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July 2023

We are children of our age,
It's a political age.
All day long, all through the night,
All affairs - yours, ours, theirs -
Are political affairs.
Whether you like it or not,
Your genes have a political past,
Your skin, a political cast,
Your eyes, a political slant.
Whatever you say reverberates,
Whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
So either way, you're talking politics.
Even when you take to the woods,
You're taking political steps
On political grounds...

An excerpt from CHILDREN OF THE AGE
By Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska
Anita Ratnam

To say "goodbye" with the flamboyance of a magician
To bid "adieu" with the flair of a showman
To wave "farewell" with the bravado of a warrior

........the stars have to align for that final moment. No matter what your vision board might contain or how many motivational messages you have stuck all over your rooms and your car.
The stars did align and shine - for Akram Khan... for 25 years without a break.

Akram Khan in XENOS
Akram Khan in XENOS

An upward streaking meteor whose brilliance I watched in Birmingham in 1999 when Piali Ray/Sampad mounted her ambitious dance conclave and a young 24 year old British-Bangladeshi dancer electrified the audience. Akram was sharing the stage in a memorable duet called NO MALE EGOS with Mavin Khoo, who was the Bharatanatyam prodigy of the time.

Over 25 years, I have had the good fortune to watch several of Akram's shows in the UK and even invited him for his very first India performance in 2000 to THE OTHER FESTIVAL. It was a solo called LOOSE IN FLIGHT and even on the uneven Museum Theatre stage in Chennai, he took our breath away with an uncanny fluency of movement and spatial brilliance. His manager and chief career architect Farooq Choudhury shared the news that he had mortgaged his house to fund Akram's early career. That was the kind of belief Farooq had in Akram's future!

Now in 2023, watching Akram - bare chested-a less than perfect body - still fired with the passion of a teenager - was not just inspiring. It was moving. On the vast JBT theatre of the NCPA in Mumbai, here was a remarkable artiste-dancer-choreographer-actor-visionary-dreamer-doer-worker standing alone as a vulnerable warrior watching the world crumble - a lone soldier whose fallen army has nothing to do with the war (WW1) they were forced to fight and only the endless repetition of names on a roll call. XENOS was billed as Akram's "LAST SOLO OF HIS CAREER". As a dance work, it was not Akram's best. As an operatic, IMAX kind of live stage experience, it was brilliant. In fact, the star was the SET. Mirella Wiengarten's breathtaking construction was a red earth slope that took 5 days to build with dilapidated furniture tied to ropes. At one moment, after Akram's (mandatory) Kathak solo in a white kurta and "ghunghroos", the chairs and tables were slowly dragged upwards to tip over the edge of the precipice. The somber music prophesied the end of the world, thousands of pine cones came tumbling down over a red tinged surface - the Set design was the star performer in XENOS. Collaborating closely was the sound design -harsh-off key-staccato-disturbing by Vincenzo Lamagna. Even in the soaring chorus sections, there was a sense of doom, skillfully captured by references to classic Western classical and Indian compositions (Mozart, Kabir, Amir Khusroo). Percussionist BC Manjunath continued to amaze global audiences with his versatility. He held the entire pulse of the score with his dramatic "Chollukettu" pneumonic ability.

As Akram danced and struggled and fell and rose and whirled and pranced on the mainstage and along the precipice of the set, I was thinking of the NETFLIX documentary on his life in a series called MOVE. Here he was, dancing from the time of his tiny family apartment above his father's restaurant, dancing through his family's hopes for him to become a food entrepreneur and dancing despite all the doubts that surrounded him. Now a father of two, Akram continues his daily "Riyaz" of 3 hours of Kathak to which he is still faithful. As a student of Pratap Pawar, Akram's love of the classical form has not dimmed even though his global reputation is that of a contemporary dance artiste. When the 49 year old phenomenon completed his final move - a sole pine cone rolling down the slope, the lights dimmed and the house full audience rose to their feet in unison.

For two days, the vast JBT Theatre was packed to capacity and people had flown in from all over India to be a part of dance history. It was exhilarating to feel the anticipation in the foyer and to observe the stunned silence at the end as people filed out.

Special commendations to NCPA Dance Director Swapnokalpa Dasgupta for being at the helm of this challenging event. Deftly navigating huge expectations, egos, the many workshops and conversations built around the two shows while remaining her smiling self was not an easy feat.

