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September 2023

"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail".
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anita Ratnam
Photo: Sangeeta Banerjee/Oneframestory

It was a moment that united all Indians globally. The August 23rd touchdown of Chandrayaan-3 on the moon's southern surface. All differences were put aside to cheer our scientists. And then the debate began. What will that point be named? The first moon mission that crash landed on November 14, 2001 was called JAWAHAR STHAL (point), to honour India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Should this point be named after Dr Vikram Sarabhai or President Abdul Kalam? Suggestions came thick and fast on social media until we were told that it was going to be called TIRANGA (Tricolour) POINT and SHIV-SHAKTI POINT!

Dancer Mallika Sarabhai, daughter of the iconic scientist and father of India's space programme Dr Vikram Sarabhai, had a long post on Facebook about the origin of the space programme INCOSPAR and her father's pivotal role in spurring attention and resources towards India's space research. "For those interested, I am recording history rather than fairy tales," she says, taking a self-deprecating dig at the recurring Radha Krishna mythological tropes!

Tota Roy Chowdhury as Chandon Chatterjee, a professional Kathak dancer
Tota Roy Chowdhury as Chandon Chatterjee, a professional Kathak dancer

The Bollywood hit ROCKY AUR RANI KI PREM KAHANI has an interesting polarity that many dancers may have missed. A wealthy Punjabi family - loud, bling obsessed and abrasive - encounter a Bengali family from Kolkata who have moved to Delhi. In a typical Karan Johar fantasy clash, the "cultured" Bengalis are dismayed (and vice versa) with the "brash" Punjabis.

What makes this even more interesting is that the father of the heroine is a Kathak dancer and one who, with his mother's support, held on to his passion in spite of being humiliated and abused by his own father. Dance, education and literature were the hallmarks of the Bengalis while money, power and connections were the mantras of the Punjabis. As love enters their homes, the Punjabis try to shame the Bengalis by announcing a Kathak dance performance at one of their parties. The derisive laughter of the crowd, including young partygoers, the embarrassment of the male dancer and the subsequent arguments that ensue between the young lovers make for an interesting study. That a male Kathak dancer becomes a cause for scorn should not even be brought up in cinema themes. However, with the Punjabi hero attempting to learn Kathak to please his beloved and ending up doing a surprising duet with his dancer (future) father-in-law at the Durga Puja pandal, is pure Bollywood fantasy. But a nice one at that!

Using Kathak (and Tagore) to depict a "cultured" family was an interesting story arc, despite the fact that the character had to face humiliation for his artistic life choice. Money and arrogance finally succumbed to love, compassion and DANCE!

DANCE LIKE A MAN was the award winning play written by Mahesh Dattani that has been running successfully for over 20 years. In it, the father of the dancer asks his son, "What will you get out of being a dancer? Nothing. You will get nothing. People will laugh at you!" Has anything changed for the male dancer today? The field is far better yet it is nowhere a level playing surface. The male dancers are still facing a tough challenge in terms of being programmed at major festivals and stand a better chance of being seen in duets with their wives!

Vyjayantimala at her 90th birthday celebrations
Vyjayantimala at her 90th birthday celebrations
Anita Ratnam With Vyjayantimala
With Vyjayantimala
Sharp, clear and beautiful. The Icon of Icons celebrated her 90th birthday in August. At a beautifully organised event in Chennai, Vyjayantimala walked in - erect and slim, draped in a beautiful Kanjivaram sari. Accompanied by her watchful son Suchinder and her two besties Malini Srinivasan and Sarala Krishnan, Vyjayanti Akka was delighted to meet so many dancers across generations. The famous trio - Sudharani Raghupathy, Padma Subrahmanyam and Chitra Visweswaran - were present along with the Dhananjayans and many more. It was an evening filled with love, admiration and sheer awe. Vyjayanti danced beautifully and to see those long arms move in the initial "namaskaram" to the floor was emotional.

My guru Adyar K Lakshman always held her up as an example of dedication. Returning from film shoots at 2am, Vyjayantimala would bathe, change into her dance practice clothes and rehearse from 3am until 7am before going to bed! Unbelievable dedication!
Her passion for the poet saint ANDAL is legendary and so is her absolute surrender to the idea of divine bliss. A beautiful singer, Vyjayantimala is waiting to dance - anytime. Her son cautions us, "All she wants to do is dance. Every single day. If you invite her, she will immediately say YES!"

Stepping into her 10th decade with such glamour, glory and grace! What a storied life and what a blessing to have watched her dancing all my life. She even has a fan page on Instagram @vyjayantimalabali. It has some glorious photos and some charming moments, mostly from her film days.

