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June 2020

In a city closed down
I hear rain before it falls
Birds gather under awnings
I throw open windows
Let words move
Living in wind and wings
Enter my heart!
Clean my sorrow!
You that are
Buried beneath tears
Please sing me back to joy
- Laura Simms, Poet


Wait! What day is it?
What? It's June 1?
Already?



How many of you are feeling like this? Hours and days blurring into one another, eyes red with too much peering into our phones and screens, fingers sore from swiping this way and that, mind scampering like a monkey on a compound wall...

We are already into the half way mark into a year that will go down in our lives when the world changed. Forever? Well, that is what the experts say. Through the window I notice that my mango trees have borne the best crop in a decade. The annual hair oil, pickle and pappad making rituals are in motion. I sit on my faithful swing as my thoughts re-arrange themselves to be shared with all of you.


#VA VA ZOOM
Despite the soaring heat, masks soaked in sweat and wilting faces, our phone screens and laptops were buzzing with non-stop dance and cultural events. The experience of teaching via ZOOM is one thing, but the idea that someone can watch a dance performance dressed in their night pyjamas or stretched out in bed somehow puts me off. Not that we have to "dress up" and sit in attention but there must be some way in which we do not equate the precious experience of the live arts to the everyday consumption of "Daal Chaval."

Even those two words are loaded with meaning since thousands of migrants and their children were starving, dying and stranded over the past two months. Those indelible images of wretched faces and desperate, hollow eyes could break many a heart and certainly DANCE is furthest from many of our minds. Still, for most, the show never stopped. And social media controversies did not miss a beat.

ZOOM-BHA NATYAM, endless Live chats, wedding celebrations, conferences, birthday parties and anniversaries have all descended on our hand helds. The world has shrunk into the palm of our hands.

Those in the "mature age group" have finally figured out what their fingers have to do. Swipe left or right. Up and down. 2 months ago, some of my friends had never heard of Instagram. Today, they have Insta accounts and are conducting their own INSTA LIVE sessions. Since just about anyone can get online, I have seen chats about saris, make up, fitness, weight loss, yoga and impossible in-laws - all on the virtual space. While my eyes have certainly weakened and my fingers sore from all that swiping, these short sessions are far more interesting than watching desperately depressing dance - especially Bharatanatyam.


#DIGITAL DANCE DELIGHTS
All is not dismal or dreary. There were some very good online dance festivals that included superb technology, sensitive lighting and stunning dancing.


From THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS - The INDIA DANS FESTIVAL 2020 ONLINE EDITION (Facebook) produced by KORZO theatre was a case in point. Directed by Indophile and dance enthusiast, Leo Spreksel, this beautifully curated and produced event featured some of my favourite artistes.

TARU by Renjith and Vijna was a delight to watch. Stripped of their Bharatanatyam finery, this marvellous duo charmed audiences and even I was able to stay attentive while watching via my phone. The lighting was an equal star in this production, without taking anything away from the dancers.

Revanta Sarabhai's OUT OF BOUNDS with Pooja Purohit was another exciting departure from Bharatanatyam. The interesting "duet" of the floor Alarippu was followed by some inventive and imaginative choreography.

Kalpana Raghuraman presented her always unique take on THROUGH THE EYES OF MY CITY, a 2011 production that was created during the early years of the INDIA DANS FESTIVAL at the KORZO. Kalpana has a quirky style that bleeds into the dance space from her own personality.

From Chicago - Krithika Rajagopalan curated a thoughtful way of watching the young students of NATYA DANCE THEATRE in performance. An e-mail invitation, registration and then a link to "enter" the online space. Requests to be silent and to not "leave" in the midst of an item were also posted. Programme notes were sent ahead to each "audience member". Krithika made the announcement as a compère would in a live event. A thoughtful way of stimulating students in a digital Summer Showcase.