Himanshu in Shikhandi
Himanshu in Shikhandi

A week earlier, I was in the small black box theatre of Alliance Francaise, Chennai, watching Bharatanatyam artiste Himanshu Srivastava. Choosing the theme of the conflicted protagonist from the Mahabharata SHIKHANDI, Himanshu developed the doomed saga of a woman forced to deny her gender for the sake of revenge. Born female, rejected by Bhishma, raised as a male, married to a woman, interchanging her gender for a night - and finally confronting her nemesis Bhishma on the Kurukshetra battlefield - were beautifully portrayed. Himanshu has very good technique and evocative abhinaya - both which were used effectively in the 45 minute presentation. A dramaturg would have helped the staging of the piece which had some beautiful moments, especially during the plight of transgenders today who are looked at as sex objects. Being PRIDE month, Himanshu's timely reminder was to alert our cynical selves to the hypocrisy and callous disregard for this community through SHIKHANDI.

Two dancers playing soldiers. One with a rifle in his hands, the other holding the reins of a war chariot carrying ace archer Arjuna and God Krishna alongside. One with a phalanx of over 40 people to create a 65 minute epic for a 2000 strong audience and another - a lone artiste in a modest green room, waiting to perform for 45 people.

What does it take to bring dancers to watch dance? Aditi Mangaldas and Malavika Sarukkai were in the audience in Mumbai and must have been wondering at the large turnout for two consecutive days for XENOS. Akram is more than a decade younger than them and he has hung up his "ghungroos" declaring that his body cannot take the demands he wants to put on it.

Bijayini Satpathy
Bijayini Satpathy

While Akram calls it a day, another 49 year old is wearing weights on her ankles and wrists and putting herself through rigorous daily exercises to prolong her dance life. Bijayini Satpathy is relentlessly working her body to help navigate the next 10 years of her solo career. Understanding how the game has changed, especially with western presenters, this Odissi star is uncompromising in her approach to technique while trying to free Odissi from its linguistic chains. Collaborating with composer Bindhumalini, we are going to see a lot more of Bijayini in the years to come.

Sailaja and her students S Vidhya & Rashmi R ChowalloorS Vidhya & Rashmi R Chowalloor
Sailaja and her students S Vidhya & Rashmi R Chowalloor

Arangetrams are the buzzword for this time. They are everywhere and in Chennai, it is almost always Bharatanatyam debuts. When Kuchipudi artiste Sailaja invited me to her students' Arangetram, I was pleased to see traditional dance pieces on the programme roster. For me personally, Kuchipudi demands a certain 'Lachak', a saucy gait and a mischievous demeanour that sets it apart. Trying to make it too much like Bharatanatyam deprives the form of its original flavour. The music, set to lyrics in Telugu and Sanskrit, contribute to the regional flavour of the form.

However, when students complete their 2 hour formal debut, they mostly disappear for other horizons. Unlike colleges and universities, they do not behave like alumni of an institution that they have been a part of for at least 10 to 15 years. They neither continue dancing, nor do they become patrons, rasikas or future audiences. So what then is being taught in dance class if not a lifelong loyalty to the art form in one way or the other? Educational institutions rely heavily on their students to fund many important advances in endowments and scholarships and never hesitate to request their alumni for money. Why are dance institutions whose student body professes to "love" their gurus never continue a relationship beyond an occasional visit and a gift?

Should gurus be thinking differently about their students beyond teaching them a "sacred" art?
Each time I attend a performance of any dance company in North America or the UK, I am asked for my email id and permission to receive emails. Promptly I receive news of their classes, touring calendar, scholarships and annual gala. I am invited to rehearsals and to even sit in on choreography sessions. Every dance organisation is built around best business practices. Donors, patrons, sponsors, supporters, board members, loyal audiences - everyone is committed to the company's wellbeing and future. It is not focused on a single person. Responsibility and accountability rests with everyone.

