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November 15, 2011

This mid month edition is filled with news and a special thumbs up to my female colleagues!

As November hurtles towards closure, all of India is aglow with cultural activity. In New Delhi, dancer Prathibha Prahlad continues to toil 24/7 to establish her DIAF as a national cultural event. A first day cover and a stamp with her image were released in the capital city to the pop of flashbulbs (actually it is only a figure of speech - everything is digital now), champagne and air kissing! Mwah Prathibha! You go, girl!

Also charging along after her unexpected encounter with the ‘BIG- C’ three years ago is dancer Ananda Shankar Jayant. This unputdownable woman is everywhere – her TED talk video has gone viral, IIT think tanks are wooing her for opinions and medical colleges are inviting her as keynote speaker to deliver thoughts about mind-body connects.  Oooofff, what stamina!

The sylph like Maddhu Natraj is buzzing around as head honcho of her new ‘baby.’ NAMMA DANCE UTSAV BENGALURU (NDUB) is taking dance to outdoor venues like the uber chic mall of UB CITY. I will be there to catch the excitement and to watch how retail therapy meshes with performance art. APPADI  PODU PODU PODU! 

Geeta Chandran continues her quiet and purposeful sentiments about classical dance in a series of excellent articles in national magazines. Already on the board of universities and important think tanks, she joins Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli who stepped on to major podiums and into the advisory boards of museums and universities a decade ago.

If these remarkable women are forging ahead, finding newer avenues for communicating through talks and performances, six women have done something exceptional in terms of infrastructure. Veenapani Chawla, Sanjana Kapoor, Mallika Sarabhai, Arundhati Nag and now Lynne Fernandez have built beautiful performance spaces in their cities while Leela Samson presides over one of the most magnificent venues in the country – Kalakshetra.  KULA at Nrityagram is the newest of aesthetic spaces aimed to incubate artistic work and nurture residencies. Near Lonavala in Maharashtra is another idyllic space being built, initiated by actor Atul Kumar. Smaller dance halls are springing up within the compounds of dancers’ homes across India to accommodate visiting artistes and salon shows. Tired of paying huge money to auditoriums with bare facilities and more precious resources being wasted towards lighting and sound, with barely nothing left over to pay artistes, this is the best news for all those experimenting with dance, theatre, movement and site specific shows that can be adapted to multiple venues and diverse audiences.

 The mega success of the first HINDU LIT FEST in Chennai and Delhi revealed a large swathe of youth still interested in the written word. Every session was jam packed with wannabe writers and readers of all ages and sizes, listening with rapt attention, many seated on the floor when Vikram Seth, David Davidar, Urvashi Butalia and Shashi Tharoor held forth. There was little discussion about writing on the web and blogs but next year should hopefully connect with the future of writing and reading in this age of techno convergence and multiple platforms of delivery!
 On a rain soaked Chennai weekend, sparse crowds arrived for the premiere of Padmini Chettur’s solo BEAUTIFUL THINGS 2.  It was a litmus test in delicious and sophisticated slowness.  Padmini did all the things she said she was NOT going to do in her artistic statement. Changing clothes onstage with  lingerie showing, she created brief flashes of voyeurism, exoticism and seduction but on the whole it was a cold and unfeeling performance that would have worked much better in the environs of the abandoned Bombay textile mill where she also staged this work.  The Belgian lighting design was the star of the evening but Padmini is an important name in the landscape of Asian contemporary dance, having enviable commissions and a European agent who has placed her successfully in top venues. Singapore audiences apparently booed her recently but nothing deters this 41 year old. Twisting, turning and whirling with a laboured perfection, the hour long work felt too long, too torturous and too self absorbed. But Padmini is far more original than any of the other western inspired modern dancers in India. Her work is not derivative but stubbornly personal and exquisitely detailed.  I remember a determined and quiet young woman who approached me in 1994 on the recommendation of director Prasanna Ramaswamy. It was for her first solo venture WINGS AND MASKS.  I was happy to have been among the early group to have supported her and later presented her twice at THE OTHER FESTIVAL with THREE SOLOS in 1998 and with FRAGILITY (2000).  “I am a contemporary dancer, not a contemporary INDIAN dancer,” she says to scholar Ketu Katrak in a thoughtfully written new book CONTEMPORARY INDIAN DANCE.

The “encounter” between French choreographer Jerome Bel and Thai Khon dancer Pichet Klunchun was intelligently staged at Kalakshetra.  Holding his own against the planned conversation between European and Asian dance-arts, Pichet revealed his masterful classical movements from the Ramayana while sharing the connection between the architecture of the Thai temples and the dancing body. Bel played the role of the sometimes ignorant, sometimes skeptical Western tourist, probing and investigating the reasons for Pichet to stay in the realms of the old and classical. Finally, Bel discusses the fragile status of contemporary dance with an analogy of a wager. “In contemporary dance, the audience is not guaranteed of entertainment. By buying a ticket for a performance, it takes a bet and sometimes loses.”
 The small crowds for the French Danse Dialogues, with the same faces showing up at the performances   reinforces the problem that contemporary dance in India is an urban, elitist preoccupation. Many of my stylish, educated friends implore me not to take them to see Chettur or any of her ilk, saying they are “bored.” Then who attends? Painters, film makers, trendy designers, writers, theatre actors – for whom classical dance has lost its “soul.” Perhaps, in Chennai, in a city that is soaked and drenched in a singular aesthetic, initiatives like THE OTHER FESTIVAL and many of its newer avatars have cleared space for  those who  completely reject any familiar notions of dance in today’s India. I could not help wishing that the sparse and all black Rukmini Arangam at Kalakshetra could remain for solo Bharatanatyam without the fuss of pillars and distracting stone work. The power of Malavika, Mythili and Rama may be quite wonderful with the matte black box embrace.

November also brings New York based Odissi dancer Myna Mukherjee to New Delhi, where her explosive annual cultural event ENGENDERED makes its India debut. Attempting to break the silence on alternative sexuality, it has several high profile sponsors and promises to be an eyeball grabbing, media hungry event.

Which brings me to a closing thought? Does one have to be critically ill, devastated by personal loss, triumph against adversity in life, be gay, lesbian, transgender to become a media darling? Is it not sufficient to be a great artiste, to keep one’s personal life under wraps and electrify audiences on stage? Apparently not.  Only when a train derails does it make front page news.
The Forbes list of India’s list of India’s most powerful women does not include a single performing artiste. Designer Ritu Kumar, banker Chandra Kocchar, choreographer Farah Khan and TV mogul Ekta Kapoor make the list. And so I raise a toast of hot lemon ‘rasam’ to my female dancer colleagues who have broken barriers, crossed frontiers and crashed boardrooms. The power to create and perform is not sufficient any more. We must speak, argue, build, manage, promote and OWN the physical and virtual   spaces for cultural product. Unless we also become gatekeepers of the art, we will always be at the mercy of those who stand guard outside closed doors.

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Delhi / Palakkad / Bengaluru

PS: The fast approaching dance conference is driving me into a state of mind that mirrors the title – MAD & DIVINE (I mean the first word of the title). Working with musicians is such a huuuggggge challenge these days. What nakra and attitude… How have we created such monsters? Who will give them a reality check? Iron Man, Spiderman or RA-ONE! Help!

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