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July 2020

We dance...
to breathe, to bring the soul to the fore, to be free
to remember, to experience, to imagine, to connect, to share
to include all and leave none, to travel together, to persevere
to lift each other's spirit, to realise possibilities, to transcend boundaries
to inhabit spaces beyond the body, to manifest the extraordinary
to stand in the present and reach out to the future, to conjure the unknown
to be proud in our bodies, to coalesce all parts of our being into one
to wear eyes and ears all over our bodies, to welcome all colours and sounds
to reach the centre from the periphery
We dance to feel alive!
Stand up for dance! Stand up for all!

- Jayachandran Palazhy (Founder, Artistic Director, Attakkalari)



Another month passes. Touch is out. Distancing is in. Tempers run rampant. Patience runs thin. The body passes into numbness, no matter how hard we try to find a rhythm and a routine. Television is a cannibal, feeding on carcasses of dead ideas. In small cozy WhatsApp groups, the elite discuss "serious" issues and weigh in on life and death matters while sipping a "garam chai", filter coffee or a chilled Chardonnay - with coordinated designer masks of course!

How much longer can we continue to hope that things will resume as they were for the live arts? How fervently can we pray for the world to resume its chaotic but recognizable patterns? How many more appeals can we encounter without withering into cynical ennui? For those of us who have donated, supported, purchased and encouraged performers, crafts persons, weavers and creative people across all spectrums, the endless litany of woes does not seem to have a finish line.

Every evening, while the Social Media pages are ablaze with innumerable topics, I turn to a book or a piece of classical music to calm my restless mind. I have been unable to concentrate for long periods, impossible to watch even my favourite movie in one go. My cooking skills have jumped in quality but I hesitate to post food images in the canvas of hungry, hollow eyes. My feet walk 9 kilometres a day, according to my FITBIT. My body pours with sweat in the Chennai humidity. The mind buzzes but....

This body does not want to awaken to the vibration of dance. So I have allowed myself not to push it towards a compulsory movement. I have not been twiddling my thumbs either. Each month, a new digital avatar arrived onto several of your social media platforms, triggering the young minds and bodies across the globe in new and interesting ways. #BOXED has become a runaway hit... but more about that later.

What can we talk about?
As I write, India's borders are rumbling as soldiers face death. The prospect of war is ever present. Police brutality is not something we read about only in the USA. It is very prevalent in my home State.
But this blog is about DANCE and the LIVE ARTS. So however peripheral dance may seem at the moment, I must marshal my thoughts.


# P for PRIDE MONTH

In many cities across the world, there would have been loud and colourful parades on the streets, but not this year. With the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, #BLACKLIVESMATTER has taken over public psyche. The colour BLACK has become a political marker to use at will.

The alignment of the Indian elite with the #BLM movement is questionable. One tweet or one post does not settle any societal issue. However, the subject of police brutality and caste politics is what needs addressing in India. The recent savage murder in Tamilnadu of a father and son (Jayraj and Bennicks) while in police custody needs to be discussed much more than #BLM in America or Africa.

And what about GAY PRIDE? Why is it that there are no classical dancers in India who are willing to speak up about being OUT AND PROUD? Why the radio silence? The growing clamour of the LGBTQIA+ voices is undeniable. Inclusivity, diversity, gender politics, pronoun alertness - these are all mandatory now in the class rooms of academia. Not however, it seems in the dance schools, the chambers of the Sabha secretaries or the corridors of Culture Departments in India.

We at #TEAMNARTHAKI are delighted to share the voices of three artistes who speak from the heart about their dance and their life choices.

Gerard Samuel, Professor of Dance, University of Cape Town and Tamil/"Black" professional Ballet dancer in South Africa.
Kiran Rajagopalan, Bharatanatyam dancer from New York City
Cameron Shanolin Govender, a makeup artiste and Bharatanatyam dancer in Durban, South Africa

You can read their thoughts here.


#P for PROTEST and POWER SHIFTS
Several postings on Facebook have declared that the old order has passed. That the time of reckoning for the traditional power brokers is over. That there will emerge a new order where everybody and anybody can dance, speak and express themselves. Let's get real. Nature abhors a vacuum. This pandemic will throw up a new generation of selfish arts brokers. They will take the place of the Sabha secretary, festival director and patron - speaking better English and trying to lure us with designer e- mailers. And this new cabal will continue to feed off the very same dancers by using the same formula. "We will give you a chance!"

So for those who are PROTESTING about intolerant seniors who are criticizing the plethora of dancing on social media daily, all I can say is that, "if you choose to put yourself out there, then be prepared to be commented upon!" This bland, universal act of compassion does not work in the arts. It is a subjective field and what one person likes may not appeal to another.

