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Anita's Andal
Photos: Adarsh Sahni

April 3, 2024

Andal is a five lettered word, so is Anita. Andal mystified, Anita demystified. Andal left a mark for aeons; Anita has left a mark by recreating Andal for the modern era. Naachiyar Next is one production that'd go down in history of Andal lore, as one of the handsomest offering in recent times. Anita Ratnam has also made it accessible to the rest of India. Southern traditions are steeped in these tales but for the rest of India, this is a good entry point to a rarefied and layered culture.

It is also accessible as Anita uses English to communicate. So the story and its core content reaches all. That Delhi audiences, who often know very little of the rest of India, connected easily shows Anita succeeded in making a very, very Tamil cultural icon reach all. The audience gave Anita Ratnam and team a real, long standing ovation proving yet again that Delhi may be dili-tante in deeper cultural moorings - especially of southern traditions - but it still retains its heart by giving generous claps all through the 70 minute rendition of the life and times of Godha, as Andal was also known.


Having seen a version of this work in 2000 (this is the fifth version) and believing so much in Anita Ratnam's artistry that we put her photo as Andal on the cover of 2000-1 attenDance which was a Bharatanatyam special. The number of mails and missives - emails had just started way back then and there was no social media! - I got from other disgruntled BN dancers as to why I put her on the cover that too as the best representative of BN, when she had just returned to India after decades abroad, made me realise what frogs in a well some of our dancers can be. My silent response was: First of all I dance to my own tunes and don't have to answer anyone or justify my choices and secondly, my vision in and for dance, are far bigger and ahead of its myopic times we lived in India then. Today, in 2024 when Anita returns with Naachiyar Next, it answers those doubters and pouters who had said who is Anita Ratnam to be put on the cover of BN special of India's only yearbook on dance
( She has proven in last 25 years, who she is!

The story of Andal is very well known to many South Indian communities but to those who may not be familiar with her legend, Anita hoped that, after watching the production, some in the audience may Google Andal's name! What is most unique about this offering is the spell it casts, the atmospherics and the magic of art. Having seen this last year at the odd auditorium of Bharat Kalachar in Chennai, it was refreshing to see it in Delhi even if Chinmaya Mission is not a suitable hall for a group dance show. Even in a nondescript, badly designed hall this work shone and how! A cast of 8 on stage, with Anita being the ninth and nine as you know is a magical number. You add it to any number it still becomes 9! Try. Subtract and still 9.

Then too, Anita focuses on the context rather than content. Andal was on the cusp of the 8th century - still early for the Bhakti movement - and the only female mystic poet in the canon of 12 male Alwar / Vishnu obsessed poets. Andal was the only poet to have her own temple in Sri Villiputtur (near Madurai) and Anita dovetails episodes of the teenager's life with her own feminist concerns and ideas of this century.

Naachiyar Next

In her introduction, she alludes to Andal being a "twin sister" to Meera bai, even if 9 centuries removed (9 again!); Twin in spirit, if not in DNA! If Andal is a seventh century figure then Meera is 16th century phenomenon. Nine centuries apart. North and South also are as culturally apart as the moon and sun. Andal is a chit-of-a-girl actually, a youngster barely in her teens - without lineage or known parentage - aiyo! aiyo! for those days and clime, left in a Tulasi grove in which, a childless priest finds her and adopts her. Then when she grows to be openly besotted by Krishna (Vishnu) and declares her love for him and doesn't care two hoots for society or its mores (that too Tamil of those times) then imagine her gumption and courage to go out and want to be wed to Krishna? In the end, she does merge with him.

Naachiyar Next

The story is sketchy at best, with known fables of her Thiruppavai - innocent songs that sing of happy times of cows with udders full; trees laden with fruits; kingdoms in prosperity and so on. These songs are fodder for BN dancers, especially young ones. Anita Ratnam's choice of the young Nandhini Subbulakshmi to depict Andal was a coup. She has the right amount of teenage mischief, a young maiden's bashfulness and in the end a mature rendition of undying love for Vishnu. To get such range in one young dancer, who can sing too, was a good find and Anita is one dancer who lets others dance! Most seniors don't wish to leave the stage and try to play younger roles when they are in their seventies and beyond.

Naachiyar Next

Sridhar Vasudevan as garland-maker priest is tailor made for the role and young BN dancer Nandhini as Andal is fetching. Her tears are for real in the end. Very convincing portrayal and direction by Anita who used to do this role herself but being an international artiste, she knows when not to cloy the audience too much.

Anita has joined various strands of ordinary fables and made it an extraordinary tale. Anita Ratnam and Mallika Sarabhai are two strong communicators. Theatre gives their dance, drama. I recall Mallika's Sita done in IIC in the mid nineties. She straddled on the IIC stage like a storm! Electrifying personality. Anita is muted in Andal, keeping southern sensibilities intact but all through she comes across as a first-rate communicator. Scenes move quickly, there are no dull moments and the opening and closing are powerful. The play with mirror to think of reflection in water to see her beauty, the fainting and swooning in one act remain memorable. Group formations are efficient, even in cramped spaces and Andal comes a winner. Anita merges seamlessly with most scenes and even stands still when needed, often holding the wings as prop.

Naachiyar Next

Naachiyar Next

Diaspora Indians would love to see this in most countries. The all-women music team (Subhasri Ravi on nattuvangam, Janani Hamsini on vocal, Ashwini Srinivasan on mridangam and Sowmya Ramesh on veena) also showed women power though India doesn't need to prove anything to anyone in the world. If Delhi audiences could sit mesmerized and without touching their cells for long then imagine rest of the disciplined world?!

Andal represents class and so does Anita. Andal represents a strong woman, so does Anita. Andal represents courage and so does Anita. Told you in the beginning itself they are both five-lettered words. Pancha, as one knows is auspicious and critical to Indian traditional lore. Anita deserves a Padma (five letters again!) award for this work alone. She should leave all else and take Andal home. Like Andal merged with her Lord, Anita should serve Andal and make it her own. She has, with this production. One left the hall with a very fulfilled feeling. Manotripti. How often does that happen? Thanks to the patronage of costume-maker / designer Sandhya Raman, all had a good time.

Ashish Mohan Khokar
Critic, connoisseur, historian, author, artivist, archivist, administrator and more - editor, columnist and mentor Ashish Khokar remains true to his muse.
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Your article made me relive the experience of watching Naachiyar Next. I watched this production at St. Andrew's auditorium, Bandra, Mumbai and was blown away! I've been a huge fan of Anita Akka's. She introduced 'Kathak through the Ages' in Maya didi's presence (2014) extempore. I wondered how a classical dancer could be that eloquent!

You have captured the emotion of the audience that watched Naachiyar Next, so beautifully!  I do believe that impactful narrations such as Anita Akka's grip the otherwise distracted / lost audience members, and help them assimilate every element of the story. As you have mentioned, every single person went home feeling elated and fulfilled. There is no classical dance without Bhakti. Andal truly looked and danced like Andal. Her sakhis, her father, and the soothsayer, shone in their roles! When they cried out "Andal Thiruvadigale sharanam" I felt as though Andal would come alive and prance around!
- S Sumana (April 4, 2024)

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