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Vol. XXVII No. 10, September 1-15, 2017

From Bharata Natyam to Contemporary Dance

by Sushila Ravindranath

Anita and Prita

Anita and Pritha

Anita Ratnam, a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for Contemporary Dance for 2016, started out as a classical dancer when she made her stage debut at age nine. She decided to stop giving performances when she was approaching twenty, when she went abroad. After that, she did not dance for more than ten years. When she returned, she ended up creating a new idiom of dance and winning awards on the way.

Anita Ratnam belongs to the TVS family, a pioneer in many ways. The family was steeped in tradition when Anita was growing up. Her mother, Leela Ratnam, who would have loved to learn to dance but could not because good girls didn’t those days, made sure her daughter did. Anita had her early training under Rajee Narayan who taught her Bharata Natyam, items in Kathak and Manipuri and the plate dance. Her grandfather, T.S. Rajam (her father’s father), did not approve of her dancing in public. The patriarch was seriously annoyed. However, her mother and guru supported her and she did not stop dancing. After her arangetram in June 1964, Anita’s guru moved to Mumbai. Her mother sent her to train under Adyar Lakshman. She was twelve then.

Anita did not just dance. She enjoyed sport just as much. She played tennis so well that if she had taken it seriously she could have gone places. She went hiking and swimming, and, as she puts it, her body was at play most of her waking hours. Her guru Lakshman wanted her to give up every physical activity other than Bharata Natyam. “He wanted me to be more feminine.” But even then dance was not enough for her. “There are so many things to love in life.” All forms of creative and performing arts fascinated her: she was fully involved in school and college activities, she performed in plays, theatre was going to become a lifelong passion.

Anita-Ratnam-c-Ashish-Chawla

Anita Ratnam

Anita danced at the Music Academy in 1971 when she was just 16. The audience included icons like T. Balasaraswati and M.S. Subbulakshmi. Anita was also learning Mohini Attam from Chinnammu Amma and Kathakali from Balasubramanian of Kalamandalam, both famous teachers. “When I did Mohini Attam, my body felt free. Kathakali helped animate my face.” She had already begun to work on making her performances more interesting. She possibly did not realise it then that all these learnings were drawing her to contemporary dance.

Contemporary dance is not Modern Dance though it may have elements of it. It combines features of several dance genres. It stresses versatility and improvisation, unlike the strict, structured nature of classical Bharata Natyam. Contemporary dancers strive to connect the mind and the body through fluid dance movements.

After graduating, Anita joined Kalakshetra – the school dedicated to arts and culture, particularly classical dance – founded and run by Rukmini Devi Arundale. As she had said in an interview in Open magazine, “Those years the only place to learn the theory about dance was Kalakshetra. I was intellectually curious and wanted to learn the pedagogy of dance and Sanskrit.” Kalakshetra offered formalised group classes. The only teacher who recognised that Anita’s body was doing other things and that she wanted to do something else with her movements was the late Neila Satyalingam. This guru later moved to Singapore and set up a school there. (She passed away recently.)

Anita recognised that she was a performer, liked being on stage and enjoyed all the attention it brought. She was a quick learner. However, she started rebelling when she was around 19 or 20. “Although my mother didn’t discourage me from doing anything I wanted, my life was managed by her.” Anita wanted to break free.

She was able to do that when marriage took her to the U.S. and to New Orleans. “It is a fabulous city.” She explored the various possibilities available in this vibrant city. When she went to the drama school at the university, Anita felt she belonged. She met the students and teachers and decided to pursue her M.A. in Theatre and Television from the University of New Orleans. She was the first student for whom the RBI released funds to study theatre abroad. Anita literally lived in the theatre department, auditioning for every play produced, soaking in the atmosphere and absorbing everything that was going on around her.

Then she moved to New York and embarked on a television career. “I did not dance from 1976 to 1990. I was hosting my own TV show in New York city which ran from 1981 to 1990.” Her TV experience taught her many things. “I learnt to work with a team. A good manager makes everybody in the team a stakeholder both in the process and product. I had to think on my feet, take quick decisions and solve problems. Most important, one learns to deal with egos and personalities and communicate with clarity. It is in New York I understood the importance of punctuality and professionalism. I also learnt that less is more. No story on TV got more than seven minutes.” Television taught her to multi-task. She was the face of the channel. She wrote, edited and hosted the show. “Colour became a great trigger and signifier. I started using bold colours, primary colours.”

Personal reasons brought Anita back to India. She found that the dance scene had changed a great deal. Group performances and state sponsored dance festivals were making their presence felt. The Khajuraho dance festival was launched the year she left India. In the India of the 1990s she had to find her way to be on stage and off stage. “I wanted to bring my life and art together. To do that I had to stop being the dancer I was before I left for the U.S.A. My life had taken too many turns for me to return to the way I was. Off came the jewels, silks and ankle bells. Out went the padam-s and javali-s and kriti-s and varnam-s. Tradition and modernity seemed binaries in conflict with each other.”

