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May 2021

I cannot write
Of death tolls and fires
Of slow tsunamis
Of puzzlement and pandemic
Of street side funeral pyres

I can only paint
The riot of white hibiscus blooms
On the stoop
How you strain towards the sun
How you droop
Without water, how you wither
How you fall
How then you're on your own
How we'll all
Be the same in the end


DENIAL by Akhila Ramnarayan


India has descended into COVID HELL.

"I CANNOT BREATHE" has become the chant as gasping citizens collapse as our health care system is overwhelmed by the crisis.


Living like frightened creatures, cowering inside our bio bubble homes, we wait and watch.
Even with the extreme precautions, this double mutant India variant of the Covid virus has infiltrated lungs and snatched loved ones. And we are wondering - Are we next?

Our friends are sick. Our colleagues are sick. Our neighbours are sick.

Guru Kumudini Lakhia returned from hospital in Ahmedabad, still recovering from COVID-19.
We pray for her continued recovery as she marks her 92nd birthday on May 17th.
Sonal Mansingh is another COVID survivor and has just marked her 77th birthday.

Here we are - plunged into a rabbit hole of anxiety, fear and dread.

And, one year ago, in the early days of a nationwide lockdown, we thought that the world would be limping back to a new normal by this time.

One year ago, I was all fire and brimstone at the dancers choosing to perform online for free and I was railing against the digital Sabhas for their exploitative practices.
A year later, I feel JUST DO WHATEVER, HOWEVER, WHENEVER- to stay hopeful, less anxious and less fearful.

A year ago, we, in India, were watching the body count in Europe and the USA with dismay while feeling smug about our ancient herbal and Ayurvedic medicines. Now, as the US is easing mask wearing restrictions for outdoors, WE are reeling with a national catastrophe unveiling itself before our eyes. Even the rich and powerful have no more strings left to pull. The virus is inside our homes.

After 14 months, we are dealing with compassion fatigue, stress overdose, mood disorders, physical and emotional flip flops, personal and professional chaos. The virus, that does not vote, has no nationality and no affiliation to religion or caste, is attacking everyone. From infants to octogenarians - this new India mutant variant is relentless.

So - throw guilt and all those borderlines you had drawn for yourselves out. Do what lifts your spirits. Cook, eat, garden, sing, dance, scream in your shower, dress up to stay in, paint, run around your house or room, do yoga, meditate, have that glass of wine ( try not to drink alone), put on makeup, go starkers - post whatever you want to online - JUST STAY AFLOAT. STAY SAFE. STAY ALIVE.

Say something gloriously inappropriate and fabulously politically incorrect if it makes you feel better (in private of course). Punch something (not someone!). Kick up your heels, dig into dirt, squish your hands through mud, put on a face mask, soak your feet in warm water, spray perfume, sweep and mop your floor - just don't sit and stare at the walls waiting with dread.

Surround yourselves with beauty and distract yourselves. Try not to watch the news. It will only make you feel worse.

I have told myself that Resilience, Hope and Compassion are the Trifecta that will get us through this hell fire.

While I am feeling BLAH, having trouble concentrating and feeling less motivated compared to a year ago, I chanced upon a beautiful article by New York Times writer Adam Grant, that perfectly describes our current state of mind. It is that neglected child of depression. The word is LANGUISHING. A state that dulls our motivation or focus.

And so for this month's editorial I decided to focus on the positives, on moments that give hope, that brings a hint of a smile to our face and light to our tired eyes.

I will try to create a small bubble that you can dive into whenever you find the time to read.

And hopefully, writing this will make me feel a bit less of a LANGUISHING couch potato!


#UNSTOPPABLE

Indu Mitha

Bringing a smile to all our faces and gasps of astonishment and admiration was the news of a documentary film HOW SHE MOVES. It chronicled the struggle of 91 year of Indu Mitha, who was born in Lahore before independence. A Bengali Christian, her family moved to Delhi where Indu learned Bharatanatyam. In 1951, she returned to Pakistan as a bride and continued to teach her craft amidst mounting odds. Under Indu's vision, Bharatanatyam was wrested away from the narratives of Gods and mythology to become a tool for resistance, as she explored themes of feminism and secularism.

The trailer was so impactful that after posting it on my personal Facebook page, I received several comments and questions about the movie itself. HOW SHE MOVES is created by Anya Raza (Pakistani-Dutch) and Aisha Linnea (Pakistani-American based in Islamabad). Ms. Raza studied dance as a young girl under Indu Mitha and the impact was so huge that those classes stayed with her, needing a voice to emerge decades later.