The Guru Maya Rao Conference of Kathak and Choreography set standards in professionalism. The two day event was planned and presented by Maya-di's daughter and disciple Madhu Nataraj and supported by an efficient tech team led by Keerthi Kumar and Masoom Parmar.

Film director Rajiv Menon, in his conversation with me on the second day of the conference (via ZOOM) said something very interesting. "I think that the viewing and making of dance in India is going to be dictated and mediated by technology. We will watch dance as we read a novel. One chapter at a time. Put the book aside and return to it later. Dance is going to have to communicate in an exciting and interesting way for people to want to watch and then return to watch it again."

Shobana Jeyasingh marked the 30th anniversary of her dance company with a series of brilliant podcasts (available on Sound Cloud) moderated by Sanjoy Roy, dance critic for THE GUARDIAN. Created exclusively for an online audience, SJD SHORTS was a thrilling audio experience. The series brought musicians, composers and Shobana to talk about each of her choreographies that spanned subjects as vast as the Spanish Flu, science fiction, robotics, indentured labour and dance in churches.

The irrepressible and brave Ananda Shankar Jayant scored a huge coup when her 4 day series PUNARNAVA was featured on national news on the NEWS X channel. Not once but 3 times! Featuring Sonal Mansingh, Ramaa Bharadvaj, Ananda herself and yours truly, the varying journeys struck a chord with many a young viewer. Death, loss, tragedy, triumph and miracles were moments that shocked many and moved all.

An hour long focus on the tradition and practice of the BALASARASWATI heritage of music and dance was featured on HINDU TAMIL TV. Grandson Aniruddha Knight shared fascinating insights of a family tree that could be traced to the courts of Tanjavur with a history older than the hallowed TANJORE QUARTET. When Balasaraswati was born, her nearly blind grandmother, Veena Dhanammal, asked her mother T Jayammal, "Are her eyes crossed? Are her teeth straight?" When the answer came in the affirmative, Dhanammal's decision "THEN LET HER DANCE" was a moment that went on to change the history of Bharatanatyam.

From Mumbai, NCPA@home presented many dance events featuring Aditi Mangaldas and Rama Vaidyanathan among several others. The INSTA LIVE space every evening was getting so crowded that it was impossible to remember or select which ones to watch. I admit to having my attention span severely impacted by this current pandemic. I could not focus for more than 10 minutes.

And so when I tuned in to watch Malavika Sarukkai's THE UNSEEN SEQUENCE, I had to force myself to concentrate on my small IPad and to imagine the larger screen upon which this film deserves to be watched. There are so many beautiful moments. The mentoring/training process with Mythili Kumar and the casual conversations with her mother Saroja Kamakshi. Director Sumantra Ghoshal has created a lovely film on a brilliant dancer.

MANCH UK completed its 30 day challenge of picking one UK based South Asian artiste every day to share their stories and influences in dance. The series got off to a modest start and there were several technical snags at some moments. On the whole, the idea of getting important voices like Nahid Siddiqui, Mavin Khoo, Piali Ray, Sonia Sabri, Pushkala Gopal, Nina Rajarani, Akash Odedra and Sooraj Subramaniam to speak was a great opportunity for viewers across the world to know how they journeyed and what made them cling to the vision of dance.

From NEW DELHI, we were treated to a true gem in the series titled ABHIVYAKTI. This documentary on Bharatanatyam, featuring Guru Kitappa Pillai, was produced by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. The visibly aged guru was conducting and instructing his students through some beautiful aspects of the form. Delicate nuances like "mei adavu" seen in the Jathiswaram and the Tillana were performed by his students. Sudharani Raghupathy, the guru's disciple, was a beauteous narrator and guide through the film. Despite the sound being out of sync, I wish today's generation would watch films like these to get a whiff of what Bharatanatyam was 50 years ago when I was learning and watching greats like Yamini Krishnamurthi, Vyjayantimala and Sudharani Raghupathy on stage. Walking around the magnificent Tanjavur temple and cracking jokes between teaching singer Rajeswari a "jatiswaram", this film made me nostalgic for a time when we actually were excited to attend a dance performance!


