Where are the culture warriors?
e-mail: arangham@gmail.com

January 26, 2010

Where are the cultural warriors? Where have they gone? Have they abdicated their responsibility of being the prism to sift artistic responses and give the reading and viewing public an objective dimension of the arts?

I speak of the much talked about group. The liberals. The custodians of culture, the people who serve as stewards of civilization and mentors to the next generation. They who maintain the pathways into knowledge and taste - the school curriculum, cultural institutions, and cultural pages in newspapers and magazines – guarding them against low standards, ahistoricism, vulgarity and trendiness. If the pathways deteriorate, don't blame the kids and parents too much. Blame, also, the teachers, gurus, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors and curators who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition, who will not judge cultural novelties by the high standards set by the past practitioners of art, who will not stand up to the adolescence and instead announce, "It is time to put away the past. It is childish to look backwards." It is they who have let down the society that entrusts them to sustain intelligence and wisdom and beauty, and they have failed the youth who can't climb out of adolescent behaviour in dance and the arts on their own.

The bylines of experienced writers like Nandini Ramani, Shanta Serbjeet Singh, Gowri Ramnarayan, Prasanna Ramaswamy, Meenakshi Shedde, Prakriti Kashyap, Sunil Kothari and Ashish Khokar have disappeared from the editorial pages of Hindustan Times, Times of India and The Hindu. We are fortunate to have all some of these voices on our site and I am sure that readers engage with their mature viewpoints on dance. Until fifteen years ago, the Economic Times had a large space for discussion on the arts, led by Sadanand Menon. That vanished and with it began the era of selling everything from toothpaste to eyelashes. Menon commented in the recently concluded Natya Kala Conference that there is no objective arts criticism left in India. It seems there is a blanket order from the media to muffle any independent point of view. Of course, independence also means that a writer has the freedom to say that he or she DOES NOT LIKE a particular performance. There is also a general viewpoint in the traditional press that NOBODY is interested in reading about dance. Whose fault is it?

Also with the increasingly militant behaviour of the dance mafia, nothing negative is permitted to be printed about any of the reigning divas. I know for a fact that writers' words have been changed and manipulated often by several senior editors after the reviews have been submitted. Consider the enormous waste of valuable space when the same dancers and the same writers churn the same few words in a rubix cube effort to say the same things about the very same people while so many talented youngsters never get a single mention.

Where has our objectivity, our sense of humour and reality gone? Can we not accept criticism and realize that once we have performed, that the performance itself stands apart from the human being who has created and shared that moment? Obviously not, because if we really did, I would not have received a barrage of negative comments from so many readers to my latest editorial about the R-A-M-P walk on this site. Readers think that I have personal vendettas against some dancers and that another dancer cannot comment on a performer. That is an unfortunate response. I do not micro manage this site and allow for the editorial team led by Lalitha Venkat to accommodate many viewpoints. Glowing reviews of Malavika, Valli, Priya and now Rama have appeared on this site more than once. Anyway, the Bharatanatyam world is far larger than these four women. Many more are doing wonderful work and deserve mention in the future.

Oh, I know I am treading on eggshells. However, obedience and obsequiousness is not my forte. I speak after 45 years of dancing, watching dance, organizing, speaking, writing and witnessing the morphing of Bharatanatyam into a global cultural product. We now have Accro-Natyam, Cabaret Natyam, Military Natyam, Cine Natyam, Sufi Natyam, Neo Natyam, Yesu Natyam, Eelam Natyam - Everything but Bharata Natyam. I watch it all and write from my gut. If some of you don't like it, too bad! You can curse and scream and swear all you like. I am not an editor who is worried about circulation nor am I a writer scared of losing my job. As founder and editor-in-chief, I look forward to sharing my views on this precious site that you have all embraced with so much love and enthusiasm. The last time I checked, we were still living in the largest democracy on the planet.

Is this a situation where we are looking at a silent minority who are afraid to take a stand? A betrayal of the mentors who watch by the sidelines in silence and allow those who shout the loudest, like in Indian Parliament, finally get their way?

