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July 1, 2015

It's a stage, an arena, a crucible, a cauldron, a theatre, a temple..."
Words in a documentary describing Wimbledon's Centre Court.

As I spend most of my precious free time watching my favourite sport, memories of a recent holiday in Greece cling to me. For years no, five decades - I have longed to visit. Raised on the twin mythologies of India and Greece by my grandmother who would tell these fabulous bedtime stories of the Gods and Goddesses, the soaring pillars of the Parthenon, the magical acoustics of the Acropolis and the glistening waters of the islands were never far from my mind. When a dance conference beckoned, I answered. Although ticket booking snafus ensured that I was only able to attend the event for a few hours, the country seemed like a coming home for my spirit. Everything about Greece seemed familiar. The chaos of Athens, the view of the Acropolis from almost every hotel restaurant in the city, the abandoned theatres of Dionysus, the splendour of history and battle speaking through the vast ruins and magnificent museums, the creativity of design in textile and jewellery, the amazing food (oh that yogurt with honey, olive oil, black salt and fresh bread!), the smile of the Greek people, their pride holding amidst the crumbling economy and grim future - it all seemed so familiar and comfortable. I conducted a parallel narrative to the tour guide's description of the heroics and follies of the male Gods with our own stories of antics and mishaps from Indian lore. My family was repeatedly embarrassed with my continued enthusiasm and poked fun with my impromptu singing inside the Acropolis and dancing in the vast theatre at Delphi. It was MY moment. Unapologetic. Unforgettable. I am returning.

My only disappointment was that not a single handsome Greek man appeared before me. Except for marble statues of Zeus, Poseidon and Hercules in their six-pack nude splendour, all I saw were tired, listless, pot bellied Greeks. Perhaps the good ones were all away attending the HOT BOD GREEK GOD CONFERENCE!

However, the reason for my visit was the dance conference conducted jointly by CORD and SDHS. As expected, the presentations were uneven in content and quality. Most noticeable for those of us from India and the USA was the problematic approach of Indian scholars from the UK. A film showing a classical dancer walking on Kolkata's Howrah Bridge with the voice-over asking, "Look at me!", "Are you looking at me?" threw up dated questions of "the gaze" and a recurring skewed optic. Why is the bedecked Indian dancer continuing to be the site of such 20th century negotiations and that too, by budding South Asian scholars? Is there a chasm dividing dance and performance scholarship in UK universities like Roehampton and the US universities? Why are some points poorly argued? Is there less rigour in mentoring and shepherding students? These were the post presentation arguments that many had.

Father's Day came and went. For those of us who have fathers as a loving memory and for single mothers, like myself, who have raised children without one, it was a moment to contemplate. In the context of dance, we discuss the relationship of mothers and daughters far too much. What about fathers and sons. Sons who wish to be dancers and performers and dads who oppose the creative life? Or sons who inherit the crushing legacy of famous fathers and who struggle all their lives to step out of their shadows? There are many names that come to mind but one is Ashish Mohan Khokar. Son of the legendary dance scholar Mohan Khokar and the graceful and lovely Bharatanatyam dancer M K Saroja, Ashish has spent half his life grappling with the historic legacy of his father's staggering collection of dance memorabilia. Rooms and rooms of books, media clippings, recordings, posters, photographs wait for the appropriate final resting place. A national performing arts museum? A library of the performing arts? We are yet to realise either of these in India and yet, as you read this, 3% of this collection disintegrates each year due to humidity and lack of climate control. Ashish Khokar is acutely aware of this dilemma. A demand for the brilliant collection from libraries and museums around the world grows as the importance of the staggering volume of material increases. How does AMK acknowledge and activate this moment in history for himself? For the dance loving public, he continues his work - publishing the annual editions of ATTENDANCE, activating the DANCE HISTORY SERIES for young performers, writing articles, initiating scholarships, mentoring opportunities and marking WORLD DANCE DAY in Bangalore every April for over 100 emerging performers. What would the memory of fathers who cast long shadows be like for sons who try to engage with the past and the present amongst an India that seems increasingly philistine in attitude?

I experience these thoughts as I start to document my 1500 plus books and other materials on dance. Textiles, drapes, recordings, photographs of my 50 years of performance - memories of world leaders, family and relatives in a variety of smile and tear worthy moments. If I - a first generation artiste - feel so overwhelmed, what must be the situation of many other children of great dance parents?

New Delhi artistes have the advantage in many avenues. Those of us who do not live in or near the capital city have to work harder for the largesse of grants, performance opportunities and tours. However, Delhi performers came under scrutiny last month for the unwelcome overstays at government sponsored housing at the coveted Asiad Village. A list of names were published in the Times of India, with details of how long each dancer and musician had been staying in those facilities. Now what emerges from this information is anybody's guess. Free housing is always a boon for any artiste who manages to sustain and create his/her art in the most humble surroundings. Will the named dancers and musicians move out of their homes? Will they be issued notices? Will it be brushed under the carpet? Who knows? This is India - anything can happen.

Who could ignore International Yoga Day? Nobody. Not even passengers on Spice Jet who were treated to UPA YOGA high in the sky on 30 select flights courtesy ISHA YOGA teachers. The entire world stretched and breathed and contorted into various positions and demonstrated how global this phenomenon has truly become. Dancers who were wise enough to also morph into yoga teachers years ago now will have little problem of balancing checkbooks. Breathe in, pay out!

