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May 2020

We will not go back to normal
Normal never was.
Our Pre Corona existence was not normal
Other than we normalised greed, inequity, exhaustion
Depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion,
Rage, hoarding, hate and lack.
We should not long to return my friends.
We are being given the opportunity
To stitch a new garment.
One that fits all of humanity
And nature.


- Dr. BRENE BROWN
School of Social Work, University of Houston, Texas


What do I say that has not already been said, seen and performed during these part 30 days?
I am so fed up with my phone and my iPad. I am sick and tired of desperate dancers performing in their non photogenic homes just so "they are not forgotten." I have seen so much bad dancing, especially Bharatanatyam, that it has turned me off this wonderful form for a while.

Dance is about human interaction. It's about the sweat and the panting and the effort and the exhaustion. It is about the exhilaration and excitement of having completed a phrase, an item, a performance, a rehearsal well. It is about the RASA of human eyes watching another human body in the same physical space and not through the cold, glassy eye of the camera. It's also about embracing and being applauded by actual audiences and not by "likes" and "heart" emojis.

I have enjoyed the riches of the world's greatest museums and cultural spaces. Operas, ballets, online tours, ancient history talks, cooking lessons, language lessons - my days have been filled with so much that I did not feel one day blurring into the next.

I have given myself permission not to create, rehearse or even ideate anything connected to dance during this past month. Instead, I started plant based cooking to support my daughter's vegan lifestyle, helped her raise money to care for abandoned house pets, started a terrace garden and supported the feeding of stranded migrant workers. I also reached out to folk and village artistes with whom I have been working for the past 25 years and seen to their daily needs. All this has not been glamorous, or visible and certainly not selfie worthy.

It may not have enriched my dance practice but it enhanced my inner self.
I have felt more connected, more peaceful and more in sync than ever before.
Not to mention dropping those 5 to 7 pounds that was stubbornly sticking to my waist and hips!

BUT... BUT... BUT... this pandemic has revealed extraordinary generosity and blatant opportunism. The lockdown has energised some and debilitated many. The arts have been called upon to step up and show the frightened and quarantined world a ray of hope. The nimble and prepared have stepped into the digital world without missing a step. From #ZOOMA NATYAM and #DIGITAL SABHAS to #INSTA LIVE and #YOUTUBE showcases, we have seen the vulnerability of near perfect dancers struggle with technology, reveal their vulnerability and often, warm our hearts.


# THE RISE AND RISE OF THE DIGITAL SABHA
It is of great concern that all artistes, especially DANCE ARTISTES, are being USED during this time of the #PANDEMIC. While the world turns to writers, poets, musicians and dancers for both relief and respite from the darkness of global paranoia, it is the dancers that I am most concerned about. Indian classical dancers have, for years, been exploited and utilised for BRAND BUILDING. First by the unscrupulous SABHA SYSTEM in the name of "GIVING YOU A CHANCE". Dancers have internalised their violence and abuse of PAYING TO PERFORM, bad environments and dwindling audiences. Now, the DIGITAL SABHA has stepped in.

The #CORONALOCKDOWN has offered the nimble New Age marketeers the perfect opportunity to glide into the Presenter's E-SPACE and offer day long dance festivals. They often use well known dancers to build their own brands. Fees are usually discussed over a phone conversation as "token payment". Or not discussed at all. And gullible dancers, who have been exploited for years and years, JUMP TO THE OPPORTUNITY TO PERFORM... FOR FREE!

Dancers. Ask yourselves this question. DOES NOT THIS CURRENT SITUATION OBLITERATE THE HIERARCHY OF PRESENTER AND ARTISTE? Do you need these clever brand managers to BUILD THEIR OWN BRAND AT YOUR EXPENSE? Why are you giving away your Art and hard work for free? Do you think that these Arts managers do anything for free? Yet they glibly ask you, without a modicum of conscience, to perform in your living rooms and dance spaces for no payment? How are they any different from the corrupt Sabha system? How do their actions become acceptable because you can sit in a chic coffee shop and share a cuppa with them?

If the Sabha system used you for years and years, why are you now inviting these new age DIGITAL SABHAS to continue to exploit you? What you are doing in corporate terms is GIVING AWAY ONE FULL DAY'S TURNOVER FOR NOTHING!