# DANCE... DESPERATE... DISAPPEARING...


Watching this film, I was able to forget, just for a short while, that India's national arts bodies have failed miserably in serving their constituencies. There has been no sense of direction from any of the cultural centres during these dire times. So many artistes have not received their salary grants for the past two years and livelihoods are in peril. It seems that the numerous appeals have not been acted upon. The United Nations' current mantra of LEAVE NOBODY BEHIND seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

What is happening to the funds allotted for festivals? Why is the Sangeet Natak Akademi conducting festivals and dance classes online? Are they endorsing ZOOM teaching? Why are the funds from production grants and performance budgets not being diverted to the desperate situation of those artistes who are the most vulnerable - who are unable to even put food on their tables? Why is Doordarshan not looking at existing empanelled artistes and recording them afresh?

Just look at the amazing efforts of countries like New Zealand, Australia, UK, Canada, Germany and France. The ARTS have come centre stage in the political will to help this permanently fragile sector survive during this pandemic. No matter how much we argue about the size of India, the population and the sheer magnitude of variation and numbers, the fact is that our artistes are being let down and left behind.

In this month's newsletter, we carry a list of what some governments are doing to help sustain and protect the Arts and Culture sector.

The new Indian tax reforms in India are sending signals about how the earlier rules of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and Sponsorship for Culture may change. They are distinct in intention and not to be confused as a blanket "money for the arts." What artistes must realize is that both are not interchangeable. The days of just "Giving a donation" without asking for anything in return are over. If artistes are expecting the old days of a king removing a pearl necklace and throwing it to the "grateful" artiste to continue in the ways of State sponsored culture - that too will change. So it may be best to read and learn more about what changes are coming to the tax laws which may affect the way culture is supported.

Has anyone felt paralysed or useless during this pandemic quarantine? The niggling thought that DANCE is of no REAL use to the world where hunger and survival are paramount? That thought did cross my mind ever so often, especially when I read British actor Riz Khan's article in THE NEW YORKER magazine. He speaks of THE PERIL OF BEING PRODUCTIVE. Not to fall into the trap of becoming anxious because nothing seems to be happening, that nobody cares - of becoming neurotic and fixated about "wasting time". It was a timely reminder to many who are facing not just financial peril but also psychological scarring.


# EARTH-ART-EH!!

Meenakshi Chitharanjan handing over cheque to ABHAI

A Facebook posting of Bharatanatyam dancer Meenakshi Chitharanjan reminded me that "without ART, the word EARTH is just EH".

True. My philistine younger brother, who stays away from anything cultural, found a whole new appreciation for what his AKKA and other "crazy people" have been doing with their lives. Locked down during the quarantine period, he discovered music, films, and yes, dance! All I can say is that at 60, wisdom finally dawned!

Jokes aside, Meenakshi's posting reminded us that cultural organisations like ABHAI (Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India) have quietly raised 12 lakhs to help the folk performers, instrument makers and their repair teams, temple musicians, hereditary artistes with sorely needed funds and medical assistance. For example, the son of popular guru Muthuswamy Pillai is very ill. His medical treatment should have been, at least partially, the responsibility of the state cultural wing. TEAM ABHAI has stepped in during this pandemic to support and throw a lifeline to such individuals whose entire life has been serving dance and music.

At times like these, I want to know where the social activists are - those who play the caste card and scream "privilege" at every turn. Why are they not getting off their IPads and actually helping those they claim to support?


Kavitha Ramu


Zakir Hussain

While ABHAI was busy organising and distributing aid, two warriors jumped into the fray of social media wars this past month. When two senior artistes were attacked with casteist remarks and hateful trolling, Kavitha Ramu along with Zakir Hussain plunged right into the thick of battle, brushing aside insults and taunts with ease. Unafraid of getting their "hands dirty" in the murky waters of toxic verbal cyber-wars, these two Bharatanatyam dancers proved to be as sturdy and unbreakable as Wonder Woman and Iron Man!


