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October 1, 2013

"Only he who loves the world as his own body should be entrusted with the empire"

- Lao Tzu

September is gone and the festival season floats above us like clouds emitting a heavy mist laden with colour and the promise of another hedonistic season of buying, feasting and celebration. This is certainly my favourite time of year the streets of historic Mylapore are choc-a-bloc with dolls and trinkets ready to brighten your mantel or the specially created theatre setting for the annual Navaratri Kollu Doll Festival. I walked the streets around the Kapali temple and engaged in heated bargaining for images of my favourite Andal, Durga and Krishna. Every year, the statues are less delicately made and more expensive. The perennial best sellers are the Fabulous Four Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. While I wear my oldest pair of chappals and my faded salwars to navigate these dirty streets, my mind is simultaneously wandering into the air conditioned comfort of the nearby sari stores for my annual Diwali purchase. As if I, or many of the women out there, actually NEED another sari!

I spent a good part of September at various clinics and medical centres undergoing my annual alphabet soup of tests. By the time I completed them all including the new method of analysis through the saliva it was more than five full days of my time taken away from my life! No wonder we dancers don't submit to these annual routines regularly. It takes away from the demands of rehearsal, travel, home, family and other responsibilities that are constantly tugging at our pallus. With our bodies being our "voices" it is imperative that we take the time to discover how our bodies are adjusting to ageing, performing, travelling and to LIFE! More and more dancers I meet have issues with lower backs, knees, shoulders combined with digestive and sleep issues. As boring and unglamorous as it may sound, unless we THINK of ourselves as dancers throughout our lives, we can never really focus on GETTING HEALTHY and STAYING that way. In this connection I must commend Bijayini, Surupa, Malavika, Valli, Rama and other dancers who maintain themselves so well and are sterling examples of fitness. Just look at Malavika and Valli. Both in their fifties, they are the Platinum standard for global excellence in classical dance for more than 35 years. Everywhere I travel in Europe, it is their names that are recalled. And male dancers in particular cite Malavika as their only example of how an IDEAL DANCER should move. While there are newer names beating at the door of stardom, these two Bharatanatyam divas have held the flag high with their undisputed commitment to their art. Bravo.

Valli and Malavika continue to create spaces through which they can communicate. In Bombay, a new DVD by Malavika was released and will have a national tour in the coming months. Titled THE UNSEEN SEQUENCE, it speaks of the history of classical dance as well as some dance segments filmed specifically for this version. Valli presented her second major collaboration after VIGIL with Bombay based poet and writer Arundhathi Subramaniam. TELL ME HOW CAN I REACH YOU was on the poetry of Annamacharya, the 15th century saint composer of 'sankirtanas' addressed to Tirupati Balaji. The lyrics are drenched in the sweet surrender of pure love and adoration and for many decades, singers and dancers have reached out to Annamaiyya (as he is popularly known) for sure fire crowd pleasing tunes and emotions. Despite the awkward title, the house full crowd seemed to enjoy the evening although less talk by Valli and more dancing would have helped the pacing of poetry and movement. We now await her biography being written by Arundhati.

Classical music, dance and fashion collaborations are the sign of the times. Singer Bombay Jayashree joined hands with fashion guru Sabyasachi Mukherjee for an opulent Chennai A-lister event. This month, it is the turn of singer TM Krishna and dancer Priyadarsini Govind. Both inspire cultish crowds that will fill halls, though I have yet to see a musician and a dancer truly SHARE ideas and truly explore each other's disciplines. The Leela Samson / Bombay Jayashree duet was interesting in sections since both artistes shared a similar quiet energy. With TMK and Govind it will be their joint flamboyance which will be on display. Most star dancers of today are not musical and cannot sing a note in tune which eventually shows up on stage. After seeing some really cringe-worthy events with dancers attempting feebly to keep up with percussionists and foreign choreographers, I am yet to see a dancer given the dignity that is deserved for this art form. Also, the increasing number of these high profile events is bringing more attention to the individuals rather than the form. Audiences say they are going to attend a TM Krishna concert or a Valli performance and not a Carnatic music concert or a Bharatanatyam performance. I say "at least they are going!"

