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November 1, 2013

What a month! I know I say this often but once again… What a month October has been!

Between the daily visits to multiple "kollu"/doll installations in homes and the nightly 'dandia-raas' dancing at the many malls in the city, it was an exhausting month. I brushed up on my singing with some favourite Navaratri songs that I was taught as a young girl, although the crowds at these private residences were all above age 50. I have not been home in Chennai during this magical time for many years and actually cancelled an invitation to London to witness the farewell concert of Crosby, Stills and Nash! As Durga acted out her annual slaying of dark energies, an equal malevolence was unleashed via cyclone Phailin on Odisha! Despite the havoc, many lives were saved due to exemplary preparedness. Congratulations to the armed forces and the disaster management teams. My visit to the famous Jagannath temple at Puri and Sun temple at Konark showed that the cleanup is still underway but crowds are back and life is fast getting back to normal.

Whenever I am called a "legend," I smile and wince simultaneously. It means I am getting older and therefore am NOT merely a 'senior' or 'mature' dancer – but, put in a box, labelled, sealed and voila!-a 'legend'! Across the globe in Washington DC, the press picked up on the mature dancing scene in India by calling the recent coming together of 'legends' Leela Samson, Madhavi Mudgal, Astad Deboo and the Dhananjayans with an article called THE POWER OF GREY. More power to all of us in the coming years.

And kudos to Shantala Shivalingappa for triumphing over a formidable list of nominees to walk away with the US Oscars for Dance – The Bessie Award – for her solo performance of SHIVA GANGA at the FALL FOR DANCE event in New York City. Rajika Puri was one of the presenters alongside my idol - musician/ composer/choreographer Meredith Monk- and was at her terrific and ebullient self. The ever brilliant Hari Krishnan (another nominee for FROG PRINCESS ) was in the audience. This is the first time a South Asian has won the award. Nrityagram was nominated last year for their Sri Lankan collaboration SAMHARA – not for the dance but for the music! Once seen as a downtown dance award, not focusing on the performances in larger and more established space, the BESSIES have become much more inclusive to embrace all kinds of dance and dancers. I am sure that more good news will follow for Asian dance in the future.

In India, dance and music seem to have been soldered onto the marketing juggernaut. Week after week performances are announced. Each is publicised with multi colour ads and touted as NEVER BEFORE SEEN, INCREDIBLE, BRILLIANT! Backed by cement, steel, insurance and jewellery companies the posters are splashed on buses and bus stops. Getting eyeballs seems to be the advertising goal. Audiences are slowly buying tickets for these events, although star quality is a MUST. One highly anticipated event was 'Saayujya' (merging with the divine). Featuring TM Krishna and Priyadarsini Govind, the overlong evening (3 hours) had many giggly, giddy fans of both divas full of gush and mush about being "transformed and transported." It was in one word - UNDERWHELMING. Krishna's rendering of the Bhairavi raga was superb, full of emotion and nuance and reflective of what a wonderful musician he is. The choice of Nadanamakriya (Payyada javali) dragged the rest of the show into a deep yawn. Priyadarsini's dancing in many moments was beautiful when she abandoned her posing to perform conventional adavus to the swaras in clean and lovely lines. In parts her abhinaya was minimal, intense and evocative. Her costume could have had less than 5 colours. But her wardrobe malfunctions this time were too many to count and too glaring to dismiss. First, the ankle bells fell off… How is that even possible? Then her famous 'vankis' slipped off – again. Her belt demanded constant adjusting. At one point, a wire was dangling from her back from the body mike. Such carelessness does not augur well for a global Bharatanatyam icon whose every move and pose is copied. When so much effort has gone into the marketing and branding of such a high profile and eagerly awaited event, the least a dancer can do is ensure that the costume and jewellery stay in place.

The larger question for dancers is this. Music and dance as two separate dimensions is not a new discussion. The two were intertwined since the beginning so even to posture about this kind of collaboration as being something unique is moot. Yes, when two divas join forces it is more about personalities and less about the art. The dancer invariably gives up half the stage and much of the thunder to the force of the musician's personality. Krishna never stopped singing but Priya just retreated many times into the shadow. Does the musician need a dancer to illuminate his/her music? A dancer, however, needs great music but not necessarily a famous singer to bring moments of the poetry and melody alive. So while the standards for dance music are still rather poor, such collaborations remind us that excellent music is possible although most celebrity singers end up stealing the spotlight and the dancer somehow never seems to get equal stage time.

