‘It’s a political act to decide to be a performing artiste’: Anita Ratnam

From a phone book to an information aggregator, to being a producer and curator of original dance content, Narthaki has come a long way. How did the journey begin?

It all started with a telephone call. The call was made from the American Broadcasting Company in New York to my television company, the Bombay Broadcasting Company, in New York. The crew was going to India to do a series of stories and on top of their list was an interview with celebrated dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy. To their surprise, neither the Indian embassy nor the Indian consulate had Yamini ji’s phone number or contact. So they called me. Well, I also did not have her number but called my aunt in Delhi, who got the number – all within a turnaround time of 24 hours. The number was given to ABC.

But that got me thinking. How is it that a celebrated icon in classical dance does not feature on the contact list of any of our embassies and officials? I thought, why not a phone book of dancers? That was the genesis of Narthaki. The first edition of Narthaki sold out in six months, mostly to dancers.

When Narthaki went online in 2000, only .5 per cent of India had access to the internet. What made you embrace the digital space at that time?

I never thought of the larger demographics. Narthaki was a phone book, but the numbers were changing too fast – house numbers were changing, mobile phones were coming in, and we couldn’t keep up by publishing all the time. So we decided to go online. We never thought of ourselves as a digital magazine, or as a digital archival resource, or as a content aggregator on Indian dance, and now global dance.

Anita Ratnam’s Ma -Hyphenate.

How did Narthaki respond to the pandemic?

The pandemic has been a very important moment for the Narthaki brand. We went from being a web portal, to becoming a curator and producer of programmes. For the past two years, we launched into what is recognised as our most innovative digital venture, ‘Boxed’, which was mainly contemporary dancers and some classical dancers examining what it was to be locked in, boxed in, for two minutes. Boxed went on to generate ‘Talam Talkies’, which explores the connection between South Indