Artists are the timekeepers of humanity
How else will we know about the civilisations that came before us?
So fret not
We will still be here, working,
When the tides shift and you're nowhere to be found
Except in the list of history's tyrants
Good luck trying to erase us
- Boston based dance artiste Mesma Belsare in response to US President Trump's attempt to disband the National Endowment of the Arts.
I write this from Melbourne, Australia where images of horrifying violence from New Delhi streets are flooding Facebook and Twitter. Again I ask myself, what is the purpose of art at times of extreme stress? Still we continue... hope seems distant but we continue...
So.... did Cupid's arrows strike last month? Did anyone feel the flutter or renew their vows? SRINGARA RASA makes the world go round they say but during these times of global anxiety, what we need is a new avatar of Cupid/Manmada. That naked cherub and the marauding Kama-terrorist is too banal for these cynical times of diverse loving. Today, love needs VALIUM and XANAX. And also an expiry date!
How many danced in the NATYANJALI circuit in Tamilnadu? How many allowed themselves to be hypnotised by Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev as he executed his "Trance Dance" on Sivaratri at his ISHA YOGA ASHRAM near Coimbatore?
And how about the gorgeous venue of the Khajuraho dance festival? How many got to show off against the beautiful backdrops?
How many of you marched and danced on the streets during Mardi Gras parades in cities around the world? Did you throw caution to the winds and abandon yourselves to the DIONYSIAN spirit?
And how many Desis will prepare to dance in duplicate copies of Rio's CARNIVAL which is dotting several Indian cities this year?
In the teeming and seething political climate of the times, I am reminded of the words of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Shambala Buddhism. She speaks of "appreciating things as they are", rather than imagined or prophesied. Of the "joy of the ordinary" rather than the isolated act of creative genius. THIS is the time to tap into memory, stamp an object or a moment from the news cycle, look at an image that grabs attention and place it in a jigsaw puzzle before you. What are those snapshots saying? Can we create a natural movement from it? Can we actually use LIFE as our source? Without technique but with a technically trained body?
These are exciting and challenging times for any artiste.
The annual budget never includes anything about Culture. Except this time, several thousands of crores have been set aside specifically for ART & CULTURE. Thanks to Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman. Now, besides updating our museums, what will the money be used for? Definitely our historic monuments and precious archeological sites need an urgent update. Any visit to any country outside India will tell us how well smaller countries with less resources are able to create memorable experiences from their museum and ancient site visits.
#AWARDS & ACCOLADES
This festival is now in its tenth year and was co-conceived by the indefatigable Ramaa Bharadvaj for the CHINMAYA ASHRAM in idyllic Kolwan, near Pune. Beautiful weather and a serene atmosphere welcomed me after my 4 hour car ride from Mumbai. A stunning architectural maze designed to quiet the mind and "reflect" upon one's own personality alongside sayings of many savants and seers was a highlight of the sunset hours. Standing tall like a sentinel was the erect form of Hanuman, the presiding spirit of the campus. (I shudder at Hanuman's name becoming a program for violence in today's India).
I was recognised for this 20 year old dance portal and my other quieter initiatives like mentoring artistes, presenting special events through my ARANGHAM STUDIO SERIES and the 25 year revival efforts of KAISIKA NATAKAM in my ancestral village which did not escape Ramaa's keen mind. Swami Tejomayananda gave me the award with the words "You will be back again!"
How vital these moments are in an artiste's life! How lonely is the journey of a first generation professional artiste whose family is otherwise occupied with ROI, Balance sheets and P&L statements! (Look up the business lexicon to understand this).
#BALANCING A MENAGERIE OF MEN
From the first sounds of utensils clattering in the kitchen and an exasperated voice shouting "MOOSHIKAA!" we knew there was going to be a nonstop ride of an unusual family and their menagerie of a mouse, a peacock, a tiger, a bull and the assorted shenanigans of two unusual sons. To place DEVI PARVATI as a wife, mother and householder while negotiating Her power and that of Her equally powerful husband with two sons was an unusual lens to offer the audience. Beautifully synchronised group dancing, gorgeous lighting (Gyan Dev) especially towards the end when BHO SHAMBO began with a gasp from the audience, sensitively designed multi media and a cascade of popular songs, shlokas and chants made for a wonderfully engaging 82 minutes.
