Monday, December 27, 2010

In Further Soil

A lot has been said about the diaspora who have distinguished themselves in almost every area of human experience . In fact, the 20th century has witnessed the largest volume of migration across the globe. Next to the Chinese, it is us Indians who have populated this planet in the furthest reaches of Alaska and Papua New Guinea. Where the ‘desis’ go, there also goes the culture, religion, food, dress and other customs and oddities. As much as we in India tend to poke fun at or envy the lifestyle and success of hundreds of our fellow Indians outside our shores, we rarely stop to think of the immense hard work and sacrifice that such success has demanded. Ask any Indian who lives within the geographical boundaries of this subcontinent to work the long hours of the New York news stand owner, a London garbage collector or a Chicago taxi driver and they will shudder at the sheer robotic nature of the job requirements.

When it comes to the arts, I see a glaring gap in commitment and focus. This is the season for the dancers, musicians and arts student to fill our streets and stores. These visitors are smart, focused and prepared. Their arts calendars are planned with rehearsals, special classes and concert outings mapped out on their hand helds and I Phones. They do not carry the excess baggage of groupism or cronyism that plagues our local students and seniors. They watch, listen, discuss, learn and rehearse repeatedly. They take notes, do their homework and are model students in a classroom or in the auditorium where their punctuality and decorum are enviable. This is because they know how difficult it is to make an impact in their respective cultural constituencies as professional artistes.

Ask any teacher about the differences in teaching their foreign or NRI student compared to a local person and the answer will invariably favour the outsider. For every brilliant India-based Indian dancer and musician, there are too many local hobbyists who erode the hard work of the serious practitioners. Already the academic centre of Indian dance and music has moved outside India. There is no serious scholarship or discourse worth mentioning in our country. Nobody here is interested in anything that is not cosmetic, glamorous or entertaining. In contrast, the presentations by Indian academics and scholars from overseas are objective, analytical and well researched.

In a society that spouts homilies about the “inner core”, dipping into the “sacred waters of art” and partaking of a “divine experience”, it is about time that we call ourselves what we are. Hypocritical double speakers who talk out of the sides of our mouths. If we truly care about the arts, we should accept those who are striving every minute’ in further soil’ by transmuting and transforming our traditions and practices into classrooms, museums, concert halls, special needs and audience outreach. So let us stop poking fun at their stilted accents and their readiness to genuflect at a blink. Through the arts they perhaps love country more than many of us who reside here. In recognizing their contribution we honour ourselves.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Andal’s Sufi Sister

In the Tamizh month of Margazhi ( mid December to mid January), the evocative poetry of one of South India’s favourite female mystics is heard everyday in many homes. Usually in the iconic voice of the late M S Subbalskhmi, but also re-recorded by almost every Carnatic musician of any standing, Andal’s passionate love poems directed to Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam are held up as a lone woman resistance to the patriarchal society of the early 9th century AD South India.
Unknown to the beloved daughter of Vishnu Chittan, head priest of the temple at Srivilliputtur, another woman in the western deserts of Syria had heard the voice of her Lord one hundred years earlier. Rabia Al Basri was born in 717 AD in the small town of Hijri. Born as the fourth (rabia) daughter of a poor merchant, she was sold into slavery and endured many harsh duties as a household servant. One night, her master spied upon her midnight prayers and was shocked to see a halo surrounding Rabia’s face. He immediately freed her and she travelled into the desert to continue her monologue with her beloved. Resisting many offers of marriage, she claimed that her life did not need any distractions from human beings. It was Rabia who introduced the concept of DIVINE LOVE to Sufism. She believed that the Lord could be loved without fear or guilt as her predecessors in the Sufi tradition had preached.
Oh Allah, if I fear Hell, burn me in Hell
If I pray for Paradise, exclude me from Paradise
But if I worship you for your own sake
Do not exclude me from your everlasting beauty!

Rabia Al Basri lived as a celibate upto to the ripe age of 80, denying herself all luxury except for a mat, a broken jug and a brick for her pillow. Her Tamizh ‘sister’, however, did not have such a long life. Immersed in dreams, prayers and poems of her beloved Vishnu, Andal’s ‘pasurams’ contain threats, pleas and impassioned outpourings of immense love and longing. Nature was her favourite metaphor.
Storm clouds caress my Lord’s shoulders
He stands mightier than a mountain
Dazzling, green, with red Lotus lips
Listen birds to my songs and wing them fast to His ears!

Slowly starving herself in unrealized longing, Andal is believed to have been ‘absorbed’ into Vishnu’s form before she was 22 years old. Today she has found a pride of place alongside Vishnu’s consort, Goddess Lakshmi, in all South Indian temples and her story is among the earliest in the long and colourful lineage of female mystics in India.
As we listen to Andal’s eternal poems and remember her life in this special month, let us also recall her elder ‘ssiter’ Rabia who softened Sufism with her love and was the first among female mystics in the Sufi tradition.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Murky Spaces

An artiste seeks the perfect ambience for a performance. The physical space, the preparation areas, green rooms, dancing floor,the distance between the stage and the first row of seats, the acoustical design of the theatre all contribute to some theatres being more coveted than others. In a city that has already begun its month long carnival of dance and music, this is perhaps the right time to survey our cultural spaces as the NRI ’ rasikas’ descends upon us.

I was at the re-opening of the newly renovated RUKMINI ARANGAM in Kalakshetra. Seated in the first row brought back memories of the time when the late Rukmini Arundale watched all her celebrated dance productions take shape in that serene, aesthetic space. The triangular pyramid like roof with a thatched interior surface, now weather proofed, a large semi circular stage reaching out to the audience and the traditional floor-seating area that is always occupied by the students, offered a simple throwback to the genius of traditional architecture in consonance with local weather and behaviour patterns. Even the incoherent dance performance did not deter my enjoyment as my mind flowed back to the days of rehearsals for RAMA VANAGAMANAM , where I played Kausalaya along with Apollo Hospitals chief Preetha Reddy who played Sumitra.

Today we are forced to park our cars on the streets due to ill designed halls, conceived by disconnected architects or myopic chartered accountants who only look at the cash register and not at the experience of ‘sahridaya’. Add a concrete performance space that is ruinous on stamping feet, there are the filthy toilets, makeshift green rooms, invisible rehearsal spaces, inadequate lighting equipment and poor acoustics. The seating area usually carries the remnants of the previous occupant’s saris or dupattas. The main auditoriums have a smaller ‘sister’, called the mini-hall. Here the imagination has really been stunted, since the opportunity to build a truly smaller’black box’ theatre to accommodate 100 to 150 people with excellent acoustics has been lost. The beautiful ” Sittrarangam”, built 25 years ago in the Island Grounds space is abandoned since it is in the wrong geographic location of the city.

Can you imagine cultural spaces like Esplanade in Singapore, Sadlers Wells in London or Lincoln Centre in New York that will allow its auditoriums for hire for computer classes and a corporate AGM? Can you imagine a Bollywood singer entertaining a family wedding party while kids run around eating food on the same stage that a world class artiste has just performed on the previous night? This is what our hallowed spaces around the country actually witness during the year or the ‘low season”. This is because NO cultural space, built by corporate philanthrophy has been sufficiently endowed to curate a year round cultural calendar. They also do not have qualified staff for audience and programme development.

Bhanot may have angered us by his hygiene comment during the Commonwealth Games, but artistes in India know he speaks the truth. Why do artistes put up with such low standards? It is plainly because the demand and supply ratio of singers and dancers to the spaces available is so lop sided that most artistes are willing to perform in ANY small square space with chaos and unprofessionalism around them. During this month, we have to prepare to set up and perform within FIFTEEN MINUTES after the classical musician has finished his/her performance.

In our seventh decade of independence, we are still looking to the British, French, German and now the Korean to provide us the ‘other’ experience of contemporary and innovative work. The city’s Alliance Francaise has a renovated stage with shower stalls for the performers after the show.

