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October 1, 2017

"Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide."
- DW Winnicott

The party is never ending. There was a 19 day respite between Dussera (September 30) and Diwali (October 18) but no more. Indian communities across India and elsewhere have geared up for nonstop celebrations. From the jam packed streets of Newark Avenue Garba frenzy in New Jersey to boulevards in many parts of the UK and of course India, sticks click away, skirts swirl, laughter overflows and food and drink help the mood build to a lively frenzy. DURGA may have performed HER time honoured ritual of slaying darkness and restoring balance to the universe. SHE has been immersed yet again amidst cheers and tears but calm has not descended over her devotees. As you read this, many will be preparing to dress up to attend fabulous Ram Lila pandals and card parties in North India which have already started as a curtain raiser to Diwali.


Diwali Lights

Dancers are also on a nonstop mode. Travelling, performing, teaching - all seemingly smash hits if we are to believe Facebook where the world is a perfect place with everyone being so LIKE-able! Some dancers like Parijat Desai in NYC has built a parallel career teaching Garba to all and gathering dancers and audiences in the magic of the CIRCLE.

JJ Doll
The most popular DOLL on display on the streets of Chennai was - guess who? JAYALALITHAA!
Yes, my late Chief Minister has toppled all the Goddesses by appearing in her blue sari and demanding a whopping 900 rupees for someone to take her home as an anointed DEVI! That her dolls were sold out within 2 hours of stores opening also speaks of the changing tastes of those home owners who want to display "something new" for Navaratri!

Never mind. My lips are sealed! No comment!


Veronique Azan

Ranjabati Sircar

The title is provocative and suggests extreme mental ill health. However, what else can we understand by the sudden and preventable death of elegant dancer Veronique Azaan?

Do we actually confront the crucial issue of mental health for artistes? What makes the dance-art insufficient for our lives? Is a stable family the answer? Not always. Do children anchor us and stop us from making extreme decisions? Does the darkness of depression become so compelling that nothing else seems to make sense? Can LOVE be the answer to all mental challenges?

The nature of Veronique's passing - alone in Bali - was shocking and, at first, unbelievable to many who knew her. As soon as I heard the news on August 2nd, I shared the information on my personal Facebook page and then the news reports from Indonesia came to confirm the sad and lonely last minutes of her life. What is it about the darkness that envelops some of our creative minds? 20 years ago, Ranjabati Sircar, a stunning performer, took her own life in Mumbai - with the aid of a scarf and the ceiling fan. The newspaper reports from Bali suggest an almost identical scenario for Veronique.

Ranjabati and I had a long conversation 2 weeks before her tragic death in Chennai. The news of her end came to me at the end of an emotional performance of DAUGHTERS OF THE OCEAN at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi in October. In the midst of all the accolades, congratulations and milling crowds came this sobering news. The Chennai arts community held a small memorial on the grounds of the Alliance Francaise which was attended by actors, painters, dancers, film makers and writers. Chandralekha was present and we spoke about Ranjabati's last project CASSANDRA - based on the Greek myth - which was a powerful statement on rape, violence against women and the ravages of war.

Ranjabati was single and did not have children. Veronique has left behind a devastated spouse and a lovely daughter. Both women were beautiful dancers. Ranjabati had a wonderful future ahead of her. Veronique had lost touch with her art many years earlier. Both women were obviously afflicted with doubt and despair, in spite of acclaim, affection and accolades in their lives.

So what is the last straw? What makes artistes self mutilate? What are the triggers? We prefer not to comment and certainly not to discuss. Indian dance is supposed to be about joy, divinity, sacred spaces, blah blah blah. BUT... The shadow lurks... the demon of despair is not far away... it waits for illumination and discussion. If we know of dancers or artistes who are suffering from the spotlight being turned away from them, we should try to reach out. We do not want to be a society that feeds off another's misery or bad choices.


