DREAM. DARE. DO
CARE. CLEAR. CHERISH
LISTEN. LEARN. LET GO
ABSORB. ADMIRE. APPLAUD
REFRESH. REFINE. REBOOT
LET'S GO 2024!
Happy New Year
We have done it!
Navigated through the past 12 months to replace our calendars and look forward to a brand new year.
The United Nations has declared this year to be the year of CAMELIDS, a cluster of animals that include Llamas, camels, Alpacas and others who are vital to the indigenous peoples and local communities.
In 2023, some may have sailed through. Others trudged... some soared... or crawled... or limped... does not matter... we have all reached the starting point of yet another year... and it is a leap year!
What does it mean for us as a creative community?
What can we do to make our lives and our immediate world safer, more harmonious and more vibrant? What can we do for ourselves and our emotional well-being?
Coming to you from Chennai, I know what a roller coaster year it has been. And how strange the fluctuating moods of the final month were for my city and myself.
A blustery cyclone, unstoppable rain and devastating floods.
Looking at the overfilled streets, hotels, restaurants and auditoriums, I ask myself -Did the cyclone Michaung really hit Chennai with a torrential rainstorm and devastate southern Tamilnadu last month? Did I really sit up through the night of December 4 when the waters rose to dangerous levels around my house?
Ten days after the cyclone, the annual Chennai dance season started. Without missing a beat. Unlike the disaster of December 2015, this time there was no mention of the devastation that had affected musicians, dancers and everyone in the arts. Many performers watched helplessly as instruments, costumes, newspaper cuttings, awards and personal memorabilia were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Nirmala Rajasekhar carried her veena above her head while wading in waist deep waters to reach a place of safety! Some sat on the roofs and terraces of homes and buildings until they were rescued by the navy and army! While the state machinery was slow in reacting, citizens rallied with exemplary courage and empathy.
The crowds! Thronging every nook and cranny of South Chennai. Beginning at 5am in the morning, the streets of Mylapore have been filled with music and dance.
This year there is a fresh infusion of enthusiasm in the air. A significant number of younger audiences and performers have injected their artistry on and off the stage. Performances are starting on time. Several halls have finally dispensed with the gaudy signage and both Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and Krishna Gana Sabha have matte black curtains and wings, making for a cleaner visual frame.
Every genre of the arts is attracting crowds. I watched a superb dance-technology film on the hip hop group PIXEL at the Alliance Francaise, a Tamil political play about slavery in America and the violence in Gaza as well as a Bharatanatyam performance on the same day. All were very well attended. Every part of the city was celebrating with music, dance, food fests and fashion events.
#A CHANGE OF PACE & FACE
Imagine revered Carnatic musicians walking the ramp in a delightful change of pace! That is how the month kicked off. 3 days before the water catastrophe! Aruna Sairam, the grand dame of classical music and the great Ghatam Maestro Vikku Vinayakram strode the catwalk with relaxed ease along with a turbaned Anil Srinivasan and dance icon Padma Subrahmanyam.
Ideated and presented by two Bharatanatyam dancers and event planners - Lakshmi and Saraswathi, nieces and students of Padma Subrahmanyam - the bonhomie and sheer joy of the evening were palpable from the photographs and videos of the event. I was performing that same evening on the shores of a blustery ocean. The setting was also a luxury hotel as was the fashion event. As you are reading this, daily Carnatic music shows are continuing in the lobby of the GRT Hotel in T Nagar. To have clients and hotel guests being greeted with the sounds of classical music as they enter and leave is a refreshing change to the soul-less background music that is often heard in these spaces. The Taj hotel in Bandra, Mumbai always has a wonderful flautist in the lobby which is a soothing sound to the frantic pace of the city.
#AN INDIVIDUAL STATEMENT
Now it is time for the next generation to dazzle and shine. Now in their late thirties, early 40s - have they the courage to dare, risk, fail, falter, stumble and rise? It is definitely happening. Today, the goals have become truncated and more immediate expectations. Too many suggestions, opinions and interventions with a variety of mentors and weekend workshops may not suit every dancer. The social and political demands on dance are greater than ever. Some dancers are introducing religious speakers to intervene and interfere with their own creative presentations, thus making performances more about faith rather than art.
I see that today's young stars are dancing beautifully with growing followings. But, are they ENJOYING their art? I see more visible effort but less ease. Restraint has gone out of vogue. The idea of "suggestion" disappears against the "showing." Does the very western idea of "exhaustion to reach honesty" mantra apply to the Indian arts? Are we over thinking every moment and every movement? What I am observing now is meticulously executed dance accompanied by a great deal of strain and angst on stage. Will the 35 to 45 year olds burn out before they reach 50 or 55 with muscle and ligament injuries or emotional and mental fatigue? Watching the intensity and ferocious energy of Mythili Prakash and looking at clips of Mavin Khoo's excellent performance, one can see that raising the music, voice pitch and dance tempo to a kind of "frenzied pace" is what impacts today's audiences. Perhaps these influential dance makers, who live outside India, are reacting to the tumult that exists in the world, realising that audiences enter spaces with so many distractions and need to be shocked out of their digital complacency and drawn into the tornado of movement and aural stimulation; to be extracted from one state and flung into another.
