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October 2021

The Goddess does not enter from the outside
SHE emerges from deep within
SHE is not held back by what has happened in the past
SHE is conceived in consciousness
- Sri Aurobindo

And so... we are on our way back
Like a winding spiral
To a new place that feels like
A beginning
All over again

Travel... Meeting a friend... a cautious embrace… muted laughter…
The energy is in the air...
The streets are clogged with revenge shopping.
Stores are welcoming clients after a crippling hiatus
Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays - are all being planned with greater vigour.
It's the festival season... but any excuse is enough to get out and breathe!

What about us dancers???

The fortunate ones have already performed to live audiences, savouring the applause and the perspiration - free from the tiny gleam of that digital device and the claustrophobic mask.

Ragamala Dance
Ragamala Dance

When I see images of RAGAMALA on tour in the USA, AKRAM KHAN rebooting his grand productions in Europe, Aditi Mangaldas wowing Moscow audiences and Instagram flooded with exhilarating images of dancers repeating words like "AT LAST", "BACK ON STAGE", "AMAZING EXPERIENCE", it makes so many of us smile.. Our hearts soften as our hope flutters in growing strength.
When I see glimpses of Geeta Chandran in an exclusive recording; Priti Patel, Aniruddha Knight and Kapila Venu in animated discussion about subject, lyric and intention for our DEVI digital series - I too feel a sense of renewed excitement.

Heritage travel has also beckoned dancers like Bhavajan Kumar who must have enjoyed performing for a discerning clientele at the famous BANGLA resort in Karaikudi, Tamilnadu.

In New York, the 14th annual ERASING BORDERS festival featured its second digital avatar with an unusual programming mix. I logged on to watch Rukmini Vijaykumar in a neo classical mix of attempting to slap her face to "smile" and lift her drooping elbow, very similar to what Akram Khan created as the opening phrase in his 1998 LOOSE IN FLIGHT. Following Rukmini's nonstop movement offering was the quiet and sparse dance film by Preethi Athreya who presented SEDIMENT in the salt fields. The body was but incidental to the landscape and the grid of squares and diamonds presented their own sense of design for the viewer. But dance it was not. Sonali Skandan was charming in her fantasy story of the BEE that flits from Chidambaram to Turkey, Spain, China and back. More suited for a young audience, this diverse programming reflected how dancers are making departures via the digital medium to both reinvent themselves and reboot their role in the dance arts.

In Mumbai, Keerthana Ravi's annual EVAM festival produced a bumper result for this young Bharatanatyam dancer turned organiser. Ticket sales and attendance exceeded expectations resulting in a win-win all around.

From Chandigarh, theatre director Neelam Mansingh shared her new found enthusiasm in training young students at NSD- National School of Drama in New Delhi.

From New York, Bharatanatyam dancer Kiran Rajagopalan launched a podcast titled OFF THE BEAT where practitioners engage in questions about identity, Rasa and on stage persona.

Sunil Kothari
Sunil Kothari (Photo: Avinash Pasricha)

News of late dance critic SUNIL KOTHARI's enormous collection of writings being carefully stored at JNU comes as welcome news. Along with the MOHAN KHOKAR collection at the IGNCA, New Delhi seems to be the destination for serious dance scholars.

NAVATMAN NYC is premiering their dance- theatre film THE MAHABHARATA. Trailers look underwhelming with exaggerated acting but this smart organisation rarely misses the mark in savvy programming. According to Sahasra Sambamoorthy in an online posting, this film is meant to excite and engage a whole new audience about classical dance reframed in a cinematic version. I will purchase my copy and watch without further comment.

With the annual arangetram season over, it looks like the dance musicians in Chennai and Bengaluru did not lose much revenue with the pandemic. Most of them were busy recording for NRI arangetrams and seemed almost relieved not to have to travel for 4 month tours. Sit at home and make the money anyway.

SITA continues Her sway over the younger generation with a fascinating SITAYANA project in the California/USA. Produced by Enacte Arts in collaboration with East West Centre, SITA'S world is reimagined as a teenage slumber party with boy crushes being discussed. A smart and irreverent take on our iconic epic heroine.

I returned from a weekend in Bengaluru where Madhu Nataraj had curated and convened a dance conference. The 3rd annual event held in memory of her amazing mother/guru Maya Rao, Madhu and her tech team at NATYA (all dancers themselves) pulled off a seamless and invigorating 5 hour event with performances, short dance films and talks. Held at the Bangalore International Centre, the hall was filled with an eclectic mix of singers, artistes, entrepreneurs and dancers. Actually, very few dancers attended, preferring to watch the live stream instead.

To watch and listen to Grammy winner Ricki Kej talk about environmental conservation with such passion while whipping up hoots and cheers from the audience with his sensitive films was an energy booster for the normally staid and over serious crowds that attend dance conferences.

I dared (with Madhu's encouragement) to perform in the same sari that I wore all day to the conference. Putting my official costume away, my mother's blood red silk sari draped, pinned onto my shoulder, prodded me to experiment and improvise on stage - thankfully to positive results.

Which brings me to the new reality. Will our events need to become hybrid all the time?

What if the paying audience feels shortchanged by the free live stream? Will the physically present audience be rewarded with something extra for the effort taken to leave their homes, abandon their jogger pants and kaftans and be present before the performer?

Will the PAY TO WATCH model last for the next year or more?

Has the digital world overplayed its hand by flooding the market with too much free content?