#FOLLOW THE STAR

Swarnamalya

Sharanya Chandran
Take a bow, Swarnamalya Ganesh. This exuberant dancer and academic has gathered 40 thousand followers on her Instagram handle. Yes, she needs to talk less sometimes - her words spill over like boiled milk on Pongal Day - but this scholar and dance historian is full of knowledge and can hold an audience in complete attention on the distracting Zoom and Facebook Live platforms - for more than 3 hours a day!

For 11 weeks she has been talking, teaching, singing, dancing and watching. Almost non-stop.

I was able to "drop in" to one of her final sessions titled RIPPLES OF THE QUARTET, where she was teaching a beautiful Telugu "Chowka varnam" to an attentive group of 35 students from around the world. Overseeing the efforts was musician Sivakumar Sivanandam, son of Sivanandam Pillai. Students were learning to sing the varnam, observe the correct time cycle (kala pramanam) while also taking special note as to how to "speed up" just enough and not in the double time. How to watchfully regulate the rhythm cycle so as to return to the original slow beat at the end of the swaram. Short jathis, gestures that flowed and allowed the emotion to also follow, thereby building the abhinaya. This is the kind of Bharatanatyam I was exposed to. Not in Kalakshetra or with Adyar Lakshman sir. It was around me, when I watched my school friends at classes with traditional gurus. In my youth, I sometimes found it a tad slow, but now, surrounded by Kama Sutra Barbie dolls, I really enjoy watching dance in this leisurely pace where a word and a gesture are allowed to develop and build like a scaffolding.

It looks like this generation of dancers who were searching for someone in their age group to connect with and learn from have found Swarnamalya.


#CONTENT AND CONNECTIONS

Shreya Nagarajan Singh

We have a tremendous amount of dance content. What is needed is the TWINNING with technology. How can we KNIT tech smarts with creative content - without dumbing down or diluting knowledge. My generation may have the patience and the gravitas but we do not have the wiring for the speed and dazzle of what new technology offers. This is an area that many younger dancers can turn to. Upskilling themselves and using this time period to learn or update their own tech skills. There are so many free Apps that are available. This quarantine time is the best to venture into unknown areas that may become the pivotal link between performance creation and the world!

Beyond the vulnerability and fragility of some senior artistes who are unable to re-align themselves to the digital teaching platform, many have realised that financial security and being money savvy is also hugely important. How can dancers save and invest? What can they do with the money they earn, however modest? Why not seek to bring together finance and the arts in a face to face encounter? This is what Arts Consultant Shreya Nagarajan Singh has done. Over the past 2 months, this Chennai based entrepreneur has conducted free and registration based sessions on important aspects of curation, financial management, and other crucial elements of managing an artiste's life.


#STRETCHED TO BREAKING POINT

Bharatanatyam guru Geeta Chandran

Kuchipudi gurus Raja, Kausalya, Radha Reddy
For the extra hours needed to prepare for a single online class, it is a fact that DANCE teachers who have embraced the online format, albeit for this current period, are being overstretched and under valued. Geeta Chandran in New Delhi has spent a total of 150 hours in April and May teaching her 'sishyas', apart from her lectures to students and other groups about the value of Dance and Arts Education. So have gurus from around the world, trying to stay in touch and keep the morale high for their dance community. At least overworked dance teachers can still collect fees from their students. The shocker in Tamilnadu is that while online classrooms have begun for the new school year, there is a decision that no fees can be collected by private schools! There is a huge protest from the institutions about how they will pay their teachers without collecting fees. There is no clear signal from the state government as we close this edition; overworked and underpaid seems to be the byline for teachers in all fields.