They will create an eye catching flyer on INSTAGRAM putting images of all of you IN DANCE COSTUME AND MAKE UP as an advertisement. This will be followed by a Tsunami of Hashtags. What actually appears is a diluted version of you with poor lighting, bad acoustics that does NOTHING for you or your art. And, while your own USP goes down, their followers increase!

To make the corruption cycle complete, these free content "festivals" are actually reviewed by the daily newspapers without the critical lens of it being but a stop gap solution - further cementing this unholy nexus of organiser, manipulated artiste and a hastily cobbled report.

If you want to partner with another organisation, do with another ARTISTE/DANCE BASED VENTURE.
Like SAMARPANA FOR ARTS AND WELL-BEING created by Bharatanatyam dancer Gayathri Suryanarayanan.
KALA VEDIKA in the USA founded by two dancers, Vidhya Subramanian and Nirupama Vaidyanathan.
SHREYA NAGARAJ SINGH's SNS ARTS CONSULTANCY who has reached out via daily conversations with folk artistes and who is now sharing tips on HOW TO FUNDRAISE FOR THE ARTS.
ARTSPIRE who have conducted very useful lessons on how to build a website and brush up on your digital skill.
MASOOM PARMAR who is helming a much needed session on HOW TO WRITE A GRANT PROPOSAL that is featured on his INSTA @masoomiyat and his Facebook page.
DIVYA RAVI who has translated her social media skills into thousands of followers is now conducting a series of conversations called SANGATI with dancers across the globe.

I spoke to several of these senior and respected dancers who were featured on these free online events and all of them said pretty much the same thing.

"I thought it would be fun"
"Let me try it out, I thought"
"Money? What money?"

Did any of them even consider for a second that they are actually aiding in a pure brand building exercise at the expense of their current feeling of isolation and vulnerability? And worse, that they are ruining the slow progress made by the younger generation of professional dancer/presenters who are trying so hard to build a professional eco- system of PAYING FOR THE ARTS!

Rama Vaidyanathan who created a campaign with the banner #PAY FOR THE ARTS at last year's NATYA KALA CONFERENCE needs to take a closer look at this current DIGITAL PANDEMIC OF DESPERATE DANCERS!

And for those who kept asking why NARTHAKI.COM, this pioneering digital portal did not jump into the digital new age space during this lockdown, my answer is this:

1. We love Dance and respect Dancers and so DO NOT believe in exploiting their art at this most vulnerable time.
2. We believe that CONTEMPLATION and KNOWLEDGE SHARING are powerful but less acknowledged choices.
3. NARTHAKI.com and ARANGHAM TRUST have initiated monthly support to 30 families of folk and rural artistes for 5 months from April 1.
4. We are supporting victims of domestic violence rescued from dangerous situations, many from arts based families.


# APPLAUSE - PLATE BANGING - LAMP LIGHTING

I want to draw upon the suggestion from India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to send up a global ovation to the following organisations that have created positive and inspirational acts of creativity and kindness during these trying times.

Pianist Anil Srinivasan's #PLAY IT FORWARD and the #JANATAONLINEFESTIVAL music festival that raised 10 lakhs in 19 days for the migrants and elderly. Anil continues to play almost daily for one cause or another. He is a serial philanthropist.

Shankarananda Kalakshetra, whose bright and enterprising students created nonstop hashtags and digital excitement with several initiatives.
#5PMNAMASKAR
#CREATEPROMPTLY
#WITHME
#MAKETHERIGHTCHOICE
#9PM9MINUTES... and the wheels are continuing to churn!
All these were stimulus for students of Ananda Shankar Jayant to use this lockdown quarantine time effectively and productively.

MANCH UK, initiated by the enterprising Mira Kaushik who started a 30 day engagement with UK based dance artistes. Each day one artiste will share their living space, tell stories about their dance or family and stay engaged.

SAMARPANAM who raised over 3 lakhs for impoverished artistes with their all day online festival.

ABHAI has started helping folk artistes @ 5000 rupees a month per family for 3 months. This is the festival season in temples and villages and rural artistes are facing starvation and desperation.

MADHU NATARAJ and NATYA INSTITUTE who are raising 6 lakhs for the rural artistes of Karnataka who are staring at ruin.
The annual DR MAYA RAO CONFERENCE IN KATHAK AND CHOREOGRAPHY has segued online without missing a beat. Scheduled for May 1 and 2nd from 6 to 8pm on both days, the tightly curated and ideated event promises to bring many new ideas and voices from outside dance to the ZOOM platform.

