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July 1, 2012

These thoughts come to you in mid air... en route to the US and perhaps over Europe. A strong cup of coffee at who knows what time, and a laptop to pound away on while the entire cabin is fast asleep.

With the miracle of in-flight technology, I was informed on June 29th that Leela Samson has been reinstated as Director of Kalakshetra a day before. The alacrity with which the Ministry of Culture responded to the unfortunate series of events that forced her resignation in April and the subsequent storm of protests from around the globe – in which this portal played a significant role – finally came to a quick and happy conclusion. Not so happy, it seems to some members of the Kalakshetra staff who have written to the Ministry about their unhappiness over Delhi’s decision. So Leela Samson has her work cut out for her. Dissension among the staff even during her tenure was not a secret and now her return is certainly not bringing universal smiles on the campus. With a full schedule of tours and teaching (UK and USA in the next two months) her balancing act will be very closely watched.  We promise to keep you posted of developments. For now, another huge THANK YOU for all those who rallied behind our online petition to reinstate Leela Samson.

Early last month, I had the unique opportunity to visit Sydney and listen to the amazing acoustic rehearsals of the classical music ensemble called THE SONG COMPANY. Singing daily in an old church with the expected stained glass windows and long pews, the magical sound that emerged from 7 singers - male and female – as they illuminated the classics in Latin and Olde English, reminded me of the power of the human voice and the nature of what it meant to raise one’s voice in praise of the divine. The harmony, unison and superb co-ordination left me speechless and with wet cheeks. The lack of any amplification reminded me of how much we need to hear such concerts in India. Just the voice, with its minutiae of inflections and microtones, gentle and soft accompaniments if any, and the welcoming silence of a clutch of ‘rasikas.’ The SONG COMPANY was selected to perform a lovely libretto written and composed by British-Australian composer Nicholas Routely on our very own DRAUPADI. I had been invited to listen and participate in discussions of how to bring this composition to the stage using props, costumes and theatre craft.

While in OZ, I discovered a culture that was very aware of all health trends including gluten free croissant in the smallest morning coffee shop and healthy alternatives to all the high fat and pure cream filled OZ foods.  Diva dancer and choreographer Anandavalli invited me to watch the ADELAIDE DANCE THEATRE company in their latest work, which left me breathless.  Literally. Nonstop high energy movement and an almost impossible physicality bordering on acrobatic, and a 45-minute seamless presentation had the full house on the edge of their seats. When the white wall moved downstage and the last dancer had clambered through the slits in the cloth and slid down its smooth incline, the entire hall erupted into a collective exhale and a   standing ovation. Without an intermission and a single length evening work of 45 minutes is this company’s signature. Having watched contemporary dance in so many countries, I can say that this ensemble of dance-warriors (that is the only word that truly describes their skills) is a fresh voice and a definite “must-see” in any dance lover’s calendar.

It is a pity that we don’t get to see much art from Australia except for the occasional government to government tours which then exports the aboriginal Bangarra company and other tourist pleasers. The music of Australia’s indigenous peoples is so exciting and I had the opportunity to listen and watch one group while walking around Circular Quay for the VIVID FESTIVAL in Sydney. Dressed in their traditional clothes with painted faces and playing an ensemble of didgeridoos and drums, the effect was a combination of trance and magic. I had never heard a set of 9 didgeridoos played in harmonious unison, each with a separate pitch and intensity. What marred this beautiful moment for me was the onlookers throwing coins onto a black cloth spread in front of the musicians. Purchasing their music CDs would have been a far better way of showing appreciation and support.

My presentation at the INDIA RESEARCH CENTRE of Macquaire University brought a whole new audience of students, local dancers and gender theorists. Having Professor Yudhishtir of the American University in Paris commentate on my performance and talk of HER AND BLISS, was a wonderful touchstone for my own developing theories on the SACRED IN PERFORMANCE. As expected, ANDAL and TARA stole the show. As for Andal, an interesting and controversial matter will be discussed later.