There is something comforting about being entertained and totally engrossed without needing to pontificate, spout "gyan" or preach during dance shows. TALES... was a clever composite of good music, neat dancing, superb lighting, imaginative scenography, and the gorgeous finale of a truly unusual family getting ready for bed. The final image of the Goddess and Her mate (an impressive Mithun Shyam as SIVA) along with Ganesa, Muruga on Her lap surrounded by their menagerie made us all smile and applaud spontaneously.
# BIOPICS, CELEBRATIONS & MORE
The love and outpouring of global admiration for a true Kathak pioneer is reflected by more than one review of the artiste and the celebration on our site.
The raised leg and arched body of Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut as the iconic J Jayalalithaa has hit the media last month. Kangana says she gained 18 pounds for the role. Did she not get the note? It should have been more like 180 pounds! J J was an impressive presence - in size and intelligence! I still remember her Bharatanatyam performance at the Music Academy when my guru Adyar K Lakshman wielded the nattuvangam, Madurai Sethuraman sang and Trichur P Ramanathan played the mridangam. J J could not execute the perfect "araimandi" and her performance was sedate but very pleasing to watch. Today she would have been described by the impatient millennials as "someone who cannot move!"
Watching the Oscars award the Best Actress trophy to Renee Zelwegger for her stunning portrayal of singer Judy Garland got me thinking of why we don't have biopics of some of our dance icons. Can you imagine how wonderful biopics of Yamini Krishnamurthy and Sonal Mansingh would be? Of Shanta Rao? Chandralekha? They have led such diverse lives and would make for a fascinating film script. The books about their lives have been, sadly, mostly hagiography.
#TOO SEXY TOO FABULOUS
Indian men watched with their mouths salivating and hearts pounding. No protest was seen, read or heard except "incredible", "outstanding", "uffff"!!!!As for some who tried to say that we also have ITEM NUMBERS in our movies, please rethink your statement. Our heroines need multiple retakes and cannot sing AND dance on live camera. They lip-sync!
So let the classical world not fake a shudder and say CHEE! at this awesome performance of these amazing women.
If those of you donning classical costumes and bells on your feet choose to pout, hip-grind, chest thrust or swagger in the name of "tradition" then don't expect only praise for the alleged DE-SANCTIFYING of SRINGARA RASA. Don't hide behind the words "classical", "pure", "sacred", "authentic", "ancient". You want to be sexy and sensual? Have the guts to perform it with no apologies and no sanctimonious crap! And please don't call your art Bharatanatyam. Name it. Frame it. Do it. If you have something worthwhile to say, it will find its way into the discourse. Else, it will remain as hashtags, tweets and Insta rants!
Her mature presence, non size zero physique and beautiful Kalakshetra technique made her performance a joy to watch at SPACES. Accompanied by her choreographer husband, Shyamjith Kiran, the couple followed a talented young student of Renjith and Vijna who went on and on and ate into their time. Thankfully, V & SK were crisp and brisk. This is one couple I am placing on my radar amidst the sea of mostly tired and uni dimensional BN!
Why are young gurus asking their even younger students to perform items like NETRU ANDI NERATHILE? Does it mean anything to these young women if a man is two timing them? Today's young woman will UNFRIEND him and post her status as SINGLE. By all means, teach them the older pieces but why not encourage them to include something else in their performance roster?
In Karnataka, the large group of classical dance musicians have formed an association to tackle issues pertaining to their art. Titled ACDMK, this is possibly the very first time in India that the community of dance musicians has come together. They should discuss the topic of over charging dancers and not being ready to forgo or reduce their fees when genuine charity shows or a natural disaster calls for dance performances to raise money. Most Chennai musicians do not care whatever the cause may be. They just need to be paid. No matter what!
That apart, dance musicians are treated with scant respect from the "serious" classical musicians. Playing for dance is still a black spot for those vying for a concert stage as a vocalist or an instrumentalist. This is 2020 peeps! Get with it!!!