Alarmel Valli and her mother

Malavika Sarukkai and her mother

For over a year, we have carried a column titled MOTHERS BY DAUGHTERS. Of how crucial mothers have been in the lives and careers of many a successful dancer-daughter. One of the most iconic dance-mothers was Uma Muthukumaraswamy, mother of diva Alarmel Valli, Her passing on August 1st represented a major marker for Indian dance. Uma was not a dancer; she was a dance cheerleader, a dance motivator, a dance dreamer, a dance visionary. It is her sole driving passion for her daughter Valli that propelled the early success and global imprint of the now mega-famous daughter. While in school, we would hear about Uma "aunty's" canny strategy for her daughter. How Valli chose to dance in Paris and thus delay her graduation by a whole year! How she egged Valli to read constantly and learn music from the traditional gurus. Her close monitoring of Valli's career choices, her inputs to create her own style based on her petite frame and her unflagging belief that Valli would represent the best of classical Bharatanatyam and Indian dance never abated even for a moment. Like Malavika Sarukkai's mother Saroja Kamakshi, Uma accompanied Valli on all her tours until the last 10 years when failing health prohibited her travels. Quite a contrast from my mother Leela who said, "You are neither sugar nor salt to melt. So go out into the rain and face the storms!" I missed the coddling and "management style" of doting mothers but my independent and rebellious nature would never have accommodated a mother in tow all across the world.

Valli's mother (very like Malavika's) represented individuals who were more than parents. They were the foundation, the structure and the scaffolding upon which daughters were allowed to dream and fly. They were dance champions and the original STAGE MOMS, MOMMAGERS and HELICOPTER MOTHERS, long before those terms came into common use.

Malavika danced days after her mother's passing in a collaboration with musician Aruna Sairam. I noticed her looking pale, wan and dancing as if "outside" her body - her muscle memory carrying her through. We wait to see how Valli will perform this December season since she skipped the 2016 dance season due to her mother's ill health.


Choreographer Ryan Heffington
Have you ever considered using the skills of a choreographer for a shoot-em-up, car chase action film? That is exactly what Edgar Wright did. For the first time, he hired experienced dance master Ryan Heffington to work on the actors of BABY DRIVER - a hit Hollywood action film, creating split second timing moves for each heist. The director needed rehearsed and smooth movements timed to the sound tracks of favourite tunes he had selected for the background music. The result is a terrific encounter between art and action.

In Indian cinema, there is less and less reference of the classical arts with Bollywood choreography becoming the most visible reference point for all non-classical dance styles from India. I was thus pleasantly surprised to watch two films on a long intercontinental flight with classical references. One was the Malayalam film SAMPRADAYAM, a murder thriller in which the protagonist - a doctor - is watching a Koodiyattam performance by Kapila Venu as she performs POOTANA MOKSHAM in the gentle flicker of an oil lamp. The second film I watched was the Tamil thriller BOGAN about the transmigration of souls. The sound track had extensive Konakkol - vocal mnemonics - to enhance the feeling of suspense. It was very effective and it was an intelligent choice by music director D. Immaan.

It is cinema that is attracting the best and brightest of our musical talents. Every time I work with a whiz kid, I am always aware that he/she will be lured away forever by the bright lights of film. Once they enter that space, they are lost to us in the live arts. But the phenomenal explosion of musical talent far outweighs the quality of dancers that surround us today.


