Anita Ratnam's lec-dem for professional story tellers 
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai
Photos: Sathya/Chella Images

November 23, 2008 
The World Storytelling Institute of Eric Miller in Chennai, organized an evening of demonstration at Anita Ratnam's dance space on November 13, 2008. The group of 16 Americans from different cities in the US, under the leadership of Robert and Nancy of Eth-Noh-Tec Storytellers (San Francisco) were visiting Tamilnadu on their Darisanam tour, to learn more about our folk forms of story telling like Therukoothu (street theatre), Villupaattu (folk music), Katha Kalakshebam (story telling), narration of grandma tales in villages and so on. They had visited Kanchipuram, Mahabalipuram and some villages, apart from Chennai. 

Having seen a few of Anita Ratnam's performances, Eric thought that she would be the ideal person to interact with the group, since she uses narrative and text in her presentations. Anita spoke about the differences between Western and Indian way of emoting, her choreography process and style of narration, and gave very brief but illuminating demos to get her points across. 

Our main sources for themes come from our epics and the many tales surrounding our deities. But the imagination of the Indian choreographer helps the dancer to deviate into a story, and then rejoin the main body of the text. There is much scope for individual imagination and interpretation. Indians talk with their body, so non-verbal expression is easily understood. Latin American and Hispanic people also have a physical tradition, but Westerners don't emote facially. 

Sanskrit is a compact language, but Anita finds that even the urbanized Chennai audience is almost as clueless as a western audience to traditional lyrics, despite the theme and imagery being traditional or familiar. Her mission to reach the younger generation has led to interspersing English text for greater understanding. She demonstrated an item on Annapoorni, the Goddess of abundance, to a singing voice, a piano, Sanskrit words and English narration. Since the association is with nourishment (signified by food, pot of rice and so on), she uses agricultural motifs for the Goddess of plenty and the music is interspersed with the English narration of a story of Shiva and Brahma, one of the many legends associated with Annapoorna. "We need to employ this, re-imagine and re-kindle through dance, to examine the notion of the sacred that is inside of me and illuminate it for you," said Anita. 

In Indian stories, space is given for individual representation. In the narrative, story telling tradition, one can even make references to contemporary personalities. Anita herself is interested in the mythology. "You are taking liberties within the vocabulary of tradition?" was a question. Taking liberties is not new. They exist in pure classical dance too. Anita demonstrated how a phrase can be interpreted in pure classical style. The same line could be repeated by the singer, the percussionist could have played a bit, but it is all phrased within the tala. There are variations in pulse, but you have to come back to the pulse, the tala structure. Always there's an element for improvisation that senior artistes take on stage, and that's what makes every performance a bit different. 

"Normally there is a percussion, violin, voice, cymbals etc, but it muffles the acoustic clarity. I make the singing voice pure, accompanied by soft percussion, strains of the piano, (referring to her collaboration with vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan and pianist Anil Srinivasan) but it retains the integrity of the composition. I can tell a story with just abhinaya, minus singing," said Anita. She also spoke about the renaissance of western dance by Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, while in India itself, Bharatanatyam became one of the cultural symbols of the new resurgent Indian identity during the fight for independence, when many educated women took to learning the dance form. 

Then came the exercise where the visitors went through depicting the nava rasas. For each rasa, Anita guided them on not only how to get the facial expressions, but also the body language that goes along with it. "In Indian dance, you cannot use the Stanislavksi method acting. We don 20 different roles on stage, so there should be complete clarity; our body has to be in the moment. We have great masters in their 70s who still perform, unlike in the West where stress is on agility and physical fitness." 

Shringara (love between adults), as different from vatsalya (love of a parent for a child) was followed by hasya (mirth) animate the shoulders. Eric Miller has a genuine problem. "How does one smile for a photo?  I look so artificial when people photograph me," he said. It was very interesting to see Anita demonstrate - smile with the eyes, do not open your mouth, look with intensity into the lens, be calm and composed. Eric did manage to get a decent expression as did the other participants! The body expands in valor (veerya), but shrinks in sadness (shoka). In sorrow, not only the face, but the body as a whole should communicate. Karuna (pity), raudra (anger) and bhayanaka (fear) is familiar to everyone! Disgust or bhibatsa is something you show in a flash of expression. You look in wonderment at something that amazes (adbhuta) you. Shantham (tranquility) is a calm, Buddha like meditative pose. For the American story tellers, these expressions were useful to learn as they were not adept at facial expressions and they could definitely try using it when they narrated stories. They had a wonderful time, trying out the nava rasas. Anita demonstrated an excerpt from her full length production 'Tara,' in which she displays all the 9 emotions, to thunderous applause. 

This led to the query, what is the difference between performing to an intimate audience like the present one and performing in an auditorium. The main difference is how much one extends the body. "I can do less in an intimate space, have a less theatrical appearance, minor flickers can be noticed in a compressed area. Yet every gesture would be more pre-meditated and imbued with performance consciousness. Timing is certainly different. In a larger space, one expands more and the level of exaggeration is more."

The discussion on story telling as a profession and an art threw up some interesting observations. Each participant had his/her own experience to share. 
- People find it difficult to believe that story telling need not necessarily be for children, but for adults too. 
- It is difficult to represent story telling as an independent art form. No matter how skilled you are, sets and lights are expected to be grand. 
- "I'm a Prof. of story telling" is queried with "What else do you do?!"
- One person is a stock broker and story telling is a hobby that he is 'very serious' about. 

When story telling is choreographed, it loses its spontaneity. Some story tellers even have directors, said author/story teller Jeeva Raghunath in an incredulous tone. In some countries at the port of entry, she has been asked to narrate stories to prove her profession. "You are a story teller? Then tell me a story!" So, when she went to Malaysia, she had a Malaysian story ready and had to do her story telling at the airport before she was given the visa! 

After Anita performed to a raga alapana section of the Dikshitar Kriti "Ranga Pura Vihara" from her production 'Neelam,' in which almost the whole Ramayana is condensed into a 7 minute piece, much to the wonderment of the audience, they wanted to know how to represent various characters a foolish king, prime minister, magician, foolish yet intelligent like Tenali Raman, Yama, birth, death, old guru, apprentice, asura, various animals and even a ghost! 

Eric Miller is Director of the World Story Telling Institute, whose interest in Tamilian story telling form of Villupaattu brought him to Tamilnadu.  He speaks of regret that our traditions are slowly fading out. He especially mentioned 'Oppari' or the art of lamenting where women sit in a circle and mourn in rhythmic tones, the loss of a loved one. He feels in the present world, the sharing of grief in this manner would be of great help and an emotional release, instead of keeping one's grief private. He regularly arranges for story telling sessions in Chennai. 

It was Eric Miller who introduced New York based storyteller Diane Wolkstein to Anita three years ago. Since that initial meeting in Chennai, Anita was invited to perform at the Storytelling Festival in New York's Central Park in June 2007. A collaboration with Wolkstein, composer Neil Rollnick and director Richard Armstrong on the Chinese epic of the 'Monkey King' is under rehearsal and will premiere in New York in late 2009.