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October 1, 2016

- American President Harry Truman

As war clouds collect across our national borders, the festival season has also descended.
It is a surreal time. Streets and shops are filled to bursting with merchandise and buyers are everywhere loosening purse strings.
Armed guards stand vigilant at all public monuments and temples.
Airports and train stations have doubled security personnel as men and women in brightly festive clothes stream onto the streets.
The immediate future looks filled with storm clouds waiting to burst.


At this seeming crossroads, I notice that some words associated with violence have become signs of success and achievement.
She KILLED the Varnam!
He CRUSHED that Tillana!
They simply SLAYED that Jathi!

With the growing aggression in life around us, it seems only fitting that the world of dance has started using these terms instead of the former EPIC, ROCKING, AWESOME!
They all mean the same thing.
That the performance was EXCELLENT!

And so let me "SOLDIER ON" with thoughts and reflections on the month gone by...

Why is Bharatanatyam not being favoured any more by the Government officials for cultural export? For more than 5 decades this was the first choice of every national leader when India’s “soft skills” were on display. Presidents and kings were feted with a dazzling display of Bharatanatyam’s splendor. It was always a BN solo or a group presentation in Delhi and overseas when our leaders went on tour. It was also Bharatanatyam that became the symbol on tourism posters next to temple spires. Now, the South Indian classical style that inspired many other Indian dance traditions finds itself shut out of the national selection process. It is perhaps due to an overload. Too many BN dancers in every nook and cranny of this globe. Too many teachers, too many amateur shows. “BN is coming out of my every aperture. Tell me about dancers in other styles,” exclaimed a New York presenter.

And so, it is the era of Kathak and Odissi. In fact, Kathak has taken over the world stage and, as I have said in this column previously, has become THE SIGNIFIER for Indian classical dance. Followed very closely by Odissi, whose music traditions have played a huge part in the popularity of the style.

Speaking of Kathak, the London arangetram of emerging star Vidya Shah was a well attended event. As was the full length evening of Marathi items by Swati Raut titled ‘MAY BOLI’ exploring Raut's Maratha heritage. As part of the evening, choreographer Hari Krishan (InDance) had choreographed a Lavani and a Marathi Varnam which had the audiences smiling and tapping their feet. These vintage pieces are not only refreshing to watch from the yawn worthy monotony of cloned BN, but are now becoming a curiosity factor with many dancers who wish to learn these "items" without understanding their origin or purpose. Can Bharatanatyam be re-born by embracing its authentic history and acknowledging these gems that studded the traditional repertoire of great gurus and dancers?

Grandson Aniruddha Knight has begun an ambitious series of solo performances as a presenter. Fresh from his shows at DUKE University’s American Dance Festival and Durban, South Africa, Balasaraswati’s grandson has turned presenter and thrown down the gauntlet to encourage male dancers to perform the full margam in one evening. The Indian Government has woken up one year too late to celebrate the centenary of MS Subbulakshmi as we in Tamilnadu are fed up with the wall to wall overdose of the MS themed evenings. Let’s see when New Delhi realizes that Balasaraswati was one of the most compelling presences to occupy the time of ferment in India’s independence and the reinvention of Sadir/Bharatanatyam.

Bala’s 100th birthday falls on May 8, 2018. Lots to look forward to, especially when Aniruddha Knight is looking far beyond Indian shores for inspiration.

No matter what the official line may be about shunning or neglecting Bharatanatyam, two high profile ensemble productions toured the USA last month. Both were groups based out of Chennai and they were diametrically different in terms of intention and aesthetics - Muralidharan’s NAYAKA/NAYAKI and Chitra Visweswaran’s MEERA. The first drew a modest but enthusiastic audience of youngsters since choreographer Muralidharan had used several USA based dancers in the production. Employing modern metaphors like mobile phones and digital stalking of boys by the new generation of assertive women, the show turned the tables on the traditional boy-chases-girl narrative.

MEERA, with music by Bombay Jayshree was presented by AIM FOR SEVA, the educational wing of the late Swami Dayanand Saraswati. The USA tour drew large audiences, spurred on by the excellent network of dedicated professionals who are all followers of Swamiji. The dollars collected goes into funding the annual budget for educating children in rural India, which makes the dance tours all the more laudable. However, NRI audiences I spoke to felt let down by the “slow pace” of MEERA. I suggested that perhaps what they expected was a higher “entertainment” quotient instead of the quietly internalized journey that choreographer Chitra V had envisioned.  In short, what most diaspora audiences respond to is a strong tilt towards cinematic choreography with a thinly disguised patina of the classical in costuming, familiar movements and catchy music.