SHUBHA MUDGAL and ANEESH PRADHAN's efforts have rallied support towards a goal of 35 lakhs to help 100 artistes receive Rs 5000 a month for 6 months.

NAVINA JAFA's initiative to help acrobats, Behurupias of Rajasthan, Baul singers stranded in Goa and transgender communities in Manipur.

ACRI (Arts and Culture Resources India) have launched a campaign to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on the cultural sector.

JANABHERI SCHOOL OF ACTING AND PERFORMANCE STUDIES had a lovely series of dancers in their home environment engaged in pottery or gardening and then breaking into gentle abhinaya and gestures.

Vikram Iyengar's PICKLE FACTORY FOUNDATION that initiated an all day 10 minute invitation to all dancers of any style to respond to some verses from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. This was an idea started by Kolkata based contemporary dancer Paramita Saha.

Dance photographer Innee Singh and Shraddha Singh's Indian city specific dance project called HUM SAATH HAIN (WE ARE TOGETHER) is now going global with a Russia edition in the offing.

Preeti Vasudevan's RED CURTAIN PROJECT that brings Indian folk tales to school kids.

MYTHILI KUMAR, who initiated a ZOOM discussion with senior teachers in the USA. A most engaging session of shifting ground realities.

CREATIVE ARTISTS - a WhatsApp group, initiated by lighting designer Milind Srivatsav in New Delhi and then triggered by Sanjoy Roy of TEAMWORK ARTS has managed to dialogue with government and ministers at the highest level.

Rajya Sabha MP SONAL MANSINGH has successfully flagged the alarming situation of artistes waiting for their monthly stipend and salaries in order to subsist. The various departments of Culture have been notified about loss of revenue and possible ruin. However, the wheels of government turn slowly.

Prathibha Prahlad has written a series of articles in national dailies about the urgency of looking at the ARTS SECTOR in times of need and not just as ambassadors of INDIA SHINING.

We as citizen-artistes are also applauding the tireless efforts of all the frontline workers and service personnel along with the countless volunteers and medical teams.

The significant amount of money raised by numerous online efforts has been mostly through small donations from individuals. The generosity shown during these dark times has been a strong ray of hope. Many artistes silently helped and continue to act selflessly without selfies or postings.

What DID NOT work for me was the ARCHITECTS OF SILENCE series initiated by Akram Khan and his corporate juggernaut. I liked listening to Mythili Prakash about ANGIKA ABHINAYA. She is always her lovely self. But not Mavin Khoo doing an Ashtapadi and a film ghazal. Perhaps it is not meant for India based dancers but for those who will take any morsel thrown from AKDC stable. Embedded within the series is the lovely weekly STORIES OF HOPE by Executive Producer Farooq Chaudhry accompanied by delicate illustrations.


# AIYYOOO KADAVULEY!

There is already a CORONA KAUTHUVAM... I kid you not. Courtesy a Malaysian Bharatanatyam dancer. Another performer mourns the plight of India's migrant workers from the comfort of her USA home! Instead of these pretentions, why not create something on the insanity of the daily TRUMP Press briefings? That is a reality closer to US based Indians. And THAT would be natural HASYAM! Plus - you won't be arrested! In contrast, the session with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on INSTA LIVE about their daily routines was so heartwarming and natural that it made my day!

Mark my words and watch out for

#LOCKDOWN LULLABY
#MIGRANT MALLARI
#SHUTDOWN SHLOKA
#PANDEMIC PADAM

These dance pieces are in the works - and you will remember my warning.


#TRANSFER OF TRAINING AND OPPORTUNITY

Ramli Ibrahim brought this image from the recently broadcast CONFIGURATIONS to my notice. 4 Bharatanatyam dancers, dressed in skirts doing NRITTA.  This photo has two dancers trained by Ramli Ibrahim - Sooraj Subramaniam and Rathimalar Govindaraju. An earlier version of the work had 2 more Malaysian dancers trained partially by ASWARA Dance Company.

What does this say about excellently trained dancers from Asia gravitating to the West and being "selected" by London choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh to become palpable clay in her hands! For all the physical stamina that Jeyasingh demands from her dancers, at least 50% is the bedrock of their original training and the hard slog that teachers like Ramli put into these bodies from a young age. More than half the work is done when you have pliable bodies to mould. One sweats and the other thrives.


