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June 2023

After all the wars are over,
The butterfly will still be beautiful

- Ruskin Bond, author

Anita Ratnam

And so here we are! At the half way mark of the year, heading towards the longest day of 2023 - June 21st - and wondering where the last months went!

May was full of pomp, ceremony and circumstance! A coronation, an inauguration, the end of two major cultural icons (singer Tina Turner and the TV show SUCCESSION), the return of Nrityagram to their beloved New York landmark JOYCE Theatre, several premieres by diaspora dancers, American summer festivals with classical dancers performing in parks and museums- it was a never ending spectacle!

A month away from home gave me a different perspective on dance, our daily endeavours and the increasing disenchantment among diaspora artistes with visiting artistes from India.
This month I choose to focus on some points that swirl around dance and the tone is reflective, sometimes somber and not always celebratory. So, read on....

Padma Subrahmanyam
Padma Subrahmanyam
The Sengol
The Sengol

Between the cringe worthy fawning of our Indian and UK A- listers at the coronation of King Charles in London and the gaudy horror show-ramp walk of our film stars at the Cannes film festival, we were assaulted with one badly dressed image after the other. The hypocrisy of the Indian mentality was laid bare when the very same group of entitled urban Indians who fought to get a photo op at the coronation, returned to India and cried all sorts of abuses when the new Indian Parliament building was inaugurated in New Delhi on May 28. The decibel levels were raised to RED ALERT levels when the SENGOL surfaced after 75 years. Never have we heard, listened to and read as many versions of this single image as we have this past week. A tradition with Tamil kings, it was the ceremonial handing over by the religious head of the Tiruvadudurai Adheenam - the Raja gurus to the Chola rulers - that symbolised authority, righteous rule and good administration. The history of the SENGOL that was re-created 75 years ago by a famous Chennai jeweller and handed over in a private ceremony to late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at his residence, became a flashpoint for the perennial North-South divide, caste dissections, fawning and shrill cries of "democracy in danger!"

What the dance world needs to know is that is it our very own Padma Subrahmanyam who alerted Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman about this fact and the SENGOL was found in Nehru Museum in Prayag Raj and is now installed next to the Speaker's Chair in the new Parliament Building. A dancer became the catalyst for a cultural moment and a needless national/international debate!

Watch out for more honours coming Paddu Akka's way in 2024!

With my 50 plus years of experience in performing, touring, choreographing, directing, designing, writing and speaking, one would automatically assume that my thoughts would be useful for GEN NEXT. The reality is NO. Today's 25 to 40 somethings are so wrapped up in their own mythology and so self congratulatory about themselves, that there is almost no wiggle room for any kind of suggestion, direction or comment. Even when my experienced eyes see something so obviously missed or wrong. At rare times when I am asked for opinions, I have to be very careful NOT to state the obvious (you have to work on technique / you need spacing and blocking help / you require more lighting awareness/ etc.) and instead gently steer the conversation prefacing with words like "perhaps", "maybe" , "you might need to consider" and other similar types of coddling.

Meanwhile, the USA is flooded, yes FLOODED with Bharatanatyam and Carnatic artistes hell bent on extracting every last dollar from the NRI groups after 3 years of Covid travel restrictions. Everybody who is anybody is out there - item teaching, workshop holding, Abhinaya intensive tutoring - whatever gets the bodies into the space and the wallets/Apple Pay/ Venmo/Zelle lines open. $1000 dollars for a 5 day intensive on abhinaya! No matter how hard one tries, the natural movement of the eyebrows, neck and mouth does not move like someone who speaks Tamizh, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam or Indian languages fluently. The everyday gestures that come naturally to so many of us (and which we take for granted) are compensated with physicality where the entire body becomes the vehicle for the poetic moment. That is not how Abhinaya is supposed to be communicated. The face coming into focus with everything else held in stillness is something that even India based dancers are becoming alien to. SACCHARINE ABHINAYA is the phrase I have used often for this syndrome but the lure of the India based dance teachers to add to one's bio has not dimmed.

Do dancers who call themselves professional performers truly know what that word means? Process is sacrificed again and again to Product. And that is what anyone who is invested in hours, days and weeks of daily training has to recognize. As did choreographer Mayuri Upadhya in her recent audition call for a new dance musical.