So, dancers, grow a spine. All who choose to post photographs gazing into some distant sunset, please also acknowledge that you are part of an elite squad and that we all occupy the place called...

#P for PRIVILEGE - with skills of the English language and access to multiple digital devices.
Please notice that there are very few online sessions in regional Indian languages.

So stop whining about BULLYING, SARCASM and OPINONS.
Post your thoughts but don't complain when others also post theirs alongside that may not satisfy your idea of "kindness", "compassion" and "objectivity".


#P for PLANNING
Why would any good dancer want to embellish another platform instead of building their own? Are dancers so lazy as to not look at the obvious staring right before them?
Why not develop your own Instagram profile, YouTube channel and nurture your fans and followers?
Why are you giving away your art to another marketing company to monetize after you have surrendered your sweat for next to nothing?
This is the time to start PLANNING for your brand and the future of your art form. If you are a teacher, a choreographer, a motivational speaker, a part time chef, yoga instructor cum Bharatanatyam dancer - turn your attention to developing your own space and platform.

PLAN to monetize your time and talent. PLAN to improve your online sessions with lighting equipment that is surprisingly affordable.
PLAN to purchase a Bluetooth ear phone, take some lessons on how to look at the camera's eye and talk as if to a friend. Learn voice modulation. The best storytellers will shine via this new medium.


#P FOR PRAISEWORTHY

Gauri Diwakar

Navina Jafa

All hail modern dance goddess Amala Shankar who turned 102 on June 27.

Natya Stem Dance Kampni organised the first in a series of curated digital events featuring the multi disciplinary dance-artiste Kiran Kumar. This Berlin-Bengaluru based arts intellectual took audiences through a personal diary/journey/flashback of practice, location and performance.
Tickets were priced at 200 rupees and was offered as an optional contribution.

In Singapore, THE SUBSTATION, the theatre and avant garde arts space held an evening's event billed as a THEATRE TRIPLE BILL. The thoughtfully planned event was first advertised on email and after registration (maximum 100 invitees) a separate mail was sent with a personal password assigned only to that registered person.
Tech, sound and visuals were very good and the talk back with the artistes also well framed.

ENACTE THEATRE ARTS in San Francisco produced their first ZOOM play in June. The impeccable tech support, the long and meticulous rehearsals with the 4 characters (I played the mother-in-law) and the "SOLD OUT" event was a lesson in how creative ideas can be monetized.

Sharmila Biswas conducted a basic but important online session about ways to survive and monetize a dancer's knowledge at a time when nothing seems certain.

Aditi Mangaldas released a series of 5 short films to help raise money for folk artistes. The goal is to raise Rs.6,75,000. This initiative was in collaboration with Raw Mango heritage saris and Teamwork Arts.


SRUTI magazine featured two iconic diaspora artistes and institution builders, Hema Rajagopalan and Ramli Ibrahim on their June cover.

Navina Jafa (Centre for New Perspectives, New Delhi) has been working tirelessly on the welfare of marginalised and often forgotten artistes with a show called TAMASHOW. Galvanizing snake charmers and tapping into children's stories using street performers, this tireless Kathak dancer has been AT IT throughout the entire lockdown period.

Gauri Diwakar has attracted many younger generation performers through her Facebook page GAURI DIWAKAR SANSKRITI SERIES. This star student of Aditi Mangaldas is giving a much needed window for the 30s generation that is becoming impatient with the current status quo of hierarchy. Some of the conversations featured were refreshing in their tone and scope.


#P for PROBLEMATIC
The framing of certain dancers as STARS on Facebook and Webinars. Putting someone in the centre of a frame and surrounding them with other dancers makes it look like a heroine and her "Sakhis". I found this arrangement curiously odd during a recent session about emerging Kathak dancing stars. There was a startling contrast in how Sanjukta Sinha was framed. A perfect black background, mood lighting framing her hair and camera ready. The other equally, if not more talented dancers looked tired and listless. So I hope that the next few months will see our younger generation invest in some good lighting and create a space in their homes for these kinds of sessions since this is going to be the ONLY window through which we engage for the rest of the year.

