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June 1, 2012

The morning sun hits the yellow apartment block through the vertical window shades and spills a brilliant hue on concrete.  A warm “hello” from wintry Australia!

It is cold in Sydney, and having left  40 degree swelter just 24 hours ago in Chennai, I am chilly, sitting wrapped in fleece and banging away at the keyboard.  A new country, a new hemisphere, a quiet airport, friendly immigration and customs staff who actually smile and say “hello” were unexpected for this world traveller. 

Looking forward to my interactions with research students engaged with interculturality and politics of presentation and representation through the lens of tradition, hybridity and modernity is one of the interesting listings on my week long diary. (Try to process that academic heading for my talk!) Another is the potential collaboration with western composers and their “take” on Indian epics. Will keep you all posted on my Sydney diaries as they evolve.

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN IGNORE DANCE ON TV?  This is the provocative title of one of the forums at the New York City annual DCA conference. Watching the mushrooming of dance shows, competitions and showcases featuring such young kids pretending to be adults and performing with amazing skill has changed the way we all watch dance. If we are pretending that these programmes are “not pure”, “not real dancing”, “somewhat cheap”,  then we all need an extra shot of JOLT.  THIS is what seems to mean dance even in India. ‘TA KA DI MI TA’ - the lone classical/folk/neo classical dance based show on Tamil TV continues on Sunday mornings despite being surrounded by film based shows. Its format has undergone a sea change from the early days when I was a guest, judge and performer. Still, Sunday mornings finds many dancers glued to their TV screens to watch what producer Radhika Shurajit has conceived each week. The DCA event is focusing on the challenges facing dance writers today. Shrinking space for serious discourse and various new media becoming the choice for these dance shows is forcing dance watching and commentary to re-evaluate and recalibrate like never before. The key word is ADAPT.

This month, I focus on the increasing stress with work visas for Indian performers travelling overseas. Numerous concert tours have been cancelled, postponed and hurriedly recast due to stubborn visa officials or new rules. Daksha Sheth was in panic until the last minute before her group left for the UK, having submitted and resubmitted papers more than twice. Many European countries are getting more and more unreasonable with documentation requests. If a dancer (me) wants to just VISIT a country, the visa officer insists on speaking to me to enquire WHY I am going for a mere visit???? Like I went to sleep wearing “salangai and netti chutti”. Phulleese! Already the UK economy is withering with student visas getting to be impossible and Australia and Singapore reaping the economic benefits of Indian higher education.

Anyway, this increasing cultural border vigilance is making the world a less interesting place and many promoters bankrupt with cancelled shows and tours. Perhaps the one circuit that is buzzing is the Mama-Mami South Indian dance and music circuit. With fan clubs set up in Harvard, MIT and Stanford for Carnatic vocalists, USA is always throbbing with one performer after the other – with curd rice, tamarind rice and potato chips as the diet staple. While it could be counter productive to many performers who wish to break into “mainstream circuits”, it is very valuable to many of our solo divas and devas who excite and inspire thousands of young dancers and musicians.

The well entrenched mode of corruption in the sabha circuit, with dancers paying organisers for a chance to perform is not even commented upon anymore. In this market based economy, where I see long lines before petrol/gas stations for a single litre of petrol or diesel, I wonder why anyone would want to leave their homes to watch a performance in the evening.  Even if it is FREE.  Now it seems that dancers themselves have joined this money making jamboree. Gurus hire halls, pay the weekly rentals, then ask their own students and students of other gurus who never get a chance to perform, to pay a fee to dance. A good way of making money, proving that they are giving young dancers “AN OPPORTUNITY” and laughing all the way to the bank. Amidst all this, where are the pathways to professional development of an artiste? Where are the support systems that can enable serious dancers to continue and be inspired by affiliated systems like education, advocacy, pedagogy and choreography? Granted that western modes do not sit comfortably on the Indian guru-sishya template but we have dismantled that formula recently and even good gurus are finding newer ways of teaching and staying current.

Good news amidst this mire of questions and doubts are several private initiatives like the SAHRDAYA dance camp that connects performers, musicians, academics and theory in a week long engagement near Chennai. And the first complete NATYA SASTRA seminar and workshop conducted by scholar Pappu Venugopala Rao under ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India). Also, a recent gathering of dancers discussing ECONOMICS OF DANCE brought out the sheer SISYPHUS-like endurance today’s performers require to just STAY in dance. Good luck to you all. I could not do it if I was 25 today!

Looks like EVERYONE is dancing for the Olympics. So many of our performers are leaving for the UK saying they are part of the Cultural Olympiad that Heathrow immigration may find more artistes than athletes standing at the airport kiosks! Perhaps they are more wanted overseas than organisers like SPIC MACAY at whose national convention there were only TWO dancers amidst more than 40 musicians. While founder Kiran Seth has pioneered a completely new way of energising the classical arts with young minds for the past 25 years, his slant towards music has always left many wondering. Malavika Sarukkai and Madhavi Mudgal represent the best of their traditions at this sweltering Karnataka venue. In the past, SPIC MACAY has helped hundreds of dancers to tour remote parts of India sharing their skills with young minds. However, it is in Tamilnadu that the formula found the most resistance. I remember walking into my children’s school and college to watch Birju Maharaj and Teejan Bai perform between a span of 7 years. The school kids looked universally unhappy and the college crowd was totally absent, the audience made up completely with outsiders. Even today my son remembers that incident that prevented him from playing cricket with his friends! The absence of a good presenter, the school officials failing to make the event interesting and project Panditji himself as an example of a life dedicated to the arts created this less than pleasant situation.

An update on the Leela Samson reinstatement issue. All the work of the online petition and the emergency board meeting on May 11 at Chennai are completed. The ball is firmly in the offices of the Ministry of Culture and the corridors of Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi. There are numerous points of view, name calling and religion being thrown up. My own name has become part of a fundamentalist petition accusing me of NOT being Pro Hindu by my support of Leela Samson. And so the rumour mill and Chinese whispers continue. Many replacement candidates are waiting quietly for New Delhi to announce the verdict. Meanwhile, Leela Samson will be in the UK, not for the Olympics, but as teacher and mentor for the annual Milapfest Summer Dance intensive and is looking forward to a break from tiresome papers and files. We are all waiting for the final decision of the Ministry to alter their age rules and to reinstate Leela so she can complete her second term as director (only two  years away) before making her decision for the future. Hopefully the age for retirement will be 70 years for all future directors. And who will it be when the changeover happens? Anyone’s guess but for now, all eyes, ears, mobile phones and computer screens are in anticipation.

Closing now to take a morning walk with Bharatanatyam dancer Aruna Subbaiah, a new immigrant to Sydney. We are planning a stroll through the fruit and vegetable markets and a visit later to the annual VIVID festival of arts and outdoor sculpture by the waterfront. Aaah.. .. NNNNNIIIIICE.

Enjoy the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and the longest night for those south of the equator, both this month. Thank you all for the wonderful birthday wishes that poured in through various forums. And keep those feet and hands moving, the metabolic rate pumping and that mind on active-mobile mode.

Anita Ratnam
Sydney/ Chennai

Twitter: @aratnam
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