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"Dance disappears almost at the moment of its manifestation. It is an extreme expression of the present, a perfect metaphor for life. Dancers sculpt space in real time, working inside a form that is constantly in a state of vanishing. We have no artifacts. I find it strangely beautiful to be creating something that is made of us - made of our breath and blood and bones and minds. Something that is made of the space we occupy and made of the space between us. We embody both the dance and its disappearance."
- Crystal Pite, Canadian dancer & choreographer

A very special Hello to May born dreamers and achievers! This is our month! Well... I am born in this month and so it is my favourite time of the year. May is also the birth month of so many, many creative people - singers, dancers, composers, painters - May is the month when Taurus - the stubborn, loyal, imaginative and sensorial pleasure loving bull collides with the cerebral, quick thinking, restless Gemini twins - what a combination... and for me - born on the CUSP of both months - it means there is a whole lot of stuff going on inside!

There is also lots to talk about in the world of dance and the current spectacle of India's national elections and the vociferous protests going on in US campuses. Both countries look like bristling performance art when viewed from the outside!

With the Spring season upon us and the floodgates to the USA wide open for classical musicians and dancers, many celebrity performers were notably absent at the polls. They were all performing across the USA - with a notable concentration in the Bay Area, California. This is the season when the Bay Area Bank of Mylapore opens its counters. Cha Ching! Cha Ching! Can you just hear the dollars flowing - all one way.

The number of performances, workshops, item teaching and concerts is mind boggling. The Bay Area is literally flooded - much like the December Chennai season - with almost 7 events on the same weekend! How does anyone choose and how much money can be spent on watching, learning and listening to A, B and C? Every item teaching - dance immersion - abhinaya guiding session starts at $500 and goes up to as much as $1500 per person! Yes, do the math! An entire year's expenses for visiting Indian artistes is covered with ONE visit to the US - with Bay Area being at the centre of the money train!

Religious discourses are also growing in popularity. Each Spring season I wonder how the teachers and students based in the Bay Area feel about this influx. Every post by the visiting artist sounds similar, enticing the prospective student to "dive deep", "experience the core", "be transformed" by what is being offered. What then are the California and US based gurus offering all year around?

I marvel at the unabated interest and continuing generosity of the US based diaspora. With the world becoming so unpredictable, in some ways, Indian classical dance and music seem to represent a kind of an oasis of predictable calm. At least from the lens of the anxious parent.


There are however issues of concern closer to home. Issues that everyone in the arts should be thinking about. The recent national media focus on the classical arts has been for controversial and mostly the wrong reasons. Whether a narcissist musician does a U-turn and accepts an award from the very sabha he spurned and scorned for almost a decade, or a talented choreographer finds his checkered past catching up with him after 15 years - both incidents cast a poor light on Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. If you watch the 2022 Hollywood film SHE SAID, it is a testament to the dogged determination of two reporters -Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor - who pursued the 2 decade long story of sexual abuse and misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Their 2017 article in the New York Times was the catalyst for the #METOO movement that has since swept the world. So, in these times, there seems to be no cut off period to judge sexual misdemeanours that occurred even 2 decades ago!

As another academic year in India comes to a close, I wish to remind the readers to reflect on this situation. In India, public memory is very short. Several individuals named in the 2019 India #METOO arts circle are once again being programmed and feted by private sabhas and government officials. Performances are returning to formerly tainted spaces. What surprises me (and disheartens too, perhaps) is how women are enablers in this cycle of violence. Where is the outrage and anger? How did we normalise such behaviour?

After reading about the recent arrest of Bharatanatyam choreographer Sheejith Krishna, one friend said that she did not want to ever step into a sabha again. Another said that she wanted to stop dancing. Is that really the answer? If we have all invested 10, 20, 30 years in this field, surely we can find many moments that are positive and enriching! And hopefully, carve out systems that can ensure a safe space for all.

The hashtag #SAVEKALAKSHETRA is more urgent than ever. It is so unfortunate that (my Alma Mater) the prestigious institution of national excellence, supported by the Government of India, finds itself at the receiving end of negative press once again - because of the inexcusable behaviour of its senior staff and alumni. At times like this, which are the nodal arts organisations that step forward to lead? Who will speak on behalf of Rukmini Deviís prize dream on the occasion of her 120th birth year?

Director Gowri Ramnayaran, whose mother Anandi Ramachandran worked at Kalakshetra for several decades, has directed the talented Sheejith Krishna in her many theatre productions. She is currently on a US tour with her latest show THE MAGIC BOW- celebrating the musical genius of violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman. In the absence of Sheejith Krishna, his colleague SHIJITH NAMBIAR, who is on his own US tour with wife Parvati Menon, stepped in for the inaugural show in San Diego. Gowri Ramnayaran has since reworked the production with a US based dancer and continues with her tour.

