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March 2014

“What a lovely performance you gave us after all your NAT-KHAT stuff!” That was the first comment from a senior critic in New Delhi minutes after the completion of my NEELAM performance while I was surrounded by old and new friends on stage. How odd and predictable I thought! How easy to place me in a conveniently pretty package – classical OR modern – and tie up the assumptions with a neat ribbon. Was NEELAM supposed to be my ‘Samatthu Ponnu’ (good girl) avatar, a temporary return to ‘sanity’ after my rebellious ‘nat-khat’ /mischievous outings through ADHIROHANA, MA3KA, A MILLION SITA’s , SUVADU, NAACHIYAAR, DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN, VAITHARANI, FACES, SEVEN GRACES, UN-EARTH and other adventures? How does ONE presentation with familiar accents and beloved music suddenly anoint or co-opt me into the familiar fold of the classical? NEELAM was and is, for me, a deeply personal work. As I said in my closing remarks after the performance to the warm and appreciative Delhi audience, it was a convergence of my many decades of observing and attending hours of prayer, music lessons, pujas, walking in the long quiet corridors of Vishnu shrines of South India and observing the elaborate rituals in prayer and celebrations. The 60 minute work was taking shape all through my life as a personal diary. The 25th show which occurred in Delhi was as fresh for me as the very first in 2006 on the occasion of legendary singer MS Subbalakshmi’s birth anniversary. 8 years later, NEELAM continues to be my personal touchstone, like a comforting return to my mother’s home, my head resting on her lap. To even suggest that I have somehow erred, strayed and like a prodigal daughter, have returned home would be very far from the truth. Life, like art, is a spiral but it is constantly moving, with its vortex always changing and shifting centre. NEELAM’s gorgeously costumed silhouettes and lush visual design was conceived as crucial aspects in the entire immersion experience. Choreography and music became co-players in the lustrous quilting of collaborative ideas. The bold new costumes as conceived by Rex continue to challenge me in terms of choreography – what works in rehearsals will still need to be tempered with the costume silhouettes so different from the casual rehearsal outfits. However, NEELAM will be an evergreen presence in my life and repertoire, but my adventure, curiosity and questions continue.

“Being punctual has its problems. There is nobody around to appreciate it.” Anonymous quote on T -shirt.

Being a meticulous producer, who demands much from herself as from my team, I was very frustrated during my recent experiences in Delhi and earlier in the month, in Baroda. I am fastidious about punctuality, knowing all along that very few around me are. Lazy tech staff (I refuse to call them lighting designers. They are merely vendors in disguise), crew dressed in gaudy striped shirts arrived late and were patching lights even up to the time the audience walked in, leaving me with no chance for lighting and sound cues. Of course I performed, drawing on the strength of experience and belief in the work. This is what carries me through more times than I would like to confess in India. No matter how high the rentals are for some auditoriums, the carpets and green room facilities leave much to be desired. Presenters and producers MUST pay attention to the emotional and psychological health of the invited artistes on the day of the performance. Leaving them calm and focused should be one of the top points in their TO DO sheet. In one city, I was actually prevented from entering my own green room because the PYT (pretty young things) students were busy dressing up to pose for selfies and other photo ops outside! Ah well…Yeh Hai India Meri Jaan cannot be an endless excuse for a ‘chalta hai’ mind set. Yet as performers, we continue to do what we do but the bar MUST be raised if we are to even begin a professional discourse about dance.

Still, NEELAM was an opportunity to celebrate 20 years of design collaboration with Sandhya Raman, who launched her Desmania Foundation initiative with the performance. I still have her very first costume she made for me in 1995. I have never worn it in performance. I am convinced she did not know the difference between Kathak and Bharatanatyam when she was creating it. Long, flowing in flame orange, it was a stunning party outfit, suited for Holi or Basant festival celebrations and not for the ‘araimandi’ and stretches of BN. Over 2 decades, many of you have seen me photographed in several of Sandhya’s designs, both on and off the stage. Each have been unique and dreamed up solely for me - my height and long arms and legs. They still occupy pride of place and will soon find themselves in a more permanent place if our mutual plans take shape. Thank you, Sandhya, for the friendship and the creative juices that continue to flow.

NEELAM also reminded me about the changing contours of my own body. Looking at photos taken during its premiere 8 years ago, when I was 10 pounds heavier, to the present set of images, I am struck about how my body shape has changed… and not necessarily for the better. Costumes add unflattering pounds to our physique – unfair but true! The female dancing body has so much to experience and time takes its toll. A salute to all those amazing women who have remained so slender and wonderful with or without babies, marriages, lovers, families and other distractions. And a stern note to self – Get with the programme! You have to LOOK like a dancer to call yourself one!