For the numerous dancers who showed up eager to try out for this new production, many stepped back when the contracts were offered. What a great opportunity for young dancers to just dance, rehearse for a professional production, and PERFORM EVERY DAY FOR 3 MONTHS! Yes, DAILY performances. Not the normal once in a while gig that comes up. These kinds of opportunities do not emerge every day in India and if I were 40 years younger, I would have been out there trying out. Last year's THE JUNGLE BOOK by ENACTE Arts in the Bay Area, had 15 shows that took the 30 member ensemble 4 months of daily rehearsals and weekly performances from Tuesday to Sunday with only Monday off. I look around and find the empty posturing of the young Indian dancer who steps back from such opportunities disappointing. But I am not surprised.

Tina Turner
Tina Turner

Actors Cate Blanchet and Tom Hanks speak of the creative process being 'vicious and cruel'. We certainly are not taught those words when we create and perform our dance. But this act of creation - for choreographer, student and actor - can be lonely and disheartening. What if you are not good enough? What if you are rejected? What if reviews are bad? What if the project fails? What if????? American singer Tina Turner never gave up. A broken marriage, a battered body, a raspy voice- she took it all in and turned herself into a performing dynamo. Every blow became a bouquet, not a brickbat.

When talented dancers declare depression and dismay on social media and proclaim their disgust or disappointment in the lack of camaraderie among peers, I can quickly say "I TOLD YOU SO!" There is very little sense of community in Indian dance (In India especially) and any crisis results in radio silence even among imagined friends. So, in depression and desperation if someone announces that they are leaving the dance field and will not dance again for various reasons of dashed expectations, I will only say what most are thinking - BYE BYE. YOU WILL NOT BE MISSED. Because, after the initial "TSK TSK" and other lizard sounds, nobody really cares! The competition out there is fierce, the opportunities limited and the pot of gold nonexistent. One dancer dropping out will not matter.

What needs to happen is for dancers born after 1990 to buckle up! Dance, dream and dare - every single day. Reinvent yourself. Create your own networks inside and outside dance. Use the anger or the frustration to funnel your energy. Don't give up. That is not the solution. The world does not owe you a single thing. You will be forgotten the next minute and only you will be left with regrets sitting alone in the darkness. Fight for what you love and what you have chosen to do. Never give up! Never!

Psychology is a huge part of being an artiste. For those of us who are in our sixties, individual life maps make for a mixed mosaic. The current teaching systems rarely deal with rejection and depression of a student since it is mostly a factory churning out dancers geared towards the debut/arangetram and the video/photo/Instagram image machine. I notice a huge upsurge of fans and admirers for Jane Fonda, Zeenat Aman, Cher and Oprah (of course!) who are in their seventies and beyond. Their advice and ruminations are welcomed but what about dance and theatre professionals. We have stayed the course, faced the brunt of time and ageism, weathered many a storm inside and outside our homes and persisted. Surely, our wisdom must count for something instead of being regarded as "not woke enough has beens!"

For now, I cherish the friendship with my female friends - a very small number within dance but a larger and more raucous group outside the arts circle. These estrogen queens keep my spirits up!

Ahuti (Photo: Karthik Venkataraman)

I attended opening night of AHUTI at the Joyce Theatre in New York City with actress Sharmila Tagore and her daughter as my guests. It was another magical evening. Beautifully staged and performed by the Nrityagram ensemble and the Chitrasena dancers of Sri Lanka, the packed hall gave a standing ovation to Surupa Sen's vision of the new Nrityagram. Ballet icon Michael Baryshnikov and modern dance deva Mark Morris were present, as were the dance critics from the New Yorker and the New York Times. I met some Indian dancers at the event and it was evident that every single attendee was overwhelmed with the evening. Sharmila Tagore was ecstatic, never having watched Nrityagram before. This is what great dancing can do for anyone. Transform you from within, even if it is for a single evening.

Trisha Brown Dance Company
Trisha Brown Dance Company (source: Facebook)

I watched the same devotion to American modern dancer Trisha Brown's choreography a few days earlier and crowds gather to watch the San Francisco Ballet in rehearsal in their studios. There is a genuine love for dance in the USA - classical, contemporary, modern and other free form styles. Nobody has to warn the audience more than once about turning off cell phones or the taking of photos or videos. Everybody respects the statements. Audience manners are nearly always impeccable. Latecomers are denied entry until the piece is completed. If someone leaves in the midst of the show, they are openly frowned upon. Sometimes, I enjoy my travels to watch dance just for these moments of absolute respect, quiet and attentiveness, something we rarely get in India.

O by Cirque du Soleil
O by Cirque du Soleil

Even at the jam packed O arena in Las Vegas, the 2000 strong holiday audience watched in rapt attention at the jaw dropping spectacle of aerial, gymnastics, dance, acting, choreography and direction of Cirque du Soleil. Street performers in Montreal, Canada, who transformed their juggling and circus skills into a worldwide phenomenon, the back stage team of 175 technicians bolstered the 75 on stage performers! Running nonstop for 12 years with 8 shows a week, Cirque du Soleil is literally a village that moves!