When will the “KALAI KAVALARS” wake up and when will the artistes protest loudly enough to affect a change in attitude. When will we have an integrated space like the National School of Drama, New Delhi, where actors and dancers can train, rehearse, perform, interact, discuss, argue, study,create and collaborate through the year. Where the artist is respected and artistic activity is enshrined as a legitimate creative process.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Invisible Chennai

An exquisite contemporary dance show from London tours India and avoids Chennai. Another path breaking modern art installation in on view in Delhi and Mumbai and again, avoids coming to the South. What is with these cultural curators? Who sits in the corridors of power sipping tea and scones or ‘chai’ and’ biskuts’ to decide who gets to view these extraordinary art shows? Are we paraiahs? And to think that this month Chennai plays host to the world’s largest dance and music festival in the world. 600 concerts and every space in the city filled with notes and steps. So, if thousands converge onto Chennai for the SEASON and artistes find a discerning audience right here, what prevents the international culture-atti from including our city in their touring calendar?
The answer may lie in the culturally literate, intellectually arrogant and emotionally conservative Chennai-ite. There may have been a time when the greats like Muthuswami Diskshitar, Balasaraswati and even M S Subbalakshmi accommodated the presence and contribution of the ‘other’ with grace and magnanimity. Today Carnatic musicians are sniping at the presence of western instruments, growing beards and spouting philosophy; dancers are hiring annoying PR managers and bludgeoning social media with their false piety. We are in an age of self published bloggers and overbearing PR experts. All because there is no legitimate space or identity for an artiste in our society.
Open the newspapers are look at the job section. Can you find even a single ad for an artiste? WANTED- A music teacher for a school. WANTED- A dance teacher for a college. WANTED – an actor for theatre skills. You will not find a single request for an artiste. Not one. Nobody wants an artiste except between drinks and dinner at five star hotels and fancy gardens. If some institutions are hiring or interfacing with artistes then it is entirely due to the inputs of one particular individual in upper management. If artistes are now considered mere entertainers in this great country of ours, Ivy League universities are actually hiring dancers and composers for their departments of architecture and science! Yes. Harvard University is actively engaged with senior choreographers and dance makers in their international project on urban design. An alternative or out-of-the-box point of view is what everyone wants. And performing artistes can often provide these prophetic insights.
During my tenure as co founder and co curator of the contemporary THE OTHER FESTIVAL, many forms of modernity came to this city and was welcomed warmly. However, all these festival fares focused on the small and experimental works, not large spectacles like Jeyasingh or Kapoor which needed more resources and larger spaces. Until our cultural gatekeepers and funders get their act together, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company thrills Delhi, Mumbai and even Bengaluru. (Ironically, Shobana’s major supporter was a Chennai based automobile company, TVS Motors). Sculptor Anish Kapoor’s brilliant art installations enthrall visitors in Delhi and Mumbai. While we, the superior and brainy Chennai-vasi, miss these witty and breathtaking moments with our fixation on purity, authenticity and the sacred. Our singers and dancers thrill world audiences but we are not as gracious to accommodate the truly contemporary and modern interpreters of the form in our hometown. Watching Shobana’s cerebral choreography in New Delhi made me realize why she opted not to visit Chennai, her hometown and former stomping ground. Our senior dancers and gurus would have walked out in rage. Beatboxing rhythms interspersed with dance, film projection, capoeira and uber clean mudras! Sacrilege! Rama! Muruga! Siva Siva! All the Gods would be invoked to set right this ‘injustice!
If only we can remember that our ocean waters meet many other shores. Dismantling this ‘smug’ rasa will release our wonderful city from the clutches of a pseudo conservative aura that continues to hover around it.
I am a dance-actor, mythologist and storyteller. I can be contacted at,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Karma Chameleon - An ode to India's new dance

Amidst a flurry of preparations for the Commonwealth Poetry Showcase, I find myself teary eyed by the devastating imagery of women’s voices from Nigeria –the country designated to me for a performance.
The raw and ravaged images cascade forth - baby brides , bloodied diapers, a polygamous moon and the Mahapralaya of the final horizon. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and his colleagues have given voice to this African country’s beauty and squalor. For those of us who know of Nigeria as the source of email scams, the imaginative words and determination of Soyinka, Achebe and others comes as a gorgeous gift.
I have just completed a lengthy article on the valid presence of contemporary Indian dance for a publication. While writing the piece, I was torn between the struggle of the young artistic dance makers and their constant collision with the smug condescension of the classical community who conveniently call their work “contemporary” . While India’s modern dance remains an urban activity, pushed into a marginal hole for the elitists who are impatient with the linearity and posturing of classical dance today, the new dance makers are also guilty of convoluted hyperbole and twisted tongues in their description of their work. Just read through some of the new vocabulary that precedes these contemporary dances and you will be left confused with the gratuitous and self indulgent allusions that never manifest on stage. It is a tough call to make but my vote is for contemporary dance and its further development in India.
With this statement, I also welcome two dance festivals INTERFACE by Sapphire /Sudarshan in Kolkatta and IGNITE by Gati/Anusha in New Delhi. Both events are finally focusing exclusively on assessing contemporary dance in India and the diaspora. One is happening as I write this and another in November. The points of concern as those that were raised by PULSE editor in London, Sanjeevini Dutta. After the third session of Unlocking Creativity (UC3) she has felt that the signature markers for South Asian/Indian contemporary dance are yet to evolve. Unlike Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Theatre which has synthesized Chinese philosophy into a seamless blurring of their modern performances, South Asian contemporary dance is still too enamoured with the western model that is easily available for training. However, with most Indian dancers trained for longer periods in their classical dance forms, this hurried modern training never quite ‘digests’ easily into a complete and convincing vocabulary. Only time will tell.
Until then, I congratulate Anusha, Sudarshan and all those bright men and women who continue despite the state ignoring them while western presenters have finally woken up to the potential excitement and thrill of modern India through the words of Daksha Sheth, Tanusree Shankar, Sharmila Biswas (neo classical) and Veenapani Chawla. For the first time, the classical dance component with Malavika Sarukkai, Madhavi Mudgal and Alarmel Valli find themselves in the minority.
Congratulations to the luminous Madhavi Mudgal for the glorious tribute in the New York Times for her artistry. Bravo to all our superb dancers and actors who work tirelessly to perfect their craft and remind others that it is these soft skills that distinguish us in a world of machine and raw power.

Enjoy.. sweat.. drink.. eat.. laugh.. DANCE

Monday, September 13, 2010

God is gender neutral

God and I - Expresso Saturday September 11, 2010

For Anita R Ratnam dance is her prayer

What are your spiritual beliefs?

I pray, but not on a regular basis. As a dancer, I worship
my body and treat it as my temple. It is with daily cleansing, breathing, exercise, sweat and hard work that I practice the ritual and religion of life. I worship through dance.

I try to use prana as taught by healers, my yoga teacher of 15 years, Sri Nandakumar and my gurus, to listen to my atma and protect the bubble of laughter that is inside of me.

What is your understanding of God?

God is gender neutral. God lives in my 95-year-old grandmother's smile and my mother's luminous eyes that stare back at me from a photograph hung on a wall. God can be kind and cruel and is not responsible for everything that happens on earth.

What are your spiritual practices?

I undertake a two week liquid cleanse or a weekend fast to cleanse myself. I try to watch my dreams and note them down because I am most creative at night. I rise at 5am and visit my home puja space where I read, think and argue with Krishna who smiles back at me. Like dance, God is not just a good friend but also a lifelong companion who will see you through all your highs and lows.

Do you visit any pilgrimage place?

