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July 2022

"I am nearly 75 years old. I live in freedom in an extraordinary city and worry about my former home and my mother's grave in (former Soviet) Latvia. This is Putin's war, not Russia's battle. I am not afraid to speak out and address Putin directly. This cycle of hate and fear cannot last."
- Ballet icon and choreographer MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV in a television interview from New York.

Anita Ratnam

Everything seems be on fire. Ideas. Ethics. Morality codes. Our words and actions.
Violence in several ways. Bloodshed through hatchets or by the gavel of the law.

In these turbulent and troubling times, we, the community of performing artistes, need to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Does it merely have a meaning for us, for our spirits and our souls? Is it a mere palliative, dousing us with self importance and creating an echo chamber for those who are willing to gather at our feet? Does beauty have power? Does the act of art making have a purpose beyond spreading positivity and hope? Is that not enough by itself?

Being away from home and the country creates a shift inside your being. I have found that from the moment I sit in my airplane seat, my mind begins to wander - forwards and backwards. What has just occurred and what is to unfold. I also find myself searching for WHERE I locate myself in the world of the Performing Arts. As someone who does not qualify as a "busy dancer" or a "teacher/guru" in the traditional sense of the word, I question myself as to "why" I continue on the path that I have chosen. And then something happens, a stranger approaches me in flight or during transit from another land, and the compliments spring forth about a work, a comment I have made on social media or a video they have watched during the pandemic. The self belief returns, stronger than ever, and I am smiling - inside.

annual ABHAI dayannual ABHAI day

annual ABHAI day
With Chitra Visweswaran & Sudharani Raghupathy

Just before I left for faraway Iceland to the IFTR theatre conference, I was fortunate to attend the annual ABHAI day event in Chennai. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium in Mylapore was filled with dancers across generations and there was a palpable sigh of relief from everyone who was meeting face to face - hugs, embraces and all - after two long years. It was heartwarming to sit next to Sudharani Raghupathy (who lost her husband to Covid in May 2020), Chitra Visweswaran, Padma Subrahmanyam, VP Dhananjayan and others. When the 92 year old guru Kalyanasundaram Pillai walked in, slightly bent, but mind and voice still booming, he was greeted with applause and warm smiles.

Aniruddha Knight sat on the dais along with the other awardees and listened patiently to tributes being paid to his grandmother T Balasaraswati. I wondered why people don't speak about Ani and his spectacular teaching style and the methodical way he has been training his students. Instead they always refer to his ancestors! The THERUKOOTHU senior Purisai Sambandham was also among the honourees and ABHAI must be lauded for looking beyond Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music when they selected the names.

The other honourees were Geeta Chandran, Chitra Visweswaran, Saraswati Sankaranarayanan, V Balagurunathan, Madurai R Muralidharan, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Uma Anand, Rangashree Srinivas, K Hariprasad, and Chinnamannur J Krishnakumar.

When it came time for Chitra Visweswaran to close out the morning, Guru Kalyanasundaram insisted that there had been enough "English speaking" and that it was time for dance! He literally "ordered" Chitra to express her thanks through movement. With her student Uma Sathyanarayanan singing an Alapana, Chitra danced her admiration for ABHAI leadership under Roja Kannan and Priya Murle who aided so many impoverished artistes who were affected by COVID. It was a lovely moment of camaraderie that ended with yours truly (who was not among the honourees) being once again "ordered" by Kalyanasundaram Sir to come onto the stage for a group photo! He had literally taken over the proceedings! But nobody was complaining.

With Madhu Nataraj & Ketu Katrak
With Madhu Nataraj & Ketu Katrak

For two years, the globally acclaimed digital series BOXED has become the focal point of creativity and excellence during the pandemic. At the INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF THEATRE RESEARCH annual event, the 7 week series, that premiered on May 16, 2020, was the theme of a joint presentation ideated by theatre and dance scholar Ketu Katrak from the University of California, Irvine. Already featured prominently during the online conferences held in 2020 and 2021, this return to the creation and presentation of the 2 minute videos seemed like "déjà vu" to me but the small gathering of scholars listened eagerly to the process. Dr Katrak discussed the two submissions from her home state of California, one by dancer/doctor Pranamya Suri who performed inside a hospital ward that evoked strong responses. I spoke about the responsibilities of being a producer of the 6 original digital series that NARTHAKI had helmed, including ANDAL'S GARDEN, DEVI DIARIES and my own Instagram engagements.