My visit to the MS University of Baroda (Vadodara now) was very eventful. It is a centre of learning and erudition much lauded across India for over a century and the magnificent buildings attest to the vision and hope of its brilliant founder, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. However, there is a state of decay that lingers everywhere, like a beloved family elder who is slowly withering. While everyone from the auto driver to the chaiwallah and others were optimistic about their man – Narendra Modi – marching to Delhi soon, the streets and buildings did not reflect a state that boasts progress. Or perhaps education is not the priority of any politician for the moment. On the day I performed, Dr. Parul Shah, long time Bharatanatyam performer, scholar and teacher and HOD of the Dance Department, retired. Two days were set aside for Geeta Chandran and myself to talk to the faculty and staff during the day and perform for the city audiences in the evening. Good crowds and warm appreciation were heartening for us and I observed the students riveted by Geeta’s magnificent singing and clear ideas about dance and its attendant challenges. Finding them a bit overwhelmed, I suggested a movement session where I conveyed a single idea for them to develop. What I was seeking was to somehow remove, if only temporarily, a patina of confusion that their faces carried. Somehow, every Bharatanatyam student wants to perform in Chennai and do the annual Sivaratri Natyanjali circuit. There are now too many dancers and too few opportunities. Teachers and students must think differently, creating venues and opportunities that do not converge on Chennai, the December season and the inevitable corruption that has seeped into the ‘mecca’, ‘vaikuntam’, ‘kailasam’ of Bharatanatyam.

In every city I travel, there is always an attempt to meet and interact with visual artistes and designers from that area. Baroda has long been a magnet for painters and textile researchers. It was with delight that I met some wonderful people who showed me shades of the gracious city and treated me to some amazing Gujarati food – one of my favourite cuisines! And each time, I return with an overstuffed suitcase of textiles, fabrics and clothes to remind me of my visits. Oddly, many performances do not stay in my memory, but a coaster, a hand towel, a bedspread, a mug or container will resonate with the fragrance and image of that particular city. I now have a personal TRINKET TREE – a wooden testament to my many travels with the branches holding various bangles, necklaces, scarves and other memorabilia from around India and the world.

Politics is in the air. New Delhi is at the vortex of huge change and the artistic community is breathing that shift. Already I can sense many culture vultures beginning to change alliances, waiting for the national elections and hoping it will bring new formulas for funding and opportunities. Whispers were floating all around me about which dancer is close to which politician. When I objected to one woman who was videotaping my performance from her smart phone, I was told to ‘shush up’ since she was very close to the corridors of power. For those of us, who live far away from the capital, the truth is that whoever assumes control of the Parliament, little may change for struggling, talented and emerging artistes. It is with this in mind that I addressed a group of young professional dancers in Madras, all in their mid careers, and all wanting to make it to the next level. I spoke about the need to become more tech savvy, to create good YOU TUBE worthy short viewing links, about basic lighting and spatial techniques, of working with a third eye mentor or a choreographer. Of making a crucial decision of being a performer or a teacher and also the sacrifices that the family will need to make for their careers as performers. That being a good guru and a good dancer are two very different avatars. While there were many smiles and nods in the audience, I doubt that dramatic shifts will be made.

February was the month that celebrated the birthdays of Rukmini Devi, Pondicherry’s Mother and Mahasivaratri. The final week was a magical convergence of planetary energies and celebrations in Tamilnadu through talks, discussions, celebrations, festivals, carnivals and performances. I have travelled the Natyanjali performance circuit through the many Siva temple towns on several occasions. I will strongly recommend it to every dancer to travel this route once in their career. And once is enough. It is a tiring and draining tour, with no money and below par facilities in most places. But the thrill of visiting these fantastic spaces and to gaze at the wonderful sculptures and large audiences is worth the hardships. I still remember going to Chidambaram in 1990, the year I returned to dance after a 12 year hiatus in the USA. I did not perform at the annual festival, but stood opposite the majestic reclining Vishnu Govindarajan and sang and danced “Tillai Amabala-taanai, Govindarajanai.” Dressed in my red and mustard practice sari, it was my way of seeking HIS blessing before I returned to dance. The Siva (Chidambara rahasyam) that is placed adjacently to the Vishnu is not visible but this iconic song composed by Gopala Krishna Bharati is a favourite of many singers and dancers. Last year, I was performing alongside Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev on the night of Mahasivaratri at the magnificent ISHA centre in Coimbatore but this year family responsibilities demanded my presence at my niece’s wedding in Delhi. On the night of Mahasivaratri, amidst the hundred plus wedding guests, I was distracted, my mind reeling back to the scenes of amazing energy, of the music and dance that swirled around me on many previous Sivaratris while I travelled through Chidambaram, Tiruvarur, Tanjavur, Kumbakonam, Nagapattinam, Tirunallar and the Isha Ashram. On the scenic gardens of a plush five star Delhi hotel, the wedding band was playing Hindi film songs with a smattering of Sufi accents. I finally took the microphone and exhorted the crowd into a group chant of OM NAMA SIVAYA, with accompanying drums and guitars. I got the wedding guests and the newly married couple to dance and sway under the stars. My contribution for the magical convergence of planets and to the Magnificent One!!

