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Mega Shows

October 13, 2017

And one thought there were no audiences left for dance, when one saw pathetically filled halls in metro cities. 100 people on a good day. Often, there were none because it - the dance - had no real connect with the people. I must qualify the above with one additional word. Classical dance.

I'm coming from 7 cities in 7 days (with bad stomach flu to boot!), where I've seen thousands in each dance gathering - Bengal pandals and Gujarat Navratri celebrations. These are to be seen to be believed. A true, people's festival. Thousands in each neighborhood. All dancing and happy. Classical, folk, Bollywood, jazz, rag, tag call what you will. It is Indianised dance. Trust us to assimilate all cultures and make it our own. MAKE IN INDIA has a totally new meaning in dance.

Day 1: I leave the land of lotus eaters, potholes, frothing or fuming lakes - Bangalore - to come to the land of Bharatanatyam and more Bharatanatyam. MADras.

Day 2, Chennai: 50 people to max 75 make a house full. But of these 50, at least 25 know their marbles. In that they are pucca. And the ones on stage have been through the grind so they know too. No half-baked stuff here. Though we are beginning to see signs of that of late in the last decade.

Day 3, Ahmedabad: Either they are Kumiben clones doing Kathak from some grand Bhansali's film song or they are Sarabhai students doing folk. Group after group of Dandiya dancers and some imported even from filmdom of Bombay (which was or still is ruled by Gujarati merchants).

Day 4, Baroda: And oh boy! My sleepy birth town is transformed like a mini New York with lights, sound and action – loud screeching youngsters dressed up to the hilt. My own niece, Krupa, all of 12, is out every night for nine nights dancing to the hilt all dressed up as a young lady and gets very upset one night when her hair is not done right! (Not enough shine or style, she bemoans). Thousands dancing away in each colony. Lakhs in both cities and more. I return home to find a card from Colombo… doing what? More Dandiya! Boy oh boy! Ram has reached Lanka all over again.

Day 5: Delhi on way to Chandigarh where my grandfather built his last house is doing balle balle though the police was looking for a certain talent called Honey. Finally found! The Rose Garden festival needs cultural inputs and I'm called to suggest names.

Day 6: I'm in Delhi and Mughal-e-Azam team (biggest musical involving 100+ dancers drawn from Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and our two most talented sisters in dance whom we bestowed the attenDance Uday Shankar Choreography Award, Mayuri Upadhya and Madhuri have choreographed it) under producer director Feroze Khan present the literature on the production to the PM with Aman Nath, the Rishi looking scholar-aesthete-author-restorer-collector, fort curator and founder chairman of the worldwide brand Neemrana hotels.

Aman Nath

art by Anjoli Ela Menon

Day 7: Aman invites me to his own mega production - the Neemrana fort via the Tijara fort - both approx. 100 km apart through godforsaken country side of ramshackle, rough Haryana heartland. He wants me to see the two stages for dance and music activity he has nurtured.

The brand NEEMRANA is a benchmark in hotel industry. Aman calls it non-hotel hotel because from the Biotique soap to the bucket in the bathroom, all are manicured perfectly. Each room relives, reaffirms, recreates the past with élan and aplomb. An eye for detail Aman has but scale and size too. What he is doing with Tijara - his latest pet project - is amazing. 110 km from Delhi on dense trafficated highway full of trucks laden with signs of India's economic development and boom, I trudge to Tijara. I'm hosted in the Anjolie Ela Menon Room. I couldn't afford her painting sold at CRY's first auction 30 years ago when all these artistes were still affordable. And I'm staying in a suite where the walls are painted by her? Then there is Ritu (Kumar) room. For Ritu, I photographed Shymolie, India's ace model those days, and upcoming Odissi dancer turned model Shivani Wazir, for Ritu's stall at India Expo at Gallerie Lafayette, Paris in 1990. And today Ritu is a giant. Muzzafar Ali had his Kotwara Collection displayed too then.

Then Aman has designated the Laila (Tyabji) room. Once dropping her back from Mapu's farm were four of us: She, the most elegant craft field's mega talent; Naveen Patnaik, author, whose review by me of his Bikaner book got me a call from the most well- mannered VIP saying 'Thank you!' (now the long term CM of Odisha), and David Abraham, distinguished designer with understated elegance, then driving his battered Ambassador. It had rained heavily and as my wife Elisabeth got out of the car, Laila exclaimed, "Watch the puddle, don't spoil your sari," since Elisabeth was wearing a pastel rose Chikkan sari Laila admired... memories of another day. All these great women artists in Rani Mahal. Rightly so. Aman, you are a true artist, connoisseur, patron and a celebrator.