In the cattle market that has come to represent the national mania for Literary festivals, the Bangalore Literary Festival was refreshingly different. Perhaps the venue being so distant from the city centre and the outdoor venue could have deterred mindless P3Ps and welcomed the truly interested. Over three unusually warm days, a galaxy of writers and film stars descended upon this once quiet and elegant town to discuss and debate the importance of the written and spoken word. Huge crowds thronged to hear actor Farhan Akhtar and the team of the hit Bollywood film BHAAG MILKHA BHAAG where the screenplay and creative licences were talked about. Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar swooped in with his adoring retinue to state that he does not read books but READS PEOPLE AND RIGHTS (WRITES) PERSONALITIES! In the midst of Pau Bhaji, steaming coffee, chocolate topped waffles and lemonade, dancer Maddhu Nataraj led a wonderful panel on "Archiving the Performing Arts." The participating speakers were dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan whose books on classical dance and recent column on this portal AS SEEN AND HEARD have attracted a growing readership. Vikram Sampath shared how his own passion for music led him to record and archive the "voices" of musicians and how important ACCESSIBILITY of his efforts was for today's global rasika. Theatre and film were also represented by Anjum Katyal and Nasreen Munni Kabir who echoed the crucial call of the hour to document, record and notate not just the final product of performance and concert or film and play but also the green room, process, rehearsals, doubts and all the doodles, squiggles and sketches that culminate towards the final moment. In a society where the word MUSEUM elicits yawns even from the Government, it was remarkable that none of the speakers chose to complain or whine about the state of apathy in India towards archiving. Instead, the lively and intelligent tone of the panel made for compelling listening.

I was able to watch the final run-throughs of Aditi Mangaldas' ambitious production WITHIN. Years of preparation and working with dramaturg Morag Deyes from Edinburgh, Aditi was able to invite the design team from Akram Khan's company to launch her new work. WITHIN contained two 40 minute segments. The first was KNOTTED and was inspired by the horrific rape incident of Nirbhaya in New Delhi last December and the continuing violence against women in India. This dark and ominous work was offset by fantastic sets that resembled Miyake/Han Feng pleats and crunchy fabric spliced with neon lighting. Aditi's two solos were major departures from her normal scintillating Kathak chakkars and twirls but her dancers do not have the necessary internalisation yet to fully realise this concept. Watching alongside me was Aditi's family who were quite shaken by the first segment and visibly relaxed and smiled through the second traditional Kathak section. How comfortable and safe the familiar is to us! How content we feel when we see and experience the known!

The good news for Aditi is that all 3 days of the ticketed programme were almost sold out with a large number of dancers and Delhi's elite attending. I wait to watch WITHIN again after its 10 city international tour for the next 6 months. Aditi flew immediately to the Kennedy Centre for the UTSAV festival and will be in Brussels for the opening of EUROPALIA early this month. Looking gaunt and tired, this 50 something dynamo has a lot of dancing years ahead of her.

My less than euphoric responses to Aditi's magnum opus could be because I had just returned from watching Alain Platel's new dance opera C(H)OEURS in Brussels. Using the classical music of composers Wagner and Verdi, this imaginative choreographer, director and set designer set out to examine the polarity between the mob and the individual. An 82 member choir from the Teatro Madrid sang, acted and moved like a chilling mob. Can an individual exist in today's culture was the overarching question of C(H)OEURS. Wagner was Hitler's favourite composer and is banned in Israel even today. For one of the dancers who hails from Tel Aviv, it was a cathartic experience to hear the music that marched his ancestors to the gas chambers. The international cast of dancers who represented the individual were from 10 countries among them Serge Aime, husband of Bharatanatyam dancer Kalpana Raghuraman. They were so superb and searingly honest that it moved me to tears with the choric voices rising in ominous unison and the dancers quivering, trembling and attempting to disrobe while caught in the spotlight. Perhaps the powerful images robbed me somewhat of a fresh way of watching Aditi's performance of WITHIN. Was it Picasso who said, "We see today with the eyes of yesterday!" While we value beauty and prettiness in our arts, questions like violence, brutality and disease seem to require much more than great sets, lighting design and wonderful dancing. Taking nothing away from Aditi, it is perhaps I who has changed by wanting more.

In Chennai, I had the opportunity to revisit a favourite production of mine called NEELAM -drowning in bliss. Created in 2007, this ode to South Indian Vaishnavite temple traditions was invited to be a part of a month long celebration of Kuchupidi dancer Sailaja's festival called Nritya Sangama. This year it was about CELEBRATING BHARATANATYAM and my NEELAM was a most appropriate choice. Condensing a 75 minute work into 45 minutes is not difficult after one has performed the original work several times. Layers emerge and the strong moments stand out. Frills are discarded and the core remains. Restaging this version with stage props and no costume changes with newly edited music was as enjoyable as it was performing to a house full Mylapore audience. For the first time in a long while, I felt totally calm and centred. I was not distracted by a costume flub where a piece of tape stuck to the edge of my skirt and fell off or by a crying baby (theatre manners, peoples!!). The audience also was with me silent, sharing my surrender and joy.