The VIVID festival is an international lighting event which picks important architectural  landmarks in the city and commissions video and lighting designers to project artistic lighting with music and movement ONTO the exteriors of these buildings. The result is not some haphazard kitsch but a carefully thought out series of images from planes landing, children flying off with balloons, street activity and animals leaping – all measured to leap off windows, crawl into a crack in the wall or just blur in front of your eyes, with building after building having very different video art. The Opera House had a moving image of an Asian dancer crawling and leaping in Butoh like slowness across the famous white wing tips of the structure. All this in the height of an OZ winter where the locals were holding huge ice cream cones and enjoying the sights.

Writing this monthly column has helped me connect with so many of you who seem to look forward to my musings. I have been used to speaking my mind and so accustomed to resistance to my words and work that when a Chennai based arts organization called me to say that I was being conferred an award for my contribution to Indian dance, my first reaction was ME? WHY? And not “THANK YOU. I AM SO GRATEFUL.”

And so it goes... Some time to connect with my two kids who are both in New York City and later to travel to Santiago, Chile for an Oxford University led conference on RELIGION, THEATRE AND PERFORMANCE.  On June 1st I was in Sydney, on July 1st in New York and on August 1st it will be Santiago. These are the perks of being an artiste where the world is literally our stage.

I close with a recent disturbing incident involving the story of Andal. This 7th century Tamizh mystic poet is revered as a Goddess among her people and a new article in the Madras University Tamizh language syllabus portrayed her in a very negative light. The Tamizh writer had claimed that Andal was the illegitimate child of the priest Perialwar and that she came from a family of dubious reputation. Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, Jayalalitha immediately intervened in this matter that created an uproar amongst Andal’s followers – and they are in the millions around the world – and the story was removed from the syllabus. With a long history of caste based issues  plaguing my home state, this is the latest in the pathetic  attempts of a few politicians to dishonor the memory of those beloved by so many . For those of us who believe in and admire Andal as the crucible of early Indian feminist poetry and metaphor, these incidents are both hurtful and   unnecessary when the world at large and the arts scene itself needs understanding, harmony and healing.

And so it goes… up and down... in all our lives…
Keep good health, in body and mind.
Keep those limbs pliant and the mind nimble.

- Dr. Anita R Ratnam
New York/ Des Moines/ Minneapolis/ Santiago


Dear Ms. Ratnam,

I now see the bigger issue behind your lament. Desecration of heritage structures by bigots out of sheer malice to suit their whims has a long history in India. Remember Karikaala Cholan who threw away the statue of Govindarajan from the Chidambaram shrine? The only difference is the scale of such acts, there are many such Karikaalans in today's world. Sanskritization has the highest opposition in the Tamil land since a long time. But in today's world, when the differences between people have blurred (has it really?), it is quite appalling to see people behave this way. Anyway, thanks for bringing this issue to light.

Sumana Srinivasan
(July 2, 2012)

Dear Ms. Srinivasan

Thank you for the mail. I agree that Andal's birth is not important and her poetry and defiance at that early time in 8th century is far more meaningful. Whether she was born "on the wrong side of the tracks" does not diminish the impact of her life and words. I think that this reaction from me is coming from a long history of deliberate devaluation of many symbols, lives and iconic tropes.

Placing the statue of a unknown local politician outside the entrance of the Srivilliputtur shrine, whose gopuram has been the symbol of Tamilnadu for decades.
Inserting hagiographies about unknown and mediocre people into Tamil textbooks and deliberately misleading an entire generation of government school children about Ram and Krishna is but a small example.

We can continue to ignore all such incidents, but I am only commenting after Ananda Vikatan and Tamizh news channels picked up on this story last week. I did not bring this issue to light. Already thousands have protested like they did when the previous Pope travelled from Rome and announced on DIWALI DAY about ten years ago - in New Delhi - his plan to EVANGALISE ASIA. Why on Diwali Day? Should we have ignored that timing? China had refused entry to HIS HOLINESS on that same trip?
If I protested in a signed petition - which I did along with several other citizens- does that make me less liberal a thinker and more secular?

These questions are troubling to me as are the issues and circumstances they arise from. I hope that I did not ramble on for too long. I am a huge fan of Andal and her words. Thank you for taking the time to read and write.

Anita Ratnam
(July 2, 2012)

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