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October 1, 2014

There is an eerie unease in my home state. The events of the last few days of September have been so contrasting in timbre that we have been left holding our breath, afraid to exhale.

My Chief Minister has been incarcerated, violence erupted on the streets of Tamilnadu and Indian Americans thronged New York streets as my Prime Minister addressed the world from the United Nations, Central Park and Madison Square Garden. Against the tragedy of floods in Kashmir and Assam, the heroic rescue attempts by the Indian armed forces, the chest pumping pride of ISRO scientists sending the Mangalyaan orbiter to Mars was juxtaposed women wailing, beating their chests, men immolating themselves and rolling on the streets of Tamilnadu, weeping for their jailed “Amma”. Pure theatre in a 360 degree surround sound atmosphere.

So forget the auditoriums and theatres where the “real” stuff is supposed to happen. On street corners, apartment clusters, sports stadiums and playgrounds, hundreds upon thousands were either glued to their TV sets to watch the political drama being played out or congregated in hordes to clap hands, strike sticks, sing, cheer, swirl and twirl to the familiar sounds of music and rhythm. The streets were awash in Tamilnadu with a mixture of rage and rapture. Elsewhere there was a surge of colour and energy, the bylanes of Goddess temples throbbed with song and conch, estrogen surged and smiles stretched beyond shoulders to the Indian coastlines and beyond.

This is really a joyous time to be in India or anywhere close to the IDEA of India across this globe. New clothes, more jewellery, a visit to your guru for new beginnings of learning; endless bonhomie, entertaining, overeating, sugar highs, upset stomachs and happy hearts. Of course, performances of dance and music are amplified during this season, artistes concentrating on the devotional and traditional repertoire rather than experimentation.

I was in the midst of a giant wedding last month, where I was able to watch, up close, the many dancers and musicians who were invited to perform amidst the emerald chandeliers, French patisserie chefs and Korean gourmet concoctions. Russian ballet did a pas de deux with Carnatic music, chamber orchestras played toe to toe with beat boxing hip hop dancers and Bharatanatyam groups... it was delicious madness and a chance to see how the Indian classical performers matched up to the casual ease with which the “others” blended into glitzy hotel ballrooms and giant shamiana/pandals. Indian divas had mini and maxi tantrums, demanding attention from young harassed volunteers, photographers and wedding decorators threw their weight everywhere, demanding that senior relatives MOVE so they could get a better shot of the wedding couple. It was pure theatre at every moment and a signal that perhaps our classical arts are not meant for these mega weddings of today. Well known names were distinctly off key to a distracted crowd thronging towards the food pavilions. The Kalakshetra ensemble and the all woman veena group from Bangalore were listed to perform after one such high profile wedding. When I saw the VIPs rush towards the food pandals, there may have been a handful only to watch the scheduled performances. So why should renowned artistes accept these invitations? Money? Prestige? Gone are the days when the greats performed at wedding receptions and private events to an attentive and appreciative crowd of guests. MS Subbalakshmi, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and DK Pattammal among others were frequently heard at these family occasions. Dancer Padma Subrahmanyam premiered her iconic ‘Krishnaya Tubhyam Namaha’ at a wedding reception in 1974, while yours truly had her arangetram at a similar evening (My uncle’s reception at the now defunct Abbotsbury Hall, Chennai).

Here I share that moment in 1964 where I emerged in my full evening performance under the tutelage of Guru Rajee Narayan. Fifty years gone already?

With the enormous success of the Indian American community in the US and having made significant progress in the political and financial sectors as well, our arts scenario still manages to create cringe worthy moments. The highly touted “cultural programme” at Madison Square Garden to honour PM Modi was awash with clichéd dancing, bad coordination and disappointing choreography. Sure, the euphoria was palpable but why, oh why were the acclaimed musicians L Subramaniam and Kavitha Krishnamurthy so off key and out of sync? The embarrassing act was salvaged by the sole American who painted a stunning portrait of Narendra Modi in 5 minutes flat while Ambi Subramaniam tore his violin strings with his furious strokes. For a visit that has taken 3 months to plan with thousands of volunteers and more than a million dollars of private resources tapped, the woeful lack of attention paid to the actual performances was truly surprising. At least we should have been treated to a spectacular garba-raas! Not this!

