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November 1, 2014

You will be reading this as I land in the US on my final trip across the Atlantic for the year. In rehearsals for my very first on stage performance with musicians Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan, our 7 year collaboration through discussions and recordings has been revamped and re-styled for a diverse North American audience. SPIRALS, a convergence of dance, music and theatre, is the spine of the November 6th evening in Washington DC. An hour long presentation, it has taken several hours of discussion and debate as to how to divide the attention, lighting and overall “tone” of the evening. With the two musicians having worked together for so long, their synergy and chemistry is more sedate and calm. A generation apart, my own trajectory has been diverse – using props, silence, spoken voice and dramatic arcs in performance. How can we achieve a seamless whole while being true to our personalities and the art? Will the musicians look at me while I perform or will they be lost in their closed eyes and waving hands syndrome? The moment of “theatre” is so strong in a dancer and yet the classical Indian musician relies on improvisation and on the spot inspiration.

Dancers and musicians are working together more and more. Look at the spate of recent synergies between both genres. Valli and Bombay Jayashri, Malavika and Aruna Sairam, Vishaka Hari and Urmila Satyanarayana, Shobana with Ranjit Barot, Leela Samson and Bombay Jayashri (again), Geeta Chandran and Sudha Raghuraman, Priyadarsini Govind and TM Krishna- the list keeps growing. The challenge for the dancer is always the collaborative ‘spirit’ and intention with which this confluence happens. Bharatanatyam dancer Urmila Satyanarayana, shared the process of 10 months over which she had to fly to Srirangam and skype with Harikatha star performer Vishaka Hari for her recent presentation WOMEN OF WISDOM. Invariably, the singer dominates the show with the dancer learning the repertoire of the musician and adapting the choreography accordingly. And, the stage positioning is also tricky. The concert divas and devas often refuse to sit on the sides- like a traditional dance orchestral arrangement – and demand to share the stage space with the dancer. Visually awkward to say the least. Still, this melange augurs well for dance since most of us are held ransom by the avaricious and lazy dance musicians who have been almost wholly corrupted by the torrential downpour of the dollar! Imagine senior artistes who cannot even get a SINGLE REHEARSAL with their orchestra until the day of the performance! That is the state of dance music in Chennai. And so it is recorded scores that have FINALLY found their way into the main December season. All sabhas have accepted that it is almost impossible to demand live accompanists and, except for the Madras Music Academy, who continue to pride themselves as the “upholders of the tradition” and insisting on a live orchestra, other presenters have given way to technology and the need of the hour.

It may not be easy to digest the fact that politics invades and infects every aspect of daily life in India. Streets are clogged with backed up traffic when a VIP travels at any given whim, fishermen arrested by a neighbouring country close down all retail outlets in my city and if an elected leader is granted bail, the roads are ablaze with fireworks and strangers flag down cars to distribute sweets all around.

Now, why would this affect the performing arts, you may ask? In India it does. We cannot get to venues on time, our paths are blocked or diverted needlessly, and God forbid if any performance was conducted on the day that anyone is arrested or dies. Vyjayantimala’s much awaited annual “darshan” was abruptly cancelled when the news came of Jayalalitha’s arrest, and again, when bail was denied, several performances were cancelled. Dance, music or any alleged “celebration” was looked on as a betrayal when the entire state was in “mourning” during her 25 days in a Bangalore jail. Now that she is back home, all cancelled performances are being rescheduled in a hurry before December 18th which is the deadline date that has been given for further testimony. Mark that day again. Who knows what may happen! Can you imagine Obama and Cameron having this effect? And on the day Nixon resigned, were there any cancellations across the USA? Yeh Hai India! Mera India!

The uncomfortable nexus between politics and all aspects of the arts is only getting closer in India. And it is confusing. This edition carries a sombre reminder of the dire straits of the ICCR by former Director General Pavan Varma ( and profiles of dancers Sonal Mansingh and Pratibha Prahlad whose proximity to the corridors of power are well known. Meanwhile, the Sangeet Natak Akademi (Leela Samson has recently resigned) and other national cultural bodies remain without a leader. Kalakshetra has a new and capable chairman in Mr. N. Gopalaswami, former Chief Election Commissioner. A successful bureaucrat, a disciplined administrator and an arts lover, his presence augurs well for this national institution.