Solo dancers who tour the USA in particular, can shout from the rooftops about having great audiences. Barring a few presenters in some cities, most performers are still dancing in high schools and basement spaces to largely diaspora crowds who hold up their mobiles and record the shows without any guilt.  Example: I was invited to be special guest at ISHA Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev’s New Jersey event last month. When film playback singer Chitra landed in the area, I was promptly pushed aside!!!!
The New Jersey Hindu Sabha held a fund raiser for guess who? Donald Trump! Dancing for the occasion was Chennai film star/choreographer Prabhu Deva! Now, will Trump lower taxes on the NRI millionaires if he becomes President or is it because he has openly challenged the open borders policy for Muslims entering the USA! Double standards to the fore!!!


VAMATARA- To the Light, a continuation of the solo presentation created by Malavika saw a return in a new avatar. Re-imagined as a group work, Malavika has used 4 well trained dancers in this second edition. I missed the shows in Bengaluru and New Delhi but was pleased to see the large roster of sponsors and ticket sales being advertised. When money pours into dance, it energises the art. While the jury is out about the result of this group endeavour, it will be interesting to watch how a brilliant and highly internalized solo artiste with a rigorous schedule and long rehearsal hours can push a new generation of dancers with family, kids and other dimensions to their personal lives. Punctuality, rehearsal decorum, being fully present are all aspects that even good dancers don’t seem to understand. Malavika’s new journey of sharing the stage and space with other dancers will be interesting to watch.

Whaaat? Another BN conference? Have we not already seen and heard all that is necessary? Maybe, but dancer-doctor Srinidhi Chidambaram is focused on bringing the spotlight back to her beloved style. Wearing the convenor’s hat for the next two years for Krishna Gana Sabha’s NATYA KALA CONFERENCE (Dec 26 to 30), Srinidhi has designed a five day morning template that seeks to explore and discuss the many issues that affect the teaching, learning, dissemination and reception of Bharatanatyam today.

The challenge Srinidhi will face is how to negotiate between maintaining the status quo of deferring to the seniors on the panel while moving the discourse forward into the present. Mostly dance conferences, especially those circling around classical dance have delivered nothing more than what Donald Trump says - WORD SALAD. Nothing fits but is hung loosely together with bombast, ego and unsubstantiated rhetoric. In this milieu it is difficult for the millennial generation to get enthused or interested in such dialogues which end up being condescending monologues.

One of the most altered dynamics is between teacher and student. One cannot yell at a ‘sishya’ anymore. Political correctness is killing good art but this is just one of the points that could be raised.
Can we discuss the issue of money becoming the main player over good art? Can the curating malaise be let out of the closet? Will anyone rock the boat?
Srinidhi… the stage is yours to curate, cultivate and create!
Good luck!

Meanwhile, watch this video of a Bharathanatyam fusion performance that has gone viral. Talk about 1000 avatars of this one form!

Meanwhile, I chanced upon an old video of Sonal Mansingh in a short Bharatanatyam sequence choreographed by her guru US Krishna Rao. What a wonderful dancer she was in BN! Charismatic and full of personality! Is that what I miss in today’s dancers who are all busy cloning themselves?

Watch and enjoy this clip

Everything is on overdrive. Every product is being designed to be slimmer, sleeker, faster and filled with the latest in technology. The Berlin Tech Expo revealed an astonishing range of new gadgets and the Rio Olympics showed how so many records were smashed as bodies ripped through waters, soared over beams and zipped past the finish line in a blur. So why should dancers also not follow? In the new dizzying world of hyper movement, overloaded choreography and saturated emotions, all nuance, silence and subtlety is lost. But that seems like a retro argument. What sells and works now are speed, athleticism and spectacle and those dancers who can deliver will be in great demand with a full calendar. However, presenters and funders must also be made aware of the variety and range of dance artistes out there who are all not following the herd. Should “bums on seats” be the only barometer of success?

