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To be alive at all is
to have scars
- American writer John Steinbeck

An extra day in February was most welcome to collect my thoughts after a month of relentless travel.

Just two days before February closed, I had the unique opportunity to be in the presence of one of India's most charismatic politicians. The extraordinary security checks, the fastidious search of everyone's social media handles, the minute by minute instructions of where to stand, how much physical distance that was to be maintained and what to say felt like a complex handbook of rules. Surrounded by business professionals who were speaking finance, economics, profitability and employment, I was the sole artiste in this private meeting. The term VIKSIT BHARAT was being chanted ever so often during the speeches that followed and I was left wondering about the most developed form of expressions of this very idea that the Indian performing arts contained. The most evolved and the least supported. VIKSIT means DEVELOPED and while there is so much political emphasis today on a DEVELOPED INDIA - education, medicine, space, technology and manufacturing, it is in the arts - the classical arts - that India is truly VIKSIT. Yet, the needle has shifted and the mood is stubbornly tilted towards popular culture and the visual spectacle.

What does the idea of creativity really mean? It can be many things to many people. During the difficult times of global turmoil, expressions through writing, poetry, painting, music, dance, fashion and cinema were some of the ways in which people were emotionally sustained and felt alive again. "To create is to live", said French fashion designer Christian Dior, whose sister Catherine resisted the Nazi occupation of Paris and in whose honour the MISS DIOR label was created. Through the misery and paranoia of those times, it was DIOR's beautiful gowns for lavish German parties that kept food on the table and made him feel useful. It is often through intense experiences of trauma and pain that the most evocative forms of artistic expressions have arisen - like a dandelion growing through the unforgiving cracks of concrete.

Dance and music have always sustained tortured bodies and souls, and given a new lease of life to the elderly. In a charming 2022 French/Israeli film LAST DANCE that I watched in flight, a family is ready to put their 75 year old father into a senior home. Beautifully portrayed by actor Francois Berleand, the character of Germain, a widower, finds himself in a contemporary dance company. Fighting against the invasive anxiety of his family, and a total stranger to dance, the character guided by an empathetic choreographer, finds himself in the centre of a new world of creativity. This film is a must see for anyone wanting to write off our seniors and to brush aside the positive effects of dance on the body and brain.

My time in Northern California further convinced me of this. Watching a group of whip smart techie women in a Bharatanatyam class was an eye opener. For so long, many of us have been commenting on the over crowded dance and music scene in the Bay Area. I have wondered why the generous (some can say gullible) students pay hefty fees to the visiting artistes who run the economies of their lifestyles from the 2 or 3 months they spend in the USA. No other diaspora community has extended such sustained and significant financial support to the classical performers from India. My information is concentrated on the Bharatanatyam experience, but I am sure that the other Indian dance forms are equally popular in several cities across the US of A.

Not every student of this art form is aiming to perform. Many find the comfort of a dance class like a healing balm. A space to not just learn, but also to be a part of a safe community and to temporarily forget the furious pace of their professional lives. To be a techie in Silicon Valley is glamorous only from the outside. The demands of a daily routine are brutal and it is no wonder that many young women take great pains to attend or log into their dance sessions if only to calm themselves and center their minds. As I listened to each story, and asked them why they looked forward to Bharatanatyam classes, every response returned like a chorus. They felt comfort, friendship, sorority, and a deep centering. Their grit and determination to attend the sessions was admirable. I felt heartened that dance provided these young women with the necessary emotional tools to face their futures. It was not necessary to learn about dance history, identity issues or other theories that swirl around the practice. It was enough for them to just dance, move, enjoy each other's company, exchange stories and laugh! What greater example of mental health and overall wellness can there be for dance?

It is precisely this atmosphere that is most conducive to item teaching and composition learning. One weekend and dollars spent, a couple of new dance pieces learned, an interaction with a renowned performer/teacher from India - and it is done! Bay Area students and others feel energised with this brief interaction. There is no mind space or band width to engage in process and exploration. Their daily TO DO list is endless. The business model is clear for the visiting teachers. Fly in, teach, pocket the money, fly out. And why not?

