city of temples and poets
Who sang of cities and temples
A river dries to a trickle
In the sand
Baring the sand rubs
Straw and women's hair
Clogging the watergates
At the rusty bars
Under the bridges with patches
Of repair all over them
The wet stones glistening like sleepy
Crocodiles, the dry ones
Shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sing of the floods
- An excerpt from A RIVER by A K Ramanujan
It has been a packed month of watching, talking, sharing, writing, rehearsing and performing. With International Dance Day just concluded, I have chosen to focus on the joy and beauty of DANCE this month. Showered with a feast of ideas, expressions and the familiar sweat of rehearsals, it has been 30 days of my body at play. Aaaand… my muscles are aching and rejoicing in tandem.
I begin with the kick off for this web portal and the brand NARTHAKI that is marking its 30 year presence in many lives. From a phone book to its current digital persona, it has been quite a journey and one that I take great pride in sharing with my two colleagues Lalitha Venkat and Sumathi.
A two day event was organised with great care and attention by NATYA VRIKSHA under the vigilant curatorial eye of Geeta Chandran. Geeta and I have been first colleagues and later friends for nearly 25 years and it is a relationship I cherish since there are few strong connections in the performing arts that spans both the professional and personal.
A sparkling conversation between the ebullient Padma Priya (actor/activist/dancer) provided the perfect platform. Two generations facing off in a mutually generous and animated Give and Take of questions and repartee. Padma Priya is a true bright spark in the cultural firmament and she transformed the traditional interview format into a performance style presentation.
After a long time, I actually enjoyed a full hour of questioning where I was able to reveal my own inspirations and impulses for creating and managing NARTHAKI.
Through the conversation, I realized that NARTHAKI enjoys great popularity, affection and admiration. It has become a trusted brand, even more so after the pandemic and the many online premieres and commissions. However, there are many gaps that need to be filled. One of the ideas that was mooted was to expand the language to include Hindi and other Indian scripts for a broader readership.
One comment was that dancers in North India felt left out with the overall content being focused on South Indian forms and the diaspora.
Can and should NARTHAKI be a site for everything and everybody connected to dance? With my own interest in the intersection of politics, policy, culture and the arts - should the site include some larger issues that impact and affect our pathways in our profession?
#CURATION - CARE - CLASS
Rajiv and Geeta Chandran
Over two days at the India International Centre in New Delhi, we were re-energised with brilliant demonstrations and performances that reaffirmed the power and possibility of the live arts. Kalamandalam Krishnendu's morning session in Koodiyattam was a revelation in the sheer mastery over how the eyes can convey entire universes. Ravana admiring the waterfall in the icy Kailasa mountain was just one of several brilliant examples.
When Geeta asked the awe struck students to hold their eyes open without blinking to the count of 100, many had bleary, wet and streaming eyes at the end of it - if at all they were able to last the entire counting!
The evening performance, an excerpt from the Mahabharata, saw Krishnendu play masculine roles of Krishna, Balarama and Kansa. But the highlight was the manifestation of the Nava Rasas, especially of the Gopa Sakhas (male friends) of Krishna laughing uncontrollably at how the citizens of Mathura stared unblinkingly at Krishna's beauty. The masterful control of torso, shoulders and face was beautiful to watch from the first row. The repetitions of a single moment, created by the exaggeration of the form itself, created an accumulation of imagery - both physical and emotional in the viewer.
Another performance I was stunned by was of Geeta’s student Sowmya Lakshmi Narayanan. Confident and self assured, Sowmya performed 3 pieces with the fervour of a body soaked in the “ananda” of dance. The Alarippu, followed by an exacting Sankeerna (9 beat cycle) Jatiswaram was but a prelude to the superb Varnam that followed. Watching Sowmya elaborate on the diagram of the Sri Chakra, deliver complex Jathi after Jathi with aplomb and respond to the demanding choreography in praise of the DEVI with careful attention was a delight to watch. I must congratulate Guru Geeta Chandran for creating an exacting composition and for thoughtfully adding a ghatam as percussion to fill out the spaces that Bharatanatyam in the North needs when pitted alongside Kathak and Odissi. The short "tala-vadya" percussive display in the middle of the Varnam where Sowmya kept beat was an example of how a dancer can respond to the musical ensemble that accompanies and enhances her performance.
Sowmya Lakshmi is a dancer to watch. Mark it right here when we say that she is a rising star of Bharatanatyam. Now here's hoping that she summons the wind behind her sails to help her soar.
