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June 1, 2015

“Tennis is like dance. In both we are sculpting space and time. Tennis delivers a victor, Dance, something else.”

- Tennis champion and feminist icon Billie Jean King

Sizzle, Snap, Pop.

The summer heat may have fried some of our brains with 45 degree scorching days, (America - get with it! work out the burning temperatures from Fahrenheit into the global norm) but the dancing feet did not stop. Like THE RED SHOES of the famous Hans Christian Andersen's children's story that never stopped its wearer from moving, Indian dancers and musicians were leaping and twirling across the oceans to one nonstop gig after another. Premieres, reviews, previews, contests - we received so much information this month on our news desk that it did not seem like a summer vacation was taken by any dancer!

The fact that social media has come to actually influence traditional print media is absolutely true. So many story ideas are now coming from journalist friends who are on my Facebook circle. After the successful performance of A MILLION SITAS as a storytelling avatar at NYU's Provincetown Playhouse last month, I commented on the numerous student responses as falling into three words "awesome", "rocking" and "epic". A friend in Bombay picked this up and quoted this in her popular daily column with a large photo from the performance which was on my Facebook page. I then proceeded to get more than 100 text messages congratulating me and asking when I was bringing the show to Bombay! And I was busy flying from NYC to LA during all this!

This is not the first time. At least 3 previous discussions on my Facebook pages about various topics have found their way into national print editions. Which then brings up the questions. Have print and mainstream media abandoned all courageous reporting and are now playing safe due to the close nexus to business and political interests? Have the big 'babus' of paper and TV stopped looking at the small stories that actually illuminate what we have come to recognise and receive as news?

The latest discussion, which was still ongoing as this message goes out across the world, is about a delicate topic. AGEISM. The idea that AGE is determining a dancer's time on and off the stage. It all began with a WhatsApp message from dancer friend Chitra Sundaram in London as she walked out of Sadlers Wells theatre after watching the farewell performance of ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem. Guillem is 50 years old and is bowing out of the arc lights. The discussion on Facebook began after I posted an article about Guillem. The responses began with the normal platitudes and homilies. How Indian dance cannot subscribe to the "farewell performance" notion since we dancers "ripen with age", "with age comes the added dimension of abhinaya", "maturity is irreplaceable”.... In parallel, old age homes in India are filled with sad seniors whose children have dumped them there while living comfortable lives overseas. Social media is filled with young and impatient dancers angry at the monopoly of seniors who are neither mentoring or encouraging the younger lot nor quitting the stage while well past their prime.
Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress review – a final farewell from a startling talent

I recall Lynne Fernandes, manager of the Nrityagram ensemble, who told me that Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy - both almost 45 years old, should "perform as much together and quickly before they are too old!" This is because the PHYSICALITY of Indian dance today is taking its toll on the human body as the endless and indefatigable manufacturing machine.

Will anyone watch Balasaraswati today with the same knowledge and admiration of yesterday? Her on stage mannerisms and penchant for interrupting the orchestra to sing or casually walk back and pause would perhaps be construed as "unprofessional" or "lazy" and may throw the tech crew and others (who programme and rehearse each section to the last nanosecond) in a tizzy!

The discussion continues with lucid observations made by director Prasanna Ramaswamy, former head of Cultural Affairs at the Goethe Institute in Madras. Her memories of Pina Bausch, Susanne Linke and Reinhild Hoffman - all German divas who performed into their 60s was telling. I remember commenting on 55 year old Belgian dancer/choreographer Keersmaeker after her stunning showing in NYC last year. It was a stage filled with women in their forties and fifties! Minimalist. No eye candy. But so moving! Poised at the brink of senior citizen status, the arguments are particularly poignant. The discussion and thoughts continue with vigour on social media.

Ghatam artiste RR Pratap

Meanwhile, playing live on stage in London with the magical Sylvie Guillem was brilliant ghatam artiste RR Pratap from Bangalore. While he also played the ganjira and mridangam for this performance, it is through his superlative playing of the ghatam that many are reminded of the pioneering efforts of the legendary Vikku Vinayakram. "Vikku Sir" did for the ghatam what Ustad Alla Rakha did for the tabla. Watch any US television cop show today. Detectives, cops and robbers are almost inevitably prowling around to the soundscape of the tabla. The sound is everywhere... as the Americans pronounce it ‘TAABLUH.’ THIS is the new sound of suspense and mystery on television.