Aditi Narayanan & Sonali Skandan
Guru/dancer Sonali Skandan had a dream showing of her student Aditi Narayanan in New York. It was Sonali's very first "arangetram" and she could not have wished for a more elegant and high profile event to debut her "guru" skills. An enviable guest list of Wall Street investors, Ivy League University Presidents and CEO's of major corporations crammed into the NYU Skirball Centre to spend 3 hours watching a lovely 16 year old go through her paces. As the dancer's aunt, I was the emcee, a duty I normally NEVER perform for arangetrams! However, this was far from the normal chaotic dinner kutcheri event that I have seen in the USA. Streamlined, rehearsed with every aspect timed and executed - including costume changes and the musical interludes, Aditi's arangetram had the largely non-Indian crowd in raptures over Bharatanatyam style and its expressive abilities. Watching the reaction of Aditi's high school friends in the foyer after the show, reaffirmed my beliefs in the seductive visual of the classical dancer. The musical ensemble got equal applause for their high quality and this is an aspect of North American diaspora that I find most heartening. The quality of Carnatic music has improved so quickly that one can find excellent musicians in the New York area without having to agonise over singers and accompanists from India. While costumes and accessories were still sourced and tailored from India, US and Canadian based dance artistes are finding it easier to get good music for their presentations. Likewise in the UK, where some stunningly wonderful musicians are working and in very high demand.

From The Horse's Mouth
On my last day in NYC, I attended an all dancers meet, organised by Rajika Puri. Celebrating the reunion after the stunning success of FROM THE HORSES MOUTH - Indian dance edition - that took place in April this year - the spacious loft was buzzing with laughter and bonhomie. I congratulated Jonathan Hollander who was marking his 10th anniversary of co-curating and hosting the Battery Dance ERASING BORDERS event along with Rajika Puri and Aroon Shivdasani. Jonathan was discussing the shrinking space even in the New York Times for dance reviews, with the ubiquitous Alastair Macaulay being given less words and only twice weekly to cover dance. No wonder the phenomenon of PAID FACEBOOK REVIEWS has begun. Dancers are so desperate that they will pay for any mention of their work.

We are all reeling with the imposition of the Goods and Service Tax (GST)
Classical music and dance programmes will have a tax levy of 16% on the ticket prices.
Contemporary dance and "foreign" instruments like the violin, piano, drums, djembe and keyboards will have a hefty levy of 28%.
Contemporary performances by Astad Deboo, yours truly and others who do not fall into the CLASSICAL category will also have a 28% surcharge on our performances!
Somehow, what we do is not INDIAN.
Are you listening, Vedanth Bharadwaj and Anil Srinivasan?
The guitar and piano are now in the 28% tax bracket?
What then can we call the tabla, santoor, sarod, sarangi, sitar?
Is their source Persian/ Mughal/ Islamic?
Has Mohammad Ghazni left the building?

Living in India, creating in India, performing in India and carrying an Indian passport - this is not enough anymore! What else do we have to prove our art as indigenous? Locally inspired and globally seeking!

This is one example of the notorious short sightedness of a government made up of mostly men and who levy the same 28% surcharge on sanitary napkins! This seems to be a petition worth initiating if just to bring attention to this kind of lopsided thinking that is deflating all positive energies.

Meanwhile, the launch of the Deboo/Katrak MARG issue on CONTEMPORARY DANCE was postponed due to the torrential Mumbai rains. The book releases on October 9 and promises to sell out like the previous MARG dance books.

When the Chief Minister of a State (Uttar Pradesh) proclaims that "women are not capable of being left free and independent" my hackles rise. This is 2017 and still we have the scourge of women being forced into prostitution under the excuse of becoming a DEVADASI in some villages in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh.

'Devadasi' practice still haunts Tamil Nadu, Andhra; NHRC issues notices by Sivakumar B
Read the news here

Across our borders lie talented women, now silenced by the misogyny of radical Islamisation. Pakistani women artistes are the focus of a lovely film called SIREN SONGS produced and directed by Pakistani -American professor Dr. Fawzia Afzal Khan. Based in the USA, Dr. Afzal Khan has spent the past 5 years researching, travelling and documenting these wonderful performers and we are pleased to share a short clip of her work here.

Siren songs

DURGA has come and gone. HER victory is heralded. The new STAR TREK series features a woman, actress Michele Yeoh, in command of the Starship. WONDER WOMEN broke through at the box office. The amazing SIVAKAMI reasserted herself as the matriarch of Mahishmati. India has a woman as the country's first Defense Minister. Yet we have the cold blooded murder of journalist GAURI LANKESH in Bengaluru for daring to challenge the corrupt land mafia.