To have been an emcee for her Music Academy shows, to attend her rehearsals, her wedding to Dr Chaman Bali, walking with her on the golf course as she struck the ball so gracefully, interviewing her in New York for my television show and to witness her passion for the Vaishnavite hymns of the Divya Prabandham brought to life, to know about her disciplined food habits and, most importantly, to see her gracefully accepting life as it comes - it has truly been a privilege!

TRIGGER WARNING. The following subject may be upsetting to some. I am just sharing my recent thoughts and not making any judgements.

Alzheimer’s, Cancer and Dementia are three dreaded ailments. Cancer has always lurked silently, surging savagely at the least expected moment. However, since Covid there has been a spurt in the cases of early Dementia and Alzheimer’s to the best of our artistic community. To see dynamic gurus reduced to vacuuous incoherence is tragic. To watch brilliant artistes disappearing before our eyes with the ravages of radiation and chemo treatments must make us wonder as to how long should life be prolonged artificially. Are we willing to let our loved ones go sooner and with less pain? How many seniors live in hospitals or our homes, a mere shadow of their former selves, severely debilitated due to strokes or heart attacks - on life support - medical bills piling up while the patients themselves are waiting for a release. And families watch helplessly.

This is a grim thought but it hit me very clearly when my beloved German Shepherd Bonita was put to rest. Beyond medical interventions, it was clear that her life would be severely compromised. The final moments were filled with group support, expert care, grace and compassion. There are so many patients who pray for a quiet and graceful exit without pain and suffering. My own mother, terminally ill with a brain tumour,   opted out of any Interventions and chose Tibetan medicine to help her through her final 6 months.  She was pain free and peaceful at the very end, her face calm and radiant. Tibetan monks from Bylakuppe assembled around her bed a week before the end and chanted for the gentle transition of her spirit. It was such a moving experience!

It is a delicate path I tread while discussing this issue but it makes me wonder about the conundrum we call LIFE. We control so little of it.  Artistes like Durga Lal who collapsed on stage while dancing, made for a sudden yet beautiful exit. To dance until the very end. Until breath leaves our bodies. To dance! Just dance!


They are all over on Instagram, Bharatanatyam dancers from Honolulu to Dallas. Coming together to celebrate dance and to enjoy performing together in an exuberant burst of energy. I have watched several of these high-energy clips and can actually feel the energy and joy in the participants. What fun it must be to find yourself with kindred spirits from another city or country - bound by a dance tradition that they all love!

I wonder though, about what these young men and women are seeking in their art? Beyond these bursts of dancing which also blends into a social session, and the frequent visiting artiste workshop that happens frequently in the USA - what can keep the enthusiasm and interest in dance going? Performances still continue to be sparse and it seems hard for the 20 something generation to elbow their way into the scene. The responses I received from my Instagram post were most interesting. From Chicago, Dublin, Detroit and many other cities. Many mentioned "a safe space beyond performances and reviews". Others said it was a way for those who had stopped dancing to return to a "a safe space for diversity, ideas and aesthetics." Others mentioned that "it was a way to watch one another and perhaps begin a collaborative process." From Dublin, @dancingwithruth said, "It is a great way to meet young dancers from different training backgrounds and to feel a kindred spirit in the meet ups. The fact that we share the same passion towards the art form encourages youngsters like myself to create platforms and spaces for other dancers to explore!"

Enough said!


In August, SNS ARTS CONSULTANCY ideated MIXTURA - a multi venue multi genre festival which brought art to Chennai's public spaces. It was a success and an eye opener for the public. It reminded me of the giant arts festival in Zurich's main train station. 100,000 passengers who pass through that busy intersection were able to stop and watch music, dance, gymnastics and other performance forms.

Here in Chennai, dancer/scholar Swarnamalya Ganesh has curated an event TEXTURES OF TRADITIONS around the vicinity of Nandanam Metro station in the heart of Chennai. An Arts and crafts market, performing artistes invited from strife torn Manipur, a site specific choreography session (by yours truly) and senior artistes adapting to a tiny space in a cafe - all attempting to break the stereo typical "framing" of the proscenium stage. This two day event (Sep 16 and 17) aims at "winding and unwinding the threads of connections across the arts". With Malavika Sarukkai's DANCE FOR DANCE and DANCE IMMERSION PROGRAMME in Bengaluru just completed, it is heartening to see dancers embracing the organiser and curator's hat to go beyond performance and teaching. Now if only the hundreds of dancers in Chennai actually turn up for this event, we will not have to ask "where are the audiences?"

The 2023 Chennai dance season calendar is slowly being revealed.. The programming is the same old same old. Maybe one or two new names but largely an overdose of Bharatanatyam and very little else. In the midst of the overcrowded programming, we at this portal are struggling to find writers in this city to cover the surge of shows. We have many new bylines from other Indian cities on our portal covering performances of younger artistes, but in my own home town I am finding a total lack of interest to write about dance. Forget a review, even an overview, a preview, a curtain raiser - there are simply no writers in this city that is hailed as THE CENTRE OF CARNATIC MUSIC AND BHARATANATYAM. All dance publications in the west have gone online but at least they carry compelling and thoughtful coverage of events and issues.