I visit my ancestral village in Tirukurungudi. The place has a magnificent Vishnu shrine and is home to the only all female theatre troupe in the country. It is also the subject of my PhD thesis. Given a choice, I would visit temples daily, sit in a corner and absorb centuries of civilisation through the stories of the stones.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Silent Rebel Against Extremism

The gritty Leela Samson has proved all those who doubted her
wrong after assuming the top spot at Kalakshetra. Now also at
the helm of other cultural bodies, Anita R Ratnam finds she
has her work cut out for her All around me were t r admiring
whispers about her talent. Also swirling r overhead were the s
comments of caste and r community. "She is not a one of us, so
how can she r truly understand", was an oft repeated phrase, t
something that Samson has collided against
When the news of Sangeet Natak Akademi's new chair person was
announced last month, it would have hardly made a ripple and
would have possibly been buried on page six of the daily paper
if not for the individual who had been selected for the
position -Leela Samson. For 40 years, this quiet and
determined woman has stayed the course and followed her
passion -with grit and grace. In her 60th year, she assumes a
position that is both powerful and crucial for India's image
in the world of changing tastes and increasing cultural
The reader may ask, "What is the Sangeet Natak Akademi?" It is
India's premier apex cultural body that was established in
1953 by the first President of the country, Dr Rajendra Prasad
in New Delhi's Parliament House.
Now registered as a society, the Akademi, widely referred to
as SNA, has been headed by cultural and political giants like
Indira Gandhi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Girish Karnad, KPS
Menon and Bhupen Hazarika.
The more pressing question on many minds is "Why was Leela
Samson chosen to head this prestigious institution?" Samson's
pedigree may not resemble that of a typical bureaucrat, but
her distinguished career has pushed her step by careful step
to this moment. Her Facebook profile photo shows a relaxed
graying woman embracing her two dogs who loiter in and out of
her office on the Kalakshetra campus; a thoughtful speaker, an
insightful writer who wrote a monthly column, The Still Point,
in New Delhi's First City for almost 10 years, a beautifully
controlled dancer and a silent rebel against all kinds of
extremism, Samson is now in the proverbial hot seat. The last
woman head of the SNA was dancer Sonal Mansingh who was unable
to complete her five-year term during the BJP government. That
another dancer, and that too, a woman would once again be
appointed as the head of this most coveted cultural `gaddi'
came as a surprise to many. But upon closer inspection, we
learn that Leela Samson was always someone who was regarded
very highly by the corridors of power. A former guru of
Priyanka Gandhi, Samson has distinguished herself as an
excellent teacher during her 30 years in New Delhi. Her
students testify to her open-minded training methods and many
like Justin, McCarthy, Navtej Johar, Anusha Lal, Aditi Rao and
Anusha Subramanyam have distinguished themselves as classical
and contemporary dancers.
Leela Samson left Kalakshetra for New Delhi in 1975, the same
year I joined the academy for my Post Graduate Diploma in
All around me were admiring whispers about her talent and
exceptional performance ability. Also swirling overhead were
the comments of caste and community. "She is not one of us, so
how can she truly understand", was an oft-repeated phrase,
something that Samson has collided against through the years.
Instead of buckling under these innuendos, she has used her
Judeo-Christian back ground to give her both objectivity and
clarity about Bharatanatyam rather than get ensnared by the
semantics and infighting that c often plagues the classical
community. At a recent conference in north America, I found s
her chafing at what has become de rigueur c now, of pitting
her guru Rukmini Devi against celebrated dancer Balasaraswati.

A multiple award winner at the national c and regional levels,
Leela was a prime student of founder Rukmini Devi Arundale and
I toured with the Kalakshetra troupe as one of the principal
dancers for many years. Her s own aesthetic arc has revealed
an austere r composure in her dancing and a surprisingly
eclectic `optic' in her attitude to the arts. As f president
of the Kalakshetra Foundation from 2005, she has quietly
overseen a trans t formation of this seminal cultural space
into a crucible for vibrant cross-pollination of the
contemporary alongside the classical. Festivals, works in
progress, modern Tamizh the r atre, discussions on classical
and contempo s rary music, restoring musical legend MS
Subbalakshmi's piano are only some of the a projects she has
green lighted. Currently the l famous Koothambalam theatre at
Kalakshet a ra is being renovated with upgraded lighting I and
sound systems for the upcoming December season. i Also holding
the position as head of the i South Zone Cultural Centre,
which monitors folk and non-classical cultural activities in
all the southern states, Leela now holds a third r and most
prestigious baton as numero uno of i the SNA. As the 12th
chairperson of this national body, she will oversee the manage
i ment of a large budget from the Human c Resources Ministry
that dispenses grants, scholarships and support in the areas
of a dance, music, theatre, tribal, folk, ritual/tra t
ditional arts and puppetry. The SNA also organises festivals,
workshops and has sepa t rate departments for publication and
docu t mentation as well as a library and a proposed museum of
the performing arts in New Delhi. o She will have to manage
the multiple activi s ties of the regional and zonal centres
of Kathak, Koodiyattam, Chhau and Sattriya dance styles. She
will supervise the animated discussions of the annual SNA
awards which are the most prestigious arts honours in India.
The many SNA committees delegated to the various branches of
the performing arts are comprised of artistes and not
Indian performing arts were always the shining international
ambassadors for a country seemingly in the perennial grip of
poverty and want. Maharajas and classical dancers were our
poster boys and girls until corporate India and Bollywood
burst onto the millennium scene. Today, India and all things
Indian is the buzzword around the world.
Young dancers and musicians are not seeking state sponsorship,
having cracked the corporate need for constantly changing
mindnumbing tamashas. There are fewer and fewer of the next
generation willing to commit to a life in dance and music with
monetary returns remaining a distant reality. How will the SNA
grapple with the increasing mediocrity in the arts? How will
it broaden its horizons to accommodate the present global
reality of technology and the popularity of self-published
bloggers, media managers and You Tube podcasts? Bharatanatyam
and Kathak, now global dance forms, have found excellent
practitioners outside India and dance academia are flourishing
outside our shores.
Infrastructure for India's performing arts is dismal. Lack of
trained managers, agents, impressarios, interlocutors,
writers, critics, echnical personnel, a performance network,
ehearsal spaces -the list goes on. Leela Samson has her hands
While cultural appointments are not egarded as prestigious
postings by the Delhi bureaucrats, for a dancer to be in the
driver's eat of such a large cultural institution has equired
patience and resilience.
Leela Samson has faced controversy while ssuming her current
position at Kalakshet a. She will be severely tested again at
the SNA. How will she juggle her appointment book in two
cities? In the field of culture, the wo remaining culture
postings in India are Chairman of the ICCR (Indian Council for
Cultural Relations) which is Karan Singh's portfolio and head
of the IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts)
which Kap la Vatsyayan now holds. Then the next step -a Rajya
Sabha seat.
One fact is certain. Leela Samson's new esponsibility will
severely curb her perform ng life. Her recent performance at
Mumbai's NCPA may be one of the last we see of this ntelligent
and dignified dancer. Her two suc essful ensemble productions
Spanda and Charisnu are already inter nationally pplauded and
perhaps her role as dance men or and choreographer may widen.
At an age when many divas stubbornly cling onto cen re stage,
Samson finds herself making a imely and graceful segue into an
eminent position of responsibility, and simultane usly
becoming the single most powerful per on on India's cultural

Monday, May 24, 2010

'Happiness comes after unhappiness'

God is in the small things. In the smile of a new-born baby and in the gaze of my grandmother whose face is lined with a smile. I can’t see God everywhere. I feel Her in spaces small and large.

What stops us from being sexy, as well as religious; materialistic, as well as spiritual; happy, as well as sad? We’ve forgotten that our Gods, Rama and Krishna, were princes and wealthy. They lived in luxury and their women, Sita, Kausalya, and Urmila were regal. Jewels, personal maids, expensive wardrobes and luxe living surrounded them. Ayodhya was a kingdom encouraging masculinity and war; Mithila, Sita’s home, encouraged education, world philosophy and equality between the sexes.

We can hold on to faith and still live in luxury. We have a warped notion of spirituality and truth as being states of deprivation. In a society that’s aspirational, like middle-class India, one is seemingly from the West (material wealth) and the other homegrown (spirituality). We’re caught in this mire and coagulated confusion.

Hanuman on my crotch makes me uncomfortable. Maybe Durga on my kurta or my sari pallu works for me. My body is my personal space and even God doesn’t need to validate my sexuality. To be open to adventure, to hold on to the bubble of laughter; never to despair and to remember anger and darkness — these are emotions cut from the same cloth from which beauty and harmony are woven. To be conscious of my breath and the feel of my feet on the pavement anywhere in the world.

To be happy means that one has to also experience unhappiness. I can’t be happy anywhere like the yogis and gurus. I need my home, room, garden and rhythm to find my inner flame. I’m easily distracted and need to consciously focus and withdraw from external stimuli to remember that I have every right to be happy every minute of my life.