As the HNI (not the virus but HIGH NET WORTH INDIVIDUALS) gather to discuss India's position in world economy in New Delhi, we can ask the pampered elite this basic question.

Do we want to be part of a system that allows a mediocre accountant to make a living while an excellent dancer has to teach, leave the country to perform and conduct workshops to pay bills?
Are we content to live in an echo chamber of yay sayers while robust debate and healthy dissension is curbed, quelled or simply killed off?

To dancers I ask…

What is the use of dancing about rivers when our waters have evaporated? I shudder at each invitation for RIVER DANCES. Are we truly listening to the moans of the Cauvery, Ganga, Narmada, Godavari, Brahmaputra and Krishna? Waving our hands and making mudras will not make the problem go away.
Add to this the recent hurricanes and cyclones… Irma, Harvey, Maria, Jose!

The globe is screaming with agony but our dancers continue to insist that our waters are nurturing, our skies comforting and our winds gentle!!!!!


The great seer Aurobindo once said, "All new discoveries are not really new. Some minds tap into the larger field simultaneously." Already Daksha Sheth and Prathibha Prahlad have produced dance productions based on the SARI. Now it is Malavika Sarukkai's turn.

With her bristling mind, THARI-the loom, seeks to unpeel the many manifestations of the unstitched cloth. If the trailer is anything to go by, THARI-The Loom, promises much. Gorgeous lighting and beautifully filmed dances and significant visual inputs from collaborators augur well for Malavika's second attempt at ensemble work.

‘Thari the Loom'

It is ironic that the master craftsmen who weave these yards of magic can never afford to wear one of their own magnificent creations! The poignant Tamil film KANCHIPURAM reflected this tragic tale. Today, the sari represents not just the symbol of Indian womanhood but also the object of aggression and violence. Rape, suicide, dishonour… The unstitched cloth has many resonances.


Srinidhi Chidambaram

Krithika Subramaniam

With December looming, I will strongly recommend that dancers and dance enthusiasts book their tickets to attend the two dance conferences. NATYA DARSHAN - December 23 and 24 - curated by Krithika Subramaniam and NATYA KALA CONFERENCE December 26 to 31, curated by Srinidhi Chidambaram promise much.

Last year, Krithika was hampered by cyclone VARDAH and even with limited connectivity, her brave attempt made a mark. Srinidhi's event - a week later - was smooth and well handled - garnering her much praise. Both enterprising and talented women have much in store for us this year. Srinidhi has titled her conference on the idea of SRINGARAM.

Krithika - always looking to push boundaries has titled her conference NOW OR NEVER... provocative... yes. Attakkalari, Rukmini Vijayakumar, Kathak rockers, speakers and curators from India and beyond - poets, fiction writers, directors in creative journeys with dancers - these are just some of the highlights of the 2 day event co-produced by Kartik Fine Arts.

At Srinidhi'event (co-produced by Krishna Gana Sabha) there will be presenters and speakers from across the dance spectrum and her pairing of poets and intellectuals alongside dancers may present many moments of charged interest. Even the Music Academy has initiated a two day dialogue alongside its January dance festival.

Watch this space for more details as well as our FACEBOOK pages for up to date highlights of all three conferences.

So as Rama and Ravana revisit their age old confrontation in North India, the South celebrates Krishna's victory over Narakasura (Yes. There are TWO VERSIONS of Deepavali. Diwali!)

Continue to dance-party-celebrate-congregate-create…

We segue into the festival of lights and mark a time of many new beginnings.
Savour the newness of cloth, the brush of love, a beautiful swirl of cloud and a wisp of fresh air.

Let DANCE seize your spirit, body and being!

Dr. Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/New Delhi/Bengaluru/London

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

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