicity to baring teeth and snarling from safe distances in one-sided attacks. Unfair accusations have broken long friendships and seemingly steadfast collaborations while unfriending many on social media. One of the worst outcomes of this hostility is that it has blocked the already small group of individuals who are interested and engaged in this debate. Without fair debate and discussion how can anyone enter this minefield of caste, a controversial topic much before 2020?
Instead of listening to the many sides of this conflict, negative words hurled like "erasure", "annihilation", "mutilation", "appropriation", "suppression", have only inflamed divisions not discussion towards a more nuanced understanding of the entangled, even messy history of our early 20th century dance traditions. To box E Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi and Dr. V Raghavan as "revivalists" against the traditional artistes like M S Subbulakshmi and Balasaraswati is far too simplistic.
During increased interest in this subject with the generation of younger Bharatanatyam dancers and dance scholars, I was delighted to receive the link to watch the film on the brave DEVAR ADIYAL (a Tamil word for Servants of the Lord) dancer Muthukannammal of Viralimalai in Tamilnadu. This 2019 film, produced by the Films Division of India has a new lease of life.
There were two screenings within a week and a new generation of dancers was able to watch it. Several hereditary artistes and their families spoke about the dance form that was commonly referred to as "sadir". Watching Muthukannammal sing and perform to the popular song THAAYE YASODA UNDAN, I was wondering if she was concerned about the caste of the composer - Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyyar - or knew that Bollywood actor Shabana Azmi "mouthed" the lyrics of the tune to Carnatic diva Sudha Raghunathan's voice in the 2004 Hindi film MORNING RAGA. How words, history, practice and adaptation travel! How enmeshed are the collaborations and multiple narratives!
There was a universal "awe" and several mentions of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and his rise to star status in Madras via the cinema world and his celebrated muse Kumari Kamala.
How I wish the celebrated super diva Doraikannu of Tanjavur had a documentary on her storied life! Or a film on the feisty K J Sarasa, who really wanted to become a professional singer but again, the responsibility of being the sole earning member of her family pushed her into teaching. Circumstance, timing and personal histories have not permitted such biographies. So, at least we have a film on Muthukannammal. Watching how easily and generously she spoke of the many students and visitors to her hometown as she flipped through a photo album made me wonder. All this posing and learning from a hereditary artiste could also be construed as "appropriation with a patronising posturing." How many seem to want a piece of this gutsy 84 year old!!!
We need not one but many more voices from the generation of descendants from traditional Gurus like Kitappa Pillai (granddaughter Charumathi), Kalyanasundaram Pillai (son Harikrishna and granddaughter Sruthi), Balasaraswati (grandson Aniruddha), Herambanathan Bavupillai (sons Hariharan and Swaminathan) and Sivanandan Pillai (granddaughter Niveditha). These young men and women who are presently learning, teaching and performing need to emerge from their homes and dance studios to perform and speak. Fortunately, this has begun.
And here is a note to scholar Amrit Srinivasan, who has been claiming in her panel discussions that "There are no more Devadasis!" Yes. They are not dedicated to temples any more. But the hereditary artiste's community is among us. Working quietly and consistently. My admiration grows for activist and social worker Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy when listening to the countless struggles she went through. As a young student going to school every day, children would yell "theyvadiyal", as they ran behind her bullock cart. The word had already been corrupted to mean "prostitute."
What is important to note is that there has been one generation of dance scholars, born in the 1970s, now living outside India, who did the hard work of travelling, filming, interviewing and documenting these ageing dancers from traditional families. India based dancers were mostly engaged in building their careers and negotiating state patronage and performance opportunities.
However, from 2010, the tone of dance history has turned sharply in the direction of accusation and vitriol. The "misery memoir" has always sold well in the West, especially when "woke"upper class NRIs turn apologists and "concede their privilege" while slamming the India-based dance and music world - after having enjoyed all the advantages of their birth and upbringing.
Although there has been earlier dance scholarship in India on Indian dance, a new post-1980s wave of young scholars living in India and writing about dance is emerging and needs to be nurtured and supported. This must be. Those who live, practice, write and argue on the fluidities that define Indian dance and who LIVE ON INDIAN SOIL need to be acknowledged. Subaltern voices MUST be heard - on their own - not mediated (not to mention vilified online) by men. If another generation of young scholars is going to be bullied and forced into engaging with a one-sided view of Bharatanatyam's history, only to sell more books and present more papers, then it will be an opportunity lost.
# AN ENDLESS BOUQUET OF GRATITUDE
For this series, our team has worked tirelessly to bring around 47 dancers, 32 musicians and countless hours of communication, suggestions, and research to this digital venture. The enthusiasm of the participants, who braved lockdowns, cyclones, flash floods, internet fluctuations, family stress and health issues to deliver each video on time was like a breathless race against time. Watching 7 classical dance styles engage with ANDAL, many for the very first time, was so gratifying. In three continents, artistes whose ages spanned from the 20s to the 70s plunged into the poetry and world of GODAI-ANDAL. That this imaginative 9th century teen poet could seize the hearts and minds of so many even today was a moment of personal satisfaction to me.
