The Chicago Toofaan!

November 6, 2006

The Windy City blew in the second edition of its international Bharatanatyam conference in September 7 - 10, 2006. Occurring 5 years after the month that shook the world, this conference was a reminder of the innocence we all believed in before the Twin Towers collapsed in New York City on September 11, 2001. I had left Chicago two days earlier for Pittsburgh while many dancers were stranded in Chicago post 9/11/01 - Sonal Mansingh, Chandralekha and Malavika. All performance tours were cancelled except for indomitable Sonal who hired a car and drove overnight to Atlanta to perform for Emory University without missing a beat! Hema Rajagopalan and daughter Krithika remember September 2001 vividly since their generosity and hospitality were stretched to the limit while trying to accommodate the confusion that ensued!

With Bharatanatyam, the most popular Indian dance form having assumed a thousand more 'avatars' since 2001 and the diaspora literally bursting with dancers, teachers and touring opportunities in the last 5 years, this '06 conference seemed to carry the unseen weight of great expectations.

'DANCE INDIA: Choreographic Traditions' was the title for the 3 day event, September 7-10. The downtown location was the Harold Washington Library Pritzker Auditorium; gorgeous and ideal for both solo and group work. Conference director Hema Rajagopalan had her hands full - at home and at the conference venue. Her mobile phone was ringing 24/7 with demands regarding food specifications and accommodation complaints. Months ago when she had asked for my suggestion regarding some of the programming, I had recommended that she concentrate on focusing the spotlight on the younger generation rather than inviting all the usual names from India. During these conversations she requested me to revive some of the experimental work inspired by poet AK Ramanujan's Tamil Sangam translations in dance. It was from the city of Chicago that AKR did his seminal translations of the 2000 year old Tamil Sangam poetry. Hema felt that a tribute should be paid through a prism of dance- theatre. After several conversations and e-mails going back and forth, I reluctantly agreed. Krithika, her gorgeous dancer-daughter, had performed a trio with actor Rajika Puri and myself in 1996 called POEMS FOR THE EYE. Since that experience, I had never returned to the Sangam poems, seeing that Bharatanatyam dancers had seized them with gusto for their repertoire.

The advance publicity and printing for 'DANCE INDIA' was widely circulated and the programming line up reflected a great deal of homework and planning. Funding from several foundations and support from the city of Chicago revealed that Bharatanatyam had achieved mainstream support among the media and arts agencies in the mid west USA. Several papers carried good previews of the event and with the wonderful series of events at the 2001 event still fresh in many minds, there was great excitement when I arrived in the windy city!

DANCE INDIA also marked the 30th anniversary of founder Hema Rajagopalan's award winning dance academy and company Natya Dance Theatre. The Governor of lllinois sent his representative to read aloud an official commendation to Hema and Natya Dance for their outstanding contribution to the artistic mosaic of Chicago. The opening day dance and kalari showcase called "Attam-The Classical and Colloquial" curated and led by VR Devika, was a new addition to the programming. The other invited guests, performers and speakers were voices I had heard again and again in various conference and venues in India and overseas. Was this going to become another "same old" experience of tired verbal diarrhea? But wait. Something different was going to happen. Only I did not know it by reading the brochure.
Five years ago, seated in the Columbia College auditorium in downtown Chicago, there was hushed silence and awe watching Chandralekha's SARIRA and Malavika Sarukkai's KASI YATRA. Perhaps I should say the key words were "Shock and Awe" to borrow from George Dubya's phrase. This time around, Leela Samson's SPANDA ensemble and Priyadarshini Govind's solo concerts did not elicit anywhere near that level of unanimous acceptance or high decibel embarrassment of the provocative SARIRA. In fact the comments I heard from many young people about Priya were, "What superb araimandi but why is she so filmi?"; "Such clean lines but why the extreme overacting in the Sangam piece"? And this from an American scholar, "I expected a great deal but was disappointed."