Madhu Nataraj delved into her experiences as an online learning and teaching platform through her institute NATYA in Bengaluru, the unique choreography course and the outreach initiative title MovED. Madhu is working in areas of Dance for healing, cutting edge technologies via AI and VI and is also part of the ASPEN LEADERSHIP group that is a global cohort of emerging thought leaders.

While there were attempts to deflect and divert attention from the hour long presentation by 2 South Asian attendees with questions about faith and violence directed towards minorities in India, the majority of the comments and engagement circled around the need for compassion, healing and listening.

The overcrowded conference, poor communication between organisers and attendees, a  glaring lack of embodied performances of any kind in the evenings and several other issues of planning were more than made up with the spectacular landscape of Iceland and the genial nature of its citizens. It is a country of dreams, trolls (the real kind!) and Nordic mythic imagination. Iceland is also the first country in Europe to officially accommodate its pre-Christian origins. Worship of nature, volcanoes, water and snowy mountains is growing and finding resonances in other European locations. 

I often wonder about why the India based scholars love presenting and expounding only about negative news from home as the main topics of conversation. As if there is nothing good that is happening. A strong group of attendees from JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) were present, as they are every year, at the IFTR event. A growing tendency for cult gatherings - students and colleagues accumulating around a particular scholar or speaker, irrespective of the topic - was apparent. Dr Richard Schechner of NYU, who has been the frequent subject of "cancel culture", spoke on this subject to a packed hall. The presentation however, was too America-centric.

A French dancer GERALDINE was asked after her presentation on DURGA if she was "beholden" to align with the Hindu faith during her years of training with my guru Adyar K Lakshman.

Such narrow reductions of scholarship and academic presentations are disappointing and do little to further a curious mind, intent to listen and engage with the world of ideas. Academia around the world is not immune to coteries, corruption and scandals. However, we look to the scholars who can embrace rigour and communicate effectively with an open mind and a willingness to listen to opposing points of view. This is fast disappearing and the South Asian dance academics in North America are a classic case in point. Many of them have become self appointed gatekeepers - inviting their protégées and shutting out anyone who does not worship at their altar.

Has the two year Covid devastation not taught us anything?

Was it a shocker? Did anyone see it coming? The regressive and calamitous decision handed down by the US Supreme Court to make abortion illegal in America? That a bunch of narrow minded individuals could actually take America back to the Middle Ages with their "holier than thou" approach to conception, birth and a woman's body. The overturning of the 1973 decision called ROE vs WADE that legalised abortion across the US is now going to have far reaching consequences in the US.

I think of all those women artistes in India and elsewhere who chose to end their pregnancy for various reasons. An unstable marriage. A career that could not be put on hold. A desire NOT to become a mother but to devote one's life to other passions. Bad health. So many reasons beyond rape. India's Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP) in 1971 was amended in 2003 to enable women's accessibility to safe and legal abortion services.

As America, one of the richest and most developed countries in the world re-imagines a world without the autonomy over women's bodies, the Indian law looks sane and mature in comparison.

Two books are out on the subject of hereditary dancers. MUTHULAKSHMI REDDY- A TRAILBLAZER IN SURGERY AND WOMEN'S RIGHTS is the long awaited biography of the pioneering woman. Meticulously researched and penned by former dancer and ardent rasika V R DEVIKA, this book, researched for several decades and written through the two years of the pandemic, will illuminate the inspirational life and times of a woman who several critics recently dismissed as " just another freedom fighter".

The second book is a novel BREAKING FREE written by well known Tamil writer VAASANTHI. She has published the biographies of Tamilnadu Chief Ministers M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa and film superstar Rajnikanth. Now her imagination takes her to the home of two sisters who are from the Devadasi community. The English translation by N Kalyan Raman will make the gripping story accessible to non Tamil readers.

Another well documented volume of rare pictures is by dance "passionista" DONOVAN ROEBERT in South Africa. Through consistent postings on his Facebook page, dancers are seeing magnificent images of hereditary dancers from communities across India. Titled WESTERN TEXTS ON INDIAN DANCE - An Illustrated Guide from 1298 to 1930, this labour of love narrates the fascinating stories of many talented performers about whom little is known.