# A RETURN TO ROOTS
A few weeks earlier, I was able to watch another emerging Bharatanatyam star - someone with more experience and air miles behind her than Sowmya. I am speaking of Archana Raja, someone I have known for the past 5 years. Ever since she walked into my Chennai studio to audition for the group production NAACHIYAR NEXT, Archana revealed her simmering talent. Music, technique and passion are the cornerstones of her dance and I watched her blossom into the central role of Tamil poet saint ANDAL.
Returning to the Chennai stage after two years, Archana delivered a masterful solo at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium. Conducted by her guru Renjith Babu, the demanding 90 minutes was filled with several AHA moments. Archana danced with great stamina and strength but I missed the joy and abandon that I saw later in Sowmya Lakshmi's dancing. Perhaps the overloading of too many choreographic motifs and the "bravura" tendency of male dancer/choreographers like Renjith and Guru CV Chandrasekhar did not suit a female body.
The Dasa Avatara Alarippu set the mood but the constant manipulation of traditional frameworks always puzzles me. Cleverly imagined and well executed, it seemed a lazy way to insert new ideas into a time tested composition. Why not just create a brand new nritta/rhythm template to mount new ideas upon? Which is why when I watched an Alarippu danced AS an Alarippu one week later at the same auditorium, it came as a huge relief and a reference point as to how far Bharatanatyam has travelled (or perhaps, strayed).
Programming another Dasavatara composition right after the Alarippu and placing a second Telugu composition soon after the beloved Chalamela varnam was perhaps not the right choice. I am not faulting Archana for execution and intention but her orchestra was not her best ally on that evening. Uninspired and flagging in pace, Archana had to summon all her experience to hold the evening together. And she did that with aplomb. Quick and light on her feet, poetic and persuasive in her abhinaya, Archana Raja is truly a dancer who is well on her way to establishing her solo presence in the overcrowded world of classical dance. Now stationed in London, UK, she should find enough presenters and collaborators who will, undoubtedly, be impressed with her dancing and musical talent.
I felt like an echo of jazz singer Ette James whose iconic song AT LAST was sung at the inaugural ball of President Obama at the White House. The song has a silent sigh of relief embedded in the lyrics and I too felt the very same way when I settled into my seat to watch the second debut student of Aniruddha Knight. Like his grandmother Balasaraswati, Aniruddha spared no effort in re-creating the grandeur and majesty of a time when the dancer stood at the centre of many strands of knowledge. The flowers alone were a performance - garlands, mounds of jasmine, strings of several fragrant varietals - we walked into a heady perfumerie it seemed.
The dancing was in one word BEAUTIFUL. Unhurried, conforming to the Balasaraswati style of precise and strong "adavus". Staying rooted in one place and executing the rhythm patterns in all three speeds with the same choreography is rarely seen these days. The young Maharani Parisumuthu seemed like a precious filigree in the present scenario of keyed up and battery charged Barbie dolls! As I watched her guru Aniruddha conduct with confidence, I also observed the mridangam art of Adyar Gopinathan, the younger brother of my guru Adyar K Lakshman. The Bala style of mridangam playing is a unique art and it was Aniruddha's great uncle, Bala's brother T Ranganathan, who was the percussion maestro. That my guru's family (Tanjavur Maratha and Kalakshetra) could so deftly segue into a whole other style of mridangam so beautifully and watch the dancer intently without his gaze wandering away, was gratifying.
Maharani Parisumuthu danced with a quiet confidence that was reassuring. The Purvikalyani raga Jatiswaram was splendid but the bravura moment came with the Varnam. The Huseini Swarajathi, a popular dance composition for centuries, was danced without frills and thrills. The gestures and intention of the narrative were contained within each line of the text without going into long melodramatic hyperbole.
Watching 3 Bharatanatyam solos in a month brought to light how important a guru is to shape the trajectory of a dancer. In the case of Sowmya and Maharani, their gurus are performing artistes themselves, but the attention to each student to enhance their performances was visible. In the case of the supremely talented Archana Raja, who is far better known and with many more performances under her belt than the other two, perhaps a more careful curation of dance pieces would have achieved a better final result.
On World Dance Day, I returned to New Delhi to participate as a guest artiste in Prasiddha Foundation / Prathibha Prahlad's ambitious stage production WARRIOR WOMEN OF BHARAT. Inspired by the undying spirit of women who helped pave the path to Indian independence the extravagant presentation was embellished by the stories of 7 extraordinary women across centuries.
