Leave your channels of inspiration open
Let the movement flow
Surrender your spirit to the dance
It is for others to decide, not you.
- Martha Graham's advice to choreographer Agnes De Mille about Self Doubt
Diwali in India this year was more subdued than usual, with the eco activists asserting their voice against bursting crackers. I was away from home and missed the welcome bustle of domestic cheer that has accompanied my annual Deepavali (as we South Indians say) in Chennai. For over a decade I have missed being woken by my mother and grandmother at 4am and led to the bathing areas for a special oil bath with turmeric paste and sesame oil while their soothing voices would sing that famous Telugu song SITA KALYANAM VAIBHOGAME...
This year I am not home to supervise the same ritual for my daughter Arya, who, incidentally, refuses to allow me to sing the words to the song, citing it as a patriarchal custom. So instead I just hum the tune to her.
I miss the rustle of a new silk sari and the excitement of visiting my elders and good friends, sharing news and plain town gossip.
Deepavali away from home just does not feel like a festival for me. And on that very day, October 27, I arrived in San Mateo, Bay Area, California. What greeted me was a giant power outage and zero connectivity! Imagine in the tech centre of Silicon Valley to have the raging California fires threaten not just lives but the working of so many homes!
It is festival season so let's switch moods and begin on a positive note!
#ROOTS AND TENDRILS
The world premiere of Chitra Dasarathy's Bharatanatyam ensemble production ROOTS brought an almost house full audience to ADA RANGAMANDIRA hall in Bengaluru. I have been interested in Chitra's work for many years and got a chance to see her earlier work APARA in Chennai. Chitra, daughter and disciple of Guru CV Chandrasekhar, has a strong foundation in music and dance and the relentless energy that she demands from both herself and her dancers shone through on stage that evening.
With the title as its trigger, ROOTS explored the metaphors of a tree and the varying environments that it grows and thrives in. The variety of movements at all levels, the arm and leg extensions and Chitra's own serene stage presence (though too brief for this writer) were some of the highs of the 75 minute evening. What I missed was the choreographic variations that were calling out to be explored. The hard working ensemble (special mention of Priya Kaul and Tony) looked repetitive on some occasions and the placement of the poetic texts at the end of sections could have been shifted.
I did not see any organic movement or the curvature of the Bharatanatyam spine that would suggest a flutter or twitch, a sway or even the fragility of snapping in a storm. The music, credited to Praveen Rao, had Chitra's stamp all over it and it is to her credit that she kept to the kinetic boundaries of Bharatanatyam, a style that she firmly believes and works in.
In a conversation with another culture writer I was struck by the idea that we tend to point out the flaws of someone who is not as celebrated as other dancers. While many feel hesitant to say anything less than adulatory about Malavika, Valli or other divas, we tend to nitpick other dancers' efforts even when the divas tend to disappoint us on more than one occasion.
So, I held myself in check and asked a question of my restless mind and viewing eye.
Was I projecting ideas and thoughts onto a work that was not mine?
Why was I wanting to see ROOTS and the idea of UPROOT?
What was I looking for that evening in the work that would satisfy ME? Instead of enjoying what the choreographer had spent two years in creating...
ROOTS is a fine example of Bharatanatyam ensemble work, developed with care and sensitivity. With repeated performances, the work will surely grow and develop more nuances.
#OF BUDDING PROMISE AND LIFE LESSONS
Watching dancer Priya Kaul in ROOTS and knowing that she is making a shift in her life got me thinking of the years spent in training some talented students and mentees, only to watch them walk away to another life.
Late last month I attended, and wrote about, the astonishingly competent arangetram of Shivapriya, a student of Geeta Chandran. Watching her on stage was a real pleasure and yet I knew that she was launching into a career in medicine! What would that mean to the future of her dance-art?
Archana Raja, who has worked with me for over a year and has played the title role of ANDAL in my recent group production NAACHIYAR NEXT, is getting married and moving to the Mylapore of California- Sunnyvale!
Divya Ravi, a Bengaluru based Bharatanatyam artiste, recently raised many an eyebrow in pleasant surprise when she performed impressively in New Delhi. As of this writing, she now lives in the UK.