Also PROBLEMATIC was the use of a long black costume for the online performance of the Urdu song by Farida Khannum - "Aaj jaane ki zid na karo". Dancing in a silk sari for "Krishna Nee Begane Baro" and then changing costume for the ghazal? Black is a politically charged colour now. What was the artiste thinking? Was it supposed to reference a Burkha? Or the faith of the singer? Seated while performing this composition, the ever popular Indira Kadambi did not seem to take any inspiration from the exquisite choreographies featured in films like PAKEEZAH or UMRAO JAAN. Her guru Kalanidhi Narayanan's loosely held "lokadharmi" style of abhinaya hastas adapt very well across languages and dance styles. "Every language has a gait", states dance critic Leela Venkataraman. Urdu has a very different flow and curvature as compared to Tamil, Kannada and Sanskrit. Indira's studio in Bengaluru was a pleasant sight with its spacious minimalism and uncluttered background. However, the ghazal section seemed contrived.

Extremely PROBLEMATIC is the increasing colourism and casteism that permeate all corners of India. The corporate giant Unilever has blithely rebranded their best selling FAIR & LOVELY CREAM to LOVELY CREAM. While substitute words like GLOWING & RADIANT are being tested to take the place of FAIR, corporate greed continues unabated, fuelled by India's matrimonial ads. Look at the way we describe some dancers, "She is dark but very talented!"

Increasingly PROBLEMATIC for our online portal is the lacunae of writers. With no ground events and all performative experiences online, we are finding it a real challenge to urge even the known names to write about events.

The scrapping of the ECA certificate for students. This EXTRA CURRICULAR ACTIVITY talent was previously considered for admission into prestigious universities like DELHI UNIVERSITY. In choosing to eliminate this, Indian academia seems to be saying "Liberal Arts Studies is a useless pursuit!"

In a recent survey by the Singapore Straits Times newspaper, the most useless profession was ARTIST. Yes. ARTIST - THE MOST USELESS PROFESSION as determined by Singaporeans! I don't have enough room to post my expletives!


#P for PERFORMANCE
Off stage...
Dancers have found various ways with which to engage with the current situation.
And it does NOT involve dancing!
Three dancers are making news in the theatre of FOOD!

Yoga instructor-dancer-chef Mohan Kulasingam is flooding his social media pages with delicious food from his new eatery FAUNE in Brooklyn, NYC.
Revanta Sarabhai and wife Priyanka Varma are catering special meals from Coastal South India called SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST in Ahmedabad.
Mohanapriyan Thavarajah is baking a cake every day in Singapore to help folk artistes in India through Samarpana.

Divya Ravi is actively promoting Veganism and a plant based lifestyle on her Instagram handle.
Contemporary dancer Hemabharathy is attributing her clear complexion and pain free joints to eliminating all salt and sugar from one's diet and switching only to millets!


Aniruddha Knight

Zakir Hussain
Memoir writing has been another way to engage with both oneself and the public.
Aniruddha Knight has begun an occasional column about his illustrious family on Facebook.
Zakir Hussain has begun to serialise his eventful life in a bilingual post. The diary style of personal anecdotes makes it an interesting read.

In Boston, dancer-painter Mesma Belsare has started a video series of inspirational quotes to motivate and calm restless and anxious minds. Her first posting was about the Greek philosopher PLATO.


#P for PEARLS OF THE PAST

Guru Herambanathan

One of the few gripping online talks was given from Tanjavur by traditional guru Herambanathan Bavupilai. The 2 hour session was so engaging with this hereditary artiste sharing memorable vignettes from his early days and memories of the glorious women artistes in his family. The retelling- entirely in Tamil - brought out the following gems.

1. Coming from a family of mridangam artistes, his passion for nattuvangam was so great, that when he stood before the magnificent lingam of Tyagaraja inside the Bridhadiswara temple, he would hand over his mridangam to the nattuvanar and take the cymbals into his hands to practice.

2. The female artistes in his lineage were so talented, learned and generous that they deserved to be "worshipped".

3. That many of the men from these very same hereditary families lived off the earnings of the female performers.

4. The dancers were so cherished, respected and honoured that they slept on beds of sandalwood with velvet duvets and were gifted precious stones that they tied in small pouches.

5. That before any major celebration, all the jewellery worn by the women (real diamonds, gold, rubies and emeralds) would be taken to adorn the idols of Lord Siva and Goddess Periyanayaki. After the idols were brought out in a procession, the male hereditary artistes would carefully remove these ornaments and hand them over to the dancers. It is only then that the performance would begin.

Such valuable nuggets of history is what we are all longing to listen to. Like children waiting for a story, these kinds of narratives are particularly moving when they come from the lived experience of a traditional guru whose entire life has been in the same town and whose deep connection to place and temple is undeniable.


# OF NEPOTISM AND CABALS
The shocking suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has stirred a hornet's nest. Of sinister cabals within the film industry and the ruthless decimation of good talent from "outside".
What about the dance world? How different is this really from the tight grip and blatant game that some Sabhas and a handful of festival directors play?