Times of India, May 14, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sisters of Imelda

What comes to mind when you think of the Phillipines? President Marcos of course. More precisely, Imelda Marcos and her famous penchant for extravagant retail therapy. I had a chance to meet a Marcos sibling and 14 of her very powerful friends during their recent tour of South India. The head of the country’s departments of Ballet, Music, publishing, education, textile design, museums and real estate were on a two week tour of South India. Mostly women and very very ‘uppah’ class, the luxury tour took them to temples, ayurvedic resorts, textile weaving units- all along staying inside their five star membranes.

Their last two days brought them to Chennai and I had been requested three months in advance to be their window to the city. I had been repeatedly warned not to take them to any plebian outlet since their tastes were “very very high end”. With a prepared list of shops to help our local economy, I met them at the lobby of a local five star hotel. Immediately, all fifteen faces had one mantra on their lips. “Shop. We want to shop! Can we hit the stores now?”

Aah! The magic of retail therapy for women throughout the world. And shop they did. Up and down Khader Nawaz Khan Road, buying all that fit their petite frames. I heard OOHS and AAHS from fitting rooms and the plastic was repeatedly swiped in store after store. A private showing of antique jewellery was another source of much amazement and bargaining. Lunch at Amethyst turned out to be another spree for gifts and all the store owners were left reeling in delight with the Asian typhoon that swept through their shops. Incidentally, Irene Marcos was the most frugal, belying all expectations of her famous mother.

The group spoke about the vanishing of traditional Phillipine textiles and their cultural nuances with globalization and marveled at how Indian designers managed to navigate the fine lines of commerce and market demands. The enormous butterfly shoulders of their national costume, popularized by Imelda Marcos, had all but vanished from the Phillipine landscape and local weaving and crafts were also being threatened by cheap Chinese imports. One gentleman was specially interested in the connection between pre Christian Phillipines and South India during the time of the Pandya and Chola rule. Over a quiet dinner, they listened to guitarist Vedanth Bharadwaj singing songs of Kabir and Mirabai. Teenage Bharatanatyam dancer Sudarma Vaidyanathan dazzled and our famous curd rice with pickles closed out the evening as the favourite food.

So who said power women were not like you and me? Shopping, bargains, jewellery, kids and home food. For this high powered group, nothing was lost in translation!

A Rebel with a Cause

What is the positive force of rebellion? In the words of renaissance humanist Rukmini Devi Arundale, it can assume two forms. One is the positive battling to change the existing norms of being and seeing. The other is a negative energy of being a rebel for its own self indulgent sake.

Was Rukmini Devi a rebel? In her lifetime she was many things and perhaps a rebel the most. As her 106th birth anniversary arrives on the invisible February 29, Atthai (as she was widely known to her students and friends) had many ‘avatars’. Theosophist, animal welfare activist, dancer and politician (Rajya Sabha nominee twice and candidate for President of India). Known best for her founding the magnificent Bharatanatyam institution Kalakshetra in Chennai, dance history records her many achievements. Like Sri Aurobindo’s Mahashakti, she shattered many obstacles and paved new pathways for generations of men and women to access classical dance and music. I perused old photos of her riding the pyramids, walking the corn fields of the USA wearing saris, pants and hats with élan, conversing with European men and women with confidence and ease. This was in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when a new India was being birthed and an entire generation was filled with the ambivalence of hope and uncertainty.

Accused today of ‘sanitizing’ Bharatantyam by removing the overt eroticism in the traditional repertoire, Rukmini Devi’s recognized the potential of classical dance to be the symbol of India’s cultural and spiritual regeneration. Schools, weaving centres, organic farming, painting, music and dance were all complementary activities in her master plan for the development of an artiste.

Marrying a foreigner many years older to her was the source of societal outrage but she did not wilt. Neither did she flinch when faced with a recalcitrant nattuvanar(dance conductor) at the last moment. She vowed and accomplished the feat of training and establishing the first female nattuvanar for Bharatanatyam- the late Kamalarani. The dance orchestra being seated to the right of the dancer rather than walking all around the stage was also her conscious design to present classical dance to the new generation of modern Indians.

My years at Kalakshetra in the mid seventies were eventful with Atthai walking by occasionally and causing a flutter with her regal presence. Being the tallest in my class (as always) I was suddenly asked to play the part of Kausalya in Rama Vanagamanam, the second in the Ramayana series. Playing Sumitra was Preetha Reddy of Apollo Hospitals. Imagine the two of us, playing mothers to senior dancers like Janardhan Sir and Venkatachalapathy. The rehearsals were stressful since I could never sit in deep enough araimandi to satisfy Atthai. Rukmini Devi also suggested to my mother that since I had the makings of a very fine dancer, that I should not perform often while studying at Kalskshetra. My mother refused outright saying that the life of a performer was very short and while I was capable of studying and performing, she would continue to plan my dance outings. Aah! Those were the days!
Men in dance, theatre designs for the performing arts, costuming, group choreography and of course her seminal Ramayana series are only some of Rukmini Devi’s achievements. Like most pioneers, Atthai was sad and isolated in her final days, distraught over the bitter tussle for control over her precious dream, Kalakshetra. Like another radical thinker Osho, who died alone and dispirited, Rukmini Devi’s dream seemed in jeopardy. Thankfully, the storm has passed and a new vibrancy has returned to Kalakshetra, The Osho ashram in Pune is now a swanky spa and holistic retreat far removed from the original aims of its brilliant founder. Kalakshetra remains a centre for alternate thinking, creativity and training. This rebel did indeed have a valid cause.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The New Golden Triangle

FOR many reading the title, memories of India's famous poster of DelhiJaipur-Udaipur may come to mind.
Others may recall the phrase that emerged in the seventies during the Vietnam war about the areas of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam for the drug, sex and narcotic underworld trade. I am referring to neither but the emerging area in our own backyard of southern Tamil Nadu -Trichy , Tuticorin and Tirunelveli.
I am not mentioning Madurai or Coimbatore, which emerged two decades ago as Tamil Nadu's mega growth centres. Today , the three Ts represent the aspirational and assertive face of our state. Money, trade and ambition are soaring among the younger generation who think nothing of flying to Chennai to party , pay cold cash for jewellery, fancy luggage and saris. Like the farmers of Punjab who travel to Delhi's Louis Vuitton store with cash-filled suitcases for the branded bridal luggage collection costing almost Rs 40 lakh, "the times they are a changing."

Walk into the best hotel in Trichy and ask the chef to whip you up an egg white omelette with multi grain bread and voila! It comes with a flourish and and a smile. Great tasting veggie sandwiches and old world bakeries serving nankhatai biscuits, Japanese cakes and cream puffs are standing tall amidst temple gopurams. I can still find my favourite `panneer soda' in a small shop opposite the temple mutt. Though these towns are best known for their religious and cultural landmarks, national brands are locating these new lucrative markets.

Trade, commerce, philosophy and culture have always been nurtured by the banks of the Cauvery and the Tambarabarani. Musicians, dancers, priests, thrived under the patronage of wise rulers. Today , parties, private jets, fancy cars and branded diamond watches are the norm for the affluent in these emerging towns. Thousands of phirangs crowd the ancient temples in the surrounding areas of Trichy and Tirunelveli while the new India is thronging the hotels and malls -the neo temples of today .

I travel often to all three cities and have been amazed with the change over the years. The sari brands of Pothys and RMKV hail from Tirunelveli and so do many other successful retail names. Trichy and its suburbs has become the centre of many new universities offering alternative courses in the performing arts, philosophy and culture. The best of Tamizh folk and martial arts are still being practiced in this geographical `trikona'. So city readersstop being snooty , lower those Dior sunglasses and take note. This is the new golden triangle of our state.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where are the Cultural Warriors ?

Where are the cultural warriors? Where have they gone? Have they abdicated their responsibility of being the prism to sift artistic responses and give the reading and viewing public an objective dimension of the arts?