What happens to these talented and very promising artistes when they choose to follow their husbands, or their heart, into another geographical time zone and thus wrench themselves from the milieu of their life and training? Will they disappear into the grey zone of the diaspora teaching with clacking sticks or trying to stay "relevant" via social media postings of "ADAVU jamming" and other high octane initiatives? Life and its accompanying experiences are paramount for women but the pattern of always following the man into some kind of bland twilight zone, or plunging into a demanding career in medicine will surely impact the glowing promise that each of these young women have shown.
And Shivapriya, Archana and Divya have the spark to make a mark in this already overcrowded field! Will we see and hear more of them in the future? I certainly hope so!
Meanwhile, the millennials are speaking up. Some are posting pics of themselves pointing an accusing finger, others with angry faces. All aimed at unscrupulous elements who are fleecing dancers for performance slots.
When do dancers stop this hemorrhaging of money?
Dancers pay for everything. Classes, costumes, jewellery, auditoriums, musicians, photography and videography, PR, travel, hospitality... And now even for performance slots. Well, I should not use the word NOW. This has been a Chennai virus that has mutated and spread across the country for over 25 years.
Always it is the DANCER WHO PAYS. Nobody around her/him is willing to compromise or take a discounted fee, even if the cause is noble or worthwhile.
It is only the dancer who is asked to be "flexible, adjusting and reasonable".
INFLATION is supposed to fall off the dancer like Teflon while all costs keep rising.
So then why should dancers be asked to #PAYFORARTS?
A "campaign" that is being touted as a "novel" initiative?
Why this fuss all of a sudden when so many of us have been speaking, writing and shouting about this for decades?
Besides, dancers! Listen up! All conferences have registration fees. Only in India do we have open doors and FREE for anything with regard to dance.
At conferences, which are primarily academic based, the delegates pay a hefty registration fee even if they are presenters or panelists. That is the universal rule.
The Natya Kala Conference, organised by Chennai's Krishna Gana Sabha is the oldest annual dance conference in India and past convenors, including acharya V P Dhananjayan and myself, have tried to place a nominal 100 rupee registration fee for entry. Even that was resisted. Now, what should be the norm is being resurrected as a "campaign!"
While I welcome any venture that will move towards a professional approach towards the dance arts, I don't understand these overnight hashtag movements that cause blips on our increasingly narrow band width!
Another question arises. If say 300 registrations at Rs. 500 each are collected, then what happens to the money? Will it go towards increased payments for the presenters?
Why is it that food, transportation, PR and other expenses are not negotiated as vigorously as payment to presenters and panel moderators?
And finally, why another conference on BHARATANATYAM? Did we not have more than 20 conferences devoted to the same topic? Convenor Rama Vaidyanathan has her work cut out for her. Her global stature and fanatic fan following notwithstanding, a conference is not a performance and charisma cannot replace solid content.
I wish Rama and her able team of students and volunteers all the energy and grit that will be required to pull this off. And here is hoping that we have some serious academic presentations instead of only panels and morning performances masquerading as Lec-dems!
So, I also ask now. Why not the hashtag #PAYTHEARTISTE
When will be artiste be paid? When will creative ideas, thoughts and academic presentations be put on par with dance performances? Why should a lec dem be paid more than a panel moderator? The amount of time, research and preparation that goes into a succinct panel discussion is enormous. Why is that devalued in comparison to a performer who mostly uses the conference platform as an excuse to dance instead of presenting a paper?
Why are we not demanding more support from the organisers? Not the convenors but the sabhas who are initiating these annual conferences? What is their responsibility?
Today, a 5 day conference costs between 10 to 15 lakh rupees to curate and present. A Sabha must come forward with at least half the amount and then ask the convenor to raise the other half.
However, will that mean that only those dancers who have the means to raise money can qualify?
Which brings us back to square one and #MONEYMONEYMONEY.
I then add. If you don't have the money, then don't do the conference. Or cut it down to 3 days. Who holds 5 day conferences anymore?
#THE TOUGHEST JOB
There was a recent US news article that stated that DANCE IS THE TOUGHEST JOB IN AMERICA. This is not news. This is a FACT. Everywhere. Always has been.