Saayujya was co-sponsored by the national newspaper THE HINDU as part of their new drive to co-brand many cultural events along with fashion shows, theatre festivals and music concerts. When a media house aligns itself with a performance, then what is the nature and tone of the review that subsequently appears? First, all other media ignore the event. Second, the sole review that appeared a week later in THE HINDU was predictably flattering. The writer, musician Lakshmi Sreeram made several intelligent observations that helped the reader who was not present to grasp a little of the magic that evening contained. There was no mention of the loud and ugly protests that occurred outside the auditorium against TM Krishna who supposedly enraged some sections of Tamil sentiment during his recent concert in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan issue is very much alive and festering in my State at the moment. As a news item, it would have made front page or at least Page 3 in all the media. But how could THE HINDU, who was so prominently associated with the event, report on such an unpleasant incident? (As you read this, THE HINDU management has reverted to its previous framework of a family managed business and so these event affiliations may not continue with the publication's professional consultants having reduced their culture pages citing lack of revenue and readers' interest!)

India is rife with these contradictions. Magazines routinely cover performances and events that feature family members of the editor, publisher and staff, blithely disregarding all issues of conflict. Publications connected with overseas arts organisations conduct seminars where they just invite each other to speak and pontificate. As media commentator Noam Chomsky predicted, "This is the era of manufacturing consent." The counter argument that is posed is, "There is so little space for the arts so there is no point in disqualifying talented artistes merely because they are related to the management." Ask this question of western writers and editors and they will gape at us aghast. I know of dance critics in Canada, US, UK and Europe who will not befriend you or visit your home so as to keep a professional distance by which to attend and review your work. A cup of coffee will only be shared in a public place. In India, as the ads proclaim, "We are like this only!"

A greater menace than nepotism looming for us dancers is the fact that the world has become one large Town Hall meeting. Armed with smart phones and I- pads, young dancers are blogging, reporting, commenting, reviewing and vomiting opinions on anything and everything. Some accost us in the foyer with a microphone and a television camera demanding comments. These are the worst offenders. What are we supposed to say? Something bland and complimentary surely, since nobody wants to listen to anything else in this prickly porcupine age? These half hearted comments then become transformed into an endorsement of that particular event or performance which then, in turn, get featured on Facebook, You Tube and other social media as a stamp of approval. What such immature writing and speaking does is actually elbow out the more serious and experienced voices that have taken 10, 20, 30, 40 years of watching dance, theatre and music. There is nothing that can be done to stop this deluge. Watch, observe, try to be discerning or at least - be aware!

2013 marks the birth centenary of Bharatanatyam gurus Kittappa Pillai and Subbaraya Pillai. The latter was Alarmel Valli's teacher and she commemorated the event with a two day festival and symposium called BAANI – again with THE HINDU as media and event partner. Film maker Rajiv Menon (who forced me to make my cinema debut in KANDUKONDEN KANDUKONDEN with a wonderful role that was then chopped mercilessly by the producers) was the keynote speaker and spoke about how envious he was about the loyalty students have with their gurus in dance and music – something he rarely sees in cinema. Valli was at her relaxed and articulate best, speaking about how she learnt the "kulukku nadai" (the special bounce-spring walk) from a devadasi. She spoke warmly about the generosity of her guru and how she was taught to become her own dancer! The most interesting part of the two days was a panel discussion titled LEGACY, LINEAGE AND TRADITION. Participants were film critic (Bharadwaj Rangan), poet (Arundhati Subramaniam), dance historian (Professor Nagaswamy), musician (Anil Srinivasan - moderator) and dance critic (Ashish Khokar). We learned that Pandanallur perhaps got its name from the words "Pandanai Nallur" (Parvati playing with the ball) which appears in many of the ancient Tamizh texts. Arundhati spoke about "marinating" in the words of favourite poets - much like a gurukul. The comments from the panel showed that there are so many ways of approaching the idea of continuity in learning, teaching and training. As Valli accepted the rise of the Global Bani and the lack of time and interest in reading poetry even with her own students, I was disappointed with the absence of Chennai dancers for this most engaging forum. But, then, Chennai dancers are now 'Brahma Gyanis' – realised souls who don't need anyone or anything to guide or teach them! Perhaps the overdose of Bharatanatyam in the city, the surplus of teachers, schools, students and arangetrams has exhausted all time and mind space for anything else but the mediocre. What a pity!