#ZOOMA NATYAM
How do gurus do it? Teach all day with multiple screens into which their ardent students are squeezed into a pixelated image? It is exhausting even to conduct a 1 hour seminar or discussion! I laud these teachers who are AT IT, teaching from morning to night nonstop. How does one teach NRITTA? How does one correct a line and an angle of movement? How do teachers adjust with the sound delay and the occasional freezing of the screen? I know how hungry the world is out there to have anyone, just anyone teach them via ZOOM. I find it cold and unyielding. Yet, ZOOMA NATYAM is here to stay for a while. I find the current habit of entering a session whenever and leaving during INSTA LIVE is also very disrespectful but this is also here to stay.


#INSTA LIVE IS LIKE SKYDIVING

Oh how I resisted! Trying to find every excuse not to do anything for the entire month of April. But my friends broke me down and I accepted - almost like a marriage proposal! With only my support staff Yashoda and Ghansham at home to help me (camera and lighting!), I struggled with the entire online tech world. A good connection meant that my air conditioned room was ideal but not the LOOK of it - a bed and cupboards - no no no. My dance studio space was too far from the internet modem. So again NO. Any other space was not ventilated for the growing heat and humidity of Chennai. Believe me, what many younger artistes are finding "a piece of cake" was a huge mountain to climb for me! With a tech savvy son stuck in his apartment and unable to reach me, and a daughter who is a #digitaldarpok, I had to rely on my wits and the kindness of the erratic Chennai power supply to see me through the session MOVE #WITHME. Streamed through the @NATYARAMBHA Instagram handle, this was my first INSTA LIVE experience. A special shout out to Sneha Magapu and Masoom Parmar who hand held me through the entire adjustment process of this new technology. I now know I have to equip myself with the right gadgets very soon, although talking to a glass lens was easy... I have done it for 10 years on television in NYC.

Mallika Sarabhai also just would not take NO for an answer. This dynamo was concocting something and coralled me in with her persistent lasso. It was fun to dance to a fabulous rhythm track but not in the intense heat of Chennai. Knowing that none of us are looking our best during these past 40 days, we are still putting ourselves out there. Perhaps this new look CORONA BROWS, PANDEMIC SKIN, LOCKDOWN HAIR will become a THING!


#PANDEMIC PONDERINGS
Our daily postings of creative people across the world and from many disciplines have brought cheer and positivity to many who were connected through our social media pages. I am so grateful to everyone who responded and shared their own experiences of the past 6 weeks. Many took comfort and inspiration from your words. My gratitude!!!!!!

As I see it, the immediate needs to survive this pandemic can perhaps be broken down into 6 steps

1. SURVIVE... somehow hold it together please.
2. EMPATHISE... this is important. Put that mirror down and look at the world outside.
3. COMMUNICATE... stay connectedů stay in the moment. Planning for an uncertain future is not the time or the need of the hour.
4. STAY HEALTHY... depression, paranoia, fear, insecurity are all around us.
5. USE YOUR HANDS ...Gardening, Cooking. Chopping vegetables. Sweeping and mopping your room. Ironing. Work your hands with an actual tactile experience. Not just with Hastas.
6. COMMIT TO LEARNING A NEW SKILL. A new language. Anything that will amplify your spirit - not your hips!

WORLD DANCE DAY- April 29 - came and went in a blur. A torrent of dance videos flooded the digital space.

This too will pass. For young dancers, don't worry! What are 12 or 18 months in your dance career? It is we senior dancers who should be very concerned because such a long gap could mean "near death" to our careers. But are we rushing to perform online????

It may take a full year... Or more.
But it WILL pass.
And we are DANCERS... the most resilient and determined in the roll call of performers.

#STAYSAFE
#STAYSTRONG
#STAYPOSITIVE

- Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Locked down in Chennai


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


Comments
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As President of ABHAI, I would like to clarify one point in your editorial which says that ABHAI has reached out to Folk artists. It's not only Folk artists that we have reached out to, but artists who are dancer-teachers, orchestra musicians,(which includes vocalists, nattuvangam artists, flautists, mridangists, violinists) make-up artists, costumers, lighting technicians, Folk dance artists and Therukoothu artists. In all 72 artists have been assisted till date to a tune of Rs.6.5 lakhs and the work is still continuing with requests for help pouring in every day.
- Roja Kannan (May 1, 2020)


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