I see INSTAGRAM posts filled with dancing... on the streets, on railway platforms, on escalators and town squares - even ruined monuments. What do those 2 minutes mean? Are we consuming the live arts through the mediation of technology? So then what happens to patience and the viewing experience of an hour long live performance and of being gently led into the inner core of the performer and the performance? Or is that being too altruistic?
With the thousands of "LIKES" and views that some Instagram videos are getting, I wonder if these millienials are happier dancing via these video sites rather than roughing it out in the real world and an actual stage where their INSTA ideas and clever phone apps won't work.
When young stars post photos morphed into comic book characters or just walking down European streets in ill fitting coats, they are clearly building on their existing brand image. What about content to go with the brand? Can clever lighting and beautifully energetic dancing for 2 INSTA MINUTES satiate the viewing palate that then right swipes or scrolls down for more eye grabbing visuals?
Dance Conferences and dance related events are responding to these uncertain times.
Most topics in 2020 are about Exile, Migration, Ecology, Inclusion, Diversity, Resistance and Displacement. Even the United Nations has declared 2020 as the YEAR OF THE PLANT as a nod to climate change.
So how do these ideas and shifts affect our understanding of the art in relation to world events? It is leaving our classical dancers way behind in concept, social understanding and an appropriate artistic response. The current mood attacks anything that suggests harmony and beauty and that is why the contemporary dance world is able to articulate their political ideologies more coherently.
It is not enough to expound on our "golden heritage" and our "glorious tradition".
It is not enough to talk about how "dance fills my being and shows me the truth".
Wearing the complete classical dance costume and simultaneously engaging with current concerns causes a clash of timelines and aesthetics. This is something that most Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers are grappling with.
It is time to at least TRY to engage with the contemporary world of politics, cynicism, growing fascism and paranoia that surrounds us. It is time to articulate a coherent response or not. If you are a classical dancer and are convinced of your position - THAT IS ENOUGH!
#YEH GUNGHROO TOOT GAYE (these bells are broken)
This was the title song of the recent blockbuster Bollywood hit WAR.
Featuring the testosterone and 8 pack bluster of heroes Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, the high octane dance number looked fabulous on the big screen but the title itself reflected so much of what has gone wrong with our classical arts in India today.
Spurious organisations enticing dancers to pay for a slot
Parents and some gurus encouraging these #PAYTOPERFORM trends.
Festival presenters who take the money with little attention to quality.
The decaying state of Odissi, Kathak and Bharatanatyam that is mostly about large groups, deafening music and blinding lights.
The lack of ethics when ideas, choreography and costume designs are blithely stolen by senior artistes from junior and lesser known dancers and passing them off as their own. Copyright battles are rarely won by those whose scripts, tunes and talent are stolen.
The State and Central Culture bodies that are lacklustre when selecting and curating live arts events in India and overseas.
The pathetic lack of infrastructure for the dance arts.
The sameness of hetero normative ideas and topics in today's age of multiple truths and modes of desire.
The patina of ONE STYLE and ONE AESTHETIC that ignores all other approaches and negates the cultural history of the traditional forms.
The alarming rise of neo fundamentalism among the dancer- millenials, especially in the diaspora.
The tame death of the #METOO movement in the classical arts. The predators are back on the performance rosters of many sabhas, except the Madras Music Academy. The brave men and women who spoke out are now being harassed and threatened by the male organisers who were exposed just 12 months ago.
Shall I go on?
No, let me segue into more pleasant news...
#MAMALLAPURAM AND THE WHITE VESHTI
Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping
Tamilians around the world (and we are a sizeable lot) were filled with pride as they watched Prime Minister NARENDRA MODI, dressed impeccably in a white dhoti (we call it a VESHTI) accompany Chinese President XI JINPING to the splendid shore temple monuments at Mamallapuram near Chennai. For decades, we have not seen this 14th century tourist marvel look so beautiful under the lights. The roads leading from the airport all along the coast were spruced up and the icing on the cake was my Alma Mater on stage!
