Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
- Thomas Edison
As I settle into my independent accommodations in Sunnyvale, California, in preparation for my role as KAA, the serpent character in THE JUNGLE BOOK: RUDYARD REVISED, I am reminded of the early days more than 25 years ago of spending extended periods of time outside India on creative engagements. There is a kind of excitement in working in the theatre, when the director sits in a circle along with the cast and discusses the script. It is this visual / physical democracy, without a noticeable leader, that can become an important marker when the hierarchical business world seeks inspiration from the arts. It is also a good way for guru and dancers/musicians to begin lessons in the classical world.
I share the large apartment with a stand up comedienne Sonal Agarwal, a delightful desi girl born in the USA. The generation gap and the tone of daily conversations is such an eye opener. I feel fortunate to have my two children, especially my son, who has kept me up with the pace and jargon of how today's Millennials talk. There is no ending to the learning curve!
Working with a large cast, many very young children, along with actors of diverse ethnic backgrounds and performance experiences is also challenging. However, it is a relief to be a guest artiste, concentrating on creating and performing the role week after week - 4 shows a week - as THE JUNGLE BOOK: RUDYARD REVISED travels across Northern California. No headache or responsibilities of production, fund raising and managing egos!
#WORDS ACROSS GEOGRAPHIES
I received this charming photo of 4 year old AKSHAR, grandson of Rajiv and Geeta Chandran, who just completed playing the serpent KAA in THE JUNGLE BOOK. The event was in his school in New Delhi. And here I was 12,000 miles away, recreating the very same character! To think that this story has traversed decades and geographies since it was first published in 1894. Several movies, adaptations and interpretations galore have come to us over the century. In this Reclaimed version, the writer (Rudy in this version) is apologetic to a new character MAYUR, the peacock. Mayur complains as to why India's national bird is not a major character in the story. As KAA, I have a chance to fill out a mostly negative character into a fuller version of what a serpent actually signifies... wise, all seeing, ageless and prophetic. Imagine a scene between Mougli and KAA as she explains the distorted myth of KALIYA, the poisonous serpent in the Yamuna river. "It is not KALIYA who poisons. Man blithely pollutes the waters and blames the serpent!"
How soon we forget! The explosive 2017 TELL ALL from Hollywood actresses sparked what is globally known as the ME TOO movement. In the Indian arts scene, several circles became tight lipped about sexual predators in their midst. Many tried to bury it as "not suitable to Indian culture!" But the situation continues.
Last month an email made the rounds to many senior members of Chennai's dance circles. It accused a male Bharatanatyam dancer/choreographer Mr.N who had made inappropriate advances to a Bengaluru based dancer during the filming of a video for the recently concluded Chess Olympiad. The email was from Ms S, firstname.lastname@example.org. It described the series of events that led to the uncomfortable moment. When the email made the rounds, I reached out to the aggrieved dancer who had initiated the conversation. I received a reply clarifying that the incident actually occurred. One telling remark from another male dancer was, "It is very difficult to prove sexual misconduct unless 2 or 3 people come forward to make a statement." This attitude suggests that the victim's moral compass has somehow gone askew. The email also blamed the organizers for giving hospitality responsibilities to Mr N which caused him to make frequent visits to the hotel where the dancers were staying. ABHAI has tried to take up the matter but the mail ID has been disabled. They had a lawyer standby waiting to hear from both parties. Mr N has since clarified the matter with Roja Kannan, President of ABHAI and that the initial email was fake!
It is still disturbing enough to ask the question as to why such a fake email would be initiated? To what end? If it is fake, then it is all the more worrying that the ME TOO moment can be misused.
How easy it is to create a controversy, accuse someone and then disable the mail ID? It seems to do more disservice to the genuine victims of sexual assault.
Selective amnesia is being seen all over by arts curators. In Bengaluru, the tainted GUNDECHA BROTHERS (Umakant and Akhilesh) have been programmed for a concert. Ramakant, the eldest, passed away in 2019 and the BBC carried an expose about all 3 brothers who were accused of shocking behaviour with some of their foreign students. With all this information out in the public domain, it puzzles me when the curator can continue to programme them under the excuse of "how long can their genius be withheld from the public?"