The very next day I received a call saying that I had been selected as the FACE OF CHENNAI to receive a glamorous watch from Raymond Weill. How wonderful was the moment! Thank you Madras for embracing me and giving me the freedom and the space to be myself! I now have a smart silver toned watch that goes everywhere I go!

I have to comment on organisers who spend so much money on publicity, hoardings, posters on buses but who do not pay attention to lighting requirements of dancers. Granted, not many dancers pay attention to lights as an important visual component but that does not mean that a major festival has no budget for extra lights? Also, why not give something simple and from craft traditions as gifts? And the reading out of those interminable bios! That has to stop immediately. It is plain torturous.

At the festival, I noticed the large hoardings of a new website. While we welcome all initiatives to the web world and dance deserves many avenues of intelligent discussion, I was perturbed by this website that has plagiarised most of its information from mainstream media (some with credit, some aspects without). Perhaps this is also part of the upstart culture that is infecting our young. Do your own homework and stop stealing/copying!

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium is said to be under a major renovation but my experience last month was hardly different from past years. The fluorescent lights in the green room are still flickering, the mirrors are dirty, some seats are broken and the wings and backstage still a mess. We wait for the dynamic L Sabaretnam, the new chairman of the Bhavan, to set many things right with this historic and sweet venue for solo dance.

In contrast, New Delhi's Chinmaya auditorium is such a pleasant space, simple, unpretentious and calm. So conducive to solo dancing or any serious or internalised work. A few days ago, dancer Jyotsna Shourie organised a three day classical festival which featured Mythili Prakash on the final day (Boy, this kid really gets around! LA one day, DC the next and now Dilli!) A surprise chief guest was NAMO. For those who don't know him, he is none other than Narendra Modi - the BJP candidate for India's Prime Minister. Taking the microphone, Modi stunned the audience with his knowledge of classical arts, the various styles and Bharatanatyam's place in the reinvention of modern dance history. Critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh shared her amazement with his erudition and eloquence. Coming at a time when politics and the national mood in India are so anti government, it seems like a sliver of sunlight.

Chennai celebrated 100 years of Tamil cinema with our Chief Minister, former film star J Jayalalitha as chief guest. Tamil cinema has played such a pivotal role in shaping the early careers of gurus like Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Muthuswamy Pillai, Dandayudapani Pillai and others. It was Ramaiah Pillai who was credited as the first CHOREOGRAPHER in Indian cinema. I would like to send out a request for a readers list of the top ten Tamil films on dance. TILLANA MOHANAMBAL will be on the top of the list and so will VANJIKOTTAI VALIBAN. There are others in which Kumari Kamala displayed her explosive talent on the screen. Send in your favourites.

As Indian cities experience a building explosion like never before and gated communities emerge all over with schools, hospitals, restaurants, movie theatres and malls, the question should be: "Where are the performing spaces for music and dance?" If more and more families are choosing to live in these cloistered communities, then the arts should also be available to them within touching distance and not merely through TV or DVDs. Live streaming is already one way of dissemination globally but it would be wonderful to actually be in the presence of dancers, musicians and actors for the true experience of RASA without reaching for a remote gadget.

There is an emerging phenomenon in cities. 30 something women are gathering to learn classical dance - holding on to a childhood passion that was never realised in time. After motherhood and having cracked the never ending "mom-chauffeur" mantle, they are finding the time to learn Bharatanatyam and Kathak and other classical forms. Dancer Indira Kadambi writes with delight on Facebook about her experience of teaching some of these enthusiastic women. There is a dancer within all of us. Let her out.

Happy Navaratri, Dussera and the joyous Raas Garba whirls to you all around the world.

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai / Mumbai / Bhubaneswar

Twitter: @aratnam
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Blog: THE A LIST /

PS: We wait with bated breath for the BESSIE AWARD announcements from New York city where Rajika Puri is one of the presenters and where two of our own, Hari Krishnan and Shantala Shivalingappa have been nominated for performances. Fingers crossed for Indian dance!

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