KALAKSHETRA was the chosen dance company to present a 30 minute performance and they chose to do what they do well. Classical group Bharatanatyam with a bit of Kathakali thrown into the mix. A scene from the Ramayana, the famous Natabhairavi TILLANA had many an alumni singing along as the performance unfolded.
Yes, I would have liked them to add 20 more dancers on that wide stage and the imposing temple spires. Nature is a hard act to compete with. Yes, I would have liked more variety in their group arrangements. But at least, the government did not ask Hrithik and Tiger to perform in the name of "INDIA SHINING".
I watched the entire cultural program on a live TV feed where camera close ups showed Mr Modi keeping perfect "talam" with his fingers. The comments that appeared were most revealing. Most of the negative reactions came from Indian men who found the cultural program "boring", "old fashioned" and "so yesterday!" A majority of glowing compliments came from non Indians who exclaimed about "beauty, symmetry and harmony", of "great technique and serenity" and about the "complex sophistication of Bharatanatyam".
When the Tamizh language was praised by the PM as the oldest classical language in the world and the spirit of Tamil enterprise applauded for having made its mark on the global stage, it was a moment of pride. Kudos to director Revathy Ramachandran and the staff and students of Kalakshetra. It was a shining moment for an institution that has seen more than its share of controversy and negativity for the past 7 years.
Now if I had some clout, I would tell the Prime Minister's office to hold an annual meeting in one Chennai Sabha after another so that the approaching clogged roads would be cleaned, the auditorium toilets cleaned and the seats repaired! Wishful thinking? Yes. I know, I know.
#TA KI TA TOM
The 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi was celebrated in theatre, song and dance by many artistes around the world. Gandhi's words, philosophy and ideas became the fulcrum of several creative initiatives across cultures.
SRUTI magazine celebrated its 36th anniversary in October. A dream of Mr. N Pattabhiraman who returned from a diplomatic career in New York City, the growth of this monthly publication is admirable. Now with Janaki Srinivasan as its editor, we wish the editorial team every good wish for its continued commitment to the classical arts.
Srekala Bharath celebrated the 10th anniversary of her successful venture BALA NATYOTSAV, a group showcase of Chennai dance students between ages 8 to 12.
Akram Khan's documentary on dance titled WHY DO WE DANCE has been selected for the PRIX ITALIA award for the TV BEST DOCUMENTARY AWARD.
Mavin Khoo has been named Co-Artistic Director of the AKRAM KHAN DANCE COMPANY.
The UK newspaper THE GUARDIAN named Khan's production DESH as one of the best dance productions of the 21st century!
Priya Murle, convenor of NATYA DARSHAN, another Chennai dance conference, presented an interesting session on DIGITAL MARKETING FOR THE LIVE ARTS. Her conference precedes the NATYA KALA Conference by a few days in December. Entry will be free like her conference last year.
Astad Deboo and Hema Rajagopalan are into the final week of their world premiere collaboration INAI, featuring music by Sikkil Gurucharan and puppets by Pavan Wagmare.
Temple of Fine Arts, Malaysia, presented an all male Bharatanatyam ensemble at London's Southbank Centre. This was initiated and directed by Mavin Khoo who has a fanatical fan following among male dancers in the UK and Europe.
NCPA, Mumbai, celebrates its 50th anniversary with a dance festival marking all the classical styles. Iconic performers and lectures will mark the celebration that begins at the end of the month.
90 year old Kathak doyenne Kumudini Lakhia was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation along with her students and her star "Sishya" Aditi Mangaldas in Mumbai. This, soon after the recent fracas of Sanjukta Sinha and a few other dancers being expelled from KADAMB for inciting unrest.
Sanjukta Sinha launched her own dance company via a Facebook announcement. In it she vowed to devote her time to training students from scratch!
Award winning visionary and Indian design genius Rajeev Sethi opened his new centre in New Delhi called the JIYO CREATIVE HOUSE. A stunning building which houses craft, design and art under one roof.
Rajika Puri continues her relentless cheerleader support for Indian dance in the NYC area. She is currently participating in the Jerome Robbins tribute at the iconic FROM THE HORSES MOUTH (FTHM) in which I performed two years ago. Jerome Robbins was the award winning choreographer of the brilliant film WEST SIDE STORY in 1961 along with other singular Broadway plays.