I hosted and moderated a CLUBHOUSE CONVERSATION about REVITALIZING BHARATANATYAM FOR A GLOBAL AUDIENCE. Leading the discussion was Lata Pada from Toronto, Jonathan Hollander from New York and Hema Rajagopalan from Chicago. A large number of young dancers attended along with arts presenters and rasikas from Germany, Singapore, Indian UK and Malaysia. It was quite revealing to listen to each speaker share their viewpoints and hints of impatience as to what kind of Bharatanatyam was expected from today's audiences. The importance of having an agent (Nrityagram and Ragamala have powerful representations in the USA) and how tough it was to break into the major festival circuit without one. Every country had a different viewpoint with Chitra Sundaram from London adding the recent coup by Nina Rajarani who had choreographed on Kathak dancers and whose dance film has been accepted for a Toronto film festival.

Back in Chennai, I put myself into the hands of three 25 year olds and their I Phones. With another 25 year old as my makeup person, we waded through a magical sunrise by the ocean and climbed rocks to get overhead shots. The short dance film is still being completed but the experience was a lesson that one is never too old to learn new ways in connecting with a global audience. And, yes, that my generation is far slower to understand the many tricks of tech.

Devi Diaries

With our ambitious DEVI DIARIES 2021 premiering daily throughout October on our YOU TUBE channels, I am reflecting on the past 18 months and the extraordinary gifts that this lockdown and the pandemic has offered my team and myself at NARTHAKI.COM.
The privilege to curate, ideate and oversee a range of digital programming, the gift of being trusted by young and senior artistes who have readily said YES to my many impulses and prompts and the joy with which each dancer has engaged with the given topic and delivered such a variety of videos is nothing but a BLESSING.

To date, we have facilitated nearly 200 world premieres across our many digital festivals from April 1, 2020. Dancers ranging from ages 18 to 65 have created and premiered their videos and dance films on our platform. We have discovered so many new talents, bristling with energy and imagination, sharing space and time with the seniors. Yes. This has been a huge privilege. And there is more. Much more ahead as the year winds down.

To my tech team - Surya Rao and Seher Noor Mehra - and my two trusted lieutenants Lalitha Venkat and Raksha Patel. Thank you!

To sound upbeat in a sea of despair, death and loss may be a tad out of sync. However, DANCE has managed to sustain so many. While some marriages, relationships and livelihoods have certainly been strained with many dancers finding other pathways to making a living, it is still this fluttering spirit of wanting to connect through an embodied way that is both human and humanising.

This pandemic has tested us. It has taught us many a lesson. That it is up to each of us to find rays of light - not for ourselves alone but also for another fellow artiste. If some dancers have moved on to other vocations, I wish them well. I notice that many Barbie Doll dancers are now design and makeup entrepreneurs with the S word coming front and centre. SUSTAINABLITY. Along with VEGAN & ORGANIC.

The immediate horizon is not crystal clear and the questions remain..

What have we done to create audiences for our dance?

Are we willing to engage beyond sighing in great nostalgia about a certain "Varnam" or a "Padam" that "brings us such joy" etc etc and really look around at what the world has become after nearly 2 years of a sneaky virus?

What has the ONE MINUTE REEL and the short blips of dance-gymnastics done for the full evening performance format? How has it impacted the performer, audience and the potential sponsor?

How long will it take for the audience to feel comfortable to enter a hall and sit quietly without fidgeting with phones and itching fingers?

While the interest in dance history and serious scholarship may be increasing, I ask the question of dancers who are pushing for an expanded vision of Indian dance studies. The pandemic has only further painted the past with a nostalgic brush and fetishised the hereditary artiste by using the divisions of caste and class to further personal agendas.
ReCognising Dance
ReCognising Dance had an engaging talk about the future of dance scholarship and there were some very interesting voices that spoke. The obvious was stated - a coming together of various strands of Performance Studies, Cultural Studies, Pedagogy, Anthropology, History, Politics and Social Studies. Several universities in the West have already these interconnected strands in place 30 years ago.

So, who will teach? Who will lead the way without a prior prejudice of a caste lens?

Will there be a greater engagement and dialogue between dancers and scholars?

Will dancers continue to practice while sharpening their critical faculties?

Rarely can a good scholar make for a compelling performer. One is usually sacrificed for the other.

As I wind down this edition, I am receiving more troubling news of plagiarism with regards to costume and choreography between young dancers. The latest episode has occurred across two continents. It is upsetting that it continues to occur when it is easy to be called out due to social media. It smacks of laziness, entitlement and dishonesty. In this scenario, UNMUTE, the new initiative by Paramita Saha, Arshiya Sethi and Somabha Bandopadhyay becomes important. Discussing issues that plague and surround Indian dance needs to be voiced so that they can be addressed and resolved.

Natya Vriksha dance studio
Natya Vriksha dance studio

My own "return to quasi-normal" came in New Delhi when I threw myself across the newly laid sprung dance floor at Geeta Chandran's NATYA VRIKSHA studio with a familiar "jathi". It felt fabulous. I promised myself to return to a daily practice in my own beautiful semi open air space that has witnessed so much creativity, but which has been dormant for almost 2 years. MOVE. GET MOVING... I need to listen to this nagging inner voice.

My 75 INSTAGRAM LIVE sessions in 4 months also brought a sharp rise in followers. It is seductive, this online world. It may be a parallel universe of heightened and concentrated emotions, but the screen does not perspire. The camera's eye does not applaud or breathe. The device does not smile.

I stop now with more questions than answers.

It is the time of the GODDESS. She arrives in all shapes and forms and blesses us in wondrous ways. Sometimes we may not understand Her gifts but this season should teach us empathy and patience tinged with the emotion of wonder and gratitude that we are able to breathe the air and still discuss art and dance when the world has been turned topsy turvy.

NAVARATRI is upon us... the days are shorter and the weather turns cooler.

So let us dance, twirl, celebrate, laugh, breathe, sing and LIVE

Stay safe and stay positive

- Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/Bengaluru and maybe-just maybe... across the waters

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

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