Taking the Chennai dance season as an example, let's ask these questions.

Why is it that the same faces are being seen year after year?
Why are mothers and daughters being programmed again and again?
Why are dancing gurus and their students featured on the same platform repeatedly?
Why are some senior dancers, who are gatekeepers at important festivals, knowingly keep their rivals out of the roster?
Why is there no difference in the dance aesthetic that is being touted as "pure", "authentic" and "classical"?

Who is this "dance mafia" that refuses to budge from their antiquated and strongly held positions?

Well, well, well... the ground is surely shifting.

What will this pandemic, the crisis in the live arts sector and the emergence of new talent prove?
What will the use of technology reveal, besides showing tired dancers in their living rooms or dance studios?
How will audiences, who are being force fed like geese before the slaughter for PATE, take to this "new normal?"
Will they pay to see this same repertoire being regurgitated again and again?
Will they be willing to pay at all?
Will they be turned away from Bharatanatyam and other classical dance forms after 3 or more months of being bludgeoned every single day?

How will content producers be able to adapt?


#DANCE AND MENTAL HEALTH

Srinidhi Chidambaram

When we come to the emotional health of dancers, we are surely in a crisis. Let us not think that ALL classical dance gurus are doing just fine with their ZOOM classes seamless replacing their regular sessions. In Kerala, where the connectivity is always problematic, ZOOM dance classes have failed miserably.

Doctor-dancer Srinidhi Chidambaram mooted an excellent idea about the fragile nature of an artiste's emotional health during this Covid crisis. She, along with Dr. Sabhiha Sultana, organized an online live session in association with ABHAI. While the participants were surely well meaning, psychological health is a matter for professionals and not for dancers to grandstand with trivial comments. "Artistes have a 6th sense!" was one of the statements made during the discussion. What is that 6th sense? Is that inner voice telling the most famous and successful of actors, painters, designers and dancers that "YOU ARE USELESS!" How is it that the community most at risk for self harm is the artistes? What did that SIXTH SENSE tell the amazing RANJABATI SIRCAR who took her own life 22 years ago? What about successful celebrities like Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain?

How can someone who is sunk into depression even consider helping themselves? It is usually the family - as primary care givers - who reach out for help. And of course, in India there is a stigma for saying one needs counselling. We have had times in our lives where we needed to reach out to someone outside family. I really hope that the helpline provided is used and that there are some helpful conversations around mental health that will emerge.


#BOXED - #UNBOXYOURSELF

It finally came to a glorious finish!

The weekend #BOXED series
May 16th to June 28th

7 weekends of 2 minute original choreographies
40 artistes
30 original music compositions
9 countries
25 cities
And
21 short films created by dancers

The satisfaction of seeing a team of young enthusiastic professionals that could become stakeholders in my small idea and then go on to inspire so many artistes, week after week for 7 weeks - to take the risk that we asked of them - and to see their beaming faces has been well worth it.

The poll and the best of BOXED will be played later this month with the top 10 selections. The finalists will receive a complimentary session across disciplines with a senior professional. Choreography, Dramaturgy, Costume Design, Grant writing, retelling of myth, video editing, and many more useful resources that young dancers will find tremendously helpful.



And finally...
#P for PERSISTENCE, PASSION, PROFESSIONALISM

Keep all these qualities in mind. We have at #TEAMNARTHAKI. From the first phone book in 1993 to this monthly newsletter, we have tried to embed these qualities. We will not back down from observing, commenting, encouraging, supporting, creating, cheering, mentoring, applauding and yes, even BOOING!

So, in the present cacophony of noise... I leave you until the next time with this Pandemic prasadam.

Takita taka-takita taka-takita taka- tattjam
To
Yakkety yaka - yakkety yaka - yakkety yaka -yaka nnam!
(Thank you, Ananda Shankar Jayant, you nailed it!)

- Anita R Ratnam
... staying put..
in eternally locked down Chennai


Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in


Comments
*
Many asked me the same question about costume for ghazal that I performed recently on Instagram. Well... it was just to give that special touch to that beautiful ghazal. The entire music team - lyricist,  composer,singer, also my friend who translated this song for me...all are from Pakistan. I just felt much more connected to the song wearing this beautiful black costume..Black is beautiful too! Regarding getting inspiration from movies like Umrao Jaan - No doubt I loved those movies. But it is this particular ghazal tune and Fardia Khannum's voice that inspired me in this case.
- Indira Kadambi (July 2, 2020)



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