And so it goes…

- Responses

Editorial of Jan 15, 2010

It is officially over. The Madras Margazhi season. Or any other name you may wish to call these past six weeks of chaos and cacophony. One former dancer wrote in a newspaper saying that "it is a time where a few people take themselves too seriously."

Nothing can be further from the truth. Madras has changed and grown to accommodate a multitude of various groups and diverse interests from food, fashion, IT, schools and hospitals. It is not merely a cultural epicenter but a headliner in medical care, education and manufacturing. It is this jostling of the new Chennai and the old Madras that makes for a charming, though chaotic mix in December. Thousands of music and dance lovers congregate from around the world to watch and listen to their favourite artistes. Madras is where you can witness the best musicians and dancers share their art with a largely discerning crowd. Carnatic musicians have become rock stars with house full crowds and skyrocketing CD sales. Bharatanatyam however has another story to tell. Too many dancers and too many versions of avatars of this classical form has given this brilliant style an air of hybrid confusion.

Take for instance the four solo stars of today. I use the fashion acronym of RAMP. Or rather, Rama, Alarmel, Malavika and Priyadarshini. All four of them command large audiences and fanatic fan base. Of the four, Priya is the IT girl of Bharatanatyam at the moment. Nothing she does can be faulted, however horrendous or garish. She has audiences eating out of her hand and numerous clones being spawned around the world. If you say that her dancing is NOT pleasing, you invite stares and stunned looks from most everyone in the dance world. My pick of the four remains Malavika, who this season, reinforced her claim of being India's best soloist with her continuous quest of keeping body, mind and spirit together in her art and spatial arrangements. Rama is a fabulous dancer but needs much more work and thought in her programming and approach to textual nuances. Valli is Valli. Not much more to say there. Has not changed much in the 30 years I have watched her dance. Her style and approach may not be everyone's cuppa tea but she is everywhere and looks fabulous on stage with her petite form and "above the waist bani." Priyadarshini needs a drastic overhaul with everything she does on stage and no matter what the adoring young critics write about her costumes, they look like patchwork thrift shop quilting. Her disappointing showing at the Natya Kala Conference revealed a lack of intellectual clarity and communication skills. (Valli scores over all others in that area). One NRI dancer commented after watching Priya's demonstration and contemporary dancer Padmini Chettur's showing at the NKC by saying, "If what Priyadarshini is doing today can be called Bharatanatyam, then Padmini Chettur can also call her dance by the same name!"

By far the best Bharatanatyam performance of the season was the brilliant duet by Toronto based Srividya Natarajan and Hari Krishnan. Watch them next season and remember what BN was originally! Dynamic, fluid, imaginative and lyrical.

The Music Academy continues to be the best managed space for dance in the city. Punctuality, back stage management to curb visitors, polite ushers and comfortable seats ensure for a pleasant experience. Shijith Krishna, who was a replacement for French dancer Dominique, was very well received by audiences who felt he had matured and evolved.

The opening ceremony of the Chennai Sangamam, the annual folk arts and food festival got off to a grand inaugural last Sunday. Prasanna Ramaswamy's brilliant vision of the various Tamizh folk forms coming together under the canopy of Thota Tharani's backdrop at Island Grounds, Chennai, was a treat. All except for one blip in the 70 minutes. The classical dancer as Tamizh nature goddess Kottravai. Watching her reminded me of the schizoid personality of BN in today's world. All body, all ego, zero abhinaya and no soul.

And so it goes…

Anita Raajyalaxmi Ratnam
Jan 15, Chennai

Some responses to the Jan 15 editorial from sangeethas.wordpress.com

Anita Ratnam should either perform nritta like the others do at their age or stop commenting on people who are still in shape and performing despite all the odds. Did she just say Mallika Sarabhai is better than Priyadarshini Govind. And did she just pronounce Srividya Natarajan the best? You should realise what you are comparing! Priyadarshini Govind knows how to keep lines. She has amazing stamina to perform a ‘Bharatanatyam' margam with a grace and control no Kalakshetra student can question or refute! This kind of a biased commentary just puts Anita Ratnam in a poor light..

