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September 1, 2014

Jambo! A Swahili word for “Hello!”

Touching down from a magical ten days in Kenya and Tanzania, where connectivity was limited, animals were in abundance and sunsets were like paintings, I find it hard to wrench myself away from the African dream and revert to the here and now of urban life and the rhythm of the arts. After all, I had just witnessed the greatest show on earth - the annual migration of more than a million wildebeests across the Mara River!

Markets, sunrise, sunsets, animals, birds, water crossings, tents, camps, lodges and amazing coffee everywhere...Many moods and moments from my Tanzania and Kenya vacation.. Africa diaries 2014

While boarding the evening flight out of India came the distressing news about the demise of my guru Adyar K Lakshman. Ailing for many months and a shadow of his once vibrant self, Lakshman Sir closed his eyes amidst an outpouring of sadness across the world from his many ‘sishyas’ and admirers. Among the early global gurus, he came into my life in 1965 when I had just completed my ‘arangetram’ under guru Rajee Narayan. Along with him came the magnificent musician Madurai Sethuraman, percussion wizard Trichur P.Ramanathan and musical genius Madurai N Krishnan. Those days of 3 hour classes at our rented home on Boag Road after a long day at school were an integral part of my growing years. As his principal muse, I was the physical medium for more than 30 new classical choreographic pieces that have now become popular in the BN repertoire across the world. There are many stories and incidents of his talent and humour but for this edition I share the memories as expressed by his colleagues and prominent students, Chandrabhanu and Ramli Ibrahim. His choreography and contribution to the modern ‘bhakti margam’ of Bharatanatyam is singular and should be preserved and propagated.

August was the month during which the Sangeet Natak Akademi saw the completion of the five year term for its executive committee members. I was honoured to be a part of this important cultural body and found the many key decisions taken during the tenure of Chairperson Leela Samson to be a critical lesson as to how we must find ways to engage with the government and official bodies for the arts. Apart from the many senior and emerging artistes who were honoured for their contributions, the SNA has been so vital for many revivals and preservations of several rare art forms. Here’s wishing the new incoming committee the very best for the next five years in which the role of the performing arts will become even more crucial for India’s image within and outside our borders.

For all the activity and hoopla surrounding our live arts, we are still to create a forum to redress wrongs and unethical behaviour by our artistes. NRI gurus are implicit in these insidious webs that do little to raise the stature of professionalism in the arts. A recent case was a Chennai based male Bharatanatyam dancer who was contracted to choreograph and perform in a production that was slated for a Chennai show at the Music Academy. The performer/guru was from the USA. A few days before the event, the dancer cited back pain and pulled out of the show, leaving the artistic director scrambling for a replacement. A day later, cheerful pictures of the same dancer were posted on Facebook from another country! These actions seem deceitful and when contacted by our reporter, the NRI artiste preferred to fume in silence rather than “call out” the unethical behaviour of the BN dancer. Her reason was that she was “just returning to dance and did not want to cause controversy!” The dancer chose to hide behind the pallus of one of his many ‘akkas’, who in turn chose to argue his case. In this scenario, both are at fault. One for flagrant abuse of trust and the other for choosing to remain silent. The larger question still looms. How can we call attention to such actions when our legal systems and the very idea of contracts still seem uneasy for many performing artistes? All other areas of activity- sports, cinema, business and media have governing bodies to redress complaints. Here, we just talk amongst ourselves and post on social media, venting and fuming but getting nowhere!

In August, PADME my contemporary dance project had its premiere in Bangalore. After many months of hand holding and intense training, the seven handpicked dancers gave their all in a house full show at the elegant NGMA auditorium in the heart of the garden city. In the seats were my colleagues and young artistes, eager to see the result of many weeks of training and rehearsals. Choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman and a team of professionals in Costume, PR, Lighting, Photography and Communications ensured that the evening provided the dancers and the audience a crisp showcase of modern India on the move. Pianist Anil Srinivasan set the mood with his evocative section titled FLOAT which was followed by PADME. The dancers were excited and thrilled with the first response and the images on this edition will show you all a glimpse of the journey that classical dancers CAN MAKE WITHOUT FEAR. For the many who called in doubt and suspicion and who spoke to the team about “corrupting” or “spoiling” their classical dance styles, PADME emerged as a testament that an open mind and hard work can result in a fresh look at dance, the body’s response to open mindedness steered by empathy and intelligence. The bond between the team was heartening to watch, as was the leadership qualities displayed by some dancers who took on management and other areas without complaining. Congratulations to the entire team and here’s looking forward to more shows and chances of watching PADME as it prepares to be performed in many unusual spaces in India. Meanwhile, enjoy the pictures and look out for announcements of shows in your city!