The Chennai season had two major cancellations. Alarmel Valli has withdrawn from her solo concert due to a viral illness and rising star Dakshina Vaidyanathan has cited a severe muscle injury for her non-appearance this season. The rise of a new strain of Covid has also caused varieties of associated illness across generations.
# DIASPORA DELIGHTS RASIKAS
The 2023 season now flowing into early January 2024 has been a blur of colour, dance, sound and fury. Conversations, debates, arguments, discussions - there were all that and much more. I have watched more diversity in aesthetics on stage than ever. Theme based performances (at Malavika Sarukkai's DANCE FOR DANCE festival) of Sruthi Gopal, Parvathy Menon and Lakshmi Parthasarthy were all impressive in different ways. Each dancer is searching for ways to express their inner creativity and experience a fuller measure of their talent and training. As a contrast to the BN overload, the measured grace of Neena Prasad's Mohiniattam was a welcome contrast. Aditi Mangaldas shone with her class act of programme pacing, arrangement and costume aesthetic of her orchestra and superb lighting. No announcements or frills - just a beautifully executed Kathak performance!
Ramli Ibrahim & Hareen Loganathan (Photo: A Prathap)
The NATYA DARSHAN seminar convened by Roja Kannan, established the impressive technical standards of dancers born in other shores. The success of Italian Lucrezia Maniscotti's performance of NITYA KALYANI, the ragamalika varnam I have performed and loved, as well as the stellar showing of Ramli Ibrahim's student Hareen Loganathan were remarkable displays of excellent dancing. California based Ramya Harishankar's students were also noteworthy in their group showing of SHE - a Devi based work. At another venue, Rathna Kumar's students revealed an identity based short dance called CHOICES that showed a glimpse of how today's generation is thinking about and expressing their identities through dance. Sonali Skandan shared her delightful BEE STORY (mentored by Maya Kulkarni) one morning. Jyotsna Vaidee appeared incandescent in her solo ABHILASHA during the afternoon slot at Narada Gana Sabha. Nirupama Vaidyanathan performed her lovely solo about the river Kaveri also at the same venue.
It is clear that in spite of long distances and the weekend only classes, NRI gurus, teachers and performers are working very hard on professional development. With the growing interest in dance history and its complex socio-political landscape, I hope that the coming generations will be able to create healthy spaces among peers for their artistic growth.
#MARGAZHI IS EVERYWHERE
It is not just Chennai that is dripping with music and dance from every corner. Neighbouring states are also now part of the December season festival activities. Dancers can plan a circuit that includes performances in Karnataka and Kerala during the month of December. This is excellent news for audiences who cannot all manage to travel to my home town for 2 or 3 weeks. With live streaming and so many visiting artistes, the spirit of Chennai's Margazhi has not only caught fire but also spread further!
In a recent opinion report, CNN's political reporter Fareed Zakaria touched upon the changing direction of American universities. Zakaria spoke of the hallowed Ivy League institutions becoming more geared towards social and political agendas rather than delivering quality education. Now one can get a Bachelor's Degree in DEI- Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. In this "mollycoddling" of certain voices (Zakaria's words), he spoke of the current trend of steering of young academic minds towards certain subjects and not others.
The shift is also being noticed in South Asian dance academics in several universities. DEI is the umbrella template for alternate voices emerging in dance academia and writing.
Amidst calls for "disruption" and "dislocation" of South Asian dance forms, the reality on the ground is clear. Dance students just want to dance, learn, share their work and shine in an increasingly competitive landscape. They come from various backgrounds and faiths and are drawn to the beauty and complexity of Indian dance styles. The current training systems do not allow time and space to develop critical thinking faculties and it is mostly up to the individual dancer to probe, question and find ways to reconcile about other questions that may emerge as they continue their practice.
Bharatanatyam continues to be at the centre of debate and discourse. As one musician expressed, "At least there IS a discussion in the dance world. The world of Hindustani music is deafeningly silent!" I repeat here what dance scholar Urmimala Sarkar said in an event during the pandemic - "debate, discuss, disagree, dialogue - but don't stop dancing!"