I was equally uncomfortable being seated next to a film critic in Pondicherry for the MANIFEST DANCE FILM FESTIVAL. He was part of the initial RAYA SARKAR report on sexual abuse in 2017. That the curators could be so blind and hopelessly out of date with the current socio political climate befuddles me. Being polite in a social gathering is one thing but to officially invite and spotlight these individuals in publicly funded events is another thing altogether!
So then, are we back to Square One in the Indian music and dance scene? Can this abomination continue unchecked? Is genius any excuse for misuse of power? For how long can we continue to turn a blind eye to such assaults that invariably affect women? Just because the predator does not attack us, does it make them less guilty? And fabricating accusations is even more problematic since it denies the genuine victim any agency.
I realise that this is a slippery slope. That everyone is walking on eggshells. That nobody wants to bell the cat. That emails and whispers rarely add up to more than spurious gossip.
Try this outside India in one of the European or North American societies! The perpetrator will be an outcaste! Fired, banned and turned away from any jobs or opportunities. A bit extreme you say? So violence against a woman is condoned as okay? No means NO!
At a global Diaspora conference in Gurugram, the world's most influential Indian tech entrepreneurs gathered to discuss trends and shifts in the startup economy. India is the world's capital of startups with such a large annual revenue horizon that now it is referred to as SMART UPS by insiders. To listen to billionaires quote poetry but who have little interest in the arts was both expected and irritating. INDIA'S SOFT POWER panel was well moderated and attended but a later session in which I was featured was almost a wash out. EXPRESSING INDIA'S VISUAL CULTURE featured an assortment of Gallerists, a Chef, a Musician and myself. Conflicting schedules after lunch was a let down in many ways and I questioned my presence in a space that clearly did not care for the Arts beyond economical gains or tokenism.
However, it was the meetings before and after the panels that yielded rich experiences. Utkarsh Amitabh, author of PASSION ECONOMY AND THE SIDE HUSTLE REVOLUTION, shared his excitement and conviction about the value of mentoring and the importance of everybody having a "side hustle." Besides our main occupations and daily bread and butter affairs, it is this other hobby/interest/after hours interest that can actually become something larger and more important in our lives as we gain experience. Dancers who are now leading outdoor trekking groups, teaching mindful thinking and yoga, creating social media content, working with craft and textiles, curating events, movement therapy for seniors and children - each of these interests can take centre stage at any point in our lives.
So, what is your side hustle? Mine has to take serious note of what the Blue verification tick on my social media handles can generate. Or one of the many passions that keep pulling me away from performance.
#A LIFE IN FREE FALL
Besides holding DARPANA ACADEMY together during the difficult two years of COVID, Mallika Sarabhai has done something interesting. A woman who has lived life on her own terms, tested by fire and scalded more than once, this ferociously intelligent artiste has never been deterred by challenges. Now she has channelled her years of nutrition experience and a healthy life style choices into a book. Told simply in the first person, this is a woman's map of how to live life with choices that will sustain you through hormonal and emotional changes. Mallika is fantastically fit and her athletic form is inspiration for many women.
This kind of easy to read, candidly written volume is perfect for the post Covid, attention- challenged generation.
THE DESERTED LANDSCAPE OF DANCE WRITING
Although the number of performances and live events continue through the year, we at NARTHAKI are hampered by a lack of writers. In spite of creating several week long workshops with dancers and writers, we have not been fortunate to harvest even a handful of writers. Besides Kathakali Jana in Kolkata and Ranjana Dave in Delhi, there is nobody to write about festivals and performances. With senior critic Leela Venkataraman in semi retirement, the world of dance writing is truly bereft of independent critical opinion. Not that today's dancers want to listen to anything but praise. So perhaps we need to rethink the very notion of dance writing and criticism. Perhaps a greater focus on process rather than product could be one way. In any case, it is frustrating for me as the Managing Editor to keep requesting writers to attend and review shows. They are frequently busy with personal commitments and tell me that they are bored with classical dance. Enthusing writers should not be my job! It should be the other way around!
