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September 2021

"It's time to put our paranoia about the virus on a leash and take it for a walk."
- Shared over a telephone call with Madhu Nataraj

The festival season is upon us and with it come several moments to smile as we all attempt to open up our homes and lives to the outside world.

Now that the imprint of baby feet have been drawn in the courtyards and altars of several homes across the world to mark the birth day of Lord Krishna, we can prepare for the arrival of beloved Ganesha and onwards to more and more days that will remind us of the importance of ritual and the cyclical spiral of life. No matter which faith one belongs to, the onset of cooler weather and the sun's winter descent always signals more celebrations, prayers and gatherings. Despite the threat of a third wave, people seem determined to find ways to share experiences and the small joys of life.


# KHICHDI CULTURE



August was marked by India entering its 75th year of independence. We all know that this day will come. And it does. Without fail. Through triumphs, disasters and toppling governments, August 15 never fails to arrive. And yet the cultural wing of the Indian government seemed to wake up "at the stroke of midnight".

A hastily put together pastiche of Bollywood, Bharatanatyam, Mizoram and Meghalaya choir singers, badly coordinated Mohiniattam dancers and giant puppets shrugging awkwardly to some inane beat box rhythms - this is what we were supposed to watch and applaud under the umbrella of AZADI KA AMRIT MAHOTSAV.

Giant puppet hands opened to reveal dancer Rama Vaidyanathan in an eerie flashback to the 1999 production of HER VOICE where Geeta Chandran emerged exactly in the same way with puppeteer Anurupa Roy manipulating her oversized fingers - like a woman who is but a pawn amidst the patriarchal spokes of a wheel. Rama was the sole international marquee name in the gathering and the camera angles failed to mask the awkward walk ons and exits of the performers.

The larger question is, "Are we not done with this kind of collage/pastiche? We were assembling COLLAGE CULTURE like this 20 years ago. Why are event producers made to decide content without the opinions and inputs from the culturally literate? Why would classical dance, choir music, assorted instruments and Bollywood be thrown into a blender and as the blades started to whirl come out as a mish mash of neither this nor that?

India is intersected with lines and borders defining our many States but a cultural presentation needs to find a common thread that draws upon commonalities and surprising contrasts. Not a confusing cacophony!

Tragically, we are seeing images of ancient texts like the Kama Sutra being burned and Mahasweta Devi's classic being banned from curricula, what is the point of mourning the destruction of musical instruments in Afghanistan? When sites of massacre like Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar are being "Disney-fied", thus altering the sombre memories of the 1919 massacre - we have our own version of erasure happening right here.


#DANCER ON THE MOVE


Narthaki Nataraj

I was smiling when I read the Instagram post of transgender dancer Narthaki Nataraj. She has been named as member of the Economic Advisory Committee of the Tamil Nadu government and has been working steadily at making the powers at the top echelon of the political pyramid listen to her list of demands. Already the Tamil transgender community is being given many benefits like free bus travel, increased access to health care, vaccines and job opportunities. But Narthaki is also standing up to the caste batters in government who continue to taunt her by saying, "Your dance field is dominated by upper caste women."

Determined to make a mark during her tenure, although economics and finance are not her core strengths, Narthaki made an official visit to the archeological site of KEELADI in the state where excavations have revealed a robust civilisation that flourished around 5th century BCE. Photos posted on her social media pages and the accompanying texts reveal a confident and self assured woman who has come a very long way from the insecure and unsure person standing outside the gates of Lakshmi Sundaram Auditorium in Madurai and pleading with the security guard to be let in so she could watch a dance performance of visiting artistes.

Meanwhile two other senior Bharatanatyam artistes, Srinidhi Chidambaram and Kavitha Ramu, are also busy beyond the rehearsal rooms and the stage. Srinidhi is a doctor and wife of a politician and Kavitha is a bureaucrat. These women are examples of artistes who are not hanging onto the end of their phones waiting for it to ring or dressing up every day to post some snippet of their items to jog public memory. If only more dancers gave themselves another vocation that brings them both income and a sense of empowerment, we may not have so much anxiety and desperation in the air.

I am so pleased when young dancers share their sense of growing confidence after becoming online gurus. The pandemic has forced several talented 20 somethings to start teaching just to earn money and thus say NO to platforms that try to entice them with FREE online appearances. Perhaps their gurus are not in agreement with the decision, but time has come when the established order and hierarchy has become unwieldy and the pedestal is wobbling.

If the senior gurus are not going to realise that the world has changed and that their sacred feet are not the sole refuge for their students, then they will become irrelevant very soon.
To watch your students fly, try, stumble, fall, soar and succeed is the best approach.
Don't we as parents do that for our own children?


# KOOTHU CROSSES THE GENDER LINE

Koothu rehearsal

Just one hour outside Chennai is the historic temple and weaving town of Kanchipuram. 36 years ago, a Dutch student of Indology came to visit, hoping to improve her Tamil. She happened to watch a KOOTHU performance starring Ponnusami Rajagopal as an anti hero. She was stunned and her life changed from that moment. Today, Hanne de Bruin has helped establish KATTAIKKUTTU SANGAM as a national cultural institution and supported young women to learn the male dominated performance form of KOOTHU. Rajagopal is her husband.


Tamilarasi

Venda

Set among a sprawling 10 acres of agricultural land where connectivity was abysmal but the air was fresh, I spent a weekend being "gob-smacked & stunned" by the sheer energy and talent of the 5 women who were rehearsing. Soaring voices (Koothu music demands a strong acoustic projection without amplification for the outdoors), ebullient dancing, hips sashaying and feet whirling in feverish frenzy - these young women were also new mothers. It was a beautiful moment, watching them perform while their babies slept in the cloth cradles tied to the lighting grid.