From across the waters, I spoke to a well-known artistic director of a dance company who was looking for international bookings for his troupe. He wondered why presenters like NCPA and other Indian organisations were not present at the convention and why there was no curiosity to look at international dance content for the Indian market. The answer is simple. Costs. The math is simply not feasible. Even the newly opened Ambani powered NMACC multi arts centre has found it hard to sell out WEST SIDE STORY day after day. The award winning Broadway musical and film had superb choreography by Jerome Robbins and I wish that Mumbai dancers had seen it only to discuss the use of street smart physicality with clever choreography for the camera. WEST SIDE STORY was recently remade by Steven Spielberg and it continues to remain a watershed moment for modern dance and acting.

Most of the time Indian presenters are treating the arts audiences like senior geriatrics. Gently holding them by the hands and leading them to their seats. We don't trust their intelligence. Indian taste for food, fashion, travel and the high life may be getting bolder (with the inevitable Indian accent - paneer pizza and cheese dosa!) but the cultural tastes for museums and the contemporary arts still has a long way to go!

With so much new energy in dance, music and street dance and music forms, it is high time for younger and bolder curators to take a chance on exploring the diversity and range of talent. To stop thinking about HIGH ART and LOW ART and to carefully and respectfully programme acts keeping a young and impatient audience in mind.

I keep saying this and will repeat it. AGAIN!

No longer can we seniors sit around and moan about the dropping of standards and lowering of aesthetics. We, the original team at NARTHAKI TEAM are all over 60 years of age! Mostly totally out of sync with what is happening out there. However, I am among the very few who choose to be present in social media and continue to learn HOW to engage. Making mistakes, and facing the anger rather than sitting on the fence as part of the POPCORN BRIGADE! The hiring of a young social media manager and listening to many younger dancers has been an eye opening lesson for our team.

Perhaps there are still small clusters who adore the old ways - of slow art, slow food (that is a thing!) AND SLOW DANCING. But the times they are a changing and today’s GEN X are NOT waiting! If we want to connect with them, it cannot be the old ways of talking down, preaching and scolding. We seniors have valuable experiences that the youngsters ARE eager to listen and absorb. It is the WAY we choose to share is what we have to understand. Or be prepared to be cancelled!

At the impressive NMACC, the free museum events RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN (brilliant!) and the immersive YAYOI KUSAMA (exciting!) exhibits saw long waiting lines.
Dance programming at the two smaller theatres is tilted towards known names and the classical genre. Returning soon to the venue’s GRAND THEATRE is the mega Indian spectacle  CIVILISATION TO NATION with catchy choreography and mark my words - tickets will sell out very fast!

Prathibha Prahlad
Prathibha Prahlad

The idea first mooted by Prathibha Prahlad in April 2022 has taken off to foreign shores. As I write this, a 14 member troupe is on the verge of leaving for RUSSIA for the FESTIVAL OF INDIA IN RUSSIA event. The performance is WARRIOR WOMEN OF BHARAT- a show for which I created, wrote, directed, choreographed and performed the short cameo of Captain Lakshmi Sehgal who led the female regiment of the Indian National Army from Singapore. A fresh batch of artistes is playing the 7 iconic women who fought against the British for Indian independence. Here's wishing producer and team leader Prathibha Prahlad and her colleagues the very best for the tour.

Each week several artistes are being flown out to 9 cities in Russia. With no American social media apps working in Russia, we will await news and images when the artistes return.

Meanwhile, New Delhi will be choked with VIP traffic with the mega G20 Summit meeting until mid-September.  Residents will be stuck at home or on the roads and large dance celebrations are being planned for the visiting dignitaries by Maitreyi Pahari, Rani Khanam and Santosh Nair. Expect hundreds of dancers of all classical and folk forms to be the example of India's "soft culture."

Festival season is upon us! Janmashtami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Navaratri, Deepavali and so many more celebrations across faiths will cascade week after week. As the power of the sun diminishes, pujas and prayers increase all across the world. It is the natural order of how human beings organized the annual calendar - across cultures and faiths.

Gather around your family and loved ones.
Dance demands much. Sometimes too much. And Dance continues through sunsets and moon landings, tornadoes, and floods.
A dancer is the best example of a survivor. Grit, perseverance, determination, fierce focus and stamina.

So, keep that rhythm going!

My fractured toe is healing and my indifferent health is getting back on track.
I look forward to meeting some of you as I resume my journeys!

Enjoy the festival season!

Until we meet again...

- Dr Anita R Ratnam

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

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