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November 1, 2011

The French are here. With their amazing performers, mime artistes, clown, street theatre and installation art shows.  Accompanying the visiting groups for the national festival are Indian contemporary performers Navtej Johar, Padmini Chettur, Aditi Mangaldas,  Anusha Lall, Preethi Athreya and Sujata Goel. This is perhaps a concentrated showcasing of India’s new dance artistes in three cities throughout the month of November and a sign that contemporary dance in India is coming of age. An award for contemporary dance has been instituted by Prakriti Foundation called PECDA – Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Awards. Announced at Kalakshetra’s Rukmini Arangham on October 28, PECDA will support, mentor and fund a brand new work from seed to stage. Very good news!

Brand India (Anand Mahindra) has reached out to appear at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival and The New York Times reviewed Shah Rukh Khan’s RA ONE on opening night as an “undercooked epic with magpie effort.”  Prestigious US universities are looking to institute INDIA CHAIRS in their campuses. However, politics, economics and now Bollywood are the primary areas of interest and study. Arts and Cultural Studies are almost never included or engaged with. What we need is more points of contact between politicians, corporates and the voices from the arts. There is too much whining from one camp and too much disdain and feudal contempt from the other. Artistes have an outplaced sense of entitlement and the other side is busy gifting each other with imported chocolate truffles sprinkled with 18 carat gold dust, Shetland ponies and bracelets to match their 6 lakh rupee Birkin bags. It is this very same group that demand FREE tickets or passes to dance performances.  If we are waiting for the feudal neo-nawab to remove his pearl necklace to throw it in our direction, then we have to stand bowing forever.  INK and TED talks are always looking for compelling speakers and rarely are dancers featured on the roster (Bravo to Lakshmi Pratury for inviting dancer Rajika Puri to the INK Jaipur sessions). Writers are the new superstars, featuring prominently in most conclaves of arts and ideas (Asia Society’s CHINDIA DIALOGUES as a marker).  In fact, an online ‘culture’ magazine focuses on CHEESE… yes CHEESE.
Watching Mandeep Raikhy and friends in a lovely evening of INHABITED GEOMETRY at Kalakshetra was so revealing of the DIRECTION that young dancers are creating in. If CONTEMPORARY itself is a loaded term and must reveal more an attitude and less a style, according to critic Sadanand Menon, then it is quite evident that Shobana Jeyasingh has created a signature marker of modern dance with Bharatanatyam references. Most performers carry her name on their resume and their movements resonate with the high octane energy and abstracted adavus and mudras that were SO SHOBANA a decade ago. She has moved on but these youngsters are stuck on the older template. Besides Mandeep’s evocative opening solo, the other dancer that popped out was Rukmini Vijaykumar. Watch out for this firebrand. She is hip, hot and very happening!
Back to the present. Hot on the heels of the French are the Aussies. And not for cricket. The proposed OZFEST in Adelaide next year also saw some visiting curators making the mandatory visits to New Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to meet with many artistes and producers.  Today, dance and music are no longer the centerpiece of any INDIA event. Films, food, fashion, literature, dominate the mainstages and foyers of fancy spaces while the smaller theatres are filled with our performers. Parties and melas are the order of the day. Perhaps it is time for us to rethink how and where we present dance for the public. Look at UK based Akademi’s outdoor spectacles. On rooftops, tunnels, gardens and fountains, classical and contemporary dancers swirl to fantastic lighting and music, enthralling British audiences. Of course, WHAT is performed, HOW it is curated and choreographed becomes critical but perhaps this is one way of bringing Indian dance out of its hothouse or elitism and aloofness.

While watching the premiere of the much hyped Tamizh film ‘7-AAM ARIVU’ (Seventh Sense) which retold the true story of Kanchipuram/Tamizh monk Bodhidharma and his journey to China  in the 5th century to teach and found the Shaolin school of martial arts, his fame and honour in an alien land and India’s own ignorance of history while easily becoming derivative and imitative of foreign influences is telling. Reviewing SRK’s ‘RA ONE’,  NYT film critic Rachel Saltz speaks of impressions of other Hollywood movies that have been freely borrowed from – TRON, TERMINATOR, MATRIX, Jackie Chan films and more. When will we stop being so derivative and realize that we have such enormously fabulous movement and physical resources from our own soil? While politicians scramble to rescue terms like BASMATI, AYURVEDA and YOGA from Western patent hounds, artistes have to realize that the centre of serious dance dialogues have moved out of India decades ago. Time to synergise, reflect and reorganize.

How can I close without remembering a man who has transformed the way we communicate? The Alphabet ‘I’ now means so much. We can never look at it in the same way as other alphabets any more. Called a sage, visionary or jerk in turns by his fans and critics, Steve Jobs agonised at the design of his oxygen mask that covered his face during his final days. Can we imagine a world when we are not sharing videos, music, images, editing our performances and communicating without Jobs’ gift to the world?
And so we continue to watch as Team Anna Hazare flounders and the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) gathers steam around the world. A lesson to anyone who brushes aside public perception or anger.  If only performing artistes had a single forum to voice complaints and protect themselves from ill treatment and exploitation. If only artistes can AGREE that there IS a situation that needs to be addressed. Force India or Farce India!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Kochi/ Delhi/ Palakkad

Twitter: @aratnam
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