September is the month that MEGHADOOTAM the ensemble dance production tours the USA. The much hyped and fairly disappointing premiere now tours 15 cities organised by the AIM FOR SEVA organisation of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. These days news of any shows are instant with twitter and instagram being the favoured medium for conversation. Thumbs up or thumbs down are instantaneous and already expectations are either up or down for shows like these. The ultimate goal for the social service organisation is to fund the ambitious growth plans for 125 villages across India and 7000 children in the two villages of Manjakudi and Semmangudi in Tamilnadu. These completely funded tours are a boon for producers.

The growing importance of this portal is making us feel more and more responsible about what we carry as content. Already many students and researchers are looking at our exhaustive archive of articles and reviews for papers and material for various theses. Our content editor Lalitha Venkat spoke about the many travails and humourous incidents that have shaped this site over the past 15 years at a dance criticism conference hosted by the dance department of the University of Pune last month. The personal and immediate nature of a web portal makes for many personal and unusual moments that traditional print media cannot touch. The response to her talk and the impressive reach of this site is always a reminder about what I started as a hunch in the year 2000. Once again, to all our faithful readers and visitors – Thank you!

I cannot but make a metaphor connecting the amazing river crossing in Tanzania I watched to the current climate of the performing arts in India. All across the banks of the winding Mara river, thousands of wildebeests line up, bunched together as they ponder the seething waters and the gauntlet thrown by the hungry crocodiles. They know the danger but an age old rhythm prevails as they jump in and begin the perilous journey. Many make it across but some are carried away in the melee and others are picked off by the huge reptiles. Once across the river, the big cats await – starved for many months and waiting to feed their newborn cubs. Either way, every day is a test of survival and endurance. Much like the performing arts. Seething waters, powerful undercurrents, snapping jaws, a cauldron of savage intrigue where the greed of the powerful few who want to feed off the vulnerable and innocent. The inevitable pull of performance adrenalin is what keeps many of us going despite the heavy odds. Only a few make it and for the many who are carried away by the tide of fate or who are dashed upon the rocks of misfortune, the dance continues. The effort is never ending and the results ephemeral.

All of us have heard about E BOLA virus by now… but I am hearing jokes about Kaun Bola, Kisne Bola, Kyun Bola, Tu Bola, Main Bola and Usne Bola!

As I concluded this message, news has reached us about the sudden passing of Guru Maya Rao at a Bangalore hospital just before midnight on August 31st. A huge vacuum has been created in the world of dance and Kathak. Gracious, elegant with a keen mind that welcomed change and the inevitable power of youth, I was ever so grateful to spend a week at her home in Malleswaram and share morning cups of tea and Nipattu biscuits with her. Her lifelong ambition to create a Kathak history showcase just concluded and a book on her life was to be released later this month in Chennai. I send my condolences to her daughter Madhu, who is like a sister to me, and the rest of the Natya Stem Dance Kampni that she nourished and nurtured for so many decades. She was to choreograph a solo on me later this year and we were in discussions about how her approach can be transferred onto a Bharatanatyam trained body. Maya-ji will be sorely missed, her presence and magnanimity a rare quality amongst performers and creative minds. A true daughter of India and a jewel of Karnataka.

Welcome to the Fall season and to new premieres and new openings. Enter into the cooler season and new adventures. Go out and watch dance and the live arts. They need your warmth… the warmth of seeing eyes and the alchemy of your spirit reaching out to the bodies that twist and arch and twirl and leap for your enjoyment. Relish, cherish, celebrate and support dance and music. The RASA is entwined in this wondrous mesh!

Dr Anita R Ratnam
Chennai/ Delhi/ Bombay

Twitter: @aratnam
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Blog: THE A LIST /

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