The 90 minute production saw houseful audiences on both days (HABITAT CENTRE and MEGHDOOT THEATRE / SNA) Politicians, bureaucrats were in full flow and the 15 member orchestra representing 6 different classical dance styles themselves looked like abstract installation art. The stories of Rani Velu Nachiyar, Rani Chennamma, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Avantibai, Kanakalata Baruah were selected. I was requested to recreate the inspiring life of a modern warrior, feminist, politician and leader of the world's first female army who fought on the frontlines of combat - Captain Lakshmi Sehgal. The fact that she is the elder sister of dance icon Mrinalini Sarabhai and aunt of Mallika Sarabhai is information that many may not be aware of. Using text and movement as twin narratives, the 7 minute cameo came at the end of the evening spectacle. The response was very gratifying and I confess that as I assumed the salute, I got wet eyed as the final strains of the national anthem was hummed.
Performing after a long gap and being part of a large group effort was not easy. However, drawing from experience, a continued passion for moving on stage and the practice of multiple collaborations over the past 30 years helped. It was also a relief not to have the responsibilities of producer, fund raiser or presenter. Sandhya Raman's stark dark green dhoti and shirt were the simple counterpoint to the more elaborate appearances of the 6 warrior women.
The production has been timed to coincide with the commemoration of 75 years of India's independence and the Government's conscious drive to celebrate AZADI KA AMRIT MAHOTSAV brand in various parts of the world. Already the Government of Tamilnadu has emphasised that special funds are allotted for shows that focus on Tamil heroes and heroines who fought for independence. Prathibha's vision should result in this work being remounted several times over the next year.
Working as a guest artiste in a large scale production comes with several challenges. The huge take away is the bonhomie and off stage camaraderie that one develops with the co-artistes, hanging out before or after the show with a pizza and a pitcher of Sangria, laughing at silly incidents, swapping jokes and bonding. These are precious and I will suffer many dollops of diva egos for a few of these genuinely warm moments.
The conference chair is Shoba Narayan, an acclaimed writer on food and culture who brings fresh ideas to the Bangalore International Centre where the conference will unfold on May 3. Madhu Nataraj is someone I hold closely and her global vision, inherited from her beloved mother Maya Rao, has infused each conference edition with a broader framework for Indian dance.
#FACE PALM TO CONTEMPORARY DANCE
In closing I wish to say that the murmurs and protests resurfaced when the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards were presented by the Vice President in April. Accepting the award for CONTEMPORARY DANCE was Deepak Mazumdar. This is an insult to both the form and the award. For a Bharatanatyam guru who boasts of students like Pavitra Bhat and Nita Ambani, this award in the incorrect category is an insult on every count. Questions arise like, "Is contemporary dance so unimportant that anyone can be thrown into the salad bowl?" What about the artiste himself? Is it not an embarrassment and a blow to his many years of being a Bharatanatyam guru and a performer?
A week long PECDA contemporary dance event has just concluded in Bangalore with over 50 presentations in contemporary dance. So the aberration of the award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi comes as a slap in the face of India's burgeoning modern dance scene.
There are several issues that impact the future of young dancers. And a TOWN HALL meeting is needed to address matters OFF STAGE. More importantly, senior dancers must lead by example in thought, word and action. Today, there are hardly any private moments. Everyone is watching all the time!
The prestigious ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL OF IDEAS 2022 in Colorado, USA has its theme as POWER, BEAUTY, MONEY, CONNECTION, TRUST. All these titles intersect the live arts. And yet, there is not a single artiste on the speakers' roster.
I will be on the road this month and I mark yet another birthday that brings me to the somber realisation that I have less years ahead of me and more behind me. Each year I am forced to reckon with the inevitable and the nebulous nature of my profession. And the looming idea of LEGACY.
However, to just step onto a rehearsal space and to be able to perform in my sixties is a huge blessing. And to perform to a packed house with a standing ovation on WORLD DANCE DAY is an honour that I savour more and more as time trundles on!
To all those amazing men and women who continue to celebrate Dance and the human body as a creative and artistic machine - a living organism that can create in the moment and bring so much joy to so many - here's wishing you all more strength, determination and support!
Until next time
Stay cool and collected!
The next viral wave seems to be creeping up on us!
- Anita R Ratnam
Bengaluru / Coonoor / New York
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Great reading your blog.
- Simon Conley (May 26, 2022)
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