While watching tennis and the recently concluded Rio Olympics, we are also told about the various statistics. The speed of a serve, the angle of the volley, the length or height of the jump, the distance covered by the player, the depth of a stroke - all are revealed through meticulous computer calculations. What if we applied that to dance? Will we be told about the depth of an araimandi, the height of an 'utplavana', the breadth of a sideways leap, the speed of a 'chakkar'  or the angle of a body bend? The distance covered during an evening's performance or the number of times the neck performs the 'attami'! The dancer is also a human machine at work. Like the athlete, he/she "performs" for an audience. The measure is not a medal but the applause and a good review. Dancers cannot get away any more with words like 'spiritual', 'luminous' and 'divine'. Sports has taken over these terms as well. So why not allow for a dancer to be put under the computer system as well? Just a thought. Just a thought. 

This word has become so overused that gurus and independent dancers are confused. What is a mentor and what is a mentee? I have gleaned a whole new set of skills while mentoring the 7 Bangalore based dancers during the PADME project. Begun as an experiment 3 years ago to steer well trained classical dancers towards a 360 degree experience of performance and professionalism, PADME has revealed that today’s young artistes are even more distracted than ever. While earnest, dedicated and surely talented, they are clearly over committed in their personal lives to family and friends and struggle to balance the exhausting demands that professional dance requires.

Unable to break through the maze of snakes and ladders in the dance juggernaut, they clog social media to thump chests and share their latest travels. When I share personal anecdotes during my teenage years and later - in my 30s, 40s and 50s - they often exclaim that they don’t see themselves having the longevity that I and many in my generation have been fortunate to experience. When will they burnout? Will they dash their dreams on the unforgiving rocks of fate and time? The solo opportunity is still considered more prestigious than a high profile ensemble work. Group dynamics, personal egos, attitudes - so much has to be negotiated. But my generation must have hope that these young ones are smart, committed and fiercely focused. What they miss is the big picture. The dance eco system in India does not favor the faint hearted or anyone with slim wallets. While being on stage is the only barometer for success, the gradual expansion of the dance world into so many other areas will have to be acknowledged. But for now, it seems to be only time for MIRROR MIRROR and the stage!


I have often mentioned the democratic and inclusive nature of theatre around the world. The very first gesture is of a director sitting in a circle with the cast and crew discussing the script speaks of a non hierarchical structure has made theatre a more accessible form of live arts when compared to dance. Now, Sanjana Kapoor of PRITHVI THEATRE, Mumbai, discusses SMART-STRATEGIC MANAGEMENT IN THE ART OF THEATRE, India's very first theatre management programme. Created under the umbrella of the INDIA THEATRE FORUM set up by the IFA in Bengaluru, the multiple opportunities it will open up for those individuals who love the arts and want to be closer to it than their 9 to 5 desk jobs. Sanjana also talks about the rebirth of theatre in newer centres like Raipur, Narendrapur, and Goa. Her article in THE WEEK magazine is brimming with hope and excitement from a woman who is, not just a theatre visionary, but also a certified scuba diver.

Perhaps courses like these will clear the blurred lines of what arts management is in the eyes of some dancers. I know that it’s not about guarding purses, fetching juice, nuts and milk during breaks in rehearsal and waiting hand and foot on the diva and her troupe. That is a whole new category of training called DIVA DEVIANCE!

Dance, meanwhile, also has some good news. GATI's IGNITE! festival has a seminar component which will discuss the many aspects of the urban body negotiating today's interconnected world. Torn between the idealism of dance and the harsh realities of urban life in India, the most important question GATI has to reflect upon and which swirls in the minds of many is - Why does contemporary Indian dance need to lean on the cultural imperialism of western contemporary dance? What makes the Cunningham, Limon and Release techniques superior to what is available in India and elsewhere in Asia? And why is only Kathakali and Koodiyattam leaned upon when we are talking DANCE and not NATYA or DANCE THEATRE? Why not the principles of the classical styles like Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Mohiniattam and Manipuri? Or even Kandyan dance that has such dynamic lower body work? Each of these offer varying kinetics, aesthetics and visual/spatial variety… and are closer to our geographical and social conditions.
The five day festival promises much. 