These comments were surprising since Priyadarshini is quite the international flavour of solo Bharatanatyam at the moment - with her DVDs and her performances all over the globe. Rarely does one hear a negative word about her, except from a few disappointed dancers like myself.

As for Leela Samson's impeccably rehearsed and performed SPANDA, I heard the following: "This was like Choreography class 101"; "Such clean dancing but it did not move me"; "An excellent example of Kalakshetra's clean lines in ensemble"; "Meditative, repetitive and very neo classical."

What was happening, I thought to myself. I was sensing a definite - not seismic - shift towards self confidence in Gen-Next, combined with an ability to analyze and locate the India-born work without excessive sentimentality or moist- eyed reverence. (I have to add here that I did not attend the opening folk art session by VR Devika or either of the evening performances. I was also absent from the morning sessions. I am reporting what I heard from several dancers during the afternoon showcase which I attended and backstage while I was waiting to perform. Discussions and comments continued at the airport on September 10 as many participants, dancers and attendees were boarding flights to similar destinations).

To prove the growing confidence of the NRI artistes, an afternoon event titled INNOVATIONS IN DANCE: DEPARTURES FROM TRADITION offered a smorgasbord of the diasporic talent. This session saw a packed auditorium with standing room only audiences, many of them American. Perhaps the best crowds for the entire event. In brief showings of 15 to 20 minutes, Anne Marie Gaston from Ottawa responded to a Native American creation poem with attractive DVD images behind her. Following her were Rajika Puri from New York, Hari Krishnan from Toronto, Parul Shah from New York, Rasika Kumar from California and Krithika Rajagopalan from Chicago who presented excerpts from their works. I loved the entire afternoon. Sitting next to my doctor friend who loves dance and cannot understand much except what his own 'optic' responds to, I found myself in a neutral and comfortable space where I was neither performer, presenter nor commentator.

At this session I could just be a rasika and respond 'from heart to heart" (as Uttara Coorlawala expressed in 2001). Good technical support in the short time allowed and such a variety of presentations had the audience applauding generously after each presentation without an exception. Rajika Puri (Flamenco Natyam), Hari Krishnan (Owning Shadows), Parul Shah (Chasing Shadows) and Krithika Rajagopalan's group choreography GENESIS seemed to be the most popular with the crowds. Rasika Kumar impressed with her stage presence but her costuming did not enhance her statuesque frame. Rajika danced at her best form I have seen in many years, honing her special brand of Sutradhari Natyam and bringing the vigour of Flamenco to the canvas of Indian dance.

Hari Krishnan's two Canadian dancers showed amazing ability while executing 'ta tai tam adavus' with terrific stamina. However, I heard the NRI dancers in the audience commenting on how the 'tat tai tam' adavus were not properly performed. White bodies responding to the detailing of the Bharatanatyam finger extremities has always posed a challenge to choreographers but Hari Krishnan used speed, precision and imaginative blocking to mask any awkwardness that may have arisen from the fingers not being extended or stretched enough as per Indian standards! Prince Rama and Surpanakha, danced by a Canadian and a Japanese dancer made for very interesting viewing, like a poem in trans-creation from Tamil to English. The NRI dancers were more at home in their bodies as they negotiated the expanding spaces between their learned technique and new explorations. The non-Indian dancers showed more agility, space awareness and more concentration in the work demonstrated. The soundscapes were also very varied. A mallari sung to a twanging electric guitar, a Japanese Shakuhachi flute over a Carnatic alaap and English poetry, pneumonic jathi syllables manipulated through electronica. Castanet clicks and footwork - sounds that may enrage purists but these captured that afternoon's audience. What was made amply clear that afternoon was that artistes who live, breathe and create dance 10,000 miles away - ranging from 25 to 60 years in age - represented freshness, clarity and confidence. Now THAT I had not seen in 2001!