According to dancers between 20 to 30, THE ONLY STAGE TO PERFORM IS ONLINE. With the traditional theatres and festivals mostly cordoned off by the divas, devas and their offspring - or students of well connected star gurus - hundreds of talented youngsters are taking to Instagram, Facebook and so many other newer windows to bombard us with photos and videos. Many are quite good but I am from the generation that a 3 minute clip cannot substitute for the "real thing". Except, what is "real" today? Endlessly repetitive margams or a quick blast of something fresh, even if it is cheeky or irreverent? Since no festival director, curator or talent agent is on the horizon, I do not blame the millennials to try anything and everything in their arsenal until they burn out by 35!
In Leeds, UK, Ronnie Shambik Ghose and Mitul Sengupta celebrated the phenomenal success of their collaborative production titled BLACK WATERS.
In Sydney, dancer Anandavalli's son S Shakthidharan continues to win accolades for his Sri Lankan diaspora play titled COUNTING AND CRACKING. Besides a record 7 HELPMANN awards and the Sydney Theatre awards, the latest honour is the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premiere's Prize for Drama at the 2020 Victorian Premiere's Literary awards.
Shobana Jeyasingh's Dance named Best Independent company at the UK National Dance Awards.
All over the world, like a lightning flash, dancer Kalpana Raghuraman zips from one continent to another teaching and guiding students in her ACCESS CONSCIOUSNESS courses. I get dizzy just reading her itinerary and wondering how she keeps it all together!
Shobana Bhalchandra receives ACHARYA RATHNAKARA from Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival on April 11, 2020.
In Chennai, UTSAVAM, the annual festival produced by Dakshinachitra and Shreya Nagaraj are presenting three days of performances and discussions on rare and lesser seen forms like Koodiyattam, Villu Pattu and Harikatha.
Aniruddha Knight, grandson of Balasaraswati, presents his first arangetram disciple, ABHINAYA SELVI in a much anticipated dance debut.
Revanta Sarabhai is shooting for his fourth Gujarati feature film.
Alternative venues like CUSP festival in Chennai, MOTTAI MAADI MUSIC across cities in South India and LIVING ROOM KUTCHERI initiated in Bengaluru have caught on. Smaller crowds, tickets, interesting programming are making the live arts interesting again.
The eternal duo Leela Samson and Madhavi Mudgal shared the stage in Delhi last month. Both have a quiet elegance that is unmatched.
Taking a cue from the very successful PRE LOVED fashion sales that I conducted for the past 4 years, dancer and fashionista Madhu Nataraj is holding one of her own in Bengaluru at the end of March, to raise funds for the dance scholarships and dance studies.
"HUM DEKHENGE", the Urdu poem by the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz has become the new anthem for protests against the ongoing violence and resistance to the Citizenship Amendment Act in India. The song has already been translated into several languages and social media is beginning to see many dancers responding to this. The song, however, is more suitable to being sung than danced!
The insatiable hunger for ITEM NUMBERS is on the rise. From Melbourne to Minnesota, Bharatanatyam dancers are flocking wherever and whenever there is a call to "immerse" in a weekend or more under the "watchful eye" of some diva or another. Pay, travel, spend and learn. Put those 2 or 3 pieces into your shopping basket. Get the video. Get the music. Take unlimited selfies. Bludgeon everyone on social media. Become another generation of diluted clones. Rinse and repeat.
The serene retreats at ADISHAKTI and NATANAKAIRALI continue their superb training for dancers and actors. Everyone must attend at least one of these very intense sessions in Auroville or Irinjalakuda where dancers can actually learn what a lazy body means!
With the conviction of serial rapist Harvey Weinstein in the USA, 90 women who bravely came forward to accuse the former Hollywood mogul finally found justice. In Spain, opera superstar Placido Domingo had all his concerts cancelled when 20 women accused him of sexual deviance. But not in India where dance musicians and scholars are running scot free. #METOO has sadly meant that we have normalised violence against women in art and in politics.
#OH THAT WORD AGAIN!!!!
Casteism was at its ugly height last month in Tanjavur during the grand KUMBHABHISHEKAM of the magnificent 11th century Chola Brihadeeswarar temple. Court cases were filed to prevent Sanskrit from being chanted in favour of the pujas being done completely in Tamil. The fanatics lost and were forced to share both languages at the consecration pujas. But not without hate chants in Tamil filling the air. "DOWN WITH SANSKRIT. KILL SANSKRIT" was heard in the video feed.
