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Mudras & memories

For the first time in nine years, dancer-choreographer Dr Anita Ratnam will showcase her dance production, Neelam, in Mumbai. She speaks of her journey within and beyond the galaxy of diverse dance performances

Q. Your production, Neelam, premiered nine years ago in Chennai; we are curious about how it has evolved over the years?
A. It seems to be a different work from 2005. While the original boldness in costume, music and choreography carry the same arc, the implosions in terms of spatial design and simplifying the once-elaborate sets and props, have been significant.

Dr Anita Ratnam performs by the seaside. Pic Courtesy/Briana Blasko
Dr Anita Ratnam performs by the seaside. Pic Courtesy/Briana Blasko

Q. From an artiste’s point of view, what happens when a work stays and journeys with you?
A. I have the opportunity to sink deeper into the meaning, metaphor, motif, intention and movement ideas of the work. Neelam has been performed over 50 times in the UK, USA and Canada, besides India in temples, galleries, auditoriums, Assamese monasteries, in site-specific locations like the Nilgiri mountains... Excerpts of this work have been shared with diverse audiences and each time, I have had to find interesting nuances to keep myself engaged and interested since the music is recorded. Speaking of the music, the score represents the first collaboration for dance by pianist Anil Srinivasan and vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan. The quiet, meditative tones were a radical counterpoint to the noisy six-member orchestra seated on a Bharatanatyam stage. Voice and drone being the only sound triggers with minimal percussion lend the Neelam score an automatic serenity. It is a great luxury to have a work stay in active repertoire of a dancer for 10 years.

Dr Anita Ratnam. Pic Courtesy/Sam Kumar
Dr Anita Ratnam. Pic Courtesy/Sam Kumar

Q. Is this Neelam’s premiere in Mumbai?
A. Yes. I was keen to share this very special work with audiences in my favourite Indian city.

Q. Tell us how Neelam happened; its form, content and why it can speak to audiences across the world?
A. Sounds, gestures, visual patterns and Sanskrit… These were powerful triggers for me while growing up. My mother was a yoga therapist and very early I was introduced to the image of the reclining Vishnu as Ranganatha in Srirangam (in Tamil Nadu), my ancestral town, on my maternal grandmother’s side. Sukham and Sthiram (ease and steadfastness), these were the twin cornerstones of Yoga guru, Krishnamachariar, father of Desikachari. This is also the echo for Neelam, the great beauty of the form, bejewelled and adorned... Vishnu and Lakshmi as householders, not ascetics like Siva and Parvati. The lushness of imagery of lakes, birds, trees and blossoms, the use of jasmine in daily worship, parrots hovering around my garden and around the mystic poet Andal — so many influences which have been used as historical pickings.

Q. Is Neelam also rooted in your own, unique style of dance — Neo-Bharatam as you call it?
A. Yes, the image and legend of Vishnu and Lakshmi, while being very South Indian in nature for Neelam, is also present in the cultures of Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia. Neo Bharatam uses Bharatanatyam as its cornerstone but the scaffolding is layered with multiple kinetic vocabularies — Mohiniattam, Kathakali, the silence of Tai Chi, the flow of Qui Gong (all of which I have learned for many years). Adding to that are observations of how women move in various cultures as they wear the sarong, the kimono, the dhoti, etc. The overriding image is that of drowning — drowning in the bliss of poetry, in the beauty of the divine form and the spirit of the work itself, so water and flow are also very important markers for the choreography.

Q. You wear many hats — dancer, choreographer, producer, curator, editor — and you’e been doing that for many years now; has walking the path alone been tough?
A. It is always tough. Looking back now, after 25 years of walking this path (I returned from New York City in 1990), there is still resistance and suspicion in a city like Madras. That can get me down sometimes since I don’t teach and so, do not have a ready entourage of adoring students and their devoted parents. I produced, curated and presented, talked, wrote and mentored, all to answer questions to myself about my role in the discourse of dance and the live arts.

I have been fortunate to serve on national committees for culture and the arts and have seen how arts are viewed and funded in New Delhi. Money has always been a challenge and our increasing fascination towards leisure and lifestyle activities makes the serious arts more difficult to present and perform.

Q. You’ve performed and presented in Mumbai over the years; what are your thoughts on Mumbai and its arts lovers?
A. This is a wonderful city, caught between business and show-business; Mumbai values time and money. There is no waste of anything, words or otherwise. Focus and enormous energy reserves are required to get through your every single day. In that atmosphere, you have to be good to survive and you have to be able to communicate well and effectively. I have had good memories of performing in Shanmukhananda and other South Indian strongholds like Sion and Chembur in the early years and then coming to the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts). Audiences in South Bombay are cosmopolitan in the true sense. They are not distracted and they buy tickets. How wonderful is that!

On: September 3, 6.30 pm
At: Experimental Theatre, NCPA Marg, NCPA, Nariman Point.
Call: 22824567
Log on to: www.ncpamumbai.com

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