To rapidly dissolve my opinion of the diaspora dancers being "stuck" in an India-nostalgia time warp, the morning discussions revealed a very confident Krithika and Hari Krishnan refusing to bow, scrape and pay obeisance to the hallowed names from India.. At one of the morning sessions titled "Indian Dance in the Global Context," both choreographers held their own in the discussions and the entire tone of condescension, so commonly heard from the senior gurus from India was quickly deflected. It was not disrespectful. Just direct. "Why is Bharatanatyam still considered ethnic dance?" wondered Guru CV Chandrasekhar. "Because almost the entire USA consists of part- time hobbyists parading as professional dancers while they do not live and earn their livelihood through dance," replied Hari Krishnan to applause from the audience. "Research, process and practice are interlinked here in Chicago. The collaborative energies are far more democratic here than back in India," Krithika said, her comments resonating clearly amongst younger audience members.

The last day saw several scenes from new works being showcased in which our hapless RED EARTH AND POURING RAIN was an unfortunate part. Krithika was ill with pneumonia. She was also burdened with dancing in not just this but four other dances ON THE SAME DAY! (To give her credit, she too was very concerned about our work and humorously suggested that I run her over with a car so that we did not need to go on stage to make total idiots of ourselves!)

While on stage, I could almost feel the piercing eyes of Kalanidhi Mami and VR Devika balanced by the supportive energies of Rajika and Hari, both feeling as awful for me as I was feeling on the stage. There can be nothing worse for a dancer than being betrayed by herself! Created over 4 days of face to face encounters in June in Chennai, this work-in-progress was very patchy and not ready for any showing. After the performance, many of the younger NRI Indians in their 20s and 30s came backstage to say that the bold English words were "so cool!" Was I then being too sensitive to the 'India eyes' that watched me? Was I nervous about being torn apart by a review? Was it fair to present an incomplete work before people who had come to see me perform in Chicago after ten years? Was the opinion of a few more important than the work itself? Did I also, in my own way, contribute to the failure of Red Earth that day? Did my fatigue and my other family preoccupations contribute to the state of the work that afternoon? Later over lunch in New York, Rajika asked why I danced as if I did not want to be there. She got it on the button. Still, it was a valuable mistake for me to make. Critic Leela Venkatraman's review in The Hindu in New Delhi (Friday October 13) was most gracious in dismissing "Red Earth... " with the brief phrase "it never took off." VR Devika has also tactfully praised Krithika's "amazing energy and stamina" in her review of the event on the Kutcheri Buzz site and in Sruti magazine.

Soon after Red Earth, I watched excerpts of the RASA collaboration between Hema and Kumudini Lakhia. Krithika was continuing her series of costume changes for these too. A new chain of thoughts began. Does the diaspora work need to be located along with the India-origin work to be validated? During collaborations with other styles, why is it that Bharatanatyam always has to bow down to the dictates of the collaborating style? In this case, Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Why are we so self conscious that we do not insist that the north Indian dancers also make an effort to react and respond to our jathis and our alaap? (Why is it that even in music, Carnatic musicians feel obligated to include bhajans and abhangs in their repertoire?! Do we ever, even once, hear a North Indian musician attempt a Carnatic raga or a padam?) What makes successful and intelligent choreographers suddenly appear self conscious in the presence of choreographers from North India?! I was angry when I saw the sway of north Indian music and Kathak against the retreat of Bharatanatyam in the glimpses shown. Hema Rajagopalan is a very imaginative choreographer and does not need to be docile in the name of "etiquette' or 'politesse.' Krithika is enjoying her own success as the only featured dancer in cellist Yo Yo Ma's SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE work. The recent shows in New York were all sold out. Natya Dance Theatre is a celebrated company in the mid west US and there are no Indian critics to chide them for being "confused coconuts." So why this?

Which brings me to the final set of questions. What is the aim of such a conference? Validation from Indian press? To fulfill local funding initiatives? In spite of Hema inviting all the US based dancer gurus, why did so few show up? The introductory statements in the brochure stated that "the conference would explore what defines tradition and the importance of tradition in creating new work. What opportunities and challenges do dancers and choreographers face as they move across borders? What strategies are available for examining and developing traditions in transition?"