Both Subbaraya Pillai and Kittappa Pillai were direct descendents of the famed Tanjavur Quartet. The Fantastic Four brothers were commemorated by dancer Swarnamalya Ganesh at her school's annual day event. Rangamandira's 8th anniversary celebrations found me as a special guest watching in delight as tiny tots, as young as five years, were singing jatiswarams, keeping beat by putting talam on their laps, and talking clearly about the life and work of the Quartet. The evening, held on October 2, a national holiday, was made ironic with Muthuswami Dikshitar's Sanskrit song set to the exact tune of the British national anthem – 'God Save the King' (now Queen). Imagine five rows of students, dressed in dance finery, solemnly seated, cross legged and slapping their thighs to a three beat 'rupaka talam' cycle singing NAMASTE PARA DEVATEY! And the film GANDHI was playing on television to mark the birth anniversary of the Mahatma! The Empire strikes back again and again!

News from Belgium was ecstatic about the opening ceremony of Europalia. Leela Samson's group presentation CHARISHNU received standing ovations in all venues including France. Aruna Mohanty, the Odissi dancer in the production spoke about how warmly they were received and how appreciative some sections were to the Kathakali of Sadanand Balakrishnan. Leela Samson completed her visit to Hope University in Liverpool and is back to her many responsibilities in India.

Do busy women always find the time to do many things simultaneously? The question can be asked of in-demand dancers. So many are constantly on the move. Shifting energies – even if it is for a short while – is Malavika Sarukkai with her new film THE UNSEEN SEQUENCE, which had its premiere in Bombay two months ago and is now touring India with special screenings in main cities. The film attracted the attention of the prestigious DANCE ON CAMERA festival at Lincoln Centre, New York and will have its first international screening on January 31, 2014. Congratulations to Malavika who shares her creative journey and the history of the dance form she so passionately believes has been her shadow and life companion - Bharatanatyam. The official trailer can be viewed here.

After a recent unpleasant incident involving a media company in Chennai, I am rather dismayed with the willingness of dancers who allow their performances to be live streamed on the internet. However much the producers claim to encrypt software that will not allow the performances to be recorded or downloaded, we all know about hackers and how easy it is to copy such performances and hand it back to us on an MP4 format. Unscrupulous thieves surround us. Some presenters, who are in this unholy alliance with media agencies, try to convince dancers that it is for their own publicity to allow live streaming. No extra payment is given to the artistes. Senior guru VP Dhananjayan has taken up the issue already which we on this forum have spoken about even last month. Indian dance choreography and music are copied or stolen blatantly from hand held phones or by bribing the technicians who operate sound and lights in the auditorium. One way could be to copyright a production - title, music, choreography with a national copyright number and document. After being confronted with large portions of the database and events listings having been lifted entirely from our site, we have taken steps to protect our hard work of 14 years. Recently phone companies have also fought and won cases of tele-marketeers who have stolen customer lists to harass them for products, services and memberships. Specialised databases can be copyrighted and ours on is the result of years and years of diligent work. Remember the very first edition of Narthaki- the phone book in 1992 and the second edition in 1997? That seems so long ago! What an effort that first book was! Someday I will share that story.

Whenever dancers are given space in media and glossy publications to be photographed, interviewed and featured on the cover, I celebrate. Soon after, I wince when I read the interviews. Somehow when classical performers are profiled, it seems to be de rigeur to call them "deeply deeply humble." What does that mean? Does it not smack of falsehood? Have you ever known of a great artiste without an ego? It is part and parcel of art making. And further mystifying statements like, "Dance is like a shaft of light connecting my soul to the universe" or "I am a vessel for life and art" (comments are paraphrased ) only serve to alienate the reader from the art and artiste. Nobody speaks of the loneliness, the down side of fame and spotlight, of the sacrifice and the constant insecurity about when the crown topples. Or the relief of NOT dancing for some time. Of other pursuits – hiking, travelling, taking retreats, feasting, fasting, watching, reading. Dance humanises and energises. The readers must also get a sliver of the human being behind the makeup. It is the imperfections and the vulnerability that makes people both endearing and, eventually, iconic.