Follow @HOWSHEMOVESTHEDOC on Instagram for all up to date screening information.
Nobody can be unmoved by the trailer


#A QUICK RESPITE FROM DIGITAL MONOTONY

I count myself among the lucky ones to have experienced the joy of being back on stage in the short opening that came in March and early April. It was a riveting political play THIS IS MY NAME, based on the thoughts and final speech of NATHURAM GODSE, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi.

To feel the warmth of the stage lights, to see audiences braving the daunting situation, buying tickets, sitting patiently through 100 minutes of a difficult play, rising to their feet and applauding wholeheartedly soon after... to feel perspiration trickle down my face... to say lines AND dance... this was a dream... coming 13 months after my last live performance on March 15, 2020 in Baroda.

To have 3 sold out house full shows, turning away 30 to 40 people every day, to have film makers, writers, painters, musicians and dancers in the audience - what a gift that weekend was to my tired spirit!

The green room chatter, the makeup mirror, the greasy unhealthy but OH-SO-DELISH snacks, the after party... it all floated by like in a mist in the mountain air.

THIS IS MY NAME has gotten great response and more shows are slated for Chennai and other cities... but not yet... not yet.

And the notoriously fickle media actually gave the play a national spread on Sunday! Read the review here


# ANCIENT FUTURES

How interesting that the two Arangetrams that I attended, one year apart, were both students of hereditary artistes! In February 2020, I witnessed the remarkably assured performance of Abhinaya Senthil - student of Aniruddha Knight of the Balasaraswati Tanjavur Parampara.

14 months later, on April 23, 2021, I watched 16 year old Sahanasreev, student of Vazhuvoor Palaniappan Pillai in her debut performance. In the grand tradition of Gurus Ramaiah Pillai and son Guru Samraj, grandson Guru Palaniappan created a challenging 14 item template for his teenage student.

It was a remarkable morning. Each piece was short, crisp and apt for Sahanasreev's ability and talent. A painter herself, the dancer exhibited great promise, her fluid arms coming to full form in the iconic Snake Dance. "Nadarmudi Mel Irukkum" was a song that became Kumari Kamala's signature dance piece, creating a storm of public adulation, with her fans willing to travel great distances just to watch her perform this item in her Bharatanatyam shows. This signature Ramaiah Pillai choreography, which was inspired by Kamala's super flexible body, was among the main reasons for me being introduced to dance. My mother, Leela Chari, still a teenager, and born in the same year as Kumari Kamala, was among her many fans. Amma was so transfixed by Kamala's dance and brilliance that she made a promise to herself to give her daughters an opportunity to dance!

The arangetram concluded with the charming KURATHI/gypsy dance that was also the staple for my generation of dancers. Watching the audience, all masked and seated with social distancing norms (which was also followed strictly for my play) and listening to the excited chatter of proud family and friends soon after was literally music for my ears.

And then came the brutal second wave.


#PARTHASARTHY TO PATHER

In 2013, in the midst of bustling Mylapore, Chennai, a Tamil man stood amongst the fruit and vegetable vendors and burst into tears. South Africa's celebrated dancer/choreographer JAY PATHER found his emotions uncontrollable. His ancestors had travelled from former Madras by ship to South Africa, endured hardships and created anew in the continent that was once called "DARK". 'Parthasarathy' was the original name of Jay's family. But this creative artiste, bristling and bursting with talent and imagination, rose to become a shining beacon of South Africa's dance and performing arts scene. Jay was visiting Chennai on my invitation to speak at the second PURUSH festival in 2013. I had seen his iconic production BODY OF EVIDENCE when I had first visited Durban in 2000.

Now, a book on this polymath genius is out. Researched and written by Dr. Ketu Katrak (whose previous book CONTEMPORARY INDIAN DANCE had Astad Deboo on the cover), this long awaited volume is an important addition to the study of contemporary dance. The book details the journey of how one man braided politics, art, location, personal and community histories, dance, scenography and performance into unforgettable moments of pure theatre.

For those who have never heard of JAY PATHER, look him up on the net and then get hold of the book. There is an urgency to his work that is both contemporary and timeless.


#BOXED- ONE YEAR LATER

Archana Raja

Palani

Seher Noor Mehra
Who would have thought, that the series BOXED that premiered on May 16, 2020 would still be relevant a year later. While other cities around the world may not be as severely constricted as India, we, once again, feel caged and bound, unable to stir our bodies outside the four walls of our homes.