What language and lyrics do we choose while we dance? For Bharatanatyam, its complex and syncretic nature has been able to accommodate several Indian languages into the repertoire - Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi, Kashmiri, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Manipuri - and of course other tongues like English, German, Swedish, Spanish, Italian. I have seen all these on stage across the world as poems and songs get translated and trans created. It is bad enough that Bharatanatyam is now labelled a HINDU DANCE.
When Oscar winner Maori native TAIKA WAITITI, director of JO JO RABBIT for Best Adapted Screenplay, accepted his award, he acknowledged that the KODAK THEATRE in Los Angeles was situated on stolen grounds of the First Nation people. This was a wakeup call to the USA about the shocking attitudes of American history and amnesia towards the original inhabitants of the land.
It was also similar to a lucid interview by US based scholar Devesh Soneji about the classical dance world's collective amnesia towards the complex history of Bharatanatyam and the continued simplification and romanticisation of the DEVADASI. What do we think about when we tie the bells on our feet and stand in SAMA PAADAM with our hands on our waist? Who should we remember and acknowledge? While I cannot agree with all that Professor Soneji states so vehemently, I find his argument very compelling and urge you all to read it.
Davesh Soneji on Indian classical dance, working with hereditary artists: 'We need a new, radical epistemology and political grammar'
Professor Soneji's embrace of the #JAIBHIM hashtag should also be understood as the name of Dr. BHIM RAO AMBEDKAR, the champion of civil rights and human equality for all. It is NOT the BHIMA of the MAHABHARATA. Here, the subaltern call for equality is a stark reminder about giving all kinds of dance aesthetics an equal place and space to be seen and viewed.
#DEATH OF DISSENT AND COMMENT
Dance critics in India accept that they are not paid full time by any publication and so have to accept air travel, boarding and lodging for festivals in order to write about them. This is the fact and there is no point in arguing or comparing what the UK or the USA does. With culture pages closing or thinning and dance being relegated to the last column after temples, food, fashion and music, it is no wonder that dance writers are waiting for the next invitation to travel and be pampered - all for 300 words of praise - and mostly no money! So if some of our writers rave and wax eloquently about some of the artistes who have invited and hosted them, it is an expected outcome of a quid pro quo arrangement between artiste and critic.
It is then left to our editorial team to sift through the overdone hyperbole and cut out the unnecessary fluff. We do receive blatant PR articles from some eminent writers who have obviously been co-opted by their local and international hosts. This is par for the course!
Meanwhile, our search for young writers for dance and the movement arts continues. I have to mention the very readable articles and interviews by Sammitha Sreevathsa who writes for FIRST POST. They may be considered skewed by some but they are intelligent, introspective and gets one thinking. Young Bharatanatyam student from Durban, Saranya Devan is also showing a keen interest and an interesting turn of phrase when she watches and writes about shows she sees in Chennai.
Dancers, not all of you can dance or will have a life in dance. Your guru and your adoring parents are not going to tell you this. So while you are dreaming of fame and success, can you also try to equip yourselves with other skills connected to dance? That is elongate your dance life in ways that may turn out to be more meaningful!
# ASIA TOPA DOWN UNDER
The last week of February found me in Sydney and Melbourne surrounded by dance, art, theatre and provocative performances. In an engaging evening alongside Mallika Sarabhai and Swarnamalya Ganesh, we shared our perspectives on art and our brief performances were followed by a conversation skilfully navigated by moderator Indu Balasubramaniam.
One on one conversations with colleagues Anandavalli and Chandrabhanu, coffee chatter with Butoh artiste Yumi Umiumare, First Nation artiste Amrita, academic Priya Srinivasan, dancer and producer Raka Maitra and many new friends made for an exhilarating 8 days. Meeting with AKADEMI founder Tara Rajkumar was also a lovely moment!
ASIA TOPA's image for 2020 was that of a Japanese Kabuki dancer. Now how does that make it Contemporary Asia? The choice of the image drew widespread criticism from the arts community. However, the size and scale of the event was very impressive. Theatres large and small, university auditoriums, parks - multiple spaces were engaged in showcasing so many varieties of performances. Spread over 3 months, from January to March, this is a massive arts event and a "must see" for anyone interested in how to manage and present a multi arts, multi venue festival.