That is why I smile at FUNKY GURU – Bharatanatyam dancer Padmini Ravi (Bangalore) who many years ago stepped off the dance treadmill and began inventing her own style of teaching fitness and aerobics based on classical dance, yoga and martial arts. I presented her in 2000 at the Natya Kala Conference at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha and now read that she has integrated a whole system of helping students understand a poem, song, sloka or verse and break it down into choreography units. Her motto is to make dance and the dance world fun, fearless and funky! Padmini Ravi was an excellent classical dancer but decided that playing the fame game was too arduous for her nature. Atta girl!

All of India is in mourning with the upcoming retirement of cricketing legend Sachin. Would anyone miss a step or a beat if Vyjayantimala or Birju Maharaj announced their retirement? Oh yes, I know... dancers NEVER retire. They just fade away and are forgotten. But as a rhetorical question. Would it make news? Would anyone care? Would our Prime Minister and President comment? Dancers are so generous, vulnerable, underpaid, overworked, vilified, envied, adored and hated. And yet after spending more than 50 years immersed in the art, we are NOT in the mainstream discourse of life. Whose fault is it? For now the country's GDP is slowing but the GBP (Gross Bitterness Production) is on the rise. Dance was never a mainstream discussion. Now more than ever, the star performers are NaMo, RaGa, and ArKe! Decode this yourselves!

The once nascent and nebulous scene of contemporary dance in India is fast solidifying with some key players cornering the discourse on what is contemporary dance. First through the starting gate is ATTAKKALARI, led by Jayachandran Palazhy whose group has now created a repertory company, a growing repertoire and a strong reference point for training, research, technology support and choreography. They conducted a week long showcase in Kolkata of their work titled PRAYANA. Although the work was watched with mixed feelings in Mamta Bannerjee's city, there is a definite momentum that ATTAKKALARI has gained with their infrastructure. With over 20 companies in the country claiming legitimacy of space for contemporary dance and new soloists emerging almost every other month from the GATI residency in New Delhi, we feel that there will soon be a critical mass of urban audiences and dancers to watch and hopefully, engage with the contentious issue of what is contemporary in Indian dance. Currently, Vikram Iyengar, Ranjana Dave and Mandeep Raikhy, three versatile and articulate dance-theatre artistes are currently in Berlin and Hamburg under the ARThink South Asia Arts Management Fellowships. Slowly but surely, the idea of curating and administering the arts is entering our dialogue. In Chennai, we have Padmini Chettur and Preethi Athreya who have initiated Basement 21, an informal collective that supports an ongoing investigation about contemporary dance practice and creation without the mediation of PR and marketing. This very word "contemporary" is becoming overburdened with too much grandstanding from the classical community. Padmini Chettur insists that she is a contemporary dancer and not a contemporary INDIAN dancer. Those working in the "new dance" areas are sometimes conflicted with what is marketable and what is truly original and researched work based on the individual body. Should these terms be done away with? How then can we distinguish between the various forms of dance? What is the very notion of 'contemporary,' 'classical 'and' traditional'? Is nomenclature necessary to judge excellence or a necessary pointer for awards, citations, festival directors and curators?

News from the UK. After their brilliant duet NO MALE EGOS in 1999 when Mavin Khoo and Akram Khan burst on to the contemporary dance scene, life took them on separate roads. I watched them, sitting next to Piali Ray in Birmingham and remember holding my breath in sheer excitement. Now the two re-unite. Mavin has become Choreographic Assistant and Rehearsal Director for the global brand that is the Akram Khan Dance Company. Welcome back to London, Mavin! Your many friends and fans will be thrilled to see you more often.

October was the 8th anniversary of the RTI - RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT. By a Parliamentary decision (Act #22) in 2005, every Indian citizen earned the right to request information or ask questions of any institution financed by the government. According to attorney KSR Aniruddha, each institution should have a PIO (Public Information Officer) who receives these applications. The response has to be furnished within 30 days from the date the application is received. Ambiguous questions can be rejected and questions pertaining to national security (Section 8) or those alluding to breach of copyright across state lines (Section 9) can be rejected. Each application can contain only one question and there is no limit to the number of applications a single individual can file. What does this mean for the arts? It is within the right of an Indian citizen to question or ask for details from the Government Music College, Kalakshetra, Kathak Kendra, New Delhi or any cultural body funded by the Indian Government. In the past, the annual Padma awards selection process was questioned through an RTI. Questions can be about systemic issues - allocation and deployment of funds, sources of revenue, selection processes, promotions and policy decisions. Ask any government officer and you will know that an RTI is received almost daily in several offices. In the world of culture, we prefer to talk amongst ourselves and not spring into action. Most artistes are reluctant to file an RTI for fear of appearing mean or vengeful. The Times of India survey revealed that 79% of Indian citizens would like to file an RTI but only 19% have actually done so.