June 26th marked a historic day for Equal Rights in the USA. Social media turned rainbow and many gay couples "came out" with pride. I hope this is an encouraging sign for many Indian male dancers who are crushed with the weight of society and family to introspect and come to terms with their sexuality. I have seen too many talented dancers stuck in closets, marrying for the sake of family, public acceptance and fathering children while living double lives. I see them almost daily - their private frustrations manifesting itself into OTT costumes, bright make up, awkward mannerisms and cringe worthy affectations. Would Indian parents agree to send their sons and daughters to teachers who are not heterosexual? Would presenters hesitate to include them in their programming? The former is the question - not the latter. Outward appearance and social acceptance seems to leapfrog over more immediate matters like personal integrity and happiness. Will this landmark ruling in the USA help the Indian male dancers in that country "come out" with more confidence? The day of the ruling saw the images of LGBT community celebrating all over India... but it was bordering on a freak show.

While in Greece and somewhat away from daily news and social media, I was flooded with information about the brash statement of Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna. His Facebook proclamation that he is withdrawing from concerts in the annual December Margazhi season in Chennai set the news wires and tongues ablaze. But not in Chennai. After 3 days of discussion, the city dismissed his statement as a "cranky tantrum" and moved on. An overheard conversation at a canteen over dosa and coffee summed it up best. Two middle aged silk sari clad women said "What if Krishna does not sing? There are so many more singers to listen to!" And loud slurp followed. TMK, as he is known to all, is a brilliant musician on the threshold of 40 years. His statement has angered the many organisations in the city that nurtured his precocious talent for 25 years. To include in his controversial statement that "music has fled from the season" was a damning blow to all those excellent artistes who command huge audiences and respect for their craft. Read more about this controversy that made more waves in north India and with the left of centre ideologists than right here at his Madras stomping ground. Roses and Thorns has the issue in detail.

Astad Deboo at Stockholm on June 3, 2015
at the Winter Garden, Grand Hotel, Stockholm

The toll of international travel and a solo path has not deterred the one and only Astad Deboo, He continues to amaze us all. From a command performance for the Royal family of Sweden, to a special performance with Japanese flautist at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, Deboo blazes his own path. On a continuous loop with composers, presenters and top notch audiences, this 68 year old is an inspiration for two generations of Indian dancers. Despite numerous closed doors in his native India, Astad continues to beat down the opposition with engaging performances with the drummers of Manipur. His memorable work with special needs youngsters is laudable as is his commitment to the Manipuri drummers. Quiet and determined, Deboo has stayed the course and has now morphed into another avatar as Co-editor of a volume on contemporary dance. Wah Astad! His calendar is the envy of soloists like myself who constantly search for newer avenues to engage audiences (and myself). Bravo Astad! May your spirit never dwindle until the last breath!

And what about Ramli Ibrahim? He never stops also does he? An honorary Indian citizen with the length of time he spends in our country, Ramli is co artistic director, overseeing Malaysia's moment in the spotlight. With focus on this charming and complex country in the upcoming ASEAN celebrations in September, 19 world premieres in classical, traditional, neo classical and contemporary theatre and dance are unfolding in 30 days. Watch for more details about this spectacular and ambitious event with an insider's eye in this space.

The final days of June saw me immersed in watching, mentoring and judging several classical dance events. My observations on the nature of performance and approach were several. Bharatanatyam in Tamilnadu has become over dramatic, filmy in a negative way and begging for better training and imagination. The musical scores are appropriated from cinema and folk dance. Choreography includes martial arts, yoga and unnecessary appendages like 4 feet moustaches and wobbly crowns for the anti heroes. Male dancers need to rethink costume design quickly. Standards of presentation, performance and content are far better outside Tamilnadu. Take for instance the short video clip I watched of the recently concluded DANCE ASIA event in Singapore. The usual clutch of teachers were present but the students looked fresh, smart, motivated and interesting to watch. Good technique and pliant bodies from Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Australia met for 7 days to immerse themselves in learning, watching and doing. In Chennai today, we cannot get a commitment for more than 5 days and that too part time. Forget an 8 hour day long intensive for a week. There will be low enrolment!

In this disappointing moment, I realise that there ARE serious dancers who are enmeshed in the loop of family, money, income, daily chores. Does dance fit into life or does life happen around dance? Easier to argue the ban on Maggi noodles rather than solve this eternal conundrum.

The latest performance rage in India is stand up comedy. Original stand up comics must have been classical dancers. Recall the panting diva standing before the microphone to explain her next item "Huff, puff,, husband going, lover coming". Puff puff.. "God is my lover, I am also the lovee". We just did not realise that this genre which is now India's hottest performance genre, filling clubs and halls everywhere, could have started with the classical dancer!

July is monsoons, nostalgia and romance. It marks the end of the two year PADME project with the group performing at Auroville, Pondicherry and finally, Chennai. I explore fashion and art with designer Tarun Tahliani and excerpts of A MILLION SITAS. And I continue to sort through my decades of articles, photos and reviews... Whew!

To all those dancers coming to India for the summer. Welcome. The stores are waiting for your generosity. The tailors are waiting for orders. Jewellers are standing by for those special designs and dance musicians on call for the exorbitant fees you pay so willingly. Welcome home. Dance on. We will join you or watch.

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Bombay/ Kolkata/ Delhi

PS: Congratulations to Alarmel Valli who is receiving the prestigious NATYA KALA ACHARYA award from the Madras Music Academy in December and Malavika Sarukkai who is a member of the new Executive Committee of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and for her delightful keynote speech at the first day of Kalakshetra's new academic year.

PPS: Applause for AALAAP, a Chennai based arts organisation for continuing its faith in the performing arts. Their recent BOTA - Battle of the Anklets - was a huge success although the varying standards of groups left me really worried about the state of BN in my city.

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

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