I speak of the much talked about group. The liberals. The custodians of culture, the people who serve as stewards of civilization and mentors to the next generation. They who maintain the pathways into knowledge and taste- the school curriculum, cultural institutions, and cultural pages in newspapers and magazines – guarding them against low standards, ahistoricism, vulgarity and trendiness. If the pathways deteriorate, don’t blame just kids and parents too much. Blame, also, the teachers, gurus, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors and curators who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition, who will not judge cultural novelties by the high standards set by the past practitioners of art, who will not stand up to the adolescent announcements like “It is time to put away the past. It is childish to look backwards”. It is they who have let down the society that entrusts them to sustain intelligence and wisdom and beauty, and they have failed the youth who can’t climb out of adolescent behaviour on their own.

The well known story of Rip Van Winkle is very relevant at this time. Asleep for twenty years, Rip wakes up to a changed America where the new leader is a President and not the Englishman and the new system is democracy and not colonialism. Rip struggles with the seismic shift in values and attitudes and fails in negotiating the new power structures.
Gurus of knowledge are grappling with the new society where students are unwilling to be scolded and lectured to without a reasonable back up explanation. Attention spans are short and earning opportunities aplenty for the youth. Information is everywhere and tech savvy teeenagers are turning the tables on their seniors who have crowned the venerated untouchables.

In the sphere of dance, we had the most prestigious national awards announced in February and nobody even noticed. The media paid no attention and only clamouring from the artistic community forced the media to carry small reports buried in the back pages. Granted, dancers have done it to themselves with holier than thou attitudes and over reacting to any criticism from the most senior and balanced of critics. Pages for the arts have shut down. Dancers and their cronies are to blame. Meanwhile we have an explosion of teaching, learning and performing. But what kind of dance are we seeing? What is classical, neo, modern, contemporary, experimental? Who knows as new avatars are created everyday. We now have Accro-Natyam, Cabaret Natyam, Military Natyam, Cine Natyam, Sufi Natyam, Neo Natyam, Yesu Natyam, Eelam Natyam Everything but Bharata Natyam the way many of us learned it decades ago. Should it be changed? OF course it will, whether you and I like the change or not.

I return to the question of standards and how we judge the best from the rest. Not sheer numbers in the audience or the quantity of performances. Popularity does not always equal excellence. However, as the medieval Spanish priest says in his seminal help book written secretly in the 12th century,

Let us not imitate Rip Van Winkle and wake up too late, look around the moan for what we could not delayed or resisted. Let us speak, write, argue, shout, lecture and talk about what we really care about. Excellence in dance. Nothing else will do.

The deep South

The small airport displays the sign “Welcome to the Southern Belle of the Georgia Coast”. Porters and airport staff greet you with a broad smile and the drawl,” Hi Ya’al”, made famous by the city’s famous celebrity chef Paula Deen. This is Savannah, Georgia, America’s first planned city and founded by British General James Oglethorpe in 1733. He organized the city into 24 beautiful squares and was so enchanted by its climate and beauty that he requested King George of England to gift him Savannah as a Christmas present.
That was then and I was returning to Savannah to visit my son who is a student of its famous SCAD university,(Savannah College of Art and Design) one of America’s newest and hottest colleges for new media and cinema. Warm and friendly, Savannahians are proud of their city and the small but beautiful city has many places to visit, shop and dine. In fact, it is a treat to walk around downtown Savannah, by the river where local chocolate and home made fudge factories churn out many varieties of the gooey stuff round the clock. Savannahians are hospitable and eat breakfast, talk lunch and think dinner.

I am considered thin in Savannah, so you can imagine what the average sized woman looks like. The smallest sizes used to be US 10 until migrants from New York and Boston started moving South and buying up property in this scenic city. Once famous for its cotton and slave trade, Savannah is considered America’s most haunted city, a large part of its built over graves. The best shopping and dining areas in Savannah are centred around the Historic District with West Broughton Street as its shimmering spine.
Breakfast in Savannah means a stop at Clary’s Café where the pancakes, Southern fluffy biscuits and warm gravy see a long queue from 7 am. Stroll along West Broughton to the Honey Bee which stocks over 30 varieties of American honey and sip a cup of tea while tasting honey from an actual honey comb. A few stores away is the iconic Savannah clothing store Gaucho, run by Ross and his cheerful aide Dee. Together they have made the store a one stop elegant destination for silk jackets, resort wear and exquisitely original pants and tunics. Nearby is Inge’s Casual Elegance, run by German born Inge, who is a paragon of chic herself, advising my daughter Arya and me on the perfect summer dress. Continuing on Broughton you come across BluBells, an original Savannah store which stocks vintage clothes like Gucci and Armani coats and jackets from the 1970’s. Flanking Blue Bells is the quirky cosmetic shop called See Jane which hosts some excellent but lesser known brands like Julie Hewitt ( she did the make up for Pirates of the Caribbean). On the other side of BluBells is the gorgeous boutique called American Craft. Here you can pick up one of a kind wearable art. This is my one stop to collect hand painted jackets, tops and long scarves. Very pricey but every piece is a head turner.

A new French bistro has opened on West Broughton but those who prefer the active lifestyle gravitate to Kayak Café also located on West Broughton, which serves up a variety of healthy vegetarian and vegan sandwiches. Evenings finds the party goers filling up the popular Jazzed, a tapas bar that is all out fun with great food, music and ambience. A short walk away to the City Market area and you can find a store called Taste of Georgia where you can taste and purchase light Georgian wine for all palates.
Sidestepping all the carriage tours and trolleys that trundle along the main roads of downtown Savannah, you can sit on the bench that Forrest Gump made famous in the movie of the same name or be told where Robert Redford has just wrapped up filming his new movie The Inquisitor on John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln.

Fine dining abounds in Savannah, with several top rated Michelin starred restaurants. The most pricey and well known is 700 Drayton, attached to the plush Forsyth on the Mansion Hotel. The entire atmosphere and menu are so elegant and the ambience so exquisite that the very air reeks of class. Other well known and excellent dining venues are Sapphire Grill and Lady and Sons, the last being owned by restaurant diva Paula Deen. However, if you are looking for good old Southern cooking then it is only at Mrs Wilkes, a simple place where diners sit shoulder to shoulder and order from a fixed menu of friend chicken, potatoes, spinach, collard greens, biscuits, deep fried catfish and barbecued ribs saturated in butter and cholesterol laden fats.

Even as the high priced brands like Marc Jacobs, Prada and Gucci open stores in Savannah, the managers all know each other by their first name and customer service is superb in this friendly town. Do not be surprised if anyone stops to have a conversation, offer a piece of advice or tell you where to get the best haircut. Everybody knows everybody in Savannah and they are proud of it. Remember that this is the city of the famous book and movie ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and the mercurial cabaret performer Chablis actually exists.

Today Savannah is a delight to visit, especially for me, having lived in busy and bustling New York for so long. I have always found something unusual to buy in this city including the original SCAD Design Store, affiliated to the university where the fashion design students exhibit and sell their creations. The nearby Gryphon Tea Room reminds me of Southern style from the days of Scarlett O Hara in Gone with the Wind. I have spent so many hours strolling by the river licking a fresh home made sorbet from one of the local ice cream vendors. Over the past four years, I have made many friends there and will be sad to see my son graduate and pack up from this quaint and unusual city that is one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the USA.

Gyrotonics and the dancing body

Waiting amidst several dancers to step onto the stone platform under the quiet gaze of the Nandi bull, I watched a young couple complete their dance offering to Lord Siva at Tanjavur. The Bangalore based duet presented what I would call Dance Gymnastics. Leaping, twirling, swirling, deep plies and knee bends executed with breaking a sweat and with aplomb. The audience loved their presentation and the hapless classical dancer who followed them appeared lacklustre although her performance was quiet and dignified.