Sylvie Guillem, Akram Khan - Sacred Monsters

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in PUSH

There was a recent article about the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato. It was about mentoring and how a mentor is neither a benevolent teacher nor a stern headmaster. This new word has caught on in Indian dance with a garbled understanding. I have personally seen dancer/mentees, who are being "mentored" by senior performers turning into clones of their mentors. This is not the goal of a mentor. A mentor is neither guru, teacher, parent nor Mother Superior (my Irish nun convent education surfaces here). There is no stick to bang onto the floor or the minds of the mentees. A mentor, coaxes, guides, inspires, counsels and encourages independent thinking and action under supervision. And yet, as one young dancer in the PADME project that I initiated 2 years ago confessed to me; “Akka, you have to be stern, strict and just tell us what to do. There will be chaos otherwise.” Hmmmm. See what I mean? Indian dance encourages solo egos and feudalism into the 21st century... At least in India.

My travels put me in direct contact with so many young dancers - especially in the USA where I spent 14 years between 1976 and 1990. These young ‘uns are full of energy, opinions and quick fix solutions to the problems of Indian dance. They are professional, idealistic and focused on balancing work and dance-play. Not being a traditional guru with “banyan tree branches” spread around the world, I have always felt lonely pulling luggage and getting prepared in green rooms. I have seen fawning students hovering around their gurus and other family members helping en masse when senior performers tour the US. This time around, I was in for a delightful surprise.

The quartet of Sonali Skandan, Yamini Saripalli, Kasi Aysola and Alex Aguilar were my pillars throughout my NYC stay and performance of A MILLION SITAS. Helping me with luggage, props, make up prep, on stage support, striking the set and putting me in a cab- they were like rocks. I was touched and very grateful. And seated in the audience was Ramya Ramnarayan who had convinced her husband to drive her on a Sunday afternoon and WAIT in the car (the show was oversold) while she watched. Fortunately we had several no shows and Ram was allowed inside in the nick of time! Continuing with my fitness education, Yamini is tutoring me via Skype on the Foam Roller and the T-ball for fitness and muscle flexibility while Kasi continues to advise me on the right make up textures and colours for changing climates! The young have so much to teach us!

Like the graduate students of the NYU Theatre Department, who watched my performance of A MILLION SITAS and submitted papers in response. It was a learning experience for me to read through their papers and understand why I cannot take this time honoured myth of Sita’s story for granted when I tell and retell it to diverse western audiences.

I have watched India based dancers and musicians fawn on visiting NRI artistes since they will give them gigs or aid towards a review. I have observed fake smiles towards those in power and an exaggerated tilt of the head while greeting a presenter, patron or critic. I have heard high pitched voices at social gatherings and the almost “dropping of the pallu” only to regain the fabric in time and “adjust” it. As a woman, I cannot endorse one kind of ambition while decrying another. Every weapon in one's arsenal can be utilised if one is convinced that one has talent. It is only when I see established dancers who are international stars resort to such unnecessary behaviour that my mind is abuzz. What signals are they sending to Gen Next? But then who am I or any one of us to pass judgement?

Why are some dancers so self conscious about discarding the “classical” tag? When I see Nritygram’s Odissi, it is so clearly NEO-CLASSICAL that I am surprised when they fall back on the nomenclature of the “classical.” Indian bodies using international physical and modern dance training techniques, martial arts physicality, yogic postures for flexibility and balance and then REFIGURING it on the Odissi body creates a whole new patina of performance energy. Nrityagram stunned and charmed the London audience during their recent showing at the ALCHEMY festival. And so did Aditi Mangaldas with her reworked TIMELESS. But more about Nrityagram. India's most celebrated dance duo was forced to retract some of their well rehearsed phrases during the post performance discussion. Probed by choreographer/academic Professor Hari Krishnan, they learned that their opening dance OM NAMO NARAYANA was not part of the original Odissi repertoire but one that was learned by Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi when his wife, dancer Sanjukta Panigrahi studied Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra in Madras. It was a time when Rukmini Devi was staging her famous dance dramas and the opening Mela Prapti overture was that very same OM NAMO NARAYANA! From temple to the Bharatanatyam stage and then a segue into the Odissi repertoire. How music and dance travels and how dancers spend so little time studying and learning their own histories!

