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,