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March 2021

Health is not a debt we can cancel
The body collects..
Memories, events, heartbreak, loss
and reacts
- Actor Patricia Clarkson in SHARP OBJECTS, a HBO miniseries
 
Our bodies HAVE collected. Almost a full year of drastic change. A brutal turn around-stopped in our tracks - bodies in collision with nature - minds at war within - hearts torn asunder with confusion and fear..

Yet here we are. Among the ruins (and some shards of rapture) of past 11 months. Surveying how we have somehow found the means to survive while millions have dropped off and fallen through the cracks of Fate and Time. This past year has been called a time of "Global Weirdness" by the New York Times. It seems to fit. We have fallen down the rabbit hole of every dark and dismal sensorial experience and one emotion is echoed through our lives and the voice of the media. FATIGUE.

The creative community in India has been slapped on both cheeks. Cancelled opportunities and rendered invisible by the government that does not seem to care about the dire situation of its heroes and heroines who are somehow expected to step up when it's time for the chant of INDIA SHINING.

Selling tea, delivering groceries, cleaning homes, painting walls, taking any odd jobs that comes their way, artistes have had to forage for work to keep themselves going. In the current heat of a rising autocracy, outspoken activists and artistes are isolated and targeted, and are finding it an increasing challenge to explain 'Incredible India' to the world!

Still, we are here. This portal. This monthly message. Still here. For almost 21 years.
The past months have seen the rise and rise of so many new digital ventures from intrepid self starters (mostly women-led), who have adapted to the new normal via innumerable new initiatives. The rise of INSTAGRAM has made it the platform so influential that only visuals that grab eyeballs get the fingers to hit "LIKE". Never mind if you are dancing, rehearsing, exercising or walking your dog!

For the past year, our team at NARTHAKI.COM has morphed, adapted and attempted to gauge the pulse of the global audience that is connected through Indian dance. 12 months of trying, experimenting, floundering, lurching, stumbling and finding our pace and rhythms.

From April 15th we begin our 22nd year of an online presence.

So, here is an edition that will focus on what excites us right now. The good stuff. The positive stuff. The stuff of smiles. The stuff of raised eyebrows (in delight and amazement). Events and initiatives that will stoke the fires of hope that have been dormant within so many for so long.

#BRAVE

Mandeep Raikhy



While most classical dancers transitioned online to continue their artistic lives, one contemporary radical was thinking differently. Mandeep Raikhy, co-founder of GATI DANCE FORUM, the 12 year old contemporary dance and culture space in New Delhi, has embarked on an India tour. His compelling Instagram page called @THESECULARPROJECT asks these questions.

How do we build casual intimacy with the word SECULAR?
What does it mean to inhabit the secular, to live and breathe with it, to wear, touch, caress and hold on to it?

In a series of poignant Instagram provocations, Mandeep has posted videos and photos from various cities which shows a large piece of white cloth with the words THE SECULAR PROJECT painted upon it. Laying it lovingly on the ground, wrapping himself in it while the camera is strapped to a ceiling fan, holding it up to the wind, using it as a banner, a symbol of hope and protest, Mandeep has "infiltrated" communities in many cities to stimulate conversations and debates about how to recover the soul of India.

Mandeep's most potent performance project before this was QUEEN SIZE (2016), a heart stopping duet with two men which was his direct response to Article 377 and the Indian government's confrontational attitude to same sex love. I remember leaving the tightly closed enclosure at Chennai's SPACES because I could not breathe. It was such an unusual emotion - a performance that bored into my skin and senses, forcing me to confront my own blind spots and holding me captive in a kind of terrible fascination.

@THE SECULAR PROJECT began on January 1 of this year and Mandeep plans on continuing his travels until July. His words and images deserve a closer look as we imagine and re-imagine the very idea of India.


#DRAMATIC

Vikram Iyengar

Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy

Surjit Nongmeikapam

Joshua Sailo

Preethi Athreya
Delayed for a year due to the lockdown, BIRD was staged in Chennai last month at the Alliance Francaise. Supported by several culture partners, including INKO Centre (Korean lighting designer Jong Hee Kang and interpreted by T Balasaravanan), this 4 part all male solo was inspired by a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Conceived and choreographed by contemporary dance maker Preethi Athreya, the beautifully staged evening had strong performances by Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy, Vikram Iyengar, Surjit Nongmeikapam and Joshua Sailo.

