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May 2014

In the sizzling 40 degree heat of a searing sun, I sit in the comfort of a temperamental air conditioned room, catching up on episodes of GAME OF CARDS, SCANDAL, SUPERNATURAL, GLEE and the great Bollywood film QUEEN. The past four months have been hurtling onwards with relentless deadlines and I have not had a single day to put my legs up and do the blissful - NOTHING. No matter where my travels have taken me, it has been a non-stop whirligig of appearances, smiles, dressing up and posing, performing and giving interviews and sound bites. So this column was put off until the very last day and so here goes.

WORLD DANCE DAY was a global flurry of feet, hands and bodies in motion. In Chennai’s CITI CENTRE mall, 40 dancers dressed casually in kurtas, saris and leggings swarmed onto the main lobby and began the familiar Ganesa Kauthuvam. Elsewhere in India, many organisations had organised weekends and weeklong celebrations to mark this important day, which falls on April 29th. ATTENDANCE presented non-stop dance from morning until dusk with several young artistes getting a much needed platform. Natya Vriksha in New Delhi had invited lighting designer Gautam Bhattacharya and costume designer Sandhya Raman to make detailed presentations about their area of expertise. With lighting and visual impact becoming more and more important, old timers, especially senior critics should recognise that a strong costume and visual design element in dance productions actually ENHANCE the mood of the evening and DO NOT TRIVIALISE (in the words of a senior critic) the dance or the dancer. Is it better to watch someone sweating profusely, armpits soaked and wearing the same costume in the spirit of being a “serious and committed” artiste??!! I am always gently chastised for spending so much time on the visual impact of each of my productions. With Rex, Hari Krishnan and Sandhya Raman as collaborators and Victor Paulraj on lights, I have earned a hard fought reputation as someone who thinks in 360 degree circumference. And that is deliberate. Finally, there is attention and recognition for the wonderful co-artistes who are not to be dismissed as tailor, electrician and recordist.

From New York came news of a wonderfully successful classical dance event, DANCING THE GODS, curated by Rajika Puri and produced by World Music Institute. While the evenings were unanimously brilliant, male Odissi dancer Rahul Acharya stole many a heart with his superlative performance. As you read this, Nrityagram is touring the US once again and premiere their new duet at Brooklyn’s Mark Morris Centre in the presence of the fabulous one and only Misha Baryshnikov. Wow!

Before my return to India, I visited Washington DC where I had shared an evening with Rama Vaidyanathan to raise awareness and funds for Daniel Singh’s DAKSHINA DANCE COMPANY. The venue was the gracious home of art patrons Ranvir and Trehan. Seen were the glitterati of Indian and American society, clearly present in respect for the host who is one of the early tech success stories in the USA. Also present were many dancers and the senior Natwar Gandhi, a senior statesman from the DC area. Both Gandhi and Trehan have been quiet and sustained supporters of Indian arts in the DC area for decades and having served on the boards of many prestigious organisations, they bring an old world sense of philanthropy that does not insist on visible genuflections and brown nosing that we see from rash nouveau riche donors. A tennis enthusiast like myself, Mr. Trehan and I spoke about many topics outside dance in a delightful evening where performance, conversation and good spirits were in abundance.

I have noticed the growing popularity of Rama Vaidyanathan among the younger dancers in the USA. People were falling at her feet for blessings in DC and her workshops were crowded with young mothers bringing their newborns 100 miles by road to learn from her. Her calendar is booked through 2015 and her daughter is clearly benefiting from her mother’s star status. In fact, I have written the cover story in the NCPA magazine about the hazards and challenges of dancing mothers and their dancing daughters. In the wake of Priyadarsini Govind’s administrative responsibilities and personal challenges, it seems that the new international face of Bharatanatyam solo dance is being shared by Rama and the much younger Mythili Prakash.

Malavika Sarukkai stunned Philadelphia audiences on the very same day that I danced in DC, with her favourite “Ganga.” Besides interacting with contemporary choreographers in sessions facilitated by Hari Krishnan of Wesleyan University, Malavika drew a housefull crowd of fans that came from hundreds of miles away to watch their favourite dancer. Her new film THE UNSEEN SEQUENCE continues to gather more and more fans in cities that it has been shown. A year after her mother’s passing, she is dancing better and more freely than ever. Bravo Malavika. You continue to inspire!

