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October 1, 2011

The leaves are changing colour on the East Coast of the USA and Houston, Texas is warm like "namba Chennai." At a dance conference organized by Rathna Kumar's Samskriti Foundation titled INDIAN DANCE IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT, I spoke about the adventure I have enjoyed through the creation, incubation and development of In a talk titled DANCE DISCUSSIONS IN THE (IN)VISIBLE DIGITAL AGE, the talk traversed the personal and the professional over the past 21 years of my artistic life. Also present were diva Leela Samson, India's most important cultural czarina, holding more portfolios than PM Manmohan Singh and still dancing and speaking effortlessly. Uttara Asha Coorlawala, the thoughtful and ever optimistic dance advocate and many more friends and colleagues from North America.

Having participated and organised conferences and festivals myself, I am always intrigued as to what these convergences actually mean and deliver after all the shouting and applause has died down. Grant applications have been filled, photos taken like wedding celebrations, wine and cheese consumed, laughter enjoyed and gossip shared. Do we actually archive, record and document the discussions and deliberations? Can we make excerpts available in the public domain through social networks and You Tube? Don't we, as the senior legacy holders for the next generation, have a duty to share our knowledge from these far off destinations to the dance world at large?

These nagging questions continue to loom larger than ever. Having just spent four wonderful days in London, UK, en route to the US and having met with the "DIVA DONAS" (feminine of the word DON) of the South Asian dance world, there is a greater urgency to acknowledge and embrace the web and technology more than ever. My mind rewinds back to the curt comment by an Indian culture bureaucrat in 1990 who brushed me off when I requested information of all the national dance awardees for the very first print edition of NARTHAKI. "Please don't worry about it Anita-ji," he told me, smiling condescendingly. "We are bringing out a directory in the next six months."

That publication is yet to happen and is a proud teenager! The first print edition of the iconic directory emerged in 1992, the second print edition in 1997 and the online format from 2000. Which brings me to the conclusion that however much one leans on the state for support, grants, monies, subsidies and what not, entrepreneurship does not wait for anyone. One senses the moment, seizes it and goes with the gut instinct. I have received more praise and brickbats for the creation of this web portal. Dance gurus have shouted at me for printing contact information of their prized students, hackers have tried to take down the site more than once, advertisers have questioned the value of supporting the venture and the Indian government still officially does not recognize the internet as a legitimate vehicle of publishing!

And so the story continues… with all its bumps and hiccups... has witnessed a sea change in the exciting and controversial world of Indian dance and will, hopefully continue to bring you a slice of this eternally fascinating part of our lives to your desktops daily.

However much we love our world of Indian dance, we cannot ignore the official stance that has tilted strongly towards branding, marketing and image making. Once, the buzzwords of governments were INNOVATION and MULTICULTURAL DIVERSITY. Now, the word being embraced is EXCELLENCE… and that means that classical arts are holding a sway with corporates, government and the affluent public. Temples, churches, schools and classical arts seem to be the path of charity. Veering away from the new and fresh to the tried and tested.

In the meantime, Bollywood has come to signify all that is modern and new about India. It is film stars who head up panels on culture, not dancers, and it is cinema that now represents Indian "culture" in all its many avatars. There is no place for dancers in most public fora where politicians, cricketers and fashionistas regularly hold forth. And it is Bollywood that now represents contemporary Indian dance. So for those crafting original work from a blank slate, they will continue to slave away in silent corners, making their own connections and continuing to keep the faith no matter what the current 'mantra' is.

What is being totally ignored by the state and the cultural elite is the enormous hunger for new movement and experimentation. A coming together and genuine curiosity of the young to collaborate and create small but provocative works. It is THIS world that is really exciting. Young dancers are working harder, getting fitter, reading more, communicating better and are far more tech savvy than the classical generation. It is this movement of new dance that is being largely ignored by the mainstream community in India but has been embraced by theatre professionals as a way to train actors. The younger generation is not encumbered with the baggage of tradition, classicism and ancient histories. They live in and are concerned with the here and now. Yes, it may also mean that all conversations are reduced to the tweet or the Facebook update but there is an exhilarating irreverence with the young. I have committed to work with them in all my collaborations and discussions. They make me think again and again, without reservations. Never mind that I have become the proverbial AKKA or AMMA or JI to them.
If American choreographer Twyla Tharp could approach Harvard University and offer her experience and knowledge to ANY DEPARTMENT in their campus - from science to humanities - to help them solve problems or think in an innovative way, perhaps she has the answer to what the true potency of dance offers. We dancers are phenomenal beings. Our bodies as text and sites of history contain enormous reserves of knowledge - where science and art meet. It is for US to recognize and celebrate this convergence rather than worry about the next gig and the favourable review.

We have to UP our self esteem, shift our prisms and recognize our potential. And listen to the younger generation without condescension or contempt. I remember what I was told 21 years ago in New Delhi. Today, my 25 year old daughter can tell the same official, “Don't worry sir, mission accomplished.”

As I tell Narthaki's story this month to listeners in the USA and elsewhere, I want to thank you all again for the love, support and continuous encouragement for this little dream of mine. Now it is all yours!

With best wishes for a joyous Navaratri season and a fantastic Diwali!
May the Goddess embrace you with her energies and send you the best vibrations ever for a fantastic holiday season!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Houston, New York, Chennai

Twitter: @aratnam
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