Am I sounding cynical? Then let us celebrate the Bessie awards for two outstanding artistes. October 20th at the Apollo Theatre in New York witnessed Akram Khan and Aakash Odedra win in the Outstanding Production ( DESH) and Outstanding Performance (JAMES BROWN, GET ON THE GOOD FOOT) respectively. Wonderful news for South Asian dance and a huge hurrah for Kathak. Last year, Kuchipudi soloist, Chennai born, Paris trained Shantala Shivalingappa won the first Bessie for Indian dance. These wins throw up many questions. Does Kathak lend itself better than other forms to contemporary choreographic structures? Cultural commentator Chitra Sundaram posits the theory that the form itself with its free flowing, erect and subtle ‘abhinaya’ is the easiest to access for non Indian audiences. All three winners were trained OUTSIDE India within the demanding and rigorous atmosphere of professional dance. Is there something about the training methods in India that resist reaching for such high standards? Aditi Mangaldas is realising that the bar is being raised higher all the time when she invited Farookh Chowdhry, Akram Khan’s dynamic manager, to prep and polish her company’s rehearsals before leaving for Paris.

The Bessie awards to two UK based Kathak trained artistes is also a testimony to two decades of sustained support for diversity in the arts of Britain. Sanjeevini Dutta, editor of PULSE shares some of her insights in an exclusive report. I must, however, recognise the pioneering work of Shobana Jeyasingh, who exploded the Devi/Goddess myths in her seminal ROMANCE WITH FOOTNOTES in 1992 and has since created award winning choreography, mediated by her interests in literature and scenography. Jeyasingh, a Bharatanatyam trained artiste, was the first to push, provoke, interrogate, question and reshape the boundaries of the form in the UK and benefit from a major funding drive initiated by the British government. Today Jeyasingh’s work is intellectual, distilled and clearly contemporary. A conversation with her is like a tonic for the brain. South Asian dance in Britain owes much to Jeyasingh and this moment in the sun should not exclude acknowledging her role in British dance diversity.

This moment should also be one for classical dancers in India to introspect as to how they are reinterpreting their art. Are they examining the historicity and engaging with the tradition in a relevant way or merely giving in to self indulgence? Watching You Tube videos of the two awardees reveals how much they may have borrowed from or been influenced by other classical forms by the use of full body movements (Bharatanatyam) and knee twirls (Kuchipidi). Wearing the ankle bells in sections for the “pure dance” moments also ensures the right dose of “exotica.” Does all this make for an appealing and palate pleasing offering? A touch of this and that packaged by superb dancing, great visual collaborators and uncompromising standards?

In a continuing vein, I was disappointed with the recent British Council IMPULSE contemporary dance festival offerings in India. Two companies toured - Hofesh Schechter and Scottish Dance Theatre. Both highly rated and popular companies were certainly not at their best in India. I have noticed over the years that many contemporary Indian dancers applaud even less than excellent work when it tours India from elsewhere. Watching Scottish Dance Theatre made me wonder if they thought that India was still a British colony? What was with those Victorian costumes, hunting gear and stuffed rabbits??? The wonderful dancers were framed by confused choreography and outdated vision and the normally generous Chennai audiences were seen walking out after 20 minutes. Now why will not the British Council curate a triple bill of exemplary emerging South Asian artistes from the UK? It is about time! If not, please give us something rousing and entertaining like RIVERDANCE or STOMP! Can you imagine an Indian version with our garbage cans, brooms, plastic bags, rice winnows, grinding stones and pounding pestles? It will be smashing!

On a recent visit to London, I had the opportunity to watch actor Rani Moorthy on stage in a cameo role in EAST IS EAST on the West End. Readers may have seen the hit movie starring Om Puri as the Pakistani immigrant grappling with his kids and contrasting values in UK. The play now seems dated but is hailed as a “classic” in Britain. Rani, a talented writer, actor, producer of several successful one woman shows, spoke about the luxury of living in London for three months and focusing only on her role without worrying about any other aspect of the production. As someone who also produces and presents her own work, I know the feeling. Acting in two Tamizh feature films and being a part of Pangea World Theatre and InDance productions made me feel totally “pampered”. I had to only focus on acting and dancing!

While it may be convenient to wallow in some amount of self pity about the lack of awareness, funds and support for professional dance in India, it was delightful to watch a fresh take on a classical form. Kolkata based Vikram Iyengar shared his first solo in ten years at Chandralekha’s SPACES in Chennai. ACROSS, NOT OVER was choreographed on him by Bharatanatyam trained-contemporary dancer Preethi Athreya. The 38 minute performance, challenged the verticality of Kathak (Vikram’s chosen form) and the hierarchy of the feet. Using global brand like Adidas shoes, black pants, and a thin yellow belt, Vikram threw himself into the physically challenging solo that ended with his body streaked in blue powder and doing the twirls in his track shoes. Using faint strains of a thumri about Krishna and his conversations at Bombay’s NCPA about classical dance, the score was an eclectic mix of past and present. But all eyes were fixed on the body – at once, prone, prostrate, standing, still, walking on the edge of the walls and “wearing” the shoes on his hands. Critic Sadanand Menon described the work “like watching the embryo of Kathak through the eggshell as it waited to be born.” The blue of Krishna was evident in a subtle yet striking way. A successful and coherent presentation for choreographer and performer.