If you are a dance lover and type in ‘Bharatanatyam’ on You Tube, a plethora of links emerge like the proverbial Hanuman’s tail. Hundreds of thumbnail suggestions pop up. While there is a gamut from the banal to the brilliant, you will notice increasingly fit dancers attacking the stage with a frenzied energy. There is a new athleticism in classical dance fueled by the urban culture of the glam size zero Goddess, fashion catwalks, aerobics and power yoga workouts. Fat is out and generous Ajanta hips are unacceptable for today’s audience. Ask New York based contemporary dancer Preeti Vasudevan who is a fan of Gyrotonics, a fitness system that twists, crunches and squeezes your core muscles into superb shape

A few days ago a national weekly interviewed and photographed me for a special on Health and Wellbeing. The title suggests that ‘fitness‘ as a word has been replaced but not the urge of the woman to remain toned, sleek and sexy. I decided to allow the photographer to capture me at my most vulnerable – track pants, crumpled t shirt, sweaty face and ponytailed hair – working with my personal trainer Deepak and my yoga instructor Sri Nandakumar. An imperfect body placed alongside a performance photo of my latest solo production MA3KA will tell the entire story. As dancers we are all vulnerable, walking that knife edge between appearing like “Goddess Mamis” and real women. Training in classical dance alone does not prepare today’s performers for the vast stages and the expectations of the audience who think on their toes. Lyrics, silence, musicality have all succumbed to the relentless assault of rhythm. Dance is now an Olympic sport and dance marathons on TV are subtly influencing the way a ‘rasika’ watches a classical performance. Gyms have ‘Dancercise’, Bollywood workouts and Bhangra groove routines while ashrams have ‘Mystic Dancing’ as a way of unwinding the lazy urban body. Nutrition, fitness and diets for dancers are being carefully planned and followed. Like sports and celebrities, dancers will soon travel with their trainers, yoga instructors and nutritionists.

The old ways of imparting knowledge from guru to sishya are being ruthlessly dismantled and a new template for preparing the dancing body is emerging outside the classroom. After all, dancers are the ultimate athletes of body and spirit.

The return of the Uttara Yogi

Almost exactly one hundred years ago, the steamship SS DUPLEIX cast anchor near the town of Pondicherry. Waiting on land were a group of revolutionaries, among them, Tamilnadu’s most celebrated voice of resistance, poet Subramania Bharathi. The eager reception committee had anticipated this moment for thirty years. Alighting from the vessel was one of the world’s most radical and brilliant new age thinkers – Sri Aurobindo. Then known as Aurobindo Ghose.

It was April 4, 1910 to be exact. That was the date that Sri Aurobindo, aged 38, came to South India from Bengal and began his great experiment in international living we now know as the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. His writings through journals, diaries, books and speeches flowed like a torrent through the monthly publication ARYA. Forced into a western education by his father, Aurobindo Acroyd Ghose as he was initially named, heard the inner call (aadesh) through the mystical form of Lord Krishna. In Calcutta, Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore bowed before this young man exhorting him to speak out for all enslaved Indians. A freedom fighter who was jailed for his seditious activities against the British in Calcutta, Aurobindo came to Pondicherry four years before he met the Frenchwoman Mirra Richard, later known as THE MOTHER. She had also been guided to India by the vision of Krishna and immediately found empathy with the young Bengali thinker. It was not until 1926, however, that the Aurobindo Ashram was founded with 1500 spiritual disciples.

Almost 30 years prior to that momentous landing in 1910, a group of radical freedom fighters and their wealthy patrons had heard a prophecy that a UTTARA YOGI, a mystic from the north, who would arrive in South India to liberate the minds and bodies of colonised Indians. One among these was my own great -great grandfather Kodiyalam Vasudeva Iyengar, the proud landowner of Kodiyalam village, near Mannargudi, Tamilnadu.

So many connections were made one recent evening at a Chennai bookstore, when writer Arup Mitra released his book UTTARA YOGI. A work of fiction, the book parallels the actual historical events of Sri Aurobindo’s life and shares remarkable moments of struggle, sacrifice and ultimate inspiration. That we go through our lives as puny Davids (Vamana ) when we have the capacity to attain the status of Goliaths (Viswarupa) is the subtext of the book.

UTTARA YOGI is far superior to any of the self help books that line store shelves today. It does not spout smart sound bites but instead reveals the real life, sacrifices and selfless inner struggle of a genius who became a seer of Dakshina Bharat and whose foresight about India and her humanity is a timely reminder for the next generation.

Ascent/ Descent

Last week I watched the television live broadcast of tennis hottie Marat Safin playing his final match in Paris. At 29, the tennis world’s most charismatic and temperamental star was retiring. Safin is a gorgeous hunk with movie star looks was a former world number one. However, he decided that it was time to move on. How come our dancers never get this thought? Dance is an unforgiving art, pushing our bodies to the extreme with the daily ‘abhyaas’, the sweat and merciless gaze of media and audiences who watch our every move and wait for us to fall off our pedestal. Our art allows us to grow internally through our teens, twenties, thirties, forties and even fifties. When we enter the sixties it is really time for all our divas and ‘devas’ to consider hanging up the boots. Or in this case the ankle bells.

There is a grand event for each dancer called the ‘arangetram’. This is the debut of the performing artiste as he or she ascends the stage. How come we just don’t have an event called the ‘arang-erakkam’. The final show and the descent of the dancer from the professional stage and performing circuit. One can argue that art is not a job or a vocation, but a calling to a higher purpose. However, there is a time for even the greatest of performers to morph into teachers, mentors and occupy a space of wisdom that only life experience can give. Nobody wants to see hanging jowls, paunchy dancers with 70 mm hips and flabby arms. These living legends should be presented and seen in small salon type of chamber concerts and not in mainstream festivals large dance venues.

In the West, dancers stop performing at age 40. An exception was Martha Graham who danced past 65 and ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov who shares Safin’s looks, charisma and skill. While Baryshnikov’s extraordinary talent allowed him to dance past age 40, he simultaneously started a company of senior dancers between 40 and 50 years of age called THE WHITE OAK PROJECT. In Canada, Karen Kain and Margie Gillis are fabulous soloists who, in their fifties, appear in very rare short performances. Granted that the arts are not about winning or losing like other spheres of activity. But we live in an age of youth, speed and unforgiving greed. The older dancers have enjoyed their time in the sun. Talented young dancers wait and wilt for their turn to appear in important and prestigious festivals.which are always dominated by the seniors.

In every field of activity, there is an optimum period of contribution and service. Then there is the inevitable end. Sports and dancing demand much of the ageing body. Is it not better to retire like Safin and Baryshnikov when you are still fit and fabulous and adored by many rather than hobble off the centre stage with a walking stick? Quit when you are ahead. Easy to say but impossible to do in our country.

Between Drinks and Dinner

Are we amusing ourselves to death? This is a poignant question asked by Oscar winning American actor Sidney Poitier in his moving book THE MEASURE OF A MAN.

I speak of the present fascination with urban India with partying. Our national anthem has become Karan Johar’s tune “Where’s the party tonight?” In hotels, beaches, gardens, drawing rooms, art galleries, heritage spaces, poolside and parks around India wine glasses clink, hors d’ouvres circulate and air- kissing socialites hover around steaming dosa, pasta and sushi counters. Sidestepping microphone wires and large surround sound speakers, these party animals are showing up en masse, masquerading as rasikas and connoisseurs. This is the new sabha for performing artistes, the new stage for the biggest and most celebrated names in the dance, music and theatre.

A birthday, anniversary, engagement or product launch in any of the above venues is very often marked by a short music or dance concert by a BIG name. The artist is placed against a very tastefully designed backdrop of an ocean, a tree, an archway or a historic building. Tender coconut water, jeera pani or champagne welcome the guests and steaming coffee or chai is served to the ‘gown/frock/dress/kurti mami’ set. Animated discussions are sprinkled with the notes from a sarod, sitar, violin or sarangi Ankle bells and percussion beats spray the air but eyes are more focused on the other’s jewels than on the stage where the internationally acclaimed performer is dancing or singing.

If world class artistes are willing to appear at these social venues then it is also a sign that India’s cultural spaces need to be revamped. Except for a handful, most theatres have ear splitting acoustics, bad seating and negligent parking. Fees are always low and accommodations very modest. In a well planned social event, valet parking and even dinner for the chauffeurs is included. Add to that a stream of A listers who are a blend of politicians, foodies, writers, filmstars and socialites. Throw in a good pay packet and you have the winning formula. Artistes would much rather accept these socio-cultural invitations since visibility is high and artistic demands thin. The emphasis is on holding the attention of the distracted urbanite.