Bombay. Maximum, eternal and effervescent city. It makes my blood race faster and my senses sharper. There is something about Bombay that gives me a sense of freedom and reminds me that of all the cities in India, THIS is one that understands time AND money. Take the example of the technical team at the NCPA Cultural Centre. When my director Victor sent the lighting plan for CIRCLES OF LOVE by email, we arrived at 10.30am on the day of the performance to find all the lights hung the previous night and also somewhat focused as per the diagram and description provided. This is unimaginable in any other auditorium in India. God knows how we have laboured, fought, argued, cajoled and coaxed lazy local tech people to come on time and then complete the work as per the agreement. Our tech was completed in a record 2 hours and we were also able to do a complete run through including a cue to cue session. A spotless green room and an impeccable toilet (my sister - a cleanliness obsessed person - was both amazed and delighted at the very sight of it!), tea, coffee, biscuits, fruits and sandwiches provided at intervals completed the impressive support system.

CIRCLES OF LOVE came together through mutual understanding and respect between columnist and poet Malavika Sangghvi of Bombay and myself. We are both single mothers and our mothers were iconic women in Bombay and Madras. Usha Khanna, Malavika’s mother, is the founder of the famous SAMOVAR cafe inside Jehangir Art Gallery, a place that has nurtured so many creative lives and ideas for 50 years. My very own mother Leela Ratnam blazed a unique pathway in Madurai and Madras in the fields of sports, fashion, Vedic studies and yoga. While I have mined my personal diaries into contemporary myths since DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN in 1997, Malavika has written deeply evocative poetry about her family but never spoken them aloud on stage as part of a performance. In fact, it was many years since Malavika had “performed” her poetry, having hidden herself away as a head shot and 1000 words a day in her famous columns. In a word, she was FABULOUS. Every inch the glamorous and elegant diva, she delivered her lines – drawing from women’s voices from Jamaica, Hawaii, Australia, India and Canada alongside her own and drew applause after her every delivery. Complementing her was guitarist and composer Vedanth Bharadwaj, whose soulful singing brought the NCPA Experimental Theatre to their feet. In fact, one of the many hits of the evening was the famous 1961 lullaby “malarndum malarada” from the Tamil film Pasa Malar.

In fact, the music score of the evening was the star performer. Drawing from my many full length evening works, MA3KA, SEVEN GRACES, FACES and others, I had designed an evening that was punctuated with storytelling and rap-style phrases about mothers and their associations – mother lode, mother ship, mother board, mother hen…. . When I concluded one section with the iconic words “MERE PAAS MA HAI” from the film DEEWAAR, the house broke out in laughter and applause.

CIRCLES OF LOVE proved that instinct, experience and mutual trust could actually come together as a potent alchemy. The idea was given to me by Swapnokalpa Dasgupta, dance director at the NCPA who was curating and producing the annual MUDRA festival. The theme this year was Motherhood. I pushed it to the backburner with the Chennai December season and PURUSH looming large. But like a dream or a shadow, the work was shaping quietly in my mind. After the success of the show, I was asked if I would repeat it. I had no plans of doing so but the mix of dance, poetry, music, storytelling and contemporary humour from Indian cinema is a template that is seductive for urban audiences. And India is ready for new kinds of ‘rasa’. And for new spaces to experience dance. While in Bombay, I watched the incandescent Sanjukta Wagh perform in an old gallery/warehouse called Project 88. She was interpreting feminist writer Iravati Karve’s alternative narrative on the Mahabharata, YUGANTA. Sanjukta is a compelling performer, using theatre, Kathak, silence, visual projection and acoustic guitar to tell the story of Gandhari, the hapless mother of the Kauravas. It was a brilliant, intelligent and moving performance, heightened by the ambience of the space I sat in.

How can I describe these kinds of evening experiences? Neo classical dance? Contemporary theatre? Spoken word theatre? Western artistic directors and curators will be flummoxed searching for pat titles and slots to programme these performances. In India, we accept them in the broader framework of “DANCE THEATRE”. There are growing crowds of writers and artistes from theatre, modern dance and visual arts who flock to these alternate performances that do not reference pop culture but draw from the well of imagery, myth through the modern prism of multiple time zones. May this genre grow and the tribe of brave performers increase.