Hanne and Rajagopal told me that these young women are braving family pressure, societal cynicism and financial needs to come to class as often as possible. When they take money home, the snide remarks grow silent. To help them continue in the art form and to encourage more young women to learn KOOTHU is a steep mountain to climb. But the couple is not deterred. It is their quiet determination that is an example of how artistes are surviving. Revenue from the fruits and vegetables of the farm, training the women in vocations like beauty, grooming and tailoring are ways in which the KATTAIKKUTTU SANGAM is hoping to reinvent their formulae for sustenance and growth.


# OF GENEROSITY, ELEGANCE & GRACE

Muthukannammal

These past 18 months many shrill voices from within and outside India have been heard. Blaming, accusing and attempting to scare one section of artistes into either silence or shame. Neither has occurred. The baying voices have exhausted themselves. The hereditary community of artistes that they claim to represent or speak for is not concerned with the politics of foreign academia or personal branding. They too are languishing, like many others, during the 18 months of the COVID lockdown with meagre resources.

In this atmosphere, vitiated by self centred voices from "over there", the web session with the 83 year old MUTHUKANNAMMAL was a pleasure. This time, she was not the "subject" of scrutiny or used for an end product. This 83 year old traditional dancer from Viralimalai, Tamilnadu exuded dignity and composure. Muthukannammal sat patiently next to her student of many years, Swarnamalya Ganesh, and answered several questions for almost an hour. With her best years behind her and among the last of the surviving performers from the storied and gloried families of dancers and musicians, she spoke with quiet confidence.

We heard of the many overseas scholars and dancers who visited her to learn the art and then write books; of the many tours with her father to important cities and venues; of belonging to the "Mudaliar" community and the hard, almost back breaking work of fulfilling the duties of the temple and the deity she had pledged her life and art to.

It was an illuminating session, carefully curated to allow the genuinely curious and interested among the dance community to engage with "the real thing". Her truth sat as a heavy load on the minds of everyone who listened. We left, knowing that the truth is complex.


# NARTHAKI NINJAS

We have been hard at work, reinventing and rebranding ourselves, working across our various platforms to bring you original content that features conversations and performances with a professional finish. Not to mention, with special attention being paid to financial compensation for every artiste who appears, on and off the digital screen.



AMPERSAND and DECODE on NEO NARTHAKI have been brave and bold initiatives to unpeel the many lives and worlds of dancers who have other important and time consuming professions. Medical research, baking, psychotherapy, nursing, management - these are some of the "day jobs" for so many today.

DECODE has engaged with the challenges and roadblocks that dancers often encounter. As a part of the series we have dealt with the following issues in the arts:
1. Indian classical dances are predominantly women-centric, with the poetry written primarily keeping the heroine in mind. As more men take up dance today, how do audiences perceive them?
2. Do physical features define the capability of a dancer? What is an ideal dance body? Does patriarchy have a role in policing the dancers' body?
3. Does faith decide a dancer's practice? Can a dance form exist in isolation from its cultural context?
4. How does one's gender and sexual identity impact their artistic work?
5. When is a dancer truly free? Is it when they can create without fear?
6. What is the relationship between funding organisations and artistes? Is Corporatization of dance a boon or bane?

As NEO NARTHAKI launched into its second year, watch for more provocative and innovative content to appear.


Our parent brand NARTHAKI.COM continues to march ahead.
JHALAK is a First Glance at work in progress - dance, writing, painting, poetry, music - rehearsals and process driven creations just before they premiere.

In September, JHALAK will share the experience of curating an Indian dance film festival for JOMBA in South Africa. Pickle Factory Foundation in Kolkata selected films to resonate with the prompt Border Crossings. The India showcase will be shared on the JOMBA YouTube platform on September 4 and is provocatively titled I/M MATERIAL.

And also in September, Rama Vaidyanathan speaks of the world premiere of her ensemble work for Jai Govinda's Mandala Arts in Vancouver.
Process has always interested me, sometimes more than the finished performance.
JHALAK hopes to take a sneak peek into the building blocks of the creative mind.


Our second edition of DEVI DIARIES. The acclaimed and successful showcase premiered in October of 2020. This year, the focus is on local deities and Goddesses, veering away from the famous TRINITY/TRI DEVI of LAKSHMI, SARASWATI and DURGA. Across styles and languages, DEVI DIARIES 2021 will showcase many new names in dance. We have received several contemporary submissions and will augment the month long showcase with evening talks on feminism, history and iconography.

October will be a busy month for the NARTHAKI NINJAS. Well, they don't know that I am referring to them as such. But their spirit is surely similar to the relentless warriors!

Enjoy your month. India is opening up slowly in fits and starts. No stage performances yet but travel and outdoor events are being discussed in India. The THIRD WAVE may be afoot but for now, we are either so tired or really don't give a damn if it raises its head. The general consensus is that any more lockdowns are going to be ruinous for millions of Indians and that this COVID virus will ultimately become something like the common flu with annual shots and boosters as safeguards.

Take cheer from the determination of our Para Olympic athletes. Look at their success! Against so many odds! And what are we whining about? Likes? Followers? Comments? Reels?
And if you really want to celebrate, listen to the newest singing sensation from Sri Lanka. Young YOHANI has a global smash hit with 70 million views and climbing. MANIKE MAGE HITHE will have you listening to her teenage voice again and again.

But for now, we are double vaccinated (hopefully all of you reading this are!) and waiting for our booster dose to arrive in India.

Still, be safe. Take your precautions and LIVE YOUR LIVES.

Until next time
- Anita R Ratnam

Chennai-Madurai-Bengaluru-Mumbai-New Delhi
(Yes... these feet are travelling again!)

Twitter: @aratnam
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Instagram: @anitaratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in


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