BOXED is being celebrated this month by PULSE CONNECTS in the UK and editor Sanjeevini Dutta has put aside several sessions of her favourite moments in the series to talk about the process behind the successful venture.  Boxed + Pulse Connects was supposed to happen from May 10-16 but keeping in mind the current situation, it's been pushed to Sept 2021.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts and JOMBA CONTEMPORARY DANCE in Durban, South Africa are celebrating BOXED in June with another online discussion with yours truly and some of the technical and ideating team. Dates are June 2 - 4, 2021.

So - some small joys in the midst of the dreary landscape.


# PREMIERES & PERSONAL DIARIES

Lata Pada of SAMPRADAYA Dance Creations in Toronto, Canada, presents ANVESANA-Reflections in Solitude - a 4 part, the world premiere of originally commissioned dance solos from famous artistes this month. Bijayini Satpathy (CALL OF THE DAWN), Aditi Mangaldas ( LOST), Rama Vaidyanathan (MOVING BOUNDARIES) and Methil Devika (AHALYA). I am particularly excited about the inclusion of Methil Devika whom I have watched and admired for long. Each evening length work has been created during this time of chaos and uncertainty. I look forward to watching the series. ANVESANA is spread over two weekends - May 8 & 9, 15 & 16.

To hear that Bindumalini Narayanaswamy, a wonderful Bangalore based musician has composed the entire score in a single raga AHIR BHAIRAV for Bijayini's CALL OF THE DAWN elevates expectations for both the music score and the dance.


# A LEGEND SURFACES

Sudharani Raghupathy

Almost a year after losing her husband suddenly to Covid, Bharatanatyam icon Sudharani Raghupathy appeared on a digital programme last month titled WHEN THE EYES SPEAK. Organised by the California based Preethi Ramaprasad and Rashika's, the nearly 3 hour session was a combination of pre-recorded items and an interactive session. Featuring live music by Nandini Anand, it was a splendid treat. I have watched Sudharani from up close, having studied abhinaya with her for several years. Her innate understanding of the text and ability to conjure interesting and unusual ways of "Sancharis" was in full flow during this session.

Understated and yet eloquent, Sudharani's style was, interestingly, perfectly suited for the digital medium, with the camera picking up the minute nuances she suggested through a single glance and minimal gestures. Here was a maestro at work.


#CHOREOGRAPHY FOR MILLENIALS AND GEN Z

Nirupama

There was much fanfare leading up to the release of the new video tutorial from Bangalore based Kathak/ Bharata Nrityam dancer Nirupama Rajendra. Titled DESHI MAARGA ADAVU, this video presentation is targeted at teachers, dancers and choreographers. Blending Bharatanatyam's familiar movement patterns with 30 'Hastas' mentioned in the NATYA SASTRA, the programme contains choreographic choices for dancers looking to augment their own vocabularies.

The video is beautifully produced and will have many takers, especially during this digital atmosphere when so many young dancers have taken to teaching online and are looking for readymade choreography.

Watching Nirupama's fluid body moving effortlessly between time cycles, raised some questions which I am sharing here.

1. How does one, who is not trained in the Padma Subrahmanyam pedagogical system of movement, adapt these phrases?

2. If trained in another style like KALAKSHETRA (in which I am), how can a dancer copy these movements onto existing choreography without it looking stuck on? The musculature training needed to execute these movements is very different.

The 108 KARANA movement system that was conceived and created by Guru Padma Subrahmanyam requires special training which many dancers have already undergone. It contains a particular aesthetic and approach that needs very careful thought when adapted to one's own body and aesthetic choices. If the basic training has been in another Bharatanatyam style, then it needs a very watchful "third eye" to assimilate the fresh concepts in an intelligent manner.

I can see the Vazhuvoor style trained dancers adapting easily to this since their own form was based on the face, a curved waist and slightly protruding hips - emphasising the upper part of the body.

Kudos to Nirupama Rajendra for the successful launch and a special shout out to the SHAALE TEAM who have emerged as the smart and business savvy content creators during this past year. To have such a variety of programmes, tutorials and online PAID courses speaks of the business potential of dance and its economic future.


#TUKDAS
Here now is a brief summary of all the GOOD THINGS that are happening in our world right now.

Ananda Shankar Jayant's hit series KUTTI KAHANI continues its successful daily run on DOORDARSHAN DD BHARATI with all 55 episodes concluding on May 5. What a feat!

Guru Kitappa Pillai's granddaughter Charumathi acquitted herself admirably in an online session organised by IDEA in the USA. Titled DECOLONISING BHARATANATYAM - Tired and overused as the title is, the only worthwhile nuggets of information came from Professor Saskia Kersenboom and 21 year old Charumathi. Here is one young hereditary dancer who is worth following as she gains confidence in her art and articulation.