Compared to the paucity of written material available for my generation of dancers 50 years ago, today's millenials are presented with an embarrassment of riches. I urge all dancers to grab a copy and engage with the subject of dance history through these publications.

Our congratulations to all the authors. Your work is valuable and critical for a greater understanding of these artistes and their roles in the rich tapestry of dance history at a time when the idea of India was but a dream.

M.K. Saroja
M.K. Saroja
G. Ulaganathan
G. Ulaganathan
The roll call of performing greats is increasing with no end in sight. Each time I meet or see a photo of a dancer or musician, I am left wondering if it will be the last time. A few revered dance and music gurus are now afflicted with advanced stages of dementia and are in a pitiable state. June was a particularly devastating month. As the obituaries are published one after the other, I reiterate the importance of remembering the pioneers with the right measure of admiration and curiosity. Not total reverence - which is expected in a society like India - but through a lens that marks their contribution and looks at certain gaps and human frailties in their lives.

Pride flag
Pride flag
Zeeshan Ali
Zeeshan Ali
As another PRIDE MONTH ended, I continue to learn about diversity and difference in our world. There have been many times that I have been called a GAY HAG - an older woman who loves gay men. But let's look at the enormous popularity of American TV shows like DESIGNING WOMEN and GOLDEN GIRLS. These two long running smash hit shows were a favourite among gay men in the 1980s and 1990's. Young gay men could not identify with women their age since the females had to look "feminine" and "girly". These older women like Blanche and Rose in THE GOLDEN GIRLS or Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in GRACE AND FRANKIE were sassy, brassy and confident. They uttered words and phrases that younger women did not dare speak and carried themselves with confidence and aplomb. Gay men adored that kind of boldness and these mature women were like a text book on how to carry themselves with the haughty dialogue they needed to bash back when life got them put down. Singers Cher, Madonna and Lady Gaga are also huge icons in the non binary world. The television show POSE and others have drawn huge audiences but the bottom line is marketing and funding as networks seek newer audiences with affluence and spending power. And more and more non binary individuals spend freely on the arts, fashion, self care and travel.

The Indian situation is rather different but developing slowly. Characters on the screen are still portrayed as flop wristed, speaking with a strange lisp and over made up. Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui who played the villain in the Bollywood film HEROPANTI 2 ended up more of a caricature. Tamilnadu Chief Minister is leading the way by passing a law that can now prosecute police personnel and any official who torments, persecutes or harasses transgenders and anyone from the LGBTQIA+ community.

In dance, we need more courage to address these issues. I often wonder when dancing couples perform why the female cannot be Krishna or Rama and the male Radha or Sita? To go beyond the simpering stereotypes and expected affectations. Why only Shikandi and Brihannala? Shakespeare knew it early with his female characters cross dressing and role playing. And that was in the 16th century! Male dancers who perform traditional repertoire often assume a hyper feminine attitude rather than delving into the essence of the emotion that the poetry contains.

Here, I must remind everyone of the remarkable stage production QUEEN SIZE that was created ten years ago by Delhi dancer Mandeep Raikhy. It was a heart stopping 80 minutes that is a landmark of how a personal sexual motif can be transformed through art into an intensely personal and universal experience. It became a magnificent evening of theatre - not just about Gay men on stage.

As I end this month's column, I send a huge hug to all those artistes and creative souls who are struggling to find their voice and stride. To those who have emerged from the blurry margins, more courage to you. As more and more LGBTQIA+ individuals develop confidence and articulation, I hope that education and understanding leads the way to a more inclusive and interesting world.

I had a fabulous conversation with drag artiste Zeeshan on Instagram and am watching the ongoing collaboration of the Bengal theatre collective SAMUHO (women and queer artistes) with the Tamilnadu KATTAI KOOTHU SANGAM. These inter cultural synergies are the spaces where interesting conversations can occur, and in an increasingly angry and fractured world, these moments are assuring.

Festivals have begun... the world is opening... Monkey pox or more Covid infections are not stopping anyone from travelling any more. Of course dancers are performing. Travel has started. Touring has resumed. Concerts are on the calendar and the arangetram season in the USA is in full swing.

Here's wishing all of you health, an open heart and a curious mind.
There are no absolutes in life.
So think before you say "NEVER."

Until next time,

- Anita R Ratnam
London / Chennai

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

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