Who should dancers choose as their spouses? Corporates with deep pockets, fellow artistes who will share the feast and famine of a creative life, technocrats or politicians with influence? The new superstars are the GYAN GURUS like Isha Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, whose lovely daughter Bharatanatyam dancer Radhe, married Carnatic vocalist Sandeep Narayan of Los Angeles. This is a wonderful match for the young couple who can parlay Sadguru’s global celebrity status into more opportunities for their combined talents. Will they now be seen and heard amidst the super powerful elite who meet at Aspen, Davos and La Jolla? Let’s wait and watch.

Dancers - stop practising those tribhangs, chakkars and araimandis. Step aside and return to the wings. The spotlight is turned on... ARNIE... Yes. ARNIE The one and only cheating spouse and former Governor of California, muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger descended upon Namba Chennai a few hours before I landed back home. The immigration counters were empty and tired travellers waited impatiently. There was a buzz among all the staff exchanging their hand held phones to compare photos taken with Arnie! It was both comical and irritating. Passports were stamped in record time as staff were talking to themselves across the floor about what Arnie said or how he looked! The power of cinema and celebrity. The seductive addiction of the spotlight. And the tragedy of darkness and silence. Is that what drove the brilliant actors Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman to take their own lives? What pushed the magnificent dancer Ranjabati Sircar to end hers? What are the demons that propel our greats to snuff out their combustible genius that ignites the world? I remember distinctly the moment of hearing about Ranjabati’s passing. It was October 24, 1999. It was the conclusion of my performance of DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN at the Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I was seated at the lip of the stage greeting my friends when a friend informed me in a hushed whisper. The previous week, Chennai painter Asma Menon, a close friend of Ranjabati, spoke about her deepening depressive state of mind. Finally, it was the gruesome manner of her death that left many shocked. Hanging from a ceiling fan! She was only 36 years old. On the 15th anniversary of her tragic passing, we remember Ranjabati as the phenomenal talent she was - stunning, gifted and ferociously intelligent. We bring you a collection of articles and images from her brief and significant life. Ranja, we miss you!

Classicism, post-classicism and Ranjabati Sircar’s work: re-defining the terms of Indian contemporary dance discourses by Alessandra Lopez y Royo

Death of a dancer

Over one weekend, I managed to watch three dance performances and two theatre productions in Chennai. On retrospect, I was irritated with the over “cleverness” that Bharatanatyam is trying to be. Over choreography, excessive mathematics in ‘jathis’ and over thinking themes that are crying out for simplicity and clear narratives. Why would dancers want to force ecological concerns and demand that we agree with childish statements that Krishna was a champion of the environment because he lifted a mountain or defeated a poisonous snake! Really?? And what’s with male Bharatanatyam dancers who cannot decide about why they are wearing a vest? Is it to hide a paunch? Their man boobs? To camouflage their androgyne? Sleeveless vests or with choli sleeves? And what's with those messy ringlets and uncombed hair? A neat gelled hair style is less distracting. I remember a super fit Parshwanath Upadhye who revealed his six pack abs during the December PURUSH festival – a welcome contrast to rounded and flabby bellies we have become used to even from the best male dancers.

The theatre shows, in contrast, were powerful in execution and convincing in ensemble presentations. ‘Kattiyakaran’ and ‘Miss Meena’ had full house audiences riveted over an entire weekend. Taut direction and excellent acting, movement and singing made the role of a good director vividly evident. Prasanna Ramaswamy and Rajiv Krishnan’s respective plays were heartening examples that contemporary theatre is alive and well in Tamilnadu. These plays are booked for many shows, often with week long runs, and tickets sell out quickly. In contrast, most dance performances are not ticketed in India. Aditi Mangaldas moans that her expensive and stunning WITHIN has only had 6 bookings since its premiere over a year ago. The going is really tough for dance, which is facing a decline in bookings, constructive critique, audiences and mainstream listings. Critic / scholar Sunil Kothari manages to be "sarva vyapi"- omnipresent in many continents at once! His energy is unstoppable!