Jyotsna Vaidee
Jyotsna Vaidee
(Photos: Raj & Raju)

Cut to the premiere of Jyotsna Vaidee's new solo production ABHILASHA-the longing. This Canadian born dancer is a serious professional and someone who is attempting to break the myth of only India born dancers being "good enough". Kasi Aysola on the East Coast is another top notch performer who blasts this myth. However, there are not enough high quality performers in the USA who are self-confident, comfortable in their geography and not fazed by the annual influx and supercilious attitudes of teachers and dancers from India.

In ABHILASHA, Jyotsna sought to craft an evening length solo of classical work with her own infusions of self-discovery and reflection. Returning to familiar pieces, using classic "jathi" compositions of Adyar K Lakshman, C V Chandrashekar and Yamini Krishnamurthi, her "varnam" on the Tanjore big temple was like a long love poem. Jyotsna wrote in her copious programme notes about time spent within the architectural Chola marvel and how it had influenced the choreography. The post varnam piece on the Mahabharata matriarch KUNTI was interestingly crafted although further exploration will only benefit the theatrical piece.

I smiled as singer Snigdha Venkataramani sang and played the castanets with aplomb for the Abhang that followed. The Tillana finale was a conscious transference of legacy from Jyotsna to her daughter and students. As an item, it did not really fit into the evening but the dancer's wish to show another generation of US born Indian girls entering the dance stream made its point.

Observing a glowing Jyotsna and the large crowds that gathered in the lobby to discuss the performance was a very positive sign. Dancing beautifully for nearly 2 hours with multiple ideas infused into the evening, Jyotsna is a committed artiste who is writing her own dance story.

It is the highly educated and affluent US based professionals who volunteer their free time to arrange airport pickups and drop offs, cook meals for visiting artistes and chauffeur them around for shopping needs, some questions hover. They are doctors, engineers and tech experts. Their daughters learn dance and they become the "FAMILY" who are expected to do all hospitality duties for visiting artistes. DO WE RECIPROCATE THIS HOSPITALITY WHEN THEY VISIT INDIA? The answer is mostly NO. Even the influential divas who perform in the USA are not willing or able to arrange for performance opportunities when their hosts and presenters from the US visit India.

When the diaspora is included, it is done mostly as tokenism. Inviting them to conferences while always keeping a request open to visit their countries for a performance or teaching gig, programming them in a vague slot where audiences are sparse, rarely acknowledging their knowledge and experience in a whole hearted way - I have observed this from both sides and continue to urge dance artistes outside India (especially in North America) to stop validating India as the ONLY source of authenticity. Look at the UK! Do they care about what happens here or anywhere? They are wrapped up in the cocoon of grants, British accented Indian dance and their own mytho-reality! They are confident and have the swag to go with it!

Ramya Harishankar and Arpana Dance CompanyRamya Harishankar and Arpana Dance Company
Ramya Harishankar and Arpana Dance Company

Marking 40 years of her ARPANA DANCE COMPANY, Ramya Harishankar threw a large celebration in Southern California on May 21 with her disciples, guest dancers, singers and musicians. Ramya joins the other pioneering stalwarts, Hema Rajagopalan, Rathna Kumar, Viji Prakash, Lata Pada and others who crossed the oceans and established award winning schools and performance circuits in their individual geographies. Surely, a book about their early days and struggles will make for compelling reading and is hugely overdue!

Ramya Ramnarayan
Ramya Ramnarayan

In New York City, another Ramya - Ramnarayan, launched the US chapter of ABHAI with the association leaders Roja Kannan and Priya Murle as special guests. As much as I lament the lack of genuine camaraderie among dancers, this event was marked by a palpable warmth of the East Coast dance community coming together and sparkling performances by Kasi Aysola in Kuchipudi and Barkha Patel in Kathak.

Will the new organization confront the growing menace of NRI presenters asking for money from young dancers much like the rot that is deep rooted in India? There are issues and issues and unless they are spoken about and addressed, working on the best "araimandi" or the quickest "Chakkar" may not be adequate any longer. As is the growing chasm between practice and academics.

