Response from Ranvir Shah to
Boo Hoo Bruno!
... and the politics of whining
(Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation who presented THE ABSENT LOVER writes a response titled 'In defence of Chennai' in THE HINDU-Friday Review on February 29, 2008.

Below is the complete version that was sent to both The Hindu and

It was not a surprise to see the large numbers of people that reacted to the article in the Hindu by Bruno Kavanagh, from the dance community and outside it than those who reacted to the work presented by his wife Preeti Vasudevan with him as a collaborator which was presented at Prakriti Foundation's Tree of Life Festival in Chennai recently. Emails, text messages and angry phone calls seemed to be doing the rounds in a flurry of great annoyance and backlash to the article 'Abstract Art, Exploring new images' where Mr. Kavanagh justifies the production as a "great show" and then lectures us on the meaning of art, after which he berates the Chennai audience for not wanting to participate in the two way experience that is art, and not comprehending abstraction and still finding a need for the pegging of a narrative!! Phew!

As the presenter and festival organiser who presented this show I would like to clarify many of the issues that Mr. Kavanagh brings up in a patronising tone in his article.

'The Absent Lover' - was not a show of abstraction, but a series of images foregrounded with the text of Kalidasa's play 'Vikramorvashiya.' If the duo of Ms. Vasudevan and Mr. Kavanagh did indeed want to present an abstract performance then there should have been no need for a story line plucked from the basket of the exotic Indian cultural past. Having said this, it is a bit like crying hoarse from the rooftops to call this abstraction.... don't the collaborators know what is abstraction? Having made a point in his article about the Indian mind dealing with abstraction he simplifies it by adding "think lingam" - surely Mr. Kavanagh, we could have expected you to know us better after engaging with the culture for however short a while that you have!!

From here we proceed to be told that the Chennai audiences are not ready to participate in a "two way deal" of accessing the sublime through art and specifically at the performance of 'The Absent Lover.' This is hysterical and absurdly funny. Chennai audiences have accessed and appreciated some of the finest practitioners of contemporary dance over the years. In the last 25 years that I have lived here I have had the joy of seeing the Pilobolus company, the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Pina Bausch, Suzzanne Linke and more recently Josef Nage. In the last 10 years I have had the privilege to present and co-curate with my co-artistic director Anita Ratnam at The Other Festival many great dancers such as Rina Schenfield from Israel, Denise Fujiwara in Butoh from Canada and Constanza Marcos, a Brazilian from Germany, all of whom got great responses and standing ovations in many cases! Besides this, we also presented a slew of young dancers exploring the format of contemporary dance on the Indian scene. A wonderful openness has allowed for the Chennai audience to assimilate, encourage and engage with these works. On the Indian scene for the last 20 years, Chennai has been the home and laboratory of the late Chandralekha, a dancer who reinvented the paradigm on how to view abstraction not only in dance but on the concepts and metaphors of the totality of Indian culture.

Having said this, and coming back to the article of Mr. Kavanagh, a large portion of it then sends us on a lesson on the meaning of art citing Gombrich, Shelley and Kandinsky. Yes, Mr. Kavanagh we know their work and understand it, and their philosophies. If only you were to pay attention to exactly what you say instead of preaching to us, it may have actually helped in the production of the show.

True art does touch the sublime in us, but for that it has to be truly art. Any discipline requires a deep understanding of the form, a study that allows for it to be absorbed and finally time and a lot of hard work - these are the difficulties of all creative persona - be they writers, musicians, painters, dancers or actors to create that which is meaningful, real, exciting, intense and something that strikes a chord of response, emotional or otherwise. This was sadly the absent in 'The Absent Lover.' Mixing genres with a little French soundtrack, posturised story telling, bad Bharatanatyam, an irritable Baul movement ever so often and very ordinary dancing cannot make for a great show however hard one tries to cosmeticise it with costumes, lights or sets, all of which give us a sense of deja vu.

Why then may you justifiably ask did we present it? As the presenter do you have the right to criticise something and then subject the audience to it? The answer is two fold.

Even though the show was presented sight unseen and the expenses very high by Chennai and international standards, I realise that it was an expensive curatorial mistake.

Primarily as a curator and cultural catalyst our role is to ensure and present those we believe in and those whose work we see hope in and secondly to aid and abet the continuing dialogue in the contemporary dance world in India and more so in Chennai. There are but a handful of practitioners and most of them are at a nascent stage of discovery of form, style and what they want to say with their work. If this is not supported by arts organisation the movement will take longer to grow strong and have its voice on the world stage. One has to have the faith.

In the case of the Ms. Vasudevan & Mr. Kavanagh, I believe their combined intelligence and creative abilities will allow them to travel further and deeper into this adventure of the performing arts. Their combined ambitions must not let them forget the fundamentals of hard work, solid training and truly being absorbed by the work and not themselves. There is hope yet in the coming years that they may surprise us with something that will creatively engage us, intellectually stimulate us and allow us to access the sublime, but until then, may we request them to concentrate on their work and not put us in a situation where we are expecting tea at the Ritz but are served with some tepid water, a classic case of the Emperors new clothes.

Ranvir Shah is the founder of Prakriti Foundation and Artistic Director of The Parks New Festival, Landmark's Poetry with Prakriti, The Tree of Life festival, Gharana Indian Music Festival, One Billion Eyes - Indian Documentary Film Festival and Hamara Shakespeare - a festival of Indian Language Shakespeare.