Alongside the TRIENNALE, was the APAM, Australia Performing Arts Market where everyone met everyone - presenters, artistes, funders, grant organisations... you name it... they were present. Located at the MEAT MARKET, it literally was one! A MEAT MARKET TO MEET THE ARTS!
The artistes were offered 7 minutes each to make a "pitch". They spoke, performed, showed video of their work in progress or of completed work and spoke about how they could grow or complete the project. Touring, size of the company, sets, duration, music composition, lighting and multimedia design, audience demographics - all were demanded from the artiste and director. The BLAK LAB showcased the work of many indigenous artistes from Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan (Paiwan is the name of one of their indigenous tribes). Drawing on humour in a jail cell, the story of the sun and moon, a rigged game show - the topics were so varied but the confidence of the indigenous artistes was apparent. Did they need the support of White Privilege? It seemed the other way around!
Why is it that Indian dance artistes are not able to engage, disengage, dissect, discuss or collaborate in a truly meaningful way? Why is it that none of us can stand up and make a pitch without whining about money or the lack of educated critics? The elitism surrounding Indian classical dance practice and performance is disturbing in its isolation and imagined grandeur.
It is time for an IPAM. An Indian Performing Arts Market where this kind of model can be on display. Not just a place for flyers and posters but for a complete thinking through of the process, intention, incubation, partnerships and more.
# A RASIKA IMMERSED
What better way to recharge from an extremely stressful two weeks than by watching dance and theatre in Sydney and Melbourne?
Being the week of MARDI GRAS celebrations, I was able to see a beautiful and positive performance called You & I - two gay men lovingly engaged in gymnastics, physical theatre and evocative "angika Abhinaya" - Fantastic and life affirming!
METAL- a beautiful opening but a disturbing and problematic production with Indonesian new music artistes set against contemporary female dancers in the centre. The underground musical choir from Bandung was led by Tikoro Robi Rusdiana. They had incredible vocalisation of simmering volcanoes and gentle birds chirping and seemed to be beautiful movers but were relegated to looking like uncouth ‘junglees' and their incredible vocalisation reduced to being the voyeurs of "civilised" white bodies. Even the few mixed race dancers were choreographed as "white sylphs". I watched with my mouth slowly widening in disbelief. Mallika Sarabhai marched out in disgust (with some of us silently cheering her protest). I stayed to see how much worse it could get. And it did! How could celebrated choreographer Lucy Guerin create such a racist work in 2020? And get so well funded for it? The programme notes state that "the ghosts of tradition merge with music and dance to invent new mythologies for a globalised world." More like animals emerging from the jungles of Borneo and savaging white women! That is what METAL looked like. Many white Australians were silent and apologetic after the show. But the majority applauded with gusto. The appalling politics of METAL was a reminder of how smugness and ignorance can work its dangerous duet.
THE SEEN AND UNSEEN
Directed by Kamila Andini, this international co-production delves into the world of childhood grief. Inspired by a Balinese myth of twins, Tantri and Tantra, frolicking through fields, stealing eggs from shrines, the twins are inseparable. When one falls ill and dies, the other escapes into nighttime visions where the twins say their farewell through shadow puppetry, costumed play and dance.
Performed entirely by children, this was a stunning and evocative performance that took us into the gentle and dense world of mythology, imagination and artistic possibilities. Both vulnerable and confident, the beautifully trained young dancers achieved a delicate balance between realism and surrealism that was brilliantly conceived and performed.
Mallika Sarabhai was featured in a two night sold out run of her new work SVA KRANTI - conversations with Gandhi. Born from a moment of personal crisis 18 years ago, Mallika accessed personal diary as grist for her writing and performance mill. Very familiar with constant run-ins with the current Modi government, SVA KRANTI harnessed the current politics of hate and violence that are scorching Mallika's home state of Gujarat and India's capital city.