The dance world is aflame at the recent RAJYOTSAVA awards by the Government of Karnataka. Kathak dancer Nirupama who was on the selection committee has allegedly recommended her husband Rajendra's family business PRABHAT ARTS INTERNATIONAL for the award. However, the larger issue is that among the 64 awards that were announced there was not a single award given for DANCE! Now that is something that not just Karnataka artistes but an organisation like ABHAI must take up. The awards are for artistes aged 60 and over. You mean the committee could not find a single artiste of merit over 60? I can name at least 7 of them right away! As of this writing, the awards have been challenged in the HIGH COURT by petitioner Mr. Keshavgopal.
This recent episode proves once again that the words DANCE COMMUNITY is anything but. Dancers are not united in genuine causes but are ready to jump into any negative controversy! For further updates on this matter please see our pages on social media.
In Bengaluru, media consulatant Sandhya Mendonca mounts another edition of her ALL WOMEN CREATIVE CONCLAVE. Madhu Nataraj is the curator for the dance component.
As you read this, I will be in the city of Houston readying for my 40th performance of A MILLION SITAS. This show was seen many years ago by award winning dancer and presenter RATHNA KUMAR. For years she has been wanting to invite Sita's story to her city. Finally, we have arrived.
With singer-actor Snigdha Venkataramani and her husband/multi percussionist Arun Kumar, we will re-imagine and resell the epic through the eyes of five women.
Each time I perform this piece, new layers are being discovered. And Snigdha is getting more and more of my lines to speak!
The INSTAGRAM posts have received various responses, some even guardedly cynical from sections of the diaspora who are fixated upon a single idea of who Sita and Rama were.
I have always spoken about THE DANGER OF THE SINGLE STORY.
How will HOUSTON respond?
And San Jose after this?
Rehearsing with US based artistes has opened my eyes to the many challenges faced in their day to day lives. No matter how large a home they live in, the daily grind of dropping kids off to school, picking them up, cooking for the family, grocery shopping, laundry duties consume so much time away from the arts. Having lived in the US for 15 years, I know the conundrum that many women, and some men, have in their daily routines. Kudos to all those who manage to maintain their passion and conviction for dance and music in the midst of marriage, motherhood and domestic Goddesses!
One of the highlights for me will be a tete a tête-à-tête with celebrated author Chitra Bannerjee, whose new book on SITA has become a best seller. Bannerjee's earlier book on Draupadi inspired many dance productions. Like my favourite mystic poet saint ANDAL, SITA too has been waiting for centuries to have her voice heard. And now, She is everywhere. In new writing, modern poetry, contemporary painting and theatre. Will a new generation of women be named after her?
And so it goes. ..
Enjoy the last two months of the year.
Until next time
Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
This month's edition of 'Anita Says' has sparked many reactions (some of them knee-jerk) and opinions on a hot topic for decades… the pay to perform campaign. The effort to even make this a digestible topic to the dance community is noteworthy. But, how did this even start in the first place? Why is no one addressing this issue? Did it start because of nepotistic dance Gurus, trying to promote their kith and kin? Did it only start when 'loaded' NRI dancers were ready to bridge the gap of their geographical dislocation through 'buying' performances?
A performance always begins by 'applying' to a Sabha. Now, which Sabha in Chennai or for that matter in India actually has a clear cut application form that needs to be filled out? None! How does one apply for a performance? Through contacts, stalking the sabha secretaries, making overseas phone calls, being snubbed by rude staff or even through self-proclaimed dance connoisseurs, who take more money to do the running around, simply because they 'empathise with your situation'. Some have even made it their business, to show 'compassion' towards these lost dancers, lure them into paying money for a sabha slot or sometimes even a 'rarest of the rare Tanjore Quartret Varnam' or 'the original lyrics of this and that Varnam'. Dancers genuinely believe this is authentic, exotic and irrefutable.
What about the already established dancers-turned organizers, who unabashedly take money for a performance slot in their dance festivals? The same ones who pretend that they have never ever paid for a performance????? How is it that even the rich and elite, even those of a royal heritage do not hesitate to quote the prices for each slot in their 'esteemed' festivals???