#BOXED and #UNBOXED

Archana Raja

Seher Noor Mehra

Unboxing dancers on Instagram

With the runaway success of our digital series #BOXED, we are delighted to have mainstream media share our excitement with a prominent feature on the unique series. An excited team supporting the communication and editing backup, audiences across ages taking to this venture with such enthusiasm and dancers from across the world rushing to apply, #BOXED has emerged as more than an idea. Series consultant Chitra Sundaram and the guest comments delivered by stalwarts like Madhu Nataraj and Aditi Mangaldas, #BOXED will continue on all our digital platforms until the end of June. Two countries are already gathering their dancers and composers to represent the idea and we are waiting to share these editions with you.

TWO MINUTES is all we asked classical dancers to take a risk for. Just TWO MINUTES. However, the largely lukewarm response from those outside Bharatanatyam and Kathak is disappointing. Are the young really afraid of venturing into uncharted territory? Will TWO MINUTES make or break their "career?" This chimera of a fixed goal and the one single way to reach it shows that the very format of learning and maturing as a dance artiste needs to be questioned.

For me, the biggest culprit (if I may call it that) is the malady of workshops, item learning and weekend gurus. Watch, imitate, pay, add to the "menu card." Repeat. Dancers emerge with brittle temperaments, unwilling to take even the slightest criticism, bearing dullened imagination and motor mouths!


#WHAT NOW?
With a head full of fears and no space to dream, this is the time to realign ourselves.

A note to all young dancers.

The future is not in your hands or your feet.
You must learn to articulate your practice. Develop the politics of your art, however messy and dark it may be. Engage with each other. Stay connected. Collaborate. If you must leave your guru to "branch out", "spread your wings" and "fly off to explore on your own", then please attach a string to your brain so that someone wiser and older can hold it to steer you.

DO NOT over practice your araimandi, leaps or chakkars. Learn digital editing, download some free apps, read books outside your main area of interest, listen and respond to different kinds of music, take an Ashtanga or Mixed yoga class - do something OUTSIDE your dance world. Reach out to have conversations with other dancers of other styles. Stay in touch with an elder in your own family. Keep a diary. Before and after practice. Try your hand at writing poetry or Haikus. Or just stay still. Breathe. Tai Chi and Qi Gong (Chi Gong) are wonderful practices. Observe your breath, calm your mind and keep away from checking your phones for the "mwah" emojis!

It is my generation in the 60's who should be worried. No shows for a full year. Most of us are absorbing this with calm. Okay. So be it! There are so many other ways to stay engaged and involved in the world of the Live Arts. Mentor. Support. Teach. Share. It is you, the young dancers in your 20's and 30's who should be unfazed. You have TIME on your side. In fact, you can even plan a baby and get ready for the next season, when it comes along!

Most importantly, do not engage in SPITTING on the digital platform. Pick up the phone and clear the air if any disagreements appear. Do not let them fester. Learn DIGITAL ETIQUETTE. Do not share private texts. This new world is both exciting and fraught with the problems of speaking first and thinking later. These new "manners" are becoming as important as saying THANK YOU. PRANAM. NAMASTE.


#WHAT NEXT?
We cannot return to the arena of performance without understanding who our audience is. Who are we making art for? What is the new realm for performance making? With all these disruptions to our rhythm, what is the new language we need to search for? This pandemic has shifted both our needs and our approaches to learning and working. If the new experience has to be sensorial and immersive, then how? Develop the politics of your art, however messy, uncomfortable, dark or depressing some parts may be.

As India slowly lumbers towards whatever is the new normal, we emerge like cave people blinking into the sunlight. I worry about children born into a time when nothing is certain anymore. Of kids forced apart from their friends in school and doing their classes and homework online. Of teachers who are not being paid although the preparation for online learning is exhausting. Of elders terrified of stepping out of their rooms, left only with their memories for company. There are also many who speak of the challenges and the fruits of this time. I am aware of the blessings woven into this time of isolation, uncertainty and fear.

Until we meet again. Next month. Like this.

Anita R Ratnam

#stayingrighthere
#nammachennai
H O M E



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


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