Having spent a large chunk of February in New Delhi also gave me the opportunity to visit the glamorous annual Delhi Art Fair. Now firmly established in the social and cultural calendar of India, the large crowds of art lovers, buyers, millionaires wanting to add to their collections were peppered with ‘aam janta’ – the ordinary Delhi citizen - just wanting to take in the ambience and excitement of the event. A new age photo morphed Indira Gandhi’s unforgettable profile with Marie Antoinette-like European bare shouldered gown and the stern IG eye enlarged while she looked through a magnifying glass. Auroville based installation artiste Pierre Legrand showcased his ethereal use of porous screens and wall decorations tucked away in a corner. The most impressive stalls were those from France, Portugal and Brazil. A performance artiste from France was covered in layers and layers of plaster, make up and small props all over his body. Standing for 8 hours, he slowly, ever so slowly, peeled off layer by layer to astonished passersby. Another artiste lay prostrate on the floor slowly placing stick-on ‘bindis’ all over his arm and face while a video camera altered these patterns by making the red bindi ‘dissolve’ in a swirl of computer magic making it look like blood stains... mesmerizing! It was a stimulating day well spent amidst so much creativity!

The shortage of stainless steel in Delhi markets was answered by looking at artiste Subodh Gupta’s installation of a Tree of Life decorated with every conceivable gleaming utensil, tiffin career, pot and bucket! I was thinking of the ubiquitous Rathna Stores in Madras. If only the owner saw the potential of his merchandise! Will conservative South Indians actually believe that this could be a pricey work of art? To be fair to this Paris based artiste, whose recent movable metal walls for French choreographer Angelin Prejlocaj were nothing short of breathtaking, the large installation on display at Delhi’s NGMA ( National Gallery of Modern Art) is a testament to his vision and acknowledged talent.

Which brings me to the idea of DESIGN. Unless we dancers make a conscious commitment to design – spatial, visual, costume, aural and video – to our productions, we will not be able to convince audiences to invest the time and energy to travel to our presentations. Instead of performances, we should try to deliver experiences. Dealing with the multi hydra media monster is a challenge. Gone are the days when we could either telephone or send a letter, a card or an e-mail to announce our show. Now, a personal phone call, an sms ‘tree’ that sends out bulk sms messages to hundreds in your phone book, twitter and facebook event listings and multiple mentions in the increasing number of online mags demand a more nuanced approach. If we hire a PR company just to deliver these various platforms, then we, the dancer, are considered arrogant and spoilt. How can we personally telephone the senior gurus and teachers, whom we respect but who should recognise a printed invitation as what it is meant to be – an invitation to attend! Getting eyeballs BEFORE the event seems to be more important than after and many performers seem to prefer Previews to Reviews. There is no simple answer to the present situation.

Adding to this is the unavoidable aspect of live streaming. Take the recently concluded Natyanjali series of concerts from Siva shrines across Tamilnadu. Live streaming has become a familiar presence and there seems to be little that can be done to avoid it. Perhaps it should be viewed as an opportunity for more audiences to watch these shows rather than the latest episode of TV serials. However, statistics show that the maximum viewership comes from the USA and not from India.