Mardana (means men, for my south and east Indian readers, and assorted global readers) Mahal is dedicated to male designers/artists: Sanjay Bhattacharya, Iranna, Rakesh Thakore, Sumanth Jayakrishan and other worthies. What a beautiful idea, Sirji, to dedicate a room, a space to living artists so they feel proud. Aman inspires me to do that in dance but I need a patch of land first. Unlike him, I'm neither a social person nor a friendly networker. I'm too much a loner, a quiet, lazy alien living in the best climate amid best people who have no greed or ambition, only potholes and pollution.

Aman is a powerhouse. Non-stop perfectionist. Even the manhole at Tijara has a floral pattern. Even the flower bushes have design. Imagine, in the dusty wilderness of desert of Rajasthan, in places sounding like vegetables (Palwal) or alcohol (Dharuhera), he has planted palm trees from Bangalore! Aman even arranged the moon to come down at the best angle for my photo! This is called planning, design and aesthetics. Under such a setting, he shared with me two performances, one music, one dance, because I wanted to see the setting to help other performing artistes reach there. Aman is among the few who listens to good advice: content is the king.

Two performances attract all present. The sultan of songs, Samunder from Barmer, who after soulful rendition of Maand and Tappa tells me, "We just performed for Tiger Woods." I thought he was referring to some tiger in the woods of Ranthambore till he validated, "We were flown in a chartered plane!" In 40 years of my travel, I have never done that! Who says our musicians don't travel?

Neemrana Fort amphitheater

Dancers too! Neemrana presents every Saturday, October through March, performing artistes in its amphitheatre. The day I was there, Odissi dancer Ranjana Gauhar inaugurated the Neemrana October to April season with her students and her son Siddharth making a film on the whole magical setting experience.

Aman Nath with inputs from Francis, created this beautiful way of saving and savouring our first and discarded palaces. Aman Nath is the real artistic brain behind it. Francis and Aman had rediscovered, repositioned forgotten Shekhawati long ago. Their documenting the havelis of Shekhawati Mandawa region made it come alive. This was 40 years ago almost. You just must visit these places to know how much history abounds. I did this 30 plus years ago with Martand Singh, my Guru, in this field of conservation and preservation of cultural properties and as Director of INTACH.

Day 7: I come to Delhi. 100 people in a hall. All bored to death but pretending to be brahmagyanis if not ma Saraswati incarnate. Delhi has many mediocre artistes but being in Delhi they get biggest visibility because they meet men in power (inside and outside their offices) at parties, seminars, VIP gatherings and then when a babu sees them with a minister who matters, the babu kowtows to them. Hey presto! Their lives are made. Many in other metros feel and share that most Delhi dancers get maximum opportunities without often commensurate talent.  Tours, titles even tithes. Thank god this govt has stopped senseless doling out of awards now. I’m so glad the PM found 20 real heroes deserving the high honour last year. For last 2 years, dancers and musicians limited to 2.  They can canvass all they want but fake internet popularity will not win them any brownies. Ache din have come for true talent. Frauds have had their run. SNA chair tells me jokingly, "If you have not got one till date, it means you are a genuine article!" Article is all I put my life and time to... articles...

Pic: Simha photo

I return home (at this point don't know where that is!) to see Karna-The Invincible, the mega production with cast of over 50 on stage. Lalitha and Meena Das are the patrons and their BCKA (Bangalore Club for Kathakali Arts) are the doers of this fine strong production, choreographed by Tushar and Pooja Bhatt, attenDance awardees to boot. Tushar also took up the central role of Karna and did very well, maintaining the sense of loss, royal, abandoned child prince, shunned by all but befriended by Kauravas. Praveen D. Rao's music only can sustain such a long production. This dance drama, in English narration, will go far as it is accessible to all and India's best foot forward in a long time. To get a cast of over 50 freelance and upcoming dancers (only Mithun Shyam as Arjuna as an established talent in field with Gopal and Sujoy as youngsters shaping up) together in one seamless production is not easy. Kathakali is used in end to create drama and magic and justify the Bangalore Club for Kathakali Arts' association. Rajashri Holla as Kunti looked to be child herself to undertake such a mature, major role and Anjali Srikant as Draupadi fit the role well with maturity and élan. Karna visuals were a feast, a poetry in motion. After a long time, one felt fulfilled seeing a solid, strong, susbtanceful show. Congrats to Tushar and Pooja, who also undertook the costumes, which were rich and royal. The hall stood in ovation for 10 minutes. That rarely happens in India. Make in India, indeed!

The author is a senior critic, historian with interest in cultural policy, international exchange and helps dance in many ways. He edits attenDance, now in its 20th year and mentors many.

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