I stand corrected. She was talking of Malavika. Not Mallika. I totally adore Malavika.
KSL, Jan 17, 2010

Isn't it Anita, who publicly renounced Bharatanatyam a long time ago, as "all ego, zero abhinaya and no soul"? While her comments on Priyadarshini are mostly apt even if biassed, maybe she could tell us how she came to realize "what BN was originally"!
Another question could be, "What is your version of how Rama Vaidyanathan managed to get on Anita's "TOP 4 soloists" list?" If it is solely by the audience numbers, then there are so many other dancers who attract far larger audience. Then?
Ashwini, Jan 17, 2010

I read the article and had to agree with Ms. Anita in few places and disagree in many places. Did Ms. Anita watch all the artistes who performed for the season? How can she declare a particular duo as "THE" best performance of the season? She always keeps posting something controversial on her website!
N Madhana Raghavan, Jan 17, 2010

When I read her comments 2 days ago, I was mentioning to my family how biased AR is. Isn't it a bit of sycophancy that she is praising only her collaborator openly? (Hari Krishnan has been her collaborator for 10 years and also for the Ma3ka production that premiered this season). To some extent, I agree that PG's dance is bit filmy in some abhinaya pieces; that doesn't mean that she is in any way a less BN artiste than AR. No one can beat her stamina.

As far as critically reviewing another artist, I would say who is critically reviewing is very very important. AR is a good critic for another artist performing ONLY AR's style of contemporary dance or contemporary dance itself. I completely agree with Madhana Raghavan that AR has not seen all the artists' performances of the season to say anything. This cherry picked analysis does not help anyone except satisfying herself. At the same time, I would like to say that to some extent I did agree with most of her views. But, surely the tone could have been different.
Ragothaman, Jan 18, 2010

AR is definitely a very intelligent woman and a prolific writer with strong views and opinions. Being the founding editor of Narthaki.com places all the more responsibility on her shoulders. Publishing her opinion piece on a portal that is not considered/viewed her personal space, but is identified more as a platform for classical Indian dance requires her to be very objective. She deserves a big applause for creating a database for Indian dance of this stature in the first place. But now Narthaki has grown and many readers accept its authority in the field. So the expectations for it are high too. It has now ceased to just be AR's journal. AR's vision for Narthaki may or may not match the expectations of us readers, we don't know for sure. It's the same kind of reaction immature reporting in a trusted (favorite) newspaper elicits from its readers. The same report may not have a similar effect in another without the perceived value; since that's what is expected of it.
If she did the same under a domain like anitaratnam.com/her personal blog, that would be a different thing all together. Any artiste is technically free to do that. I am sure all artistes have hordes to tell about the performances they get to watch, like all of us do. I feel even putting it under the review page of narthaki.com would have been ok… open for public discussion and debate. I am not saying that now it is not…but when such a piece is published on the home page of Narthaki, even when it bears only her personal signature, it probably gives it a different connotation.

One may or not agree with her views, I think that wasn't what upset people here. Her likes and dislikes and her picks are well known to her regular readers. It is the fact that this may be misconstrued to be more than one individual's personal opinion.
Sangeetha, Jan 18, 2010

Priyadarsini's dance is nothing short of divine. Her lines are perfect and shows the work that has gone into it. As for her abhinaya - she is the only dancer whose abhinaya can move even the most unsophisticated in the audience because it springs from her soul.
Kausalya, Jan 21, 2010

Yes, Priyadarsini's dance is nothing short of divine. In fact, Priyadarsini would put to shame even apsara Urvasi! No, Lord Nataraja himself can't compare with Priyadarsini!
Ashwini, Jan 22, 2010

Without any doubt, Ms. Anita Raajyalaxmi Ratnam is a very intelligent person. She knows when to take on somebody. I have my own views on Priya's dance and though her hardcore fans will surely disagree with me, it is not the same Priya that I know say 5 years ago. But still, she is a good dancer and far ahead of Anita in all aspects of dance. What sort of ‘overhauling' is Anita is talking about? By the way, is it necessary for all dancers to have oratorial skills? A dancer is a dancer and her/his skills and talents are judged by their abhinayas on stage and not by their ‘chatter-boxing' skills.
Rajendra Kumar, Jan 22, 2010