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November 18, 2017

Dance as brand ambassador... For long, we have read bio data (some are best pieces of creative writing. Most go to one city on East coast and one on West coast in USA and describe it as "a coast to coast tour"!) that have all kinds of claims. 'Ambassadors of dance' is an often used phrase. What's that today when FB and other social media can reach out it nano seconds? In days of yore, when Ram Gopal, Uday Shankar and Madame Menaka travelled with big dance groups, mostly by ships that took months to reach, few labelled themselves as ambassadors of culture. It was first coined by the western press and mostly in its laudatory manifestation.

Kalavardhini students

Today branding means using all possible value enhancements. Are our dancers (and musicians, craftsmen, authors, film makers etc) true ambassadors of our arts and culture? Yes, they are. No other field in India - science or technology, agriculture or commerce - has that profile or outreach. So today what happens when an ancient form practiced by royalty is dubbed tribal? Or classical? It is happening to Seraikella Chhau. This princely state was part of Odisha. When India became independent in 1947, its internal and external boundaries were redrawn. Simple, straight lines by the disgruntled British were drawn and villages in border areas of Punjab, Rajasthan, even Gujarat were divided. In one classic example, half the house was in Pakistan and other half in India. Remember, there was no Google maps or satellites then. So too, within its borders, many states suffered. What we call Punjab, Himachal, Haryana today were PEPSU (The Patiala East Punjab States Union was a state of India uniting eight princely states between 1948 and 1956. Its capital and principal city was Patiala). Likewise poor little Seraikella was given to Bihar, although its people till date speak Odia. They eat its cuisine. After many years of trying to be in Bihar, Seraikella then became part of Jharkhand when Bihar was divided. Today a royal form - the Seraikella Chhau - is being treated as a step child.

Problem of branding dance are many. If it's not geographical then it can be political. If not historical, then sociological. Take Bharatanatyam. Is it exclusively the property of Tamil speaking Tamilnadu or Telugus too, since most Padams and poetry is in that language? Or Marathis who ruled from Tanjore can call it its own? Or a Bostonian of Indian origin doing one version there?

Sucheta Bhide Chapekar

Speaking of which one woman who did serious work with Maratha BN connection is Sucheta Bhide Chapekar, whose organization Kalavardhini has 30 branches all over Maharashtra teaching BN. Thousands of students who have nothing to do with its cultural heritage or moorings of Tamilnadu learn and earn from BN. This is branding. Helping her in this is her daughter Arundhati Patwardhan, who mounts a fetching festival every year. This year it featured its own able students plus 3 stars - youngster Meenakshi Srinivasan, senior Kathak artiste Manisha Sathe and veteran Sucheta tai herself.

Meenakshi Srinivasan

Meenakshi Srinivasan is a sensitive, sincere dancer, detailed to a T, just like her guru-mentor Alarmel Valli. Each limb is supple in movement, each deflection correct. And her Andal varnam - a full 45 minutes on watch I saw - was mesmerizing. It was refreshing to see an unhurried varnam, where mere speed was not sacrificed for beauty of art, as is often done senselessly. Here is a dancer with poise and prose. She is likely to go far with her art and even be the next big thing in BN for, like her guru, she seeks beauty in dance and perfection. Here is a complete artiste.

Manisha Sathe

Manisha Sathe was a firecracker from the minute she stepped on show. Wah! Kya baat hai! She was simply superb in each aspect of Kathak of Guru Gopikrishna variety. In case some readers don't realize or remember, he was a popular film dance director dancing duets with Padma Khanna and Sandhya Shantaram in many films in 60s and 70s. I once saw him coming out of Centaur Hotel outside Bombay airport and he was even walking in tihai. Ek do teen... Manisha Sathe danced like there was no tomorrow and showcased some rare gems of her gharana, mostly marginalized by the big 2, Lucknow and Jaipur. But ache din aye hai Benaras ke!

Sucheta's best stage mannerism is her laughter and easy delivery that comes with 50 years of being with the dance, as got from her maverick but guni Guru Parvati Kumar. Each item she executed effortlessly and with aplomb. Here is a sensitive dancer academician who has worked quietly and peacefully. She has trained and inspired many. The hall was full and overflowing in Pune and both Manisha Sathe and Sucheta Bhide Chapekar got standing ovation. Lights, announcements were of high order and one could see it was truly a people's festival, with even the Mayor of Pune gracing the occasion.

Ashish Khokar, Ratikant Mohapatra, Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi, Kedar Mishra

Branding culture has many dimensions. When a giant group like India Today mounts a conclave on a State, it becomes a reference point. Today in addition to industry and agriculture, that they platformed culture too, was heartening. Credit for this goes to its owners Aroon Purie and his team of top talents like Raj Chengapa, Ajit Jha and Ranjit Sahaya. The whole conclave had full attendance of all district collectors, top bureaucrats including the chief secty., industry secty., many ministers and the most educated, elegant and charming chief minister of any State in India - Naveen Patnaik.

For the session on cultural renaissance I was requested to chair, we had senior educationist-dancer Priyambada Mohanty Hejmadi. Sonal Mansingh could not be part of it due to short notice given. Kelubabu was represented by his son Ratikant, the fine teacher-composer-musician and another young Guru Gajendra Panda. To add colour and contrast, polarity and purpose we had maverick poet, journo Kedar Mishra. We invited from the audience Subhas Pani, ex Chief Secretary and author of culture books to give his wise words. The entire discussion is on net. It was webcast. Just click on India Today Conclave on Odisha and culture.

Suffice it to say we served the cause of culture with dance as the main brand. Odisha is a happening state and dancers have contributed a lot to it. So many festivals abound. Ratikant mounts the best fest, punctuality and perfection being its hallmark. Gajendra Panda does too, though it has no clear profile, just Padma Shris.

Alarmel Valli and her mother

From Bangalore to Odisha to Pune to Madras via Baroda, all in a week makes my dance plate full. Coming to Madras, I attend a most meaningful memorial done as tribute to dance patron Uma Muthukumaraswamy, also known as Alarmel Valli's mother. Here is the most cultured person I've met in my life after Mrinalini Sarabhai. An evolved patron. Humourous. Literary. Stylish. A complete package, as they say. Despite near-floods, all of Madras that matters was there. Adding to the touching ceremonies on stage were Arundhati Subramanian's poetry, and T.M. Krishna's singing of many dance related repertoire. Bhaskar Da (former DG Doordarshan, culture secty., and Alarmel Valli's husband) set the tone of tributes and Valli was choked with emotion that was entirely meaningful and not out of place. Uma's life is a rare case where Laxmi met Saraswati in equal measures.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om!

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.

The essay on Branding in dance, penned by scholar Ashish Khokar, is beautifully compelling, perceptive and informative.  There is much to learn in this brief but wide-ranging article.  Among the many engaging descriptions, I was particularly thankful for his tribute to Sucheta Chapekar who, because of her seriousness and subtlety (and, as Ashish pointed out, her location in Pune, geographically and culturally distinct from the seat of Bharatanatyam) is too often overlooked.  Like the best of dance writers, his enthusiasm and colorful verbiage allowed me to summon up in my mindís eye the performances of dancers whom I haven't had the good fortune to observe myself.  Bravo!
- Jonathan Hollander (President and Artistic Director, Battery Dance Company & Dancing to Connect), Nov 20, 2017

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