The current raging debate is about nepotism in Bollywood and the new film THE ARCHIES. The dictionary defines the word as "using one's power and influence to give unfair advantage in jobs to your family members". I have not yet seen the film and am hesitant since I did grow up with the antics and adventures of the quartet in Riverdale via the comic books and do not want my impressions to change. That daughters of Shah Rukh Khan, Sridevi and grandson of Amitabh Bachchan anchor THE ARCHIES that has generated scores of contrasting opinions on social media.
These star kids have received their dream breaks. However, can a famous last name guarantee success? If so, then Abhishek Bachchan and Esha Deol (Hema Malini's daughter) would have become superstars automatically. It is the alchemy of talent, timing and the audience reaction that cements a career. Privilege can open the door and can prop it open for a while longer but they can be quickly slammed shut too if the person does not demonstrate enduring talent, ability, discipline and yes, luck. Finally, it is the box office or the audience that decide if they like an actor, musician or dancer as individuals separate from their famous parents.
I come now to the world of the stage and live arts. I will take examples of Dakshina Vaidyanathan, Mythili Prakash and Prateeksha Kashi - three daughters of successful dancers. They have each established their credentials as stellar artistes, moving away from the shadows of their mothers. As has Kapila Venu, daughter of two giants - G Venu and Nirmala Panicker. Growing up in an atmosphere of dance and music, it was automatically expected for them to learn the art. They are all enormously talented. Talent alone is not an automatic success mantra. The world is full of talented derelicts. There are too many other factors that decide and influence a performer's life and career path. A nurturing home environment is vital. But not everything. The four dancers I am speaking of were perhaps nudged onto the stage by their family and given access to important stages early in their careers. However, each dancer has stood the stern test of time and opinion for 10 to 20 years to emerge as shining torchbearers of their generation.
Nepotism is not Favouritism - although there are some definitions that include that aspect also. Festival producers, artistic directors, funding agencies and cultural philanthropists are accused of playing favourites, me included. If we stay with the idea of nepotism in families then one can see that promoting relatives above meritocracy still continues in the world of politics and business where the individual can be shielded from the harsh light of public opinion. Not so much in the creative world. A famous last name can get you the first meeting. Maybe a second and a third. But then the ball drops into your side of the court. You have to prove yourself. On the canvas. The page. Or the stage.
When Malavika Sarukkai acknowledged the maker of her ankle bells, Sri Gangadharan, on stage, I realised the importance of so many seen and unseen individuals who contribute to a performance. Like the fast disappearing art of nattuvangam. This season I watched two excellent artistes at work, sitting on the dais- stage right and executing Jathis and Teermanans with crisp and faultless ease. Neela Sukanya, a senior conductor (that is the closest term for the nattuvangam artiste) and Sai Kripa Prasanna. Neela anchors Malavika's performances and Sai Kripa conducted the solo and group works of Urmila Satyanarayana. Calm and articulate, their voice modulations and skill in using the cymbals were very interesting to watch. Especially these days when the mridangist recites the jathis and some junior dancer hits the cymbals monotonously without inflection and variety!
L Subhasri, 2nd from left
Here I must mention my own conductor/rehearsal director L Subhasri. Her development in nattuvangam and voice modulation has been exemplary. Listening to her shifting tones during NAACHIYAR NEXT was like a voice in performance. Padma Subrahmanyam and several senior dancers who attended took time to compliment her after the show.
An interesting fact that late guru Tanjavur Bavupillai Herambanathan shared with me may not be known to younger dancers. Hereditary gurus composed and guarded their own jathi compositions. When Balasaraswati's guru Kandappa Pillai passed away, she approached Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. He told her that she would have to learn and perform only his jathis since he would not conduct her performance with Kandappa Pillai's rhythm patterns. Bala refused and that association did not go any further. If we listen to the pneumonic arrangements and rhythm patterns with the "chollu" (utterance), one can hear the differences between the jathi/teermanam styles of Kittappa Pillai, Ramaiah Pillai, Dandayudapani Pillai, Elappa Pillai and other traditional gurus. Not just the way they were uttered but the skill of their individual styles of nattuvangam as well. A fascinating study that I wish some dance conference or lecture series would consider including.
# A TRIUMPHANT TRYPTICH
Rama Vaidyanathan at NKC
Concluding her third turn as convenor of the prestigious Natya Kala Conference at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, dancer Rama Vaidyanathan has set a benchmark for others to emulate. The gathering of international dancers, writers and rasikas for all three editions was a testament to Rama's global stature. This year's edition was the most varied and challenging.
TRANSCENDANCE- when the title was announced, there was a flurry of opinions. How can a classical dancer attempt to understand the complexities of the differently abled? Has the conference suddenly become "Woke" and Left Leaning? What does the title even mean?