In Bengaluru, NATYA INSTITUTE / NATYA STEM DANCE KAMPNI launches their brilliant choreography and inter disciplinary dance curriculum under the stewardship of co-founder Madhu Nataraj. As envisioned by her late mother Guru Maya Rao, this new course will encourage students from around the world to attend either in person or partly through new media technology. If only I were 20 years younger… there are so many interesting avenues available for young dancers today. I hope I never hear another moan about not being able to PAY AND DANCE IN CHENNAI SABHAS! (I do live in hope, don’t I?)

It is now time for the tsunami of LIT FESTS, seminars and conferences. As Indians love to talk and have sent mobile phone companies into billion dollar businesses, there is a paucity of articulate dancers from within the classical community in particular. Curators are always on the lookout for new panels and subjects to include and one of the most popular choices is TEXT AND TEXTURE. How does poetry, lyrics, story, legend or myth actually get trans-created through movement and choreography? How much can one TALK about the movement process? How can we READ the dance?  Is it adequate to just bring your credentials as an excellent performer to the discussion table? We live in a culture where words privilege non-verbal communication. How many dancers have actually thought about the arc and intention of their work? Over the past 7 years of being a regular in conferences and Lit Fests, I have found very few colleagues in these forums which provide stimulating ideas and  fresh perspectives for choreography and movement.


Good news for the dance community. Instead of those dreadful filmi dance shows that were the favoured "entertainment" in many South Indian weddings, classical and neo classical dance is making a comeback. Kathak and Bharatanatyam groups are being invited on the Mehendi - Sangeet and Engagement occasions. While some of these events do involve alcohol and loud guests, the choice of classical-tinged dance events is encouraging many youngsters to create "wedding and corporate friendly" shows that can also play at malls and shopping centres. Since the payments are generous, it is up to artistic directors of dance companies to create a separate wing for these occasions and use the profit to fund their more "serious" work.


It is also lobbying time. With the nominations and recommendations for the PADMA AWARDS closed, eager candidates are making the rounds of the influential people in the capital to either upgrade their PADMAS or to get one. Either directly or through family members as proxy, phone calls, gifts, personal visits, folders of photos and accomplishments arguing their case pile up on the desks of many on the committee or in the government cabinet. Let’s wait and see whose names appear on the list that is released on January 26, 2017, or earlier by the media the previous afternoon. Being that now it is more the force of politics that grants these favours, some awardees who were surprised at their names being selected actually admitted that they ‘DID NOT CAMPAIGN OR LOBBY’ for the award.

So in the next 3 months we have to deal with more dancers prefixing the PADMA title before their name! It being declared unconstitutional is totally beside the point. It is hammered home to us so we dare not forget who we are talking to!

It is festival time… Navaratri-Kolu-Garba-Puja
Dancing. Circling. Twirling. Whirling. Feasting. Gifting. Visiting.
Women bonding and the heartwarming rituals of sisters, daughters, mothers and relatives in a fabulous estrogen charged time of the year.

While hymns to the Goddess waft through the TV and Radio early morning, I indulge in the feel of a crisp new Kanjeevaram sari and the cool touch of gold on my wrist. Watching my daughter tying her saree (not yet perfectly) and enjoying the movements of the pleats being tucked into her slim waist, I am reminded of that secret ritual when my mother taught me to tie a saree for the very first time almost 5 decades ago.

And so as DEVI appears in HER glory in Bengal and homes across South India celebrate the installation of dolls, there is joy in the air. In West Bengal, SHE is a daughter who comes home to her mother and is sent off in a tearful, watery farewell. In South India, we have invoked her as Parvati, Meenakshi, Ambal and Kali. In Tibet SHE is TARA, the ever compassionate ONE, who waits for humans to reach the final shore and guide us through the transition to another life.
SHE is a shapeshifter- taking forms and moods as our lives evolve.
Navaratri- 9 days and nights are about HER and US WOMEN. Celebrate our bonds. Smile from within, Let the heart chakra open.
May DEVI bring wings to your feet, strength to your limbs, grace to your movements and love to your hearts!

Dance... Rejoice... Celebrate…

This is a crazy, mixed up, dangerous and exciting world we inhabit!
War and Imagination are at play!
We might as well "invade" closed minds and ruffle the status quo with the surgical precision of a soldier!
Let's Kill it... Crush it... Slay it!
With our pursuit of excellent art!

It's all about the PERFORMANCE!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
New Delhi/ San Francisco/Los Angeles

Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST /

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