Anita Ratnam with Asha Ramesh
With Asha Ramesh

Among the bright spots of my brief visit to the Bay Area was to meet and work with musician and composer Asha Ramesh. As Asha Ramaswamy she accompanied my early performances with my sister Pritha in Chennai before marriage took her to the USA. Our conversations, recorded in a podcast, touched upon the wonderful opportunities she discovered in collaborating with various genres of music and working with her son Rohit on new music albums. With the annual arangetram season approaching, Asha spoke about how it was crucial for dance musicians, especially vocalists, to stop looking at their notes and ipads and watch the dancer in movement. Only then can the true "bhava" emerge from the music. We explored some Carnatic ragams like Bhairavi, Todi and Kalyani and I enjoyed her approach to giving depth and a varied nuance to traditional compositions.

Indian dancers and musicians! Pack your bags and head to California. Money, students and endless invitations are flowing!

Shanmuga Sundaram with his transgender students
Shanmuga Sundaram with his transgender students

Bharatanatyam dancer Shanmuga Sundaram, whose successful performance in Mumbai with his transgender students, is showing the way of practicing inclusivity in action. In the annual Chennai festival to honour the memory of his late guru K J Sarasa, Shanmugam featured several hereditary artistes with only one dominant caste performer. Not by flying in from cozy foreign spaces, lecturing and performing in Indian conferences / festivals, spouting jargon and flying back to cozy cocoons with no "skin in the game" as the Americans say. Shoe horning your way into prominence by wailing, blaming and complaining is also not a lasting formula. THE DANGER OF THE SINGLE STORY- the viral TED talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Nigozi Adiche is a stark reminder that every story has multiple strands. One group of people cannot posture to own the truth, shout the only narrative and claim the only experience.

Watch the TED talk

The fee structures for live performances in India need to be looked at. Most dancers are paid once for their stage performances. Organisers argue that the same performance needs to be live streamed with a secondary income generation to "cover costs". What about the dancers and the dance company? Are they not entitled to receive part of the remuneration for the digital streaming? Why must the organisers alone worry about not losing money when dance performances routinely occupy the negative financial zone? I am in full support to those dancers who are exploring additional revenue streams via Instagram. This one platform has emerged as a viable alternative to the perennial "poverty mentality" that has plagued Indian dance for far too long. Everyone around the dancers makes a decent living through the art form. The dancer is the last person to see a profit.

The flurry of excitement and opinion over the recent AIR INDIA safety video continues. Featuring several classical dance forms of India, this video has gone viral with many in huge appreciation and a few who differ. The comments section is bristling and we welcome more engagement on our social media handles.

Watch the video

This year WOMEN'S DAY and MAHA SIVARATRI converge. March 8th. While devotees fast, meditate and chant through the night, women around the world will mark this day that was first observed in 1910. It was in 1908 that overworked women in the needle and textile industry took to the streets to protest the inhuman labour laws. Over a century later, we can take immense pride in the progress that has been made. More has to happen. And violence against women needs to stop. The very idea of who is a woman has changed and assumptions cannot be made as identity politics must grow to include everyone who embraces the feminine aspect of themselves.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the women's movement and navigating the cross currents of Indian dance at audiences in Kuala Lumpur during that week.

Bharat Sharma
Bharat Sharma

Congratulations for the fresh new set of awardees from the SANGEET NATAK AKADEMI. India's apex cultural body has announced this year's list of awardees in the performing arts. There are so many deserving names and there is much to feel joyous about. I was particularly happy to see that Bharat Sharma, the son of contemporary dance legend Narendra Sharma, has finally been selected for an honour that was long overdue. This category was treated like an orphan in the recent past and it was heartening to see an artiste who has worked tirelessly in this space for decades finally receive a national recognition.

MARCH DANCE is the annual contemporary dance showcase at Chennai's Goethe Institute. Ideated and curated by Basement 21, this is a very valuable presentation that encourages new ways to engage with the moving body and the ideas of contemporaneity and improvisation. Maya Krishna Rao has been spending several weeks in Chennai leading the choreography mentoring programme and the final showing will be on March 15.

As we enter our 25th year online in April, NARTHAKI extends a global hug to our readers and followers. As the world blurs in hyper speed and overall reading declines, we cherish your loyalty and affection. As among the very few spaces that is open to engagement and commentary, we hope to reflect some of the shifts and tilts in the world of India's dance arts in the coming months.

It's Spring time. Cast away those woollens and welcome the sunshine on your faces!

Keep that bounce in your steps and laughter in your souls!

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Until next time
- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Bengaluru / Kuala Lumpur

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