Were these objectives achieved? Some, but not all. Several unanswered questions left many feeling frustrated. In this age when dance is facing dwindling audiences everywhere, and huge mobs are seen at all Bollywood events, this event drew excellent crowds. New voices and talents were heard. What showed up clearly was that the India "halo" had conclusively evaporated for many serious younger dancers and choreographers in the USA. By repeating the same generation of senior speakers and critics time and time again, the appalling paucity of new voices in Indian dance was glaring. In the USA, mainstream dance publications like The New York Times and The Village Voice have 'let go' their dance critics, a move that does not augur well for dance.

What Sadanand Menon said in Toronto in 1993 and repeated in Chicago in 2001 was finally sealed in stone at the Chicago 2006. The intellectual center of Indian dance has moved out of India. One may need a passport or a visa to enter into the land of "classical Bharatanatyam" (Ananya Chatterjea's BUTTING OUT). The lines between those who are creating and performing the "pure" dance and those who are questioning all the systems of training in new directions seem to be drawn even more defiantly. I remembered what Chitra Sundaram, editor of PULSE had said in The Indian Express; "Bharatnatyam has become a cultural product and not an art form to be studied for what it is." The schism between dance and academics is wider than ever. The younger generation of Indian dance scholars was missed at the conference. Priya Srinivasan (invited but did not arrive) and Ananya Chatterjea (had a premiere of a new work) could not be present. Chitra Sundaram and Lada Guruden Singh would have been welcome voices in the dialogue. Dancers Geeta Chandran and Narthaki Nataraj would have also been good artistes to watch.(unknown to Chicago audiences but approaching dance from very different perspectives). Months of careful planning and preparation did not prepare Hema, Krithika and their team for the last minute cancellations and "no shows" of many panelists and speakers. Although Hema received a standing ovation from the crowd on the last day for the monumental effort, many of us missed hearing the words of seminal culturalist Kapila Vatsyayan. She remains, perhaps, one of the very few cultural workers whose mind assimilates the many kinds of Indian-ness. All the missing strands of the conference - the worlds of philosophy, architecture, ethics, musicology, painting and history would have coalesced in her speech. (Dr. Vatsyayan was invited and confirmed but last minute health concerns kept her away).

I came away from the Chicago conference on September 10 with sadness and mixed feelings of regret. Another missed opportunity? Where were discussions on copyright? The rights of the dancer versus the choreographer and the presenter/producer. Who are the custodians of tradition? Who decides what is pure and classical? Why are only classical dancers debating about innovations and purity? What about those who are working in contemporary theatre and new genres called performance-art? Why are discussions about Bharatanatyam polarized as pro and anti the devadasi or Rukmini Devi?

Why am I bothering about these things, I thought. I should have stayed with my son in Atlanta and completed the process of helping him move into his new dorm and new life as a freshman student. What was the need for me to go to Chicago? My presence was certainly not vital to the event. What was the dire urgency to be seen in such a poor light? Was I over reacting myself? Years of attending conferences, seeing the same faces making the rounds and leaving with too many unanswered questions has made me disheartened with the dance scene among the NRI community in the USA. With these thoughts swirling in my mind I walked smack into a high security situation at the Chicago Midway airport in which a dancer ahead of me was asked to unzip her pants to check if she was hiding anything in her belly button!!?? What a great metaphor, I thought, for the Bharatanatyam conference! Unzipping the smug masks worn by the "over the hill gurus" to reveal naked terror at being forgotten! Unzipping also the layer of overconfidence for me. Forcing me to look more closely at the real reasons I say YES to another conference or collaboration.

Anita R Ratnam is a creator in many mediums. Stage, TV, print and the Internet. Her work and ideas carry the motif of the personal and mythical blending into her life and art. She is the founder and managing editor of and the co-creator of THE OTHER FESTIVAL in India. She is presently preparing for her Phd in Women's Studies in India. This article represents her personal views. She can be contacted at