It is clear that among the diaspora (if that is a correct word to use anymore I am not sure but am stating it for clarity and not for political correctness) it is the East Coast that is more experimental and open to changes and collaborations. There are several artistes who are not waiting for arrivals from India like on the West Coast, but are seeking and finding fresh ways to communicate. Malavika Singh, a brilliant student of Bijayini Satpathy is another dancer to watch out for among others. Bhumi Patel, (Patel Dance Works), the compelling movement artiste and writer, is on the newly elected board of the DSA (Dance Studies Association)

In Singapore, Aravinth Kumaraswamy continues with a freshly imagined edition of IPAC with four new invitees - scholar and author VR Devika, dancers Methil Devika and Kapila Venu and inimitable raconteur Ramaa Bharadvaj. With packed days of lectures, performances, workshops and allied activities, Singapore is becoming a magnet for South East Asian and Australian artistes to gather, discuss, refresh and recalibrate.

Closer to home, scholar Ashish Mohan Khokar releases the 24th edition of his annual dance book ATTENDANCE. The national dance event begins in Bengaluru on June 30.

The new semester begins. A fresh batch of students will be admitted into this famous national institution. Despite the ugly and avoidable controversy that Kalakshetra was embroiled in from March 30, the swell of collective goodwill that surrounds this cultural landmark augurs well for the future of my Alma Mater. A new vision and a fresh perspective will hopefully be implemented with students' safety at the forefront. The several questions about the current management, the disgraced senior staff members and the incarcerated teacher will hover for some more time. Hopefully, it will all clear when the courts open this month.

What will persist, however, is the continued silence among the dance community. Kalakshetra was a topic of discussion wherever I travelled - USA and the UK. Here, in India, the whisper network continues to thrive with the "popcorn munching" crowd enjoying the debacle as spectacle! As is the short memory and gender blindness of many US based gurus who are willing to commission music scores from known sexual offenders! How could these women - mothers and grandmothers to girls - walk in these treacherous waters again and again?


We are like a large tanker. With a slow and wide turning radius. Shifting and changing after 3 decades is taking time. Getting out of our comfort zones is not easy. But as we promised, there are new voices emerging on our portal. Over the next few months, we will expand content and invite opinions from every identity to contribute to our ever growing readership. Dance intersects our lives in multiple ways and my recent travels and discussions among arts professionals convinced me that the pivot is well worth it. A vision board, editorial guidelines, aligning all our platforms, legacy building, hiring a new generation of arts passionistas- it's not just on the cards but slowly becoming a reality.

The road is uphill but then and we have always felt like Sisyphus holding up the boulder. We are not alone. There are many dreamers who have their hands outstretched, ready to support and hold up that dance-sky so that the next generation can continue to dream and dare!

We look to all of you to communicate with us. Write, comment, argue, disagree, debate, join, share and get involved. Not just in your own dance careers but for the sake of the field that you have chosen to inhabit.

In May, I marked another birthday and lost 3 friends to sudden illness. How evanescent and ephemeral Dance is! How fleeting the exhilaration and how quickly the body slows down while holding on to the long term memory of early movement!

Akram Khan
Akram Khan

At age 48, Akram Khan is bidding farewell to his remarkable stage career with a performance of his last solo XENOS at the NCPA in Mumbai. I will be there in the already sold out shows. Akram has said that his body cannot take the extreme rigour and demands of the form with his advancing age! And here we say that the best performer emerges after age 45! Will we ever have Indian dancers who declare retirement with a final performance???

So, in the time we have - don't waste a single moment. Dance, create, collaborate, share, cheer and celebrate.

There is so much to be grateful for!

This is Pride Month and we send a shout out to all those who choose to express themselves through any identity. This portal has always been an ally of the LGBTQIA+ issues. We reiterate our continued support and wish each and every one a rainbow life!

Enjoy the summer solstice and world Yoga Day (June 21).
Do that Adhomukha swanasana aka Downward Dog with extra effort!

Until we meet again!

- Dr Anita R Ratnam
All over the place!

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

I really enjoyed reading this article. It struck a chord in me and I look forward to more. Thank you, Anita akka.
- Chitra Arvind (June 5, 2023)

Each word in this article moved and inspired every cell in my body. There is so much to being a dancer in this life, so much to think, introspect, give, take, know and learn. Thank you for making us realise all of this through your thoughts, Anita mam!
- Sravya Subramanyam (June 2, 2023)

Anitaji, this is one of the best posts I have read on the social media in recent times. Every news and event is so well researched, factual and written in a balanced manner. I always look forward to reading your posts on social media and articles published in Narthaki. Keep inspiring the younger generations with your words and dance.
- Swati Masurkar (June 2, 2023)

Fabulous, articulate and interesting, thank you!
- Morag Deyes (June 1, 2023)

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