The programme notes state that "the performance juxtaposes two different kinds of existence - human rootedness and avian flight and challenges concepts of the gaze - of surveyor and the surveyed that co-exist in the male body, beyond the discourses of sexuality and power."

Kathak trained Vikram Iyengar, who has worked with Preethi in his first modern solo ACROSS-NOT OVER, spoke of how it was most challenging to squat for long stretches being trained in the erect stance of Kathak. "I was able to do movements that I never thought were possible. Preethi has a way of making me discover these things about myself," he added.

The finale with all four dancers performing in tandem and together and ending with bird sounds had the eerie resonance of a 'Tillana.' (Trust a Bharatanatyam trained dancer to search for those parallels!) The cacophony of four dancers emitting bird sounds, each harsh and strident as the lights dimmed, was like a jolt to the senses that had been held in a kind of limbo throughout the performance.

BIRD is on view until March 8 via the INKO CENTRE via Facebook and their website. NARTHAKI.COM has received permission to show it on our platform for a limited time only.


#CAMARADERIE

Aditi Mangaldas

"I don't know music. My knowledge of Hindi is rudimentary. I don't read except through translations."
Listening to Aditi in one of her introductions to these 5 sessions, I was struck by how calmly she was stating something that my teachers would have balked at. To learn music was a part of my Bharatanatyam training and a good dancer was expected to know her music. To counter this point, Malavika Sarukkai, in a separate conversation, said that her teachers (Kalyanasundaram in Mumbai and SK Rajaratnam and Kalanidhi Narayanan in Chennai) did not stress on musical knowledge. Rather they looked at the body's ability to be musical.

Aditi's performances and choreography do not reflect musicality but succeed splendidly through imagination, rigour and inter disciplinary influences. The staging, lighting, choreography are designed to allow the music to be separate and apart from her performance. It is the AFFECT of the combination that stuns audiences - especially those outside India - and brings them to their feet.

To celebrate 30 years of her dance foundation DRISHTIKON, Aditi initiated a series of dialogues around the dance practice. IMPERFECT CIRCLE - Dialogue, Discovery and Dance focused on 5 main collaborators in Aditi's dance journey. Dramaturgy, Lighting, Music, Mentoring and Rehearsal direction. I was able to watch three of the five sessions that were beautifully produced and edited (collaborating partner Abheri Roots) with the main speaker and 5 dancers positioned cleverly in neatly arranged boxes. A relief from the bland visual of normal Zoom presentations.

Fabiana Piccioli spoke about lighting design and her own beginnings as a dancer. About confronting the challenges of working in India where no space or time is given to the dancer before the actual performance, Fabiana suggested that dancers befriend the FOLLOW SPOT. To be able to use the follow spot and to hold the light within a specified confined space would be one way of inserting a different aesthetic into a classical performance that seeks to front light the face as a priority. Watching stunning excerpts of Aditi and Akash Odedra's performances that were lit by Fabiana, one wondered if and when such luxury would be possible in India where the system is positioned as directly antagonistic towards anyone who seeks technical perfection in the presentation of their performance!


Shubha Mudgal helmed the music session and spoke candidly about her voice being called "androgynous". Its deep resonance resembled an aggressive masculinity in comparison to other female singers (Aruna Sairam being an exception). Shubha talked about searching for "sound rather than raga" when working with dancers. She recounted her biggest challenge of singing impromptu for Astad Deboo at one of the SPIC MACAY events, where a chance meeting backstage led to the onstage show where both artistes responded to one another without any prior rehearsal! Watching rehearsals and trying to understand the dancer's vision should be the priority of the musician and not to impose her fondest composition onto the choreography. Contemporary dancer Deepak Kurki Shivaswamy was most non-conformist when he stated that "the dancer and the composer must challenge one another and not acquiesce. It is only then that original work can be born."

The most interesting session for me was the one with Scotland based Morag Deyes. A former Mohiniattam student, Morag brought a totally different eye to Aditi's choreography over 10 years ago when Aditi was searching for new audiences outside India. The phrase "murder your darlings" was particularly impactful. The idea that choreographers get too attached to some ideas (darlings) and need to let them go! That not everyone needs a mentor or a dramaturg (they are two different disciplines) and that unless one is prepared to accept different and often differing points of view, it is not for everyone.