The performance used the moving historical incident of a Gujarati woman called SADUBAI who sacrificed herself to save the people of Ahmedabad. Her statue still stands today and during Navaratri, all the men of the neighbourhood wear saris and dance the garba for nine nights. Other references to suicides of young girls in Kerala, the brave resistance of women against cutting trees in Australia were woven in-between her own personal diary of unrelenting energy towards women and their world. Beautiful multimedia by Yadavan Chandran for the SADUBAI section was another highlight.
With the GANDHI prop as a silent witness, SVA KRANTI asks vital questions as areas in New Delhi are torn apart with religious violence.
Earlier in the day Mallika delivered a searing talk at the APAM conference about art becoming a market commodity. Her ability to engage multiple audiences and draw crowds of all ages is an inspiration for many.
Other performers and speakers at ASIA TOPA were Akash Odedra, Seeta Patel (both UK based) and India's Swarnamalya Ganesh (who is riding the success tide at the moment, without a glance at her naysayers). Akash's partner in SAMSARA is from China and is currently in quarantine. A substitute performer is being prepared as I write this.
A huge shout out to the dynamic Nithya Nagarajan, who is working overtime and creating quite a presence with her vision and boundless energy. She is a great addition to the roster of the Australian Arts Council and has initiated so many path breaking collaborations. In the current atmosphere of global racism, she is pushing for more inclusivity and collaboration between Asia and Australia.
For the last month, we at this portal have been at the receiving end of several anonymous threats and comments. We are used to this popping up every now and then. However, the tone and tenor of these latest mails and comments are truly vicious.
To think that one person (me) who writes but ONCE A MONTH, and whose views and opinions are independent of what is carried on the portal, is considered a threat by some moronic idiots is truly laughable.
It DOES mean that my words carry weight and meaning. That people are reading them and discussing my views. That many are sharing and commenting amongst closed groups. And that some petty puerile buffoons and their in-significant others are getting very, very upset.
Let's face some facts. If you are getting on stage, you better be prepared to be judged. Positively or negatively. You cannot surround yourself with only an adoring entourage and pretend that the world revolves around you. Study Galileo. It does not!
One suggestion. You don't like my words. Don't read them. Simple. And please don't try to post anonymous comments on our portal. Put your name and e-mail address without which the moderator will not accept the post.
And dancers, let us also acknowledge that we have almost ZERO leadership in the world of dance. We neither have collegiality nor a consensus when issues of crisis loom. Nobody wants to step up and confront bullies and slander mongering. Organisations and their elected Presidents and office bearers should feel ashamed of their complicit silence.
So let's realise that we are here on our own. It is our decision. Our lives. Our art. Here's to positivity. To curiosity. To ongoing hunger to absorb and learn. To amplify and expand ourselves. To break ourselves open. To be wounded by trying and perhaps failing. And standing up for ourselves.
To caring for our bodies AND minds. AND hearts. To supporting one another. To speaking clearly to our friends even if it is not always in praise. To nurturing talent in our lives. To telling our children and grandchildren about the wonder of the creative life and to recognise sparks of inspiration that can come from anywhere.
The Korean film PARASITE won an Oscar when the rest of the world walked around wearing Darth Vader masks fearing a deadly virus. The real virus is cowardice and a loss of hope. It will corrode our lungs and our brains.
Don't forget to apply for the unique PROCESS DRIVEN 6 day session with Butoh artiste Yumi Umiumare. She visits Chennai for one week in September. The ARANGHAM LEARNING LABS #2 is about capacity building for classical dancers and will not result in either a finished item or recorded music. Only 6 places left. The session is FREE. But applicants will be selected carefully. Already we have actors and physical theatre practitioners applying. Deadlines are approaching.
Second edition of Learning Labs
#THE LIGHTS DIM
Madhu Nataraj in a Wendell costume
The fashion world and some dancers mourned the passing of genius innovator Wendell Rodricks. This Goan maverick and social activist loved dance and designed wearable clothes and gorgeous costumes for Madhu Nataraj, Aditi Mangaldas and yours truly.
We also received news via Facebook about the effervescent Rathna Kumar in Houston who tragically lost her 38 year old son Kedaar. No parent should outlive their children and we, the global Indian dance community share a mother's grief and send our collective positive wishes to Rathna Kumar.
And so, until next month.
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
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