Iyengar also dons an additional hat as co-curator of the conference section of IGNITE, the eye catching contemporary dance festival organised by GATI in New Delhi. The 2015 event title JOINING THE DOTS is seeking young dancers interested in engaging with the contemporary performance scene in today’s India. Those wishing to watch, learn and absorb the making and running of an international festival and further their own journeys in professional dance practice should apply for bursaries that is being made available to a select few.

It is not easy to stimulate dancers to think beyond their own performance. And yet that is what my PADME project is seeking to achieve. Urging the 7 young classical trained dancers to venture into unknown territory with this work was a challenge and now the stimuli needs to continue. It is young men and women like them who should be eagerly writing and applying for scholarships and grants to learn and listen to world class professionals who visit India more and more. And yet the sad truth is that classical dancers did not turn up in Chennai to watch Vikram Iyengar’s solo (that in spite of my mailing and informing at least 20 of them) and the continued apathy towards even WATCHING a classically trained dancer engage with another mode of gesture and movement does not seem to interest them. Perhaps it is only in Chennai that this attitude remains. Hopefully Iyengar and his co-curator Ranjana Dave, who created an interesting on line discussion for last year’s PURUSH, should be flooded with requests for their first conference initiative.

Immediately after watching ACROSS, NOT OVER in the heat of a noon day October sun, I went to a swank auditorium with over 300 lights to watch a local dance company mount the popular musical CHICAGO. It was an all out ‘masala’ evening. Dancing, singing, acting. Over the top costumes, feathers, lots of skin and mucho applause. Kitsch and swagger done well with local actors and dancers. As Vidya Balan claims in DIRTY PICTURE, Entertainment, Entertainment, Entertainment! So much better than the smug self indulgent Bharatanatyam ensemble work I was subjected to the previous day. It was preceded by much hype and hoopla, copious amounts of PR and money, and very low dancing standards. So much effort and resources coming to naught/not/knot.

The growing trend of inviting reporters to attend dance festivals and performances, paying for their flight tickets, hotels, local transportation and food automatically augurs a favourable review. It amounts to, simply put, paid advertisements. The mainstream media have stopped paying for their dance and theatre reporters to travel across India to cover important events. Dancers, especially those who have received national arts grants, need at least 3 to 5 media reports to continue their connection with the government funding systems. Dance reviews have dried up and so blogs and online portals like this one become the target for those who want their event or performance to be covered and read by all. The writers enjoy a new city and continue their networking. Social media is filled with happy photos and bonhomie. It becomes a double bind for many writers and editors on how to report on such fully paid ‘junkets’ with objectivity. Or perhaps we really don’t have an independent critical spirit in India. Praise is all that is expected after all the expense incurred and perhaps if some unkind words are used, that writer/reporter will not be invited again! It is a conundrum. Hmmmm... the plot thickens!

On a closing note, we in India are being inundated with e-mails and reminders about our Prime Minister’s pet project - Swacch Bharat - for a Clean India. Now if only our sabha secretaries can get their brooms and mops to clean their stages and bathrooms! It will be such a gift to the dancers who hold their noses while treading on these floors come December! Add to that the CLEAN GANGA plan and all corporate monies that MAY have been allocated to the arts are now channelled towards these two projects. We are citizens first and perhaps artistes have to step aside and watch as our streets – akin to open toilets and piled garbage – look normal again! Food for the belly or food for the soul? The choice is not difficult but our impatience is also well deserved. A national vision for the arts – for dance for linking education with humanities – for encouraging and nurturing excellence may be a pipe dream but one thing is abundantly clear. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the creative industries refuse to buckle. Artistes are finding ways to be seen and heard. New alliances are being formed. Dancers are organising more and more festivals and events. Multi-disciplinary festivals are on the rise. While music, theatre and book events steal the spotlight, some dance is also emerging in this mix. Site specific venues are opening their gardens, cafes and courtyards to performers and this is where the creativity of the dancer will be called upon.

Another version of cyclone HUD HUD is nearly upon us! In the form of the annual Chennai December season. As more and more out of towners descend upon my city, the residents still wait for a nod from the state government to acknowledge the largest privately funded arts festival in the world! This is the time to study the history of caste based tensions that have coloured the worlds of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Never is it more apparent than in the “margazhi season.” So dancers! Read your history and ask yourselves what, for whom and why you are performing!

As for the sabhas who continue to pile on the programming from dawn to dusk, have mercy on us! Merci!

Until next time!
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ New York/ Washington DC, Colombo, Bangalore

PS. Several private clubs in India have started fining members Rs 500 if their mobile rings in the dining areas. I wish we could enforce this ban in the auditoriums to our badly behaved audiences.

Twitter: @aratnam
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