Sanskrit studies are certainly the hot subject in German, UK and US universities. Summer courses offering this ancient classical language is on the rise. But not in India. There is no summer course for a flavour of this marvellously compact and expressive language. Hit google search and you will find numerous short term courses in Sanskrit. Heidelberg, Berkeley, Harvard, Leiden... the list of universities offering Sanskrit grows in Europe and North America. A mail to Sanskrit College Madras gets me an immediate reply. “Madam, you may apply for a part time course which is on weekends for a full year. You can take your exam at the end of the studies.. Sincerely...” Nothing else in flexible portions for interested students. However, the summer dance studies courses are brimming with energy and ideas. The surge of the NRIs has begun. Dancers and musicians are filling airline seats and crowding classrooms for intense studies in all forms of dance and music. Our senior dancers are also on the move. In the opposite direction. Summer camps, summer schools, immersion teaching in the USA and now Australia have increased exponentially.

One of the gifts of travelling is the chance of meeting with artistes in the most unlikely of places. Airports are where we meet famous artistes rushing to catch connecting flights. Ravi Shankar, Zubin Mehta, L Subramaniam, Tanusree Shankar, Malavika Sarukkai... I have met so many of them with spouses and kids while travelling. The conversations with some are informal and relaxing and little to do with art and more about life. Recently I ran into the Carnatic music duo of Ranjini-Gayatri at the small Tuticorin airport. While waiting to board our Chennai flight we chatted about how singing for dance badly needs a better standard and how they felt so "lucky" to be singers where their individual experience and combined abilities was still working. How dance was so demanding and how they marvelled at the dancer's ferocious concentration and memory! It was nice to listen to two successful musicians admire the world of dance.

First time mothers Mythili Prakash and Kapila Venu return to the performing stage. Their fans will be happy to note that both newbie moms are fighting, or rather, dancing fit and ready to delight audiences. The PADME Project continues with three new dancers who are being inducted into the choreography with four from the original team taking leadership roles in mentoring and easing the newcomers. PADME has not been an easy road for me over the last two years. With choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman working all over the world and my own travels and lecturing assignments, the Bangalore based dancers have found themselves drifting without constant monitoring and direction. Being from the classical world, they are not yet accustomed to daily dance routines unless a performance looms. The 30 minute choreography has seemed "boring" to some as repeating the same learned movements lose their appeal and lustre. The endless variety of the classical dance vocabulary is a far cry from what a contemporary choreographer demands. That so much is embedded into the "intention" of a movement and that personal histories are not to be made into "sancharis" but rather infused into the "energy" of the work itself. Egos and individual temperaments aside, PADME has been a huge learning curve for me as to how much and how little has changed in the mindset of the Indian classical dancer. Thinking and behaving like a soloist in a group work, demanding attention and ego stroking is not what mentors or artistic directors sign up for. Yet, when any of these dancers are called to work overseas, watch them quietly submit to the rigour of an 8 hour working day, simple food and a no holds barred work ethic. One rule for India and one for the others!

And so it goes...
Into the monsoons and wet weather in South India...
Sweltering heat or cold winters in other countries.

Fling open your windows and spread your arms wide
Life... embrace it!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Greece

PS: Thank you for all those who wished me on my birthday. This year, more than ever, the greetings came through facebook, WhatsApp, text and twitter. I only received 5 phone calls and my family wished me in person. However, more than 500 wishes came from around the world from many I had never met! Social media is wonderful at moments like this! Markers to jog our memory... A heartfelt thank you for your wishes. I share my birthday (May 21) with two wonderful dancers - Bharatanatyam artiste Revathi Ramachandran and Sri Lankan artiste, Upekha Chitrasena.

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

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