#TAKING THE LEAD
Shreya Nagarajan Singh
A special shout out to all those young and energetic ART-PRENEURS - mostly women- holding their own in this confusing, continuous cackle of online dance and music circus. They have been conceiving and ideating through the past 10 months and building their own voices during this chaotic and often unhappy times. In varying degrees of creativity and originality, it is this generation, born in the 1970s and early 1980s, that we rest our hopes on. My generation has done the hard work - ploughed through the bushes, hacked away at the thorns, cleared the path and borne the brunt of criticism, skewed politics and danced barefoot on thorns and broken glass. Our marks and scars have faded over time, but the experience gained has made us unbreakable.
May this coming year and the years ahead be a little easier because of the men and women who walked, talked, wrote and danced before you all - and those sturdy, brave shoulders that my generation stood upon.
Paramita Saha - ARTS FORWARD - Kolkata
Vikram Iyengar - PICKLE FACTORY, Kolkata
Aranyani Bhargav and Mahalakshmi Prabhakar - RE-COGNISING DANCE, Bengaluru
Shreya Nagarajan Singh - SNS ARTS CONSULTANCY, Chennai
Madhu Nataraj - NATYA STEM DANCE, Bengaluru
Ramya Rajaraman - ARTSPIRE, Chennai
Akhila Krishnamurthy, AALAAP, Chennai
Ananda Shankar Jayant, NATYARAMBHA, Hyderabad, whose KUTTY KAHANI has taken the young world by storm!
And, and ...
Preeti Vasudevan for her RED CURTAIN PROJECT - started in April at the height of the global lockdown- bringing Indian and later First Nation stories to New York school children.
Bijayini Satpathy for her relentless videos of fitness, practice and body conditioning. At 50, this Odissi diva is showing us new pathways of keeping the dancing body supple as it ages naturally.
And, and, and....
Anil Srinivasan who, by playing the piano, has raised several lakhs in the double digits throughout the pandemic for every single cause and lost soul that needed it. His music education and commitment has been in one word - Breathtaking!
#THE INVISIBLE SEASON
What can I say? Except nothing has changed. Chennai is feeling the loss of the NRI visits. Stores are empty, retail is down, restaurants are half empty and the streets of Mylapore and T Nagar are not chock a block with traffic jams. Canteens attached to Sabhas are catering for takeouts and doing surprisingly well, thanks to Instagram! All programming has moved online and there is little to report by way of anything new or different. Well known performers in Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dominate the roster and we wait for another 12 months until the return of the REAL SEASON.
Meanwhile, there are so many online MARGAZHI FESTIVALS that I am unable to distinguish one from the other. You could start by clicking onto the FEDERATION OF SABHAS, Chennai, and then - take your pick!
#THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
May we all fight the good fight, laugh together - or not, argue over important issues, expend energy over matters that actually matter, agree to disagree, walk away from toxic relationships, continue to build audiences and opinion for the live arts, especially DANCE - that seems to matter less and less in the larger scheme of life. May we all put down our mirrors and glance around to see what is actually unfolding and unravelling before our eyes.
Happy 2021. May we be able to actually hug one another sometime this year, do a true "high-five", pinch a cheek, touch a baby's face, feel the feet of the elderly as we bow, sense another shoulder as we jostle for a better view of whatever, see the mouth as it widens into a smile and not behind a mask or just hold another hand.
I send these wishes against the backdrop of a worrying farmers' protest in India and the appearance of a new strain of the dreaded Covid-19 virus. What will the coming months be like?
How many more precious lives of Dance legends will Father Time reap?
No, there will and should not be a "RETURN TO NORMAL". What we need is OUTRAGEOUS COURAGE and a fresh start as we stop, pivot, turn, swivel, stumble, lurch, topple, grapple, slip, skid, struggle, step back, step sideways, hop, skip and jump in any direction that feels like progress. Any path that leads us to a quieter place to find deeper meaning to our artistic lives.
And of course, to revel in the sensorial and tactile pleasure of our bodies in DANCE!
To hear applause ring in our ears, to smile at the sound of fabric and bodies shifting in hushed, darkened auditoriums. To feel that familiar flutter of the heart as the music begins and the foot steps onto the stage and into the light.
Good riddance 2020!
Hello 2021... Please begin to deliver smiles and laughter! We sorely need it!
- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai. Staying put... mostly!
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
The BEST WAY To PREDICT The FUTURE Is To CREATE
Nice opening lines, Anita. Perfectly said.
- Srivatsa Shandilya (Jan 7, 2021)
Always look forward to reading this on 1st of every month!! Lovely!
- Indira Kadambi (Jan 5, 2021)
Fascinating! Just like always! What a fantastic way of covering everything from everywhere and every dimension. ️
- Gullapudi Raman Kumari (Jan 4, 2021)
Fascinating read... Anita, you should be given a Pulitzer Prize soon!
- Calai Chandra (Jan 2, 2021)
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