Anita Ratnam. Pix source: Sutra Dance Theatre
She’s lived a rich life, and now she wants to share it through almost one hour of non-stop dance. Break-a-Leg speaks to the great Indian dancer and feminist, Anita Ratnam.
ANITA Ratnam wears many titles: dancer, choreographer, transcultural collaborator, arts presenter, scholar, writer and cultural activist.
Add to all that the fact that her four decade-long career encompasses more than 1,000 performances in 15 countries and it’s not surprising that she is one of India’s most recognised dance icons. Apart from being trained in bharatanatyam and the Kerala dance traditions of kathakali and mohiniattam, Anita also holds a Masters degree in theatre and television.
She returned to her home base in Chennai, India, from New York after a highly successful, decade-long tenure as TV producer and commentator.
Malaysia will see this connoisseur’s dancer on stage when she presents Seven Graces early next month at Amphi-sutra, Kuala Lumpur.
Seven Graces is Anita’s solo “operatic” (see her explanation of this intriguing concept below) creation in collaboration with Hari Krishnan, an India-born, Canada-based dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance scholar.
The piece features Anita’s perspectives on goddess worship, the many hues of Buddhist goddess Tara, and feminism.
In an e-mail interview, Anita shares her thoughts about Seven Graces and about a subject close to her heart: feminism.
Why did you choose goddess Tara as your reference? /strong>
Goddess Tara chose me! My good friend, Arvind Iyer, a writer in Bombay and a Buddhist, saw me as the goddess in his dream. In his dream, he saw the colours, the moods and the images and sketched the first mood-mosaic of the goddess Tara for me.
The goddess is so full of life, humour, passion and compassion – like a mother. I loved that, being a mother (of two teenaged girls) myself. These elements lent themselves perfectly to choreography.
What are the seven graces?
Seven is the “number of the Universe” – there are the seven ages of men, seven cosmic stages, seven charkas of human consciousness, seven pillars of wisdom, seven sacred rivers, and so forth.
The number represents completeness, totality, perfection, plentiful-ness, rest, reintegration, safety, and synthesis.
In this work, I speak of the many stages and moods of a woman and a goddess – from the pain and darkness of birth, to the wonder of a young girl discovering her space, to a woman and a mother kindling the inner and outer worlds, the healer and shaman at work, an ascetic in ecstasy and, finally, the invisible space and colour for reunification and renunciation.
Seven Graces is a colourscape, a moodscape, a dancescape, and a lifescape. It is my life danced in one hour. It is the images and moods of the mythology of the goddess Tara collapsed into the personal mythology of who I am today.
Can you explain how these feminist and goddess worshiping themes came about?
I led the most unconventional life between the ages of 21 and 35 – I left my hometown and country for New York and lived there for 13 years – and I was married twice. The first marriage was arranged by matching horoscopes, and then, later, I fell in love with an older man. All these experiences transformed my views of feminism and contemporary mythology.
Reclaiming the “sacred feminine” is a very large part of my worldscape and my dance motifs. The goddess (not just the goddess Tara but the feminine aspect of all goddesses) does not only dwell in temples and churches. She is everywhere today – in nature, in music, in our bodies, in art, in architecture, and in every breath we take.
So worshipping the goddess (in the form of the goddess Tara), to me, is not merely through prayer or ritual but through a life lived with passion, honesty and curiosity.
What do you mean by “operatic creation” in the context of dance?
The word “opera” has a larger-than-life connotation. When it comes to Seven Graces, well, for one thing, it is not often in solo contemporary dance work that a performer occupies the stage without a break for almost one hour – that’s quite “large”!
Also, music, sounds and emotions are plundered and go beyond the merely beautiful and appropriate.
All this has the sense of not just dance or drama, but also of opera. Through the dance I really am, in the words of writer Pico Iyer (one of the world’s best-known travel writers), “a continent of one”.
How is Seven Graces a departure from conventional contemporary Indian dance?
I use props almost always in my work. Not having any was new for me. Not having any text to work with, no script, no cohesive music score ... these are all very new in an Indian contemporary dance context.
Most contemporary dance in India does not deal with solo work. Group choreography usually signifies contemporary work in India today. The classical dance format, on the other hand, is primarily a solo form. In life I am a loner and it seemed most honest to continue this thread in my work Another thing that is different about Seven Graces is that I am most interested in exploring the richness and the possibilities of a mature woman (Anita is 50 this year) expressing herself without pretending to be younger than she is – and this, too, is rare in Indian contemporary dance today.
Where does feminism stand in India?
India is virtually throbbing with many versions of feminism and I am truly proud of being a woman in this country today.
Women in villages, cities and slums are simultaneously claiming their place in society, whether at home or in boardrooms. One of the world’s most powerful CEOs is an Indian woman from my hometown – Indira Nooyi of PepsiCo (she took over the American food and beverage company on Oct 1).
Feminism in India today is about embracing our “female-ness”. “She” is not self-conscious nor does she negate any aspect of herself. I am a feminist and a “womanist”. I have chosen to live alone as a single mother of two teenagers for the past 16 years and that has defined me more than any other experience.
Where do you think feminism stands within Asia?
I feel that Asian women are particularly challenged when it comes to freedom. Not just in India, but in Malaysia, Korea, China, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand.
Women have more options today, yet they are more objectified than ever in music videos, movies and mindless television serials. We are being made weaker and dumber, and our bodies are encoded with layers of patriarchal condescension.
Mythology and history can teach us of the potential that lies within each woman. After all, (Indian goddess) Kali, (Egyptian goddess) Isis, (Greek goddess) Athena, (ancient Sumerian goddess) Inanna and (Chinese goddess) Kuan Yin are only reminders of the qualities that are dormant within all women.
What were Hari Krishnan’s contributions to this collaboration?
Hari served as co-choreographer and director of Seven Graces. He helped me with research as well as on the extended improvisational sections of the work.
Being much younger than I am, Hari brings a fresh dimension to the piece and challenges me constantly to remember my strengths as a woman and a dancer.
He insisted that I create phrases from personal sentences I had written in my research for this piece so that my own personality as an urban Indian woman could also surface and co-exist in the work.
Hari, too, thinks that Seven Graces represents a departure from conventional contemporary Indian dance in many ways. For example, we deliberately chose not to work with any text or slokas (Sanskrit verse).
Also, I want to perform the work without props, since I feel the rich movement vocabulary, emotional intensity and eclectic soundscape will be sufficient for the work to speak to a range of audiences.
Hari Krishnan. Pix source: Sutra Dance Theatre
Why did you choose to dedicate your life to dance?
I don’t think that one can choose dance. Dance chooses you. In my case, I ran from dance at age 21. But I was pulled right back into it at age 33. Dance is not a job or a profession. It really is a calling. Also, while I am known best as a dancer, I feel that I have so much more to communicate to the world. For now it seems to be that dance is the way for me to engage with the world.