March brings with it the inevitable clutch of programmes aimed at us - women! Speeches at various venues and shows aimed at focusing attention to our gender happen like a routine year after year. Each March we speak, dream, dance, create, ideate and hope for a better world for our girls. And each year the news delivers heart breaking reports of shameful and blood curdling cruelty. In a society where colours, ideas, words and imagination is being increasingly scrutinised, how long can we continue to express what we truly feel without the fear of censorship? Already the hue and cry over the banning and commitment to destroy all copies of Chicago based scholar Wendy Donigher’s Hinduism book has not gathered enough protesters. Film actor Kamal Hassan told me of an incident with the censors about one particular scene from HEY RAM, a political film he acted and directed in. “How lucky you dancers and musicians are!” he said. “You can emote about sex, conjugal relations, intimate words and nobody cares! Only we actors and directors are scrutinised and chastised!” He did not know that he had inadvertently uttered those magical two words – “nobody cares.” Not about what we do but about who we are. Today, it is more true than ever.

Where can dancers rehearse while on tour? This is a huge question in India. Auditoriums are built with no thought to the rehearsal or warm up spaces for visiting performers. Over the years, I have given my dance space in Madras to several friends and I, in turn have used the studios of colleagues while on tour. Basic facilities like a good dancing space is vital and sorely needed. As I write this, the numerous modern dance schools, who teach salsa, tango, hip hop, jazz and mixed modern popular forms have the best studio facilities - sleek wooden floors, wall to wall mirrors and great changing and shower cubicles. During all three years of conferences and festivals, my studio was buzzing all day and sometimes up to midnight as dancers took turns to rehearse, create and ideate. I watched and wondered about why none of our festival directors and sabha maamaas even considered building a space that could be used for rehearsals. Ah well. I forgot the national mantra - Adjust maadi!

In the UK, three young dancers prepare to share the evening in a new initiative from Milapfest. SWADESH includes Mythili Prakash, Arushi Mudgal and Monisa Nayak and will represent this Liverpool Arts Organisation’s new move as commissioning arts producer. The images of these three lovely dancers are very beguiling but it will be interesting to see how well the individual styles and ideas come together in this show which explores the idea of HOME. What and where is home? Is India home for one born outside but whose art ties them to an imaginary homeland? Does that geographical contour change? We await reviews and comments on this show from audiences and critics. Milapfest is also planning an ambitious conference this summer called SANNIDI. More on that in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Birmingham’s dynamo Piali Ray also has her producer’s hat on as she ideates another interesting event next year. I am more and more energised during my short visits to the UK. The community is so diverse, self assured and innovative when it comes to thinking out of the box. Many events are sensational. Some may not work but the constant bubble of curiosity never abates. I always come away with ideas and possibilities. This year, South bank has shifted the annual ALCHEMY festival to late May and even NSD has succumbed to Delhi winters and moved their wonderful theatre festival from January to February from next year. Less of us will be freezing in the capital city where our mufflers and gloves never come off even indoors!

The recent dance events with dancers of one style teaching one particular item to a performer of another style has come in for many comments- not all of them positive. How can a Kathak or an Odissi dancer perform a Bharatanatyam varnam in a heavy Carnatic raga without looking awkward? Can a ‘tribhang’ trained body respond adequately to a ‘jathi’? How can the percussive striking of the ‘mridangam’ compare to the ‘pakhawaj’ or the ‘dhol’ for a Kuchipudi dancer? The idea is PR worthy but judging from many responses, the evenings left many wondering or disappointed. Each style has its stance, gait and persona. Even changing the music forces the kinetics to shift ever so slightly. However, this seems to be the trend of the moment- at least in New Delhi where more such celebrations are planned.

Locked for long hours in a recording studio, preparing for my trips to Washington DC and later to Bombay, I find myself marvelling at music and sound as a wonderful trigger for mood and memory. A haunting lullaby in Tamil punctuated by a lament in Rajasthani brings a mother’s dual emotion of anguish and love to the fore. Poems, words and choreographic ideas erupt while I am listening to music with Vedanth Bharadwaj at the controls. My mind dances and my fingers are always etching lines in space. I know that we all have our special moments when the juices flow. For me it is the early morning hours around 5.15 am before my first cuppa kaapi when the last dreams of the night before remain and the tasks for the day ahead have not yet risen to the surface. Now if only I can be creative during those long intercontinental flights. I always reach for a glass of the bubbly and turn on a good movie. Or just fall asleep dreaming of an acupressure foot massage!

To each of us, a special way to keep the pot stirred. Imagination in full flow and the body-mind equilibrium in tandem. I begin Qui Gong classes this month to refocus and travel deeper during my incessant travels. If only I can stay in one place for ten days at a stretch!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Bombay/ London/ New York/ San Francisco

PS: Happy birthday, February 29th people! Rukmini Devi, former Prime Minister Morarji Desai and dance scholar Ashish Mohan Khokar mark this special day that comes around once in four years.

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