Well heeled corporates now find themselves anointed as new age impresarios . Fortunately some are sensitive aesthetes and genuinely interested in the arts. However, culture is the sandwich filling between drinks and dinner. Thoughtful and sensitive work is being crowded out by the juggernaut of spectacle. Art is now a Tari-kita-tom Time Pass!!

Siva dances, not alone

Annually, this is a moment of powerful energy convergence on our planet. The night of Siva.- Sivaratri. This past week has seen millions celebrate the eternal night of cosmic energy through prayer, dance, music and meditation throughout the day and night of February 12. Myths speak of Siva dancing atop Mount Kailasa and his celestial audience of all the mighty deities. Also in attendance are Patanjali, the father of Yoga and Vyagrapada, the founder of India’s martial arts. Watching his Ananda Tandavan (the dance of ecstacy) has been a timeless source of inspiration for sculptors, painters, dancers and poets.

What does the dance symbolize? I had a chance to meet and question Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, the inspirational founder of the beautiful Isha Yoga Centre near Coimbatore. We spoke about the fickle nature of fame, creativity, dance, the tragedy of Michael Jackson, the Raas Leela of Krishna and Siva’s Ananda Tandavam. Seated amidst the lush forest providing the canopy, we were positioned for TV cameras on two giant rocks in the middle of a gurgling stream. Stroking his silver grey beard which concealed a sleek, invisible microphone nestled behind his ear, Sadguru shared his thoughts about the celestial dancer.

“It is the energy that cannot be contained. It does not heed rhythm or lyrics. It is pure energy manifested in kinetic action.. It is the spurt of a young child who bounces up or jumps, oblivious to the surroundings. The dance of Ananda is the surge of creativity that is sometimes inappropriate for a civilized society. Siva’s divine energy was seen as an organized dance by his amazed audience. Siva danced alone. None could join except watch in awe. In contrast, Krishna’s dance with the milk maids was one of love. It needed men and women to participate in that ritual – 16,000 maidens, many men disguised as women, to congregate around Krishna- the sole Purusha. Even Siva had to drape himself in the garments of Yamuna Devi, the river Goddess to watch Krishna’s dance.

On the night of Sivaratri, Siva danced atop the Himalayas and in our hearts. Elsewhere on this planet, many ancient rituals honoured the dance of creativity. The Native American Hopi Kochinas danced near the mountains in Arizona, Goddess Hathor danced in Egypt, Amaterasu in Japan, Brigid in Ireland, Hephaestos in Greece, and Freya in Teutonic myth. Medusa was murdered for her creativity and her son Pegasus, the winged horse, churned the sacred waters of inspiration with his hooves for the Muses. In turn, the Muses churn the creative impulse in all of us. Like the Ananda Tandavan of Siva, it lives inside all of us and waits to erupt and express itself.

Kalyanam Couture

What can I wear to a wedding? It was not such a nerve wracking question until about five years ago. The occasion always meant a kanjeevaram sari and heirloom jewellery. Gold, rubies, emeralds and the eternal rocks. Nowadays those stay locked up in a bank while women of all ages flaunt the nakli stuff that is less stressful to buy, wear and protect. As for the saris? Wow what a change! Toss away those heavy kanjeevarams. Bring on the kotas, silk- cottons, jamavars, benarasi weaves, tussar, kalamkari and mangalgiris. Fancy cholis and bustiers adorn toned shoulders and bare arms. Straightened hair, sculpted torsos, bling kurtis, tunics and Indo -Western wear have become so accepted in even the most traditional affairs.

A wedding and an engagement celebrated last week highlighted the seismic shift in attire and attitude. Gone were the white cotton or silk veshtis for the men. A young musician in designer blue jeans with thumb jauntily slung into the hip pocket was singing a traditional song for the newly weds. Around me all sorts of clothes were on display. Such a variety of saris and other nouveau Indian ensembles! Foreheads were bare or decorated with an assortment of bindi designs. Horizontal ash stripes and vertical red lines segued easily into the atmosphere of both places. I watched in amusement as the groom sat on the pandal sipping tea with a smug smile and remembered my father wanting a sip of water as he was waiting to give me away decades ago with the priest frowning in disapproval.

The two venues could not have been more different. One was a seaside temple and the other a city hotel. One groom was contemporary musician Anil Srinivasan and the other featured Soundarya, daughter of a superstar Rajnikant. The expected bling and zing of the filmi gang disappointed with a very low key and traditional affair. Everyone came in sober whites, pale blues and greys. The bride and her family wore kanjeevarams and except for some of her sakhis dressed in filmi bling, it could have been just another normal wedding for the bystander. Fortunately no ugly gowns were on display.

Both events had surprisingly well behaved priests. No cell phone conversations during important moments and no snide comments about BMWs and credit cards for the new bride. (Yes, this did occur during a recent Arya Samaj wedding) Both couples had chosen their own life partners and so there was a relaxed atmosphere all around.

Which returns me to the question. What can I wear to a wedding these days? I still stick to the silk sari, now contrasted with special cholis. But confusion is rising. Maybe one day women will be so stressed out about the making the right choice that they may just drape a gorgeous wrap coat over a negligee like Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Butterfield 8’ and walk out the door!

Modi before IPL

Amidst the swirl of champagne and bacon-wrapped- prunes, guests mingled in the crowded ballroom of the New York Hilton. The year was 1984 and the atmosphere was charged with the presence of many royalties from Rajasthan. Heritage polki jewellery, zardosi overdose on saris and swirling angarkhas, society smiles and Picasso lips were on full display. It was the year that designer Paloma Picasso had lauched her signature red lipstick, saying that it was the only accessory any sensual woman needed. In the sea of glamour and opulence, a small, darkand unimpressive young man was handing out business cards. Bespectacled and surrounded by two blondes, his lisp-laced speech and brash bravado caught my eye. “Who is this?”, I asked my friend, industrialist SK Modi from New Delhi. I was on duty as chief reporter for my weekly television show “Indigo-the colours of India”that captured news of Indian events in America. “That is my irrepressible nephew Lalit Modi”, chuckled SK. Edging closer to the young man, I took one of his cards which read. – HRH Lalit Modi, Prince of Modinagar.

For the benefit of readers, Modinagar is a real place, an industrial complex in NOIDA, near Delhi, established by the MODI business family. In that gated complex the Modis are royalty and Lalit Modi is a genuine prince of his family tree. However, the sheer audacity of it all, amidst the maharajahs and maharanis of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Patiala and Karputala, made me burst out laughing. Spotting the TV camera behind me, Lalit Modi walked up and took the microphone from my hand. On cue, my cameraman, a Mumbai-kar, Chris Mendes, started shooting. “I have invited all the American guests to my palace in Modinagar”, India he said, avoiding my eye and looking directly at the camera lens. “I will show them true Indian hospitality like they have never experienced”. I turned to SK Modi who looked away, shoulders shaking with mirth..

Twenty six years later, this enfant terrible of the Modi family tree has translated his brash chutzpah into a mega brand that combines sports with fashion, film, food and celebration. His super thick skin has shrugged off all the mockery, barbs and innuendos aimed at him and rocketed BRAND IPL into an enviable mega billion dollar commodity.
Good behaviour was never Lalit Modi’s credo. But then we are living in a time when bad behaviour gets rewarded. Why else would the mistresses of Tiger Woods and Jesse James (actress Sandra Bullock’s estranged husband) get their own reality TV shows?

Lalit Modi’s comments did not make the final cut of my report. Years later I feel I should have kept the rushes if only to watch them and wonder at life and fate. His estranged father now embraces him for his brand value and millions of cricket fans have become IPL groupies, endorsing his original vision of cricket, cleavage and ‘bindaas mast’ . With or without the IPL, Lalit Modi is an enigmatic icon of audacious excess.

RAMP walk!

The title of this column is not a commentary on the current fashion scene. Rather, it is an abstraction of the fashion metaphor that has seeped onto the classical dance platform. When I say R-A-M-P, I actually am referring to the four top Bharatanatyam(BN hereafter) soloists of today who can be counted off to the four letters of this fashion acronym. Start the guessing game y’all but continue reading.