Rajiv Chandran, Leela Venkataraman, Ashok Vajpeyi, Geeta Chandran
Rajiv Chandran, Leela Venkataraman, Ashok Vajpeyi, Geeta Chandran

It was a lovely two day immersion for me when Natya Vriksha - the dance academy founded by Geeta Chandran - celebrated the 17th edition of this important moment for dance - World Dance Day 2024. The small auditorium at the India International Centre, New Delhi, was house full (many sitting in the aisles and several more leaning against the back walls). Dancers across generations attended and applauded as 4 performances of varying styles and genres were on display.

Meticulously curated by Geeta, the first day witnessed veteran dance critic Leela Venkataraman being feted with a LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD. The standing ovation and effusive affection Leelaji received from the crowd was a salute to her 45 years of watching, speaking and writing about dance. In her speech she referred to many incidents that shaped her dance writing, including the recent experience of being trolled and cancelled by the GEN WOKE. At age 88, Leela Venkataraman represents the last line of Indian dance critics - whose interest and love for dance generated the self-interest to transform her passion into words.

New Delhi brings out the best in dancers. A cosmopolitan audience pampered for choice, unwilling to pay for tickets but willing to engage with interesting work. This atmosphere prompts many artistes to bring the best version of their art to the nation's capital.
On two evenings, 4 performances were showcased featuring Kathak, Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam.

Divya Goswami
Divya Goswami (Photo: Sarabjit Singh Dhillon)

The revelation of the festival were Divya Goswami (Kathak) and Thomas Vo Van Tao (Mohiniattam) who raised the level of their styles with beautiful dancing. In Divya's case, a superb orchestra from Bengaluru embellished her showcase titled AQEEDAT. A Sarangi and Harmonium added the aural fillip to the Persian/Sufi atmosphere of the performance. Celebrated composer and percussionist Praveen D Rao played the tabla! A crisp Padhant (rhythmic syllables) recited by Keerthi Kumar supported Divya's emotive interpretation of 19th century Punjabi-Sindhi poet Fazal Shah's verses who also wrote the doomed love story of SOHNI MAHIWAL. Though over long, the performance received prolonged applause. In the words of one Rasika, "Divya showed us how clarity, precision and intention could embellish Kathak without incessant chakkars!"

Thomas Vo Van Tao
Thomas Vo Van Tao (Photo: Sarabjit Singh Dhillon)

Thomas is a French-Vietnamese artiste who displayed a lyrical control over his chosen form and proved that Mohiniattam, when performed with restraint and the right intention, can traverse gender stereotypes. Guru Neena Prasad's strong foundation in Bharatanatyam has created a very different template for her Mohiniattam pedagogy. The serpentine walk (sarpa nadai) during the Lord Rama varnam and the seated abhinaya for the popular ALIVENI Padam were excellently performed.

Vaishnavi Srinivasan and Nivedha Harish
Vaishnavi Srinivasan and Nivedha Harish
(Photo: Sarabjit Singh Dhillon)

The opening act of day one of the two evening double bill was a beautiful re-enactment of the historic Swarajathi composition EMAYALADIRA in Ragam Huseini. Carefully researched by Jeetendra Krishna and taught by Lakshmi Viswanathan to two students of Roja Kannan, this traditional Sadir gem was performed in 1875 by hereditary dancer GNYANA in the Royapuram Railway Station for the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales to Madras. Also in the audience was the Nawab of Arcot. As a historical detail (shared by Jeetendra Krishna) the original performed item was "E MANDAYANARA" in praise of King PRATAPA SIMHA since it was more appropriate in the presence of the future king of England. The more familiar version of the famous Swarajathi is in praise of a Minister.

Dancers Vaishnavi Srinivasan and Nivedha Harish were excellent throughout their performance - beautifully executing the joyful and delicate folk-like movements while walking back after a rhythmic phrase. With vintage costumes designed by Lakshmi herself, the varnam was an aural and visual feast. The prolonged applause was a testimony to how a heritage dance piece still has a contemporary resonance. If only Lakshmi had taught more students and shared her precious art learned from hereditary masters with a larger student base! How we miss her!

Meera Sreenarayanan (Photo: Vinay Tiwari)

Jeetendra Krishna
All eyes were on Meera Sreenarayanan, the runaway star of the two evening roster. She did not disappoint her die-hard fans but opened with a melodramatic sloka in praise of Devi. For her second piece she shifted the mood to that of a hereditary dancer at the Tanjavur court. Meera entered with the confidence of a Raja-Dasi who enjoyed the attention and affection of the king. Acknowledging the research inputs of Jeetendra Krishna in her introduction, Meera delivered the DANIKE TAGUJANARA varnam in Todi ragam with aplomb. However, the piece that immediately followed did not sustain the mood. A traditional Padam or a Javali may have been a better choice instead of saint Tulsidas' "Sri Ramachandra". This is not taking away from Meera's immense talent and star potential.

