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Everyone wants to perform
Photos courtesy: Natya Ballet Centre

December 28, 2016

As the year rolled by, what trended most? All over India, all just wished to perform. No matter what level of training or technique, as though nothing else mattered! Problem is, where is the opportunity for all to perform and who is even there in the hall to watch? There are too many performers and too few platforms. An average show doesn't even get attendance, leave alone audience. Big festivals have less than fifty folks sitting in the hall, half of whom are the organisers themselves! Or family and friends. Then why is everyone so desperate to dance? Those very established or cultured, are not. A Valli or Malavika perform only once a year in city outside their own. Next generation of stars Geeta Chandran, Aditi Mangaldas, Sujata Mohapatra also seem satisfied. It is the twenty to thirty year olds, those with recent wings who wish to fly. Nothing wrong in that, just that after a show or two they think they have seriously arrived in the professional dance circle and then get airs.

The point of above being: I have not seen more desperate-for-shows dancers anywhere than in Namma Bengaluru! Or Odisha. Youngsters are pesky beyond a point! They badger with daily e-mails ostensibly seeking ‘blessings,' which is nothing but a euphemism for begging for shows! Which is why Delhi or Madras are so established and a cut above the rest of India, in dance activity.

Delhi's December began with one of the best-mounted 3 day gathering of thinkers, activists, aestheticians, scholars, dancers, documentation experts from all over India assembled at Delhi's central Sangeet Natak Akademi grounds for Delhi's Natya Ballet Centre's 55th anniversary. Founded in 1960 above the Regal building cinema complex in C.P. (that's Connaught Place before it became Rajiv Gandhi Chowk) in the Kumkum sari shop, those days possibly Delhi's first sari boutique! Like Nalli's today. Its owner: Kamala Lal, wife of sugar baron Narinder Lal and Sumitra Charatram, wife of Lala Charatram, industrialist of Delhi from the DCM group. The two ladies had enough responsibilities at home but for social activities and bonding over tea, thought of starting together a sari outlet to pass time too!

From this sari shop arose the NBC or Natya Ballet Centre, one of the finest cultural centres in Delhi, promoting traditional dance dramas loosely called ballet those days. Such luminaries as Anil Biswas did music for its productions; Bhagwan Das Verma, the favourite of Kamala Lal, was made the choreographer and Maya Rao, Kathak incharge. Many memorable productions came out of its stable like Surdas, Krishna Leela, Amir Khusrau etc. Kamala Lal's mission was continued by her able daughter Rupa Lal, then her sister Manju Vishwanathan and now her daughter Radhika Hoon.

The 3 day NBC gathering under Nikita Maheshwary's creative direction, brought the best talents of India together in dance - Aditi Mangaldas, Astad Deboo, Anita Ratnam, Gowri Ramnarayan, Ratnottama Sengupta, Sadanand Menon, Lubna Mariam and yours truly. It was a lavish event, done with style and aplomb. Designer cards, banners, detailed logistics, many enthusiastic young volunteers and a very generous host in Radhika Hoon. She spared no effort or expense and did her ancestors proud. In this, she was ably helped by understated, affable Nikita, who with Jhanavi saw to each logistical part. Best organised dance festival of the year.

Mandeep Raikhy, Anita Ratnam, Gowri Ramnarayan

The original idea was to talk of dance in the Indian subcontinent, with focus on Indian dance reaching out. That goal post changed once Pakistan opted out or proved to be the casualty of current politics. Daily, morning to evening, a well structured (though not well attended by Delhi dancers!) Dance DISCourse (a concept and title started by us in Bangalore atAlliance Francaise for past 7 years) took place, where each expert took an aspect of dance and spoke from the heart. Anita Ratnam is a smart presenter, spiffy and spunky and mercifully, to the point! No beating about the bush; no false faking or falling at feet of one and all as dancers often do. She was supplemented in the opening session by another good speaker, Gowri Ramnarayan, who brought another dimension to the proceedings. Mandeep Raikhy, hailing from Punjab but minted in London no less, by Shobana Jeyasingh, now heading Gati, added his knowledge bank to both Anita and Gowri's talk who shared relevant concerns and contexts. When a session finishes too quickly it means it was meaningful and audiences yearned for more.