I was delighted to receive the latest issue of PULSE from the UK which had a cover story on the role of Dance Producers. In India, we are still confused with the role of a full time producer. It is not a dancer doubling up as manager, PR agent, dresser, fund raiser and all round Jeeves. The article speaks to three successful producers and examines how they have managed to position their clients – Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi and Aakash Odedra – OUTSIDE the South Asian dance community in the UK. Larbi is not South Asian but his producer Kartika Nair is from Kerala. Producer Anand Bhatt who manages Aakash says,”You don’t serve the artist, but the artist’s work.” He continues by saying, “I did not know anything about contemporary dance when I started but I have found it very embracing, very open to influences by other genres and able to evolve organically.” Bhatt also cited “the South Asian dance sector is more financially limited.” Limited not just financially perhaps but also in the imagination? Do we, as a community limit the true growth of the dance art with unnecessary overload of cultural baggage and the weight of history? Do we resist giving the form a true independence from the loaded words, ‘Tradition’, ‘Truth’, ‘Beauty’ and ‘Divinity’?

A cause for concern today is the paucity of archival material in the contemporary Indian dance scene. With a virtual tsunami of mediocre classical dance DVDs and endless live streaming available for dancers and gurus the world over, the same attention and value has not been placed on recording India’s contemporary dance works. Keeping it stunted is the oft chanted mantra - “contemporary dance is so new, it has to yet develop.” Resources and efforts must concentrate on creating enough source material for students, emerging practitioners and policy makers.

MAKE IN INDIA is Modi’s mantra to the US corporations but do his spin doctors realise that the performing arts - MADE IN INDIA - are ready like low hanging fruit to be plucked and presented to the world for their glowing maturity. It has been through dance and music that the diaspora in the US has been closely connected to India for 50 years already. Dance, like other areas in India, is now crying out for major infrastructure investment. This is a win-win scenario that can create jobs, improve health, foster peace and inspire confidence. The sad truth, however, is that the arts will be hitched to the tourism wagon and probably relegated to its customary position at the bottom of the arts totem pole, with policies, funding and new appointments delayed with an irritating slowness.

News from the USA brings cheer about the success of Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli’s recent performances. Birju Maharaj has stolen the show at Kennedy Centre, charming audiences again and again with his amazing creativity! The MEGHADOOTAM group have returned from their 20 city tour of the US in high spirits and good reviews, with many dancers experiencing the hectic schedule for the first time. In the UK, the lovely dancer/choreographer Mayuri Boonham of ATMA continues to gain acclaim with her new work EX NIHILO. Aakash Odedra’s new double bill MURMER / INKED has several bookings through 2015. Intellectual choreographic icon Shobana Jeyasingh offers her latest TERRA INCOGNITA for Sadlers Wells next month. In India, there are several new projects by senior and emerging dancers but an annual touring calendar for the same work seems a pipe dream for now. More than ever, we need the development of a National Performance Network that can help present dance and dance-theatre work.

The shocking demise of musical prodigy Mandolin U Srinivas virtually paralysed the Indian music community. Except in his home town of Chennai. In a glaring expose of the self centred Carnatic music fraternity/sorority, their absence at the final rites was shocking. Instead, standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with pianist Anil Srinivasan (as sole local representative) were Ranjit Barot and many from the film music circles. They had cancelled all concerts and engagements to bear witness at the untimely passing of their gifted colleague. Ironically, Srinivas had helped many Chennai sabhas and organisations with free fund raising and sold out shows during his brilliant life. His home town colleagues were busy calling his friends for personal anecdotes to spout media sound bites and claiming “close friendship” with this amazing and self effacing human being. Enough said!

This is the beginning of yet another season of new premieres, amazing inventiveness and extraordinary performances. We move into our cardigans and shawls (not in Chennai!), bring out our silks and linen and prepare to be enthralled, mesmerised and enchanted. To all those who are working at making a mark, wishing to be noticed, critiqued, praised and commented upon - Good luck! When you get stuck at a creative crossroad, extreme measures are sometimes needed. Heed then the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell. “CUT OFF THE HEAD!” Let go of something important like Perseus’ slicing of Gorgon Medusa’s head so that from the gaping hole, a fresh idea can be born anew – like Pegasus, the winged horse and Chrysaor the Golden Sword. Seize the moment to clarify the muddle and to cut through the that frequently surrounds the dance arts!

The world of dance has never been more precariously poised. Let us tend to it like a constant gardener!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Kochi/ London/ New Delhi

Twitter: @aratnam
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Blog: THE A LIST /

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