So you think we Indians are squeamish about revealing our bodies on stage? Well, we may not go as far as German modern performers who urinate in front of all in the guise of performance art, but we are not afraid to remove most of our clothes or perform intimate actions in full view of all. According to a report by Malini Nair of Times of India, there is a brave new breed of female actors who are creating audacious solo acts leaving no room for elegance or decorum. Mallika Taneja and Kalyani Mulay are only two of a new set of women who are stripping down to bras and panties, performing depilation and speaking about menstruation and childbirth before an audience that is also being asked to enter into this adventure. The recent spate of rapes and abuses against women have triggered these new artistic ventures in India. However, the triumph of the play NIRBHAYA with real life rape survivors and victims of acid attacks as actors has stirred Indian theatre and provoked a series of questions about the role of art. Something has changed with women actors after December 16, 2012. The visceral anger, the lack of shyness and the growing rage among many to somehow bring that energy into a blunt, shocking performance seems more urgent amongst theatre creators. What about dance? Does that medium by its very nature limit the sharpness of political statements it can make? Pina Bausch and Chandralekha were able to use the body to be both bold and fragile at once. But it needs a great mind, time and a flexible society to receive such non-pretty images. In a world where entertainment is more and more valued over ideas, classical dance images will continue to flourish while alternative words, movements and images will push for attention in a parallel universe.

Election day in India brought many mixed signals. Chennai did not register the high percentage expected of it and the affluent South Chennai area showed apathy with many of my friends saying they were ‘fed up’ and ‘disillusioned’ about politics. Elsewhere, many dancers were on the roads urging voters to register and to get out of their homes and vote. The results will be known on May 16th but this is the most exciting elections for India. Will culture stand to gain or lose? I feel that as long as Culture is paid attention to with a Minister placed fully in charge of it rather than as a side portfolio of the Prime Minister or another Ministry, it will at least get the attention it deserves. Meanwhile, we continue to do what we do. Create, ideate, rehearse, plan and perform.

The recent issue of PULSE magazine from the UK made a bold departure from its usual style of covering and commenting on the UK dance scene. In a lead article by Jasmine Lall titled HINDUTVA and SOUTH ASIAN DANCE IN BRITAIN, the article suggests that “South Asian dancers (read classical dancers) can also become unintentionally drawn into supporting Hindutva activities via some of Britain’s South Asian arts organisations”. My question is that classical dance has always co-opted by politics since the 1970’s when state visits and important guests were treated to a visual and aural display of “5000 years of glorious heritage”. It does not need one Narendra Modi to suddenly claim South Asian dance as its visual ambassador. Dance as “cultural product” and image of “nationhood” has already been discussed by many scholars. When a clutch of UK based intellectuals ring alarm bells as to the potential hazard of a Modi in New Delhi, Indian readers may be puzzled as to how their daily lives may actually change.

The harsh reality is that dance does not attract sponsors. Except in Bombay, where people actually pay for tickets to watch a performance, no bank, corporate or trust is willing to support dance festivals. Classical music and theatre festivals are over funded and even the NCPA with its reputation and goodwill is unable to attract money for their well-planned dance events.

So will a Modi led government suddenly mean that money will be poured into developing dance networks, increase spending on building alternate spaces for performance and nurturing local talent to a national level? I doubt it. Hema Malini, a prominent campaigner and supporter of Modi led BJP, may have an important role in the centre if her party wins a majority. But even her star power could not convince Delhi-ites to pay money to see her mega productions which have attracted a hefty $50,000 fee in many cities. Will garba troupes get the spotlight being from Gujarat? All questions and answers are up for grabs. For most Indians, there is a very strong anti-incumbency feeling and Hindustani musicians Channulal Misra and Shiv Kumar Sharma were seen actively campaigning for Modi's candidates during these elections.

What will the month of May hold forth? The launch of the Kalakshetra Alumni Association in Chennai (May 3), speaking to the students of ABHAI about the international demands of a professional dancer (May 4), Mother’s Day (May 8), several birthdays of many wonderful dancers (and yours truly) as well as the unrelenting heat. I escape to the cool of Conoor to refresh in the mist and walk in wooded paths, clearing my mind and resting. Aah… the joys of not rehearsing, or writing or planning for an urgent deadline. That will be my month.

As for you, take your time. It is almost mid year. Take a deep breath. Take a long walk or a break from routine. Swim, mountain climb, detox, cycle, meditate. Do something you have always wanted to do but never could.

Most of all, keep the dance in your hearts and minds even if you don’t rehearse daily.

Until next month

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Conoor / New Delhi

Twitter: @aratnam
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Blog: THE A LIST /

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