The recently concluded NATYA RANGAM festival in Chennai is a case in point. The assigned writers for THE HINDU will mostly praise each performance but the arts writing in this national daily has ceased to be interesting. I heard that the elaboration of sacred shrines KSHETRA BHARATAM was more effective by some of the soloists rather than the groups whose high "entertainment" value overshadowed the artistic core. Of course, this is largely through comments of dancers I spoke to as I did not attend any of the performances other than the first part of Karuna Sagari's group work. I found it interesting in concept but Karuna is a better soloist than a choreographer for a group. She is one dancer worth watching and following.
The missed opportunity of having a leading arts journalist taking a group of writers, poets, painters and photographers to a dance performance and then asking each person to respond in words or images continues to puzzle me. I have attempted several such cross arts engagements in the early 2000's and after attending the performance, the next round of input fizzled out. There continues to be so much hesitation in watching and reporting about classical dance. With today's rhetoric pulling towards other issues like caste and class, the artistic core of the performance becomes a blur. The arts continue to stay in their cubby holes, particularly in Chennai with so much smug contentment about the practice and production.
#HACKERS AT LARGE
It is happening more and more. Especially for the generation post 45 years old. Surveys point to my demographic as being more trusting and not putting in the adequate safe guards with Two Factor Authentication on our social media handles. So when our neighbour to the north east throws a large fishing net to capture as many handles as possible, many fall prey to this. Duplicating FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM and META logos and emails, these hackers sit mostly in Nepal and create US mobile numbers and fake photos to lure their suspects.
I fell prey to one such hacker on August 4 when my personal facebook page was infiltrated, I was pronounced dead on my own page and some disturbing religious messages were posted. My blue verified tick was an added incentive since these high profile handles and domains can be sold for as much as 25 lakh rupees! I took to Twitter and met the dark underbelly of the hacking world. Nobody uses their real names, appear only on Instagram and will not reveal their faces or emails. Everyone promised to help me regain my account for a fee. The dancer network was activated with several former Facebook and Meta employees reaching out to friends and relatives in Palo Alto, California and the Gurugram India office. Finally, the messy and complicated tangle was resolved but not before META office confessed that the hackers had used a new and very sophisticated form of software, the likes of which they had not encountered before!
Beyond the relief of having my personal page back in my control was the online "lesson" I was taught by the META officials. The several methods of monetising my profile, how to grow my followers and how to reach the optimum numbers to start revenue additions. This was like opening a window to a whole new world. And to think that when I and many others started our Facebook and Instagram accounts more than a decade ago, it was just to keep in touch and share slices of our lives that we chose to reveal!
It was also a lesson to me to distance oneself from social media and to understand that it is an AVATAR of ourselves. Getting addicted is so easy and so dangerous. Inadvertently, the many years of posting and sharing has created a visual documentation of our creative lives. Download all the posts and save them in case something unpleasant happens to our profiles!
My children don't use Facebook or WhatsApp. They are on Telegram and Instagram. "Facebook is for old people and WhatsApp cannot be trusted." Gosh!
With these words I close this month. Send me good wishes as I rehearse for 5 hours every day leading up to the premiere on September 26th. I will miss the colour of Navaratri and Vijaya Dasami this year. All the swishing silks, joyous visiting and gifting. But this is perhaps a gift to myself as I continue to work in the field I love - theatre and dance.
To all my colleagues across the world, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this as you have done each month. I also want to let you all know that changes are coming. Slowly but surely. Out website and newsletter will take on a more contemporary contour in the coming weeks and we are excited. Our content editor Lalitha Venkat, continues to work despite several personal challenges and our new team of web designers and content creators are excited to work alongside the team that has been at the helm of this portal since April 2000.
Change is the only constant. If we can remember that, then EVERYTHING falls into place.
Until next month
- Anita R Ratnam
Bay Area / Northern California
Facebook: Anita R Ratnam
Blog: THE A LIST / anita-ratnam.blogspot.in
Post your comments