Shanmuga Sundaram and transgender dancers
The D-E-I label could have been placed on the conference as a subtitle. TRANSCENDANCE checked almost every box of requirements for all three categories without any intention on Rama's part. The unusual and never before heard voices of several transgender dancers (led by Bharatanatyam teacher Shanmuga Sundaram) was just one case in point. Dance as psychotherapy for abused women (Sohini Chakraborthy's SAMPOORNATA pedagogy), and elders affected by the debilitating Parkinson's disease being helped by Kathak artiste Hrishikesh Pawar - were three sessions that were incredibly moving. Also featured were Ambika Kameshwar in her ground breaking methods for differently abled children and Sangita Iswaran's KATRADI method for community development. Responding to the disastrous conflict in Gaza, scholar Ananya Chatterjea's raw and visceral "social justice choreography" was an eye opener for many. From Manipur came Bimbavati Devi's searing FOOTPRINTS IN BLOOD and showed the heart stopping stories of women warriors.
California wild fires (Mythili Kumar), the meditations of the Whirling Dervish (Zia Nath), RASAVAYU - breath in Koodiyattam (Kapila Venu and G Venu) and NEW WRITINGS ON DANCE, a panel led by Arshiya Sethi. Back to back sessions that kept the mind turning and churning. The 5 day event that started at 9.30am continued till 3pm daily offered many exciting career possibilities for Gen Z. The juxtaposition of celebrated performers alongside the less familiar areas of DMT (Dance Movement Therapy), environmental and social issues made for an exciting conference.
I tried to stay through the multiple sessions but the variety and contrasts were dizzying. So several coffees became my rescue GO TO beverage! I did enjoy wearing my mother's soft silk sarees, as the conference dress code was VINTAGE. Rama was wearing her late mother-in-law Saroja Vaidyanathan's precious silks - some 40 years old and more!
Masoom Parmar shared a beautiful film titled THE SPACE BETWEEN US (Hamaare Darmiyan). His choreography of the Alarippu was objected to by a dancer in the audience. In response, dancer Nina Rajarani said, "Everyone must follow their heart and do what feels true".
A sumptuous canteen, endless conversations, retail therapy supplied by various clothing, book and spice stalls - TRANSCENDANCE ended as a beautifully managed event by TEAM ALAAP (Akhila Krishnamurthy) and had the visitors and audiences declare that NKC had become the TRENDY spot to visit and be seen! And Instagram friendly too!
Kathak duo Nirupama and Rajendra take over the convenor's role for 2024/25.
#COSTUME AS LIVING HISTORY
I managed to squeeze in the time to visit the beautifully mounted costume exhibit titled CRAFT IN DANCE. It was a compilation of dance costumes based on Indian and Balinese textile traditions that were created for the Singapore-Indonesia stage collaboration ARISI-RICE by Apsaras Arts. Being a fan of Indonesian cloth, this exhibition came as a necessary adjunct to the Chennai season. Here's hoping that young dancers take the time to drop into MANJAL, the store of Chettinad handmade products, that is the venue for this unusual inter cultural blending.
December 30 marked the birth centenary of dance scholar Mohan Khokar. His son Ashish Khokar, another dance passionista, kick started the year long celebrations with a short talk and a formal event at Kalakshetra. Sonal Mansingh, Padma Subrahmanyam and Guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai were the guests of honour in the filled Bharata Kalakshetra auditorium.
I pause here to send our condolences to Hema Rajagopalan who lost her husband and Lata Pada whose mother passed away - both in December. Both women were scheduled to speak during the Chennai season. Their absence was noted and missed.
January is filled with much more dance and the Literature Festival season begins. We can watch Vidya Tirunarayanan, a dancer turned potter performing LIVES OF CLAY, Apsara Arts in ARISI/RICE a inter cultural presentation with Balinese dancers and of course the much awaited Music Academy dance festival. And it does not stop there. Unfolding before us is an entire month of emerging artistes who will appear in the Pongal dance edition on several stages. A special DIASPORA DANCE FESTIVAL is also on the calendar. This season has registered 2000 dance performances alone! Scholar Ashish Khokar remarked, "In which city can you find both social elite and ordinary rasikas lined up shoulder to shoulder and waiting patiently to enter a hall?"
So, what are the resolutions you wish to make that you can actually keep?
Take time out for yourself
Cut out one toxic friend and habit
Add one healthy life style choice
Take charge of your finances and try to understand money better
Spend some time in nature
Prioritise your emotional well-being as a dancer and a creative soul.
Whatever your resolutions may be and for however long you are able to stay with them - here's wishing each and every one of you joy and fulfillment in the months ahead. There is so much sadness in the world and much that we cannot turn away from. Dance renews us each day and for THAT precious gift, we must be ever grateful.
Happy 2024 everyone!
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Let's go 2024!
Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Mumbai / Coonoor / Pondicherry
Anita Says...by Dr. Anita R Ratnam Episode 4. January edition 2024
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