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September 1, 2011

Another month dawns and another year rapidly hurtles towards a close. But, what a month! Who could have imagined the groundswell of support for a stubborn, idealistic and fanatically committed  individual?  “I AM ANNA” became the anthem of every Indian and for the first time, the warring sections of government were forced to combine energies, dissolve differences and actually listen to the voice of the people of India. When Anna Hazare took a sip of coconut water on the 13th day of fasting, I, along with millions watching on TV, cried. It was a moment beyond rationale or reason or logic. It was a moment that connected me to my ancestors, their quest for self determination and to the idea of India that my children will inherit.

Now what does the entire issue of corruption do for us in the world of the performing arts? Alongside the launch of a new arts foundation in Chennai, SAHRIDAYA, this yet another initiative has noble ideas.  But as the young and enthusiastic team teach, train, read, research, dream and plan a variety of activities, the larger question looms. All the founders are artistes. Performing artistes with one academic/singer amongst them. If their core strengths are diluted by the sheer goliath of management and organization, what happens to the art? I am very pleased to see so many younger generation dancers and musicians beginning to organize. However, eventually they will all collide with the SABHA MAAMA WALL- a generic term I have created that encompasses funders, sponsors, marketing managers, theatre owners and an increasingly fickle audience. However, as one of the founding members Akhila Ramnarayan hopes, “We hope to nurture a rich relationship between novices and experts, mentors and mentees that take both discourse community and culture forwards. We need to build cultural-social-political-historical awareness and reflection among artistes, within each of us, that will combat the very homogenization and hybridity that is being increasingly discussed.”  Well said…. But do dancers need a translation of this? How about beginning to read the morning paper for a start!

It is about time that the many organizations formed for the welfare of dance and music put their heads together to demand basic hygiene for the performer. Clean stages, toilets and basic infrastructure are a human right and not a luxury. As the December season approaches rapidly, it will be interesting to see how the sabhas are sprucing up for their ‘rasikas’. Today, like politics, one does not need any qualification to run a sabha. It is a family business.  When will we as a dance community, take a lesson from the people of India and say, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!” The answer lies in the uneasy silence that will always prevail as a blanket of complicity between dancer, parent, spouse, presenter, sponsor and audience.

I am also deeply disappointed with cowardly parents and dancers who write to us about inhuman treatments meted out to visiting artistes or bad teachers. After sending us the article, they then do a volte face and plead with us not to mention their names or the names of the guilty. is not fighting a proxy war on anyone’s behalf and these articles and letters become ‘mottai’ (bald) petitions. The exploitation then seems almost deserved and any dancer, student, parent or teacher who is complaining without the guts to put a name behind the wailing, deserves to be ignored.  It is this very sinister complicity of evil that perpetuates this system of exploitation and unhappiness. It all seems to come down to ‘saving face’ and maintaining the ‘status quo’ for the pecking order in the community ghettos and not about the art of dance.

And now to some good news.  No. Great news. My visit to Shantiniketan, the idyllic landscape founded by Rabindranath Tagore’s father Maharishi Tagore in the 19th century and a space that shaped much of the brilliant mind and thoughts of Gurudev, was my magical moment. Entering the very room where the daily dance rehearsals were conducted, where Mrinalini Sarabhai and others found their artistic spirit ignited and seeing the empty chair where Tagore sat to supervise the practices was quite overwhelming. Sharing my new work ‘AVANI- a handful of dust’ with the thoughtful crowd assembled that evening was  deeply emotional.  At the very end, I turned to offer my ‘pranam’ to the empty chair and the undying spirit of the man who almost singlehandedly redefined what it was to be a Bengali for the rest of India. I, along with the audience, was misty eyed. My co-actor/performer Shahana Chatterjee is a Shantiniketan grandchild. Her grandparents met at Shantiniketan and for her it was also a coming home of sorts.

The premiere of AVANI in Kolkata’s Birla Sabhagar was also very well received by the intelligent and well behaved audience. No applause until the very end. Chandradoy Ghosh was the moderator for the post performance discussion that saw more than 150 people stay back to listen to my experiences of mounting AVANI.  Backstage was my normal tussle with extra lights, green room smells and backstage arrangements. It has become second nature to me to always stay vigilant anywhere in India, even the best of theatres, to battle with well meaning organizers on how to prepare for a dance performance. What people think as fussy and unnecessary is actually a necessity. When will people realize that dance and music are so different in terms of presentation, pre-production and costing? And why, oh why, are we still giving out those flower bouquets? What a waste of precious flowers when artistes either leave them behind in their green rooms or dump them in their hotel waste baskets! Why not some craft item of the state that will always be remembered and used with affection?

On a final note.  The events of the past month have also shown us many types of dancers and artistes.  Those who have thrown themselves into the fracas called the great Indian democracy, those who continue to perform and teach their art, and those who sit by the sidelines and just criticize dancers for having political viewpoints. The last section is the worst. Naysayers and cynics have no room in the world of art. It is a universe inhabited by imagination, ideas, and most of all, hope.

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Kochi/ Delhi/ London and….

PS: Dancers, please do NOT start composing dances on Anna Hazare and his 13 day fast. Instead, try to lose the 7 kgs like he did from the ever expanding Ajanta Hips and Ellora boobs that assault us when many of you step on the stage.

Twitter: @aratnam
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