# DAZZLING

Given an entire year to prepare for a special digital viewing, NRITYAGRAM got a head start to digitise their entire archives. An invitation from NYU- Abu Dhabi Arts Centre in April of 2020 gave Lynne Fernandes and Surupa Sen enough lead time to select from their archives as well as upgrade their workshops, classes, community meals and their award winning performances. What was screened for the event was AHUTI- a mixed bill of Odissi and the successful collaboration with CHITRASENA dancers of Sri Lanka. The excellent camera work, crisp introductions by Surupa and the beautifully trained ensemble was a treat to watch. Every foot was placed in unison, each bend of the torso executed like a symphony. Surupa's unusual patterning and choreography was on full display.


#EXPLOSIVE

Prathibha Prahlad

Swapnasundari
In a session that was riveting in parts, the current validity of the relationship between the teacher and the student was thrown and blown open. Candid as always, Prathibha Prahlad said that she "abhors" the word GURU being misused and bandied about loosely. She bared her soul-scarring episodes of being traumatised by the sexual advances made by her Bharatanatyam guru 25 years ago. When the article hit the stands as a cover story, Prathibha created a furore with her first person account that she claimed had shattered her psyche for several years. That single story brought her brickbats for "polluting" the "sacrosanct bond" between guru and student. Many performance opportunities were denied to her and the BOYS CLUB of Sabha presenters shunned Prathibha for her outspoken views.

In the session, Prathiba also pressed co-panellist Prerna Shrimali as to why even today Kathak dancers were mechanically touching their ears when they mention the name of their guru! Prerna promptly replied that she has forbidden her students from "performing" this motion and that many of the current crop of Kathak students continue to make a mockery of the gesture even further by lifting one shoulder to touch the ear!

Swapnasundari was also compelling in her presentation and interventions in emphasising that while she has trained many dancers, she is still waiting for that one student to imbibe, not just the technique and repertoire, but the philosophy and import of her teaching. And only then can she be called a GURU. She highlighted the crucial factor of being a star performer while being a teacher at the same time. Female students who learn from such teacher-performers first arrive because they too want to be part of that dazzle and wish to achieve that same status in a shorter period of time. Slowly they become intimidated, insecure and then depart from the "banyan tree shade" of the star. Swapna insisted that these very same students should NOT claim lineage or legacy by invoking the teacher's name in their own independent dance journeys.

The hyphenated words GURU - SISHYA had acquired a "huge trust deficit" (Swapnasundari) especially when there are so many other players in the equation today - an ambitious mother, a patron, a relative. This present scenography dilutes the role of a guru and opens the door for his/her exit.

Pushkala Gopal spoke about her teaching being mostly in the UK where teachers were "coached" on how to deal with students and the possible problems that could emerge in the classroom.

Alekhya Punjala stressed that in the academic environment the traditional paradigms of guru and sishya hold little value or relevance.

In conclusion, all the panelists agreed that the original meaning and import of the GURU-SISHYA dynamics in today's context needs a brutal reality check.

As observer, Chitra Sundaram added in her typed comments, "It is a topic worth examining every few years as immediate, intermediated teaching appears dis-intermediated by technology and social media."

The session was curated and moderated by Meenakshi Ravi for the Parampara Dance and Music Forum.


#EXHILARATING

Spring is in the air and classical dance got a huge boost with the Khajuraho Dance Festival. Against the breathtaking backdrop of the temple, a tall Tamil lamp (kutthu vilakku) stood as the silent sentinel to the opening speeches that were followed by a beautifully performed presentation of ANEKANTA by Geeta Chandran and her Natya Vriksha group. Using the levels of the monument and Sharad Kulashresta's lighting, the presentation was a salute to Bharatanatyam and its expansive possibilities in the historic space. Started in 1975, the Khajuraho festival symbolised the intervention of the Government in the classical arts of India. That it has returned to its live avatar along with a digital imprint is good news all around.

All cities are slowly opening up. Spaces, monuments, theatres are being booked solid from March and theatre and dance are now jostling for audiences. I watched a run through of a friend's play recently and found my mind wandering after 30 minutes. I wonder how audiences will respond to serious arts after a year long lockdown and forced viewing on digital devices.

Kalakshetra marked the 117th birth anniversary of its founder Rukmini Devi Arundale with its annual festival. On opening night was MEENAKSHI VIJAYAM which revealed how "Athai" employed Kalaripayattu (although very gently) to show the martial arts training that the warrior princess and her army practiced before setting out to battle. As always, the choreography set in the magnificent theatre, looked grand and the crowds were impressive, while maintaining social distanced seating.