K Pop band BTS
K Pop band BTS

South Korea is actively using its hugely popular K POP artistes to attract tourists. Along with their traditional dance forms, it is the performing arts that are a visual tool for the country's tourism industry. Spain uses Flamenco and Portugal its soulful musical tradition of FADO performances. If the era of putting classical dancers and musicians on Indian tourism posters is old fashioned, there is Bollywood and cricket as two powerful modern tools of soft power! What about the new superstars? Chefs, Fashion designers, writers and painters! Why is India's tourism policy so out of sync with the possibilities and potential? Today several Gen Z dancers are also excellent graphic artists, filmmakers, Social media strategists and economists. The Indian culture ministry should tap this gold mine for ideas and marketing plans.

The beautifully rehearsed U Penn Acapella singing group welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the steps of the White House during his official visit to the USA. All the musicians were of Indian origin and born in the USA. Choosing a repertoire of popular songs without any instrumentation (acapella uses only vocals as orchestration and percussion). The video went viral and now the students are stars with invitations to visit India! And U Penn is using this opportunity to advertise its approach to diversity!

From Mumbai, Mughal-e-Azam with its cast of 150 artistes and technicians is currently on tour in the USA. Mira Nair's MONSOON WEDDING is playing now on Broadway. Standup comedians are popping up all over. Dancers, however, are nowhere to be seen except on Instagram and the workshops that are being held in the Mecca of Bharatanatyam - no not Chennai. Bay Area, USA!

In all this uncertainty, NRITYAGRAM is looking to build a community of dancers who can come together with the common love for classical dance. For too long we have worked in silos, and now Surupa Sen and Lynne Fernandez are looking to create DANCE COMMONS to find ideas and inspiration for mutual growth and solidarity. I have been waiting for someone with the stature of NRITYAGRAM to take the lead on areas that needed nurturing and shepherding.
Watch our handles for further information.

NATYA space in BengaluruNATYA space in Bengaluru
NATYA space in Bengaluru

The space where dancers rehearse, dream and create must vibrate with joy. And sometimes the same space needs an update. When I walked into the familiar NATYA studio in Malleswaram, Bengaluru, I was met with a riot of colour. The walls were smiling! Everything around me seemed cheerful. Vastu rules were consulted to invite more positive flow of energy. Madhu Nataraj and her committed team transformed a tired studio space into a fresh crucible for further dancing and dreaming.

Madhu is looking far beyond a mere fresh look for her studio. She is actively exploring ideas of LEGACY. A second generation dancer, Madhu, like so many others across the world, is grappling with the challenging prospect of transference. Not just repertoire and choreography- but the responsibility to take the vision forward. Indian dance schools are mostly family centres. Mother-father are dancers. Daughters, sons, daughters-in-law are also performers. Talent does not necessarily pass on from parent to child. How does one preserve, maintain and adapt? Or is it time to shut shop? A pure business model is yet to emerge beyond the Arangetram and item teaching. Is Dance powerful enough to sacrifice your life for it? Many would say NO.

Ashish Khokar
Ashish Khokar
One has to hand it to Ashish Khokar. Through every hurdle, he has saved his father's extraordinary collection of dance memorabilia and transported it to New Delhi's IGNCA premises. And on the last day of June, he released the 24th annual publication of ATTENDANCE in Bengaluru. This year the theme was MOTHERS by dancer daughters. My essay on my mother Leela Chari Ratnam was difficult to contain within the word count specified but it was a good trip down memory lane to mark the important moments of my mother's undeniable imprint on my dance career.

So what will motivate you for the second half of 2023? I found myself smiling ear to ear while watching a video of London dancer Anusha Subramanyam's CHOOGH CHOOGH. A delightful play for the very young, this inventive use of Bharatanatyam and theatre had the kids, parents and teachers transfixed.

What will you do differently to get out of your comfort zone?
What will you do to listen and not suck the oxygen out of every room you enter?
What will you do on a day when you don't feel like dancing?
When will you promise yourself to watch a dance performance of someone who is not your classmate or your friend but attend for curiosity and for the love of dance?

Keep the questions and doubts coming! Restlessness is a gift!

Until next month!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam

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

Thank you, Anita ji, for inspiring us to dream big for the world dance. Having an international dance artiste complete his solo dance career at the India...was special. Honoured and overwhelmed by all the support that we have received from AKC as well as dance lovers across the country for this.
It is because of generous and passionate artistes like yourself who had came to the NCPA to support the event that we are able to present and keep going. More power to you.
- Swapnokalpa Dasgupta (July 1, 2023)

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