If you want to be a star soloist BN dancer of today you MUST adhere to the following moves. Shake, shimmy, strut, shrug, pout, slide, grimace, wink, leap, pose. The last move is a must. Pose, pose and pose whenever and wherever. Like fashion models. All four dancers have attained cult status. They perform to sell out crowds. Eager devotees stare at them without blinking and cell phones secretly capture all their moves, including costume designs. They are venerated as Goddesses and hundreds drop to the floor backstage. Yet, are they performing Bharatanatyam or a review of what they have accomplished at the gym, a fashion show and the running track? Atheleticism, speed and stamina have replaced all that BN gurus have long taught us about this magnificent classical style. Ease, grace, emotional depth, poetic lyricism has been re-formed and re-vamped by these four divas for our present age of speed and greed. Watching them perform like wannabe film heroines makes me long to run home and turn on my DVD to see Padmini in “Tillana Mohanambal” or the famous Vyjyanti – Padmini dance marathon in “Vanji Koti Valiban”. That is full out filmi dancing with panache!

I am not a nostalgia buff neither am I in need of an emotional laxative. I adore Yamini, Kamala and Vyjayanti and realize that those days are long gone. Of the four devis, I like one the most. She knows who she is. All four lay claim to being “pure, authentic, classical and pristine”. All I see, however, is the dancer and not the dance. I want to breathe with the performer, not be choked tight with tension. I want to be shaken and stirred. I do not want to see every move rehearsed to death, every step, every musical ‘gamaka’ and ‘niraval’ stripped of spontaneity, verbose explanations which are never manifested in the actual performance, and four women in their forties and fifties dancing as if they are still twenty years old.

I was beginning to think that all successful BN dancers had to adopt this new formula until I watched Toronto based Sri Vidya Natarajan stun a small Chennai audience at Chandralekha’s SPACES with power, passion, honesty, musicality and sheer splendour! Wow, I thought, that is what BN really is and can be! Outspoken SriVidya was quick to add that she was not performing “Mami Natyam”. For those who did not get her slant at at the Natya Kala Conference, she elaborated- “I am not performing Brahmin Dance!” Ouch!

Who am I to complain? Having stepped away from the classical scene 18 years ago and not being part of the rat race or the glamour circuit, I observe the scramble to the pinnacle which all four divas are stretching for. There is nothing that can stop the juggernaut of the R-A-M-P nayikas. They are the stars who can do anything and get away with it, manufacturing consent through zealots and gullible writers who fawn over them. For the many younger and commmitted BN dancers who watch in dismay, I say. Get onto the catwalk. Ignore your dance training and strut your stuff. RAMP rules!

Modelling and Choreography

I am hugely entertained by Fashion TV. My daughter and I watch this channel several times a day, diving into the fantasy world of fashion shows. It is not only the clothes that are fascinating but also the appearance of the models. How they move, walk and the overall staging of each show that guarantees my interest.

Fashion shows typify today’s world where beauty and body images are glorified. The world of fashion has been vilified, criticized and spit upon for its superficiality, ageism and narcissistic body-fascism. Eating disorders are blamed on today’s obsession with size zero and fashion parties are seen as a narcotic and sexual playground.

With all these negative images, I also raise the question of the body for “hire”. While in fashion, commerce is so obviously the motive, in dance we embed the dancing body within the trite umbrella of “sacred and secular”. When I read these two words today, I feel like puking. Overused, underfelt and thrown around like a discarded fashion of last season.

Looking at the fashion walk, the triangular held arms at the waist, the posing and the overall musculature of the model raises several questions. In dance around the world, performers and students are accumulating a variety of techniques or vocabularies. “Corporeal bodies are then transformed into a body of ideas” says writer Susan Foster. This is in response to a variety of choreographic and aesthetic demands.

Today’s dancing body is tailored by commercial realities to the fashion model on the runway. Fashion bodies and dancing bodies share many similarities. “They are both located at the intersection of performance and finance”, states Manrutt Wongkaew, a dance scholar.

In traditional dance studies we have the “perceived” body that develops within the confines of a school, observing teachers and learning, whereas the “ideal” body combines with fantasized visual and other kinetics placed upon it. In fashion, a model has to be tall and thin with features that heighten an unusual look. In dance, conventional beauty was the norm until recently when an athletic body, full of allure and dynamic promise has taken over all other perceptions.

Fashion models have to learn many ways of walking. The grunge walk, the crossover style, a theatrical entrance- all carefully choreographed. Indian and South Asian dancers today are viewed in the same way, the stage morphing into the ramp with bodies dissected and discussed for their commercial and marketing purposes.

Why do I dance ?

I hope the answer expected of me is not a rational one. To dance and to continue to dance is to move first and think later. The corporeal intelligence is so profound that it negates the mind's interventions - as it should.

What makes me dance? What is my reason to dance?

Dance has saved me from myself. From the grief of my father's passing when I was too far away, snowbound in Minneapolis, to return in time to the performance in Hyderabad about the five elements when my mother was releasing each of the five into the beyond - the world of dance has supported and challenged me.

Through the final moments of my parents' life, I was dancing full out, unaware of their blessings in the last burst of breath but fully present in the moment under the lights. I live my life as a dancer, antennae up for the texts and subtexts that is life

Dance has helped me heal the festering anger against many people and incidents. When I dance, I reveal myself. I cannot dance out of the sides of my mouth. In life, I am a recluse. On stage I am all passion, stillness and focused energy. I can do many things besides dance but it is dance that anchors and defines me.

To dance is the experience a sense of freedom. A freedom that is not granted by real life. To dance is to believe in being useless at times. To dance is to know beauty in the bones. To dance is to believe. To dance is to make oneself vulnerable willingly.

Let me conclude by tampering with the French poet Baudelaire's advice. “Be drunk,” I feel, “just dance… to ease the pain as Time's dreaded burden weighs down upon your shoulders and crushes you to the earth, you must dance without respite... Just dance, nothing else matters.”

(July 30, 2008)

Calling All Earth Mothers

I was a incredibly blessed at birth, receiving a goddess gift of extreme value… I was born into a line of strong and compassionate women. Although I was expected to be born a boy, according to astrologers, I emerged on a very hot summer’s day in May to a delighted father and grandmother. My own mother was expecting to fulfill her obligations by birthing a male child as her first born !

As we arrive at that time of year when we remember mothers, I would like to share a little bit of interesting history with readers. Did you know that the original intent of Mother’s Day was not to celebrate birth mothers? The first Mother’s Day was actually a Mother’s March in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, when women marched to protest the poor economic and health conditions for women and children. Their leader was Anna Jarvis. Fifteen years later, a pacifist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe suggested an event called MOTHER’S DAY so all women could rally for peace. The idea did not receive much support. When Anna Jarvis died in 1905, her daughter, also named Anna, began a campaign to honour her mother’s ideas and to establish one day to celebrate all mothers. Later, Anna regretted the current transformation of Mothers Day celebrations into a Hallmark greeting card kitsch!

In ancient Greece and India, the earth has always been known as the mother- the deep breasted Gaia or Prithvi, who gave birth to the sky, ocean, mountains and the Gods. Over time, Gaia’s daughter Rhea was honoured with an annual festival called HILARIA, which involved feasting, celebration and all night revelry. The word hilarious emerges from that Goddess source. In ancient India, the earth Goddess Aditi is a prominent reminder of our early respect for the sacred feminine.

Over time, the Christian church and successive invasions into India, sought to abolish, defame and diffuse all worship or respect of the female deities. Worship of Isis in Egypt was banned as was Brigid in Britain and Cybele in Asia Minor. India’s pulsating Shakti cult that developed in the 7thh century AD is a universal call around the world for women to unite and rekindle their inner divinity.

At this time, I would like to honour the women who have meant so much in my life. The incredible Leela who birthed me, the magnificent Saraswati, who life continues to inspire me and all her grand and great grandchildren, my sister Pritha who is the best sibling anyone can pray for and my daughter Arya whose independent mind has given me so many years of tears and laughter.

This is a time for all women to feel connected through the passage of birth and the umbilical cord of memories. Much more than a day to give a card or flowers, it is a time to remember that all human life emerges through the female body. Celebrate, breathe, smile.