Taking up the theme of Rudyard Kipling's Orientalist best selling story THE JUNGLE BOOK, Akram Khan is turning the tale on its head by making it about the environment. Akram played Mowgli as a 9 year old in the 1984 stage version that was choreographed by Gurus VP and Shanta DHANANJAYAN. Auditions are being held in London this month.

MOPA- Museum of Performing Arts, Chennai has released the first of a four part series called NOTES TO MYSELF. Each beautifully produced video charts the journey and early influences of world renowned classical dancers and singers. I watched the episode featuring Leela Samson who was at her thoughtful and articulate best and look forward to watching the rest of the series which features musicians TM Krishna, Bombay Jayashree Ramnath and Pradeep Kumar. This is simply a MUST WATCH for all those who are in the live arts.

PICKLE FACTORY FOUNDATION, Kolkata, has started a national survey of dance-theatre and other performative resources. With support from a Norwegian foundation, this detailed survey hopes to map the current state of classical, folk, ritual and other forms of live arts and also list the national map of presenters, spaces and emerging artistes while seeking alternate pathways for future collaborations.

Contemporary dancer Sheetal Gandhi has recorded her one woman show THE SITAYANA (Or how to make an exit) which will be released as a paid online event this month. Sheetal has a marvellous comedic quality to her beautiful dancing and in this performance, upends traditional gender norms and subverts idealised views of femininity. Produced by EAST WEST PLAYERS and ENACTE ARTS - both California based organisations.

JIVA PERFORMING ARTS, New York, initiated a new series called "DUALITIES- the virtual concept" featuring some wonderful emerging talent located in the USA. The neo classical works should bear witness to how this past year has affected and shaped the artistes and their art.

Rama Vaidyanathan, from Covid epicentre in New Delhi, took over our Instagram page @narthakiweb on World Dance Day - April 29 - and shared her thoughts via conversations and monologues. Her daughter Dakshina, locked down in Gurugram, also joined in the WDD take over. The overwhelming response was heartening.

Rama is going ahead with planning for the NATYA KALA CONFERENCE in December of this year. As convenor, her mandate is about finding and holding on to moments of Relevance, Renewal and Resilience.
Roja Kannan, convenor of the NATYA DARSHAN conference in the same month, is also the current President of ABHAI and is presently engaged in delivering the virtual celebration of ABHAI's annual day.

For more global events in dance and performance arts, read our column TA KI TA TOM in the newsletter.


# AND SO IT GOES... FINAL THOUGHTS

Even as I am writing this, many online events and webinars initiated in India have been postponed. Many dancers are primary caretakers of elders in their homes and almost everyone has little or no mind space to focus on dance matters. And I can completely understand.

Another WORLD DANCE DAY came and went. In lockdown. Can we talk about Dance and Music and our rather narcissistic lives at this point? We have asked ourselves this but we also felt that we must try to turn our faces towards the little glimmer of light that beckons us.

There is much to feel angry about. Short sighted culture leaders. Selfish politicians. Unnecessary religious events attracting mask-less hordes. Irresponsible election campaigns. Self indulgent divas. And an entire year of listening and reading the rants of fake liberal, woke infested, fascist Cancel Culture mobs.

But this is not the time to vent, rant, beat chests or blame. Or to spew anger and hate. While speaking in a recent webinar, it suddenly hit me that I should NOT be participating in a NAME AND BLAME game. We all know about the cracks in the culture map of India and the injustices and inequities. Either I say and act in a way that is supportive and encouraging, especially during this critical time. Or else, I should just shut the F up.

This is the time for us to stay calm, read, plan, pray, think, introspect and do whatever soothes our fraught nerves. And take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Or distract ourselves, if possible, with moments of beauty.

This is the time to just SURVIVE.

Instead of venting our anger against the government, let us focus on the real enemy. The virus. We are at war, India is at war.

And we have to win this battle. This year or the next.

Please, stay safe everyone. I have been vaccinated but hearing of the many who have been taken ill even after both vaccines, the fear hovers.

Mask up, keep your distance. Wash your hands.

Whoever thought that I would be spending yet another birthday in lockdown!

To all those dancers and teachers who are persisting with their classes via ZOOM even though extreme fatigue has set in on both sides - kudos to your determination.

With prayers to all those great artistes and enlightened patrons who have been felled during this traumatic time...

Think positive thoughts. Spread energy and hope. Smile. Help. Protect. Nurture...

Let's get through this together!

WE CAN PRACTICE PANIC OR WE CAN PRACTICE PEACE. It's up to US.

WE LIVE IN HOPE BUT WALK IN ACTION.

Until next month,

Anita R Ratnam
Coonoor/Chennai


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


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