Announcing its reopening in its March issue, NCPA in Mumbai has just posted on Facebook that all performances have been cancelled in the wake of the rising infections in the state.


MA3KA (Pic: Arun Munoz)

It was on March 15, 2020 that I had my last public performance. It was in Baroda for a conference and I was the only one in the crowd wearing a mask. A year later, we all have a mini wardrobe of masks and have adopted the universal fashion mode of jogger/sweatpants as our version of comfort-chic! No matter how dressed up we are waist up!


#CELEBRATING

Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala

Sikkil Gurucharan & Anil Srinivasan
A special shout out to all those dancers and musicians who have been selected by the Tamilnadu Government to receive this year's KALAIMAMANI AWARD. For pianist Anil Srinivasan this is a landmark moment, for having weathered criticism and vicious trolling for the past 15 years. The brilliance of his art and his talent over the ebony and ivory keys has brought him to this well deserved moment. For his collaborator since 2005, Sikkil Gurucharan has also been selected. Anil and Sikkil started their dance-partnerships with my NEELAM in 2005.
For sound recordist Sai Shravanam to be selected is also historic. A sound engineer being recognised is heartwarming.

Special awards were also marked under the categories of MS Subbalakshmi (S Rajeswari, music), Balasaraswati (Alarmel Valli and Chandra Dhandayuthapani) and the Puratchi Thalaivi Dr. J Jayalalitha Award (Ambika Kameshwar and Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala, dance).

Out of a total of nearly 130 awards (for 2019 & 2020), the bulk share went to the cinema industry as expected. Still, to have senior and junior classical and hereditary artistes chosen to receive this state honour was a big positive!


#AUSPICIOUS

NARTHAKI.COM continues the mandate for original programming for an all nighter on March 11, 2021. On SIVARATRI, while so many diverse celebrations will be held throughout India and elsewhere by the diaspora, we are bringing you nonstop programming designed and curated by three curators. Priya Murle (Tamilnadu), N. Srikanth and Aswathy (Kerala) and Rohini Bannerjee (Bengal and North East). The 5 hour celebrations will begin at 7pm on SIVARATRI evening and continue past midnight. There will be short clips from classical, folk, ritual, music, puppetry and talks. Celebrations are inspired by Saiva traditions across these geographical areas as well as some individual dances.


# ENDURING

It is March 2021 and those who live in India can remember clearly that Sunday-March 22nd- when we had a "sample nationwide lockdown". It was a Sunday. Two days later, our lives changed. The first anniversary of being held within our own homes arrives on March 25th. How this year has changed us! Perhaps forever! How many old friendships have frayed! How many ties undone! How many lives lost! How many lessons learned!

As we became a world wearing sweatpants or whatever "comfort fashion" meant to each of us, these past 12 months has taught us so many lessons. Resilience, empathy, patience, stoicism, generosity, learning, teaching.

It has brought out the best and the worst of our selves. And we have lasted through an event in human history that has never happened before. Ever.

As dancers, we can ask ourselves what our art has given us. Tenacity is the one word that springs forth. But here in India, we find ourselves, along with our colleagues in the allied arts, stranded and left to fend for our own livelihoods. The recent budget did little for the cultural sector and we await some relief for the independent artiste, the stage hands and the numerous professions that help put us on stage and make us look our best.

Meanwhile, we at NARTHAKI.COM prepare to enter year #22. We too have grown, adapted, morphed and transformed our digital platforms to reflect the state of our minds and bodies. We thank our dedicated team of trusted professionals and our new team of technical whiz kids to guide us towards what we hope GEN Z likes.

While we cannot be everything to everybody, we can proudly say...
We were the first to gather the global voices for Indian dance onto a single platform.

So - watch, read, differ, dissent, discuss, share, applaud - and stay involved.

And we will continue to innovate, inspire and instill confidence in the vocation that has pulled us into its delicious madness!

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Bengaluru/Auroville


We have not lost sight of what is happening around us. #TOOLKIT, #FARMERSPROTEST, #STANDWITHDISHA
We are part of society’s fabric. Our #FlexibleBodies are meant to create from the immediate environment we live in. #ACTIVISM and being a #CULTURALACTIVIST for me means working within the system to effect small but significant shifts. Not to blame, accuse or discard. But these discussions are for another time and another space...


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


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