Ratnottama Sengupta's ‘Dance in Films' session was rich in material and would benefit from a chronological plan. Ratna edited the cultural pages for the TOI for many decades in Delhi, then Kolkata and is a film history talent. From her, a more structured presentation is hoped. Aruna Mohanty committed to conduct a session in gotipua dance aspect of Orissi, then failed to show up citing urgent attendance needed at home in Odisha for a much bigger event.

Next morning, cars and planes being stuck in Delhi's December fog, I took an auto to the SNA venue on a cold December morning. Reaching the SNA grounds, I plunged into my topic. My session was on the ‘Pioneers of Indian Dance' taking all present on a journey of past greats, icons, masters. A short film A CENTURY OF INDIAN DANCE was shown and it was self explanatory, so I didn't have to talk much! Delhi smog had made my vocal chords sound like a un-boom box! Later, Anita Ratnam and Lubna Mariam joined as panelists to give the micro and macro picture of Indian dance world wide. In the next session, Lubna took up the dancescape of Bangladesh and she slowly warmed up to the subject. She was teary-eyed in places, when extolling the Tagore influence in that region.

A meaningful morning session after which all bonded some more over lunch! Rajiv Lochan, ex-NGMA honcho, his painter wife Yuriko and roommate from Baroda MSU days, Ajay Sinha, now teaching at Yale, no less and many non dancers joined in that morning. Post lunch slumber was broken by a vigorous Ottan Thullal lec-dem by Suresh Kaliyath, followed by the languorous pace of Tibetan dances which culminated in a session on Chandralekha by her close associate Sadanand Menon.

Natya Ballet Centre

Aditi Mangaldas

Suresh Kaliyath

The 3 evenings had three shows. First day was an in-house production on Buddha by NBC, which was like going back in time 50 years ago, how ballet productions were. Debada's ace student Durgabhai's shishya Aniruddha Babu and Nibedita choreographed a motley group of freelancers well. Next day was the pinnacle performing evening of the festival by Aditi Mangaldas, clearly Kathak's best modern avatar today in India. What precision, what perfection. A connoisseur's delight. High aesthetics. Class and culture.

On the last evening, Astad Deboo tried valiantly to infuse some spirit into a two hour delayed show. The setting was magical in the Meghdoot amphitheatre, under a well lit tree but Astad failed to create magic. His solos are now predictable and laboured. With group works, he can fill space meaningfully with various performers and his soundscapes are always interesting. Delhi audiences showed tremendous patience sitting out in open of Delhi's ten degree cold and their true culture of hospitality by waiting almost two hours to a delayed start, thanks to the transformer attached to an assembly of assorted instruments played by Japanese performer Yukio Tsuji, burnt and somehow a replacement was sought and brought after an hour, which when put on, fused the SNA generator! Two precious hours wasted for average music in which the only odd sound emanating was Yukio Tsuji trying to say “Matti Matti” (earth/soil), to somehow remind the informed Delhi audience of this great north Indian Punjabi spiritual poet Bulle Shah! This piece was commissioned by the Met, (Metropolitan Museum of New York City) no less.

Trending this month was MS. Her full name is not important, just her initials. It was her centenary year being born in Madurai 100 years ago. While she is known for music, her abhinaya, her nattuvangam, her mridangam playing, her mimicry is lesser known. Yours truly focused on that. IGNCA hosted a 3 day focus on this great. Murthy, her mridangist of 60 years and Vikku, the ghatam master, provided rare glimpses. A short film made for the occasion by yours truly got the essentially north Indian audiences engaged with the subject.

The song written by Kalki for MS to dance
Source: Kalki Deepavali Malar

Fast forward to Madras cyclone preceded by its leader's death and this called for a certain gloom but no, the season was in full swing! Festivals can't be stopped as so many artistes, sponsors are involved. So the show goes on. Kalakshetra being by the sea cancelled its 64th annual festival.

From Madras to Delhi at IGNCA again with the one and only Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam leading the focus on Abhinavagupta. Her scholarly dance engaged all. Next month the same would trend at Kalakshetra before the Republic day, so happy New Year indeed!

Ashish Mohan Khokar is a reputed critic, and an author of over 40 books and numerous articles in mainstream media (columnist India Today and dance critic of the Times of India for 3 decades). For past 18 years, he edits and publishes India's only yearbook on dance - attenDANCE - and curates many festivals and mentors a chosen few. He has instituted 5 awards and supports many dance causes. He is curator of Mohan Khokar Dance Collection.
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