She embarked on a journey to find out what she wanted to do. “Bharata Natyam was the vocabulary my body knew.” She had to work around that. Madras of those days as now was full of cultural activities. She turned to Koothu-p-pattarai, one of India’s most respected contemporary theatre movements engaged in identifying, preserving and promoting various expressions of the country’s cultural repertoire. Koothu-p-pattarai’s illustrious founder Na. Muthuswamy became a mentor. The multifaceted Chandralekha, with her unapologetic stance on the play of abstraction, physicality and sexuality in her dance, had given up the prettiness and piety of conventional Bharata Natyam. She was way ahead of her times. “I was very drawn to what Chandra was doing. But the austere beauty of her art was not for me.”

Anita says she felt like clay waiting to be moulded. Not one to stay still, she kept experimenting. She did a tribute to scholar, writer, poet A.K. Ramanujan on the beach. A friend invited her to Germany where she collaborated with percussionist Selvaganesh on a short seven-minute piece. She worked with young male dancers and paid them professional fees. “l got scolded by the gurus.” She was introducing proper business methods. She was constantly evolving. “I never trained in modem dance. However, between 1993 and 2003, almost 40 to 50 dancers trained under me at the Arangham Dance Theatre which I founded. We blended classical dance with Kalari and Taichi and brought in the influences of mythology, theatre, voice training and the tradition of storytelling.”

For ten years, she did many group productions such as Gajanana and Panchajanyam. Purush, the all male production, was a spectacular success. “My theatre experience helped me animate the performances.” “How should a mature woman look on stage? I worked with young designer Sandhya Raman on costuming. I had to build a small community of creative artists. Classical pianist and composer Anil Srinivasan, singer Vedanth Bharadwaj, were all people I worked with. There is very little collegiality in the dance world unlike theatre.” She curated and was the Co-Artistic Director of The Other Festival – a contemporary arts festival – with cutting edge performances, brought for the first time to Chennai.

In 2000, Anita launched the award-winning website narthaki.com which provides you with information on everything you ever wanted to know about dance. It has been described as ‘the online Bible for Indian classical dance’. “When I was in New York, ABC TV channel wanted to do soft stories on India. They could not find the address of Yamini Krishnamurthi. The Indian Embassy did not have it. So I brought out a dancers’ directory and narthaki.com was born out of that desire to provide information on dance.”

Anita is an incessant traveller who is invited all over the world to perform, give lectures and participate in seminars. “I believe in networking with other dance professionals. In Europe there is a lot of political freedom for dancers. Dance incorporates very current issues. They discuss ideas, not personalities. They are bold and experimental. However, it is all a bit over the top for me to try and incorporate in my dance.”

Although full of ideas, Anita realised that her mind was hyperactive. “I am a better performer than a choreographer.” She needed to collaborate with people she was compatible with. In 1996, she met Hari Krishnan, internationally respected dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance scholar based in Canada and the U.S.A. and costume and visual designer Rex. They started working together.

Says Hari Krishnan, “Over the years, through the process of collaborating with her on our works Neelam, A Million Sitas, Ma3ka and Andal, I recognised that Anita was a true original. She is a non-conformist who confounds and threatens the status quo. Through her artistic arc, she showcases a rare kind of Indian feminism, eschewing the banal tropes of patriarchy derived from tired mythological templates, and the mundane, arbitrary notions of societal value systems that saturate the Indian dance milieu. She is a fearless risk taker, who values an open mind and implicitly trusts the collaborative process. She prioritises an uncompromising aesthetic in the production standards of her work. Anita is a brazen provocateur, who releases the power within to rebel and celebrate being different. As a powerful Indian female artist role model, Anita, truly kicks butt!” She takes risks and says that she does not mind looking foolish. She also takes on authority. “I have not intentionally, but often, been in collision with the powers that be. I have drawn attention to the dirty and unhygienic conditions of green rooms for dancers in sabha-s and the flawed system of choosing artists for
foreign tours and many other issues.”

Anita does not rush through one production to another. “I have to really imagine the idea that seizes me is interesting enough to develop into a performance. I take one full year to imagine, conceive and create a work. Like I did with Ahalya and Sita. Their stories are so relevant as are their flaws and triumphs. Take Ahalya. How many multiple ideas burst out immediately! I think of Ahalya and the surface of stone, eyes of stone, heart of stone, Stonehenge, stone as early writing tablet, stone memorials, stone carvings, healing stones. How can I not recall the stone throwing in Kashmir valley today?”

What drives Anita? She says, “To continue to have the passion for the arts today needs an attitude of a warrior who is battle ready, but also the heart of a dreamer. We need to find a reason to believe and to be excited about life.” She questions herself all the time. “What are we creating for and for whom? Is there a sense of magic or enchantment that we can bring into our ideas? Is there a sense of hope that we still believe in? We have to find the answers when the pressure to give up is everywhere.”

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