What happens to dancers who do not want to pay? They simply do not get any opportunities. Does anyone care? Absolutely not. It is kind of a given, that in today's scenario, talent does not play any role. Why cannot the organizers make it open to public that yes, they need funding, and yes, dancers need to pay to help them conduct a festival. But, make the process of selection and application non-discriminatory and crystal clear, without under the table dealings, nepotism, etc. Not to mention the innumerable instances where dancers are asked to 'pay in kind' or send their 'workout pictures' at questionable times of the day or night(!!!)
Let us face it. This is not going to change. At least not in the near future. Therefore, instead of this cat and mouse chase, let us focus on the upcoming season. Let us try and be compassionate, watch performances non- judgmentally, give the right critique, save the negative criticism. Most importantly be human.
- Anonymous (Nov 15, 2019)
"Rehearsing with US based artistes has opened my eyes to the many challenges faced in their day to day lives. No matter how large a home they live in, the daily grind of dropping kids off to school, picking them up, cooking for the family, grocery shopping, laundry duties consume so much time away from the arts. Having lived in the US for 15 years, I know the conundrum that many women, and some men, have in their daily routines. Kudos to all those who manage to maintain their passion and conviction for dance and music in the midst of marriage, motherhood and domestic Goddesses!"
- Radica Giri (Nov 7, 2019)
I wish to give a CLARIFICATION since there seems to be some misinformation and distortion of facts, which has unfortunately been used as the basis for writing the articles that appeared in various fora in social media, including Narthaki.
To start with, Prabhath Arts International is not owned by Rajendra. It is an independent organization and neither Rajendra nor I are in any administrative or artistic capacity there. Rajendra and I have our own dance school, Abhinava Dance Company, which we have been running for twenty-five years.
I was a member of an eighteen-member suggestion panel for the 2019 Rajyotsava Awards given by the Government of Karnataka. This panel is different from the Selection Committee, which is headed by the Chief Minister of the State.
The task assigned to the members of the suggestion panel was to offer suggestions to the Ministry of Culture. This panel consisted of many people from diverse fields and each of whom suggested ten to twelve names for the award. I suggested the name of several persons from both Dance and Music field. Along with the Kannada and Culture minister, we worked for several days to go through all the nominations. From close to 2000 nominations, we shortlisted 128 names, out of which the government has awarded 64 people. While some of the names suggested by me were considered, many names of dancers suggested by me were not finalized for the award by the selection committee, in which I had no role to play.
After the awards were announced on Monday – i.e. 28th October – I , in excitement sent out messages of congratulation to various people and of the said congratulatory messages, I made a private video to wish Prabhath Art International and sent it to the Prabhath family whats app group which has around 100 people. I have said that 5 out of all the names I had suggested had received the awards. This video has been used for a smear campaign against me by people having vested interest. A lot of misinformation has been spread about me and even many dancers are being misled.
This being the case, I'm writing this to set the record straight to reveal the TRUTH. Kindly realise the fact that being a member of the suggestion committee, I am not supposed to reveal the names suggested by me. However, all I can say is that I did suggest the names of several dancers, especially senior dance artists whose names were not finalized by govt, which was out of my control. I hope other dance artists realise this and not impute baseless allegations against me.
Nirupama Rajendra (Nov 2, 2019)
This is in response to the #payforarts. There is a big movement on watsapp against paynperform.
But what about nopaymentnoperformance. Nobody is talking about that. I feel the dance community is intellectually challenged lot! If supply is greater than demand, such practices will continue and there is nothing wrong with that because, legally speaking there is no act of coercion involved.
Just like in the film industry where the actors are propositioned to sleep with the producer / director / casting agent and the actor has the choice to say no, similarly the dancer is not forced to pay; s/he has the choice to look for other opportunities. But the question is, can dancers save themselves the "temptation" of not getting seen on the stage while there is another replacement ready to paynperform.
Conclusion-- Sussane K Langer called Dance an illusory medium. I say dancers live in an illusory world. SAB MAYA HAI!!!
- Anonymous (Nov 1, 2019)
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