Astad Deboo concluded a fabulously successful tour of his giant puppet production in Mexico while I was in his home town for the NAKSHATRA event at NCPA, Mumbai. In a forum meant for dancers and budding dance scholars, Sanjukta Wagh spoke about preparing a full year to apply for the Charles Wallace fellowship to study in London's Laban School. She agonised about the question "who am I" for many months before she arrived at a lucid and honest response. I spoke about the genesis of and shared some interesting and humorous anecdotes about the early years. I also invited some of the dancers in the audience to start submitting short responses about dance matters to our site. We may have new names as contributors in the coming months. NCPA Dance Programming Chief Swapnokalpa Dasgupta has many ideas and dreams. Mumbai is a great city where the dance community is once again becoming activated. Having to fend for themselves without the anchor of Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi or Kolkata where multiple gurus and a large cultural community creating unhealthy nexuses and forming cliques, Mumbai dancers are forced to fend for themselves and invent their own raison d'etre for the art. They are thus more focused, attentive, and articulate about dance. I love that city for its zing, zest for life, no time for nonsense and its "get on with it" attitude.

Deba Prasad Das Award
Standing: Shashadhar Acharya, Geeta Chandran, Anita Ratnam, Sudhakar Sahu
Seated: Gajendra Panda, Ashish Mohan Khokar, Governor of Odisha Dr. SC Jamir

I ended the month with a performance of "About HER" – my Goddess template - in Bhubaneswar before I received the Deba Prasad Das Award for contemporary dance from the State Governor. Geeta Chandran was awarded in the category of Bharatanatyam. My tech crew had 4 hours to set up and we had to compromise without a run through. These are the hazards of wanting a professional presentation. But the warmth of the audience and the kindness of the dance community were charming. Organiser and host Gajendra Panda continues the legacy of his beloved guru Deba Prasad Das with sincerity and there were many dancers in the audience that evening. I visited Aruna Mohanty and Bichitrananda Swain's classes to watch their fantastic male dancers in rehearsal. Odissi dance and music are surely going through a golden phase, the classical form replacing Kathak as the second most popular style after Bharatanatyam.

As you read this, I am winging my way across the Pacific towards New York City. A quick trip this time, some teaching, some choreography sessions before I end my trip with a performative paper DECENTERING THE GODDESS at the CORD/SDHS conference in Southern California later this month.

Cool New York, balmy California and Goddess Meenakshi's sultry Madurai. My feet take me to many places this month. And PURUSH is almost here. The final schedule is up and the excitement is building. We have so many friends who are attending and critics who have never visited Chennai before for the season will be with us. Several premieres, theatre, dance and folk performances will light up five days of the Margazhi season. More on that in the coming weeks. But I close with a twinge of sadness. My city that hosts the largest music and dance festival in the world still does not have a one stop website to visit and browse. Nobody knows who is performing or singing – in which sabha and when. Or perhaps every dancer knows but the real world does not. Ask the sabha secretaries and they say, "Vaat phor meydame? Vee vill be house phull evvrytiyem yenyvay!" High time now for a Margazhi season APP. Any techie rasika listening?

Happy Diwali to all. May this month and the next bring you closer to your loved ones and miles of smiles in your lives!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ New York/ Riverside, CA/ Madurai/ New Delhi

PS: Hide your hands, dancers! You are hereby ordered NOT to show lotuses. No alapadma hastas, no demonstrating lotus eyes, lotus lips and lotus feet. All lotus ponds in India have to be covered. No reminders about this national flower. The ruling party does not want voters to be reminded about one particular political party when it sees lotuses. In case they vote for the LOTUS! No news yet about the "pataka" gesture! The HAND hasta belongs to a rival faction. Palms stretched with fingers together works wonderfully to give idiots a tight slap across the face!

Now if only we dancers were powerful enough to have someone kind to the arts in seats of power. We would hold their faces between two 'patakas' and drown them in kisses with our lotus lips!

Twitter: @aratnam
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