Anita Ratnam with Geeta Chandran, Prateesha Suresh & Indira Kadambi
With Geeta Chandran, Prateesha Suresh & Indira Kadambi

As the sessions at the World Dance Day event were announced, there was some social media grumbling about why the issue of Legacy was even being discussed in 2024. Freelance dancers, who are learning from YouTube, online classes and innumerable workshops, are part of today's environment where so many gurus are offering dance like a take-out menu. So why stay with one guru and one style when you can sample so many?

The idea of Legacy in classical dance touched upon the notion of what kind of value can be ascribed to a sustained relationship between the student staying with a single guru for 2 decades. Is it limiting or enriching? The panelists were Neena Prasad, Indira Kadambi, Prateesha Suresh (who conducted an exhilarating 2 day workshop in Sattriya dance), guru Sadanam Balakrishnan and myself. The senior Kathakali guru, and this year's Padma Shri recipient, surprised the audience by declaring, "In Kathakali, what looks so strict and structured actually gives the performer so much freedom!" Roja Kannan spoke about preserving guru Adyar K Lakshman's style in the exact same way she was taught. Indira Kadambi shared how she encouraged all her students to find their own way of doing certain adavus that suited their body and to dance with joy (that should not be something unusual in any dance class!) and Neena Prasad shared the cross illumination that Bharatanatyam gave her understanding of how to develop her own scholarship based style of Mohiniattam. Prateesha spoke about the isolation of living in Mumbai for a Sattriya dancer and how every class and performance was a challenge in confronting the patriarchal contours of the style that was born from the monks and the monasteries of Assam.

In my presentation, I stated that my legacy - that of a first generation professional artiste - was mainly in the digital sphere. The many hours and types of stage choreographies have also included innovations in costume and lighting design, soundscapes, theatre interventions and copious hours spent in the process of charting a new form as a personal diary which I have named NEO BHARATAM. To transfer the photos, newspaper clippings, rehearsal footage and performances onto the digital format takes time, resources and commitment. With social media being an important part of my current presence and now podcast, hopefully future generations will find some of the archived information useful.

Technology in the name of GOOGLE ARCHIVES has stepped forward to help British choreographer Richard Alston archive his entire body of work. Several American and UK choreographers have created a format of choreography licensing fees after the passing of their chief choreographer like Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. In India, we are all left to fend for ourselves and have neither a museum, library or a national institution to donate to OR a strong lobby to advance our many concerns about LEGACY.

Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam
Chitra Swaminathan

In closing, I want to send a special shout out to the editor of the FRIDAY REVIEW in THE HINDU. In the atmosphere of so many arts pages closing down in print, this weekly edition in Tamilnadu remains the sole bastion of performing arts coverage. Over the years, the content and tone have gradually improved to include subjects that support and sustain the artistic practice of dance and music. I have benefited hugely from several reviews and features from this publication over the years. Editor Chitra Swaminathan has gently steered the 4 page edition (it was formerly 8 pages!) to a varied and readable supplement - beyond temples and architecture - as a contrast to the strong left leaning main paper. Arts coverage is under threat with fewer writers willing to commit to watching performances and writing in coherent sentences. We, at this portal, know first-hand, the enormous challenges faced when looking at submitted writings and having to correct basic grammar and fact check many statements. A review is so important for an artiste's development and we at NARTHAKI are delighted to be among the foremost springboards for emerging artistes. Our portal is barely 25 years old and THE HINDU is 146 years old and counting.

So a salute to the elder in the field of arts reporting. May profits, circulation and business interests never shrink your Arts pages!

I conclude with wishing a very special birthday to all my favourite dance artistes born in May. One of them certainly is Guru Maya Rao whose 96th birth anniversary falls on May 2. Her important thoughts on Choreography have now been re-released as an E-BOOK for easier access. An example of how technology can help bring dance history to a whole new generation.

Some of the other MAY horns are Mallika and Mrinalini Sarabhai, Guru CV Chandrasekhar, Ramli Ibrahim , Kumudini Lakhia and the one and only Balasaraswati.
You cannot see me smiling but I am... and you can understand why!
And I AM in the company of giants!

Enjoy this month. Safe travels, everyone. Move that body. Walk, run, jump, skip, twirl, leap, click your heels, jog, lean, bend, jive, saunter, tip toe... BREATHE!

Until we meet again!

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Amsterdam / Copenhagen

Don't forget to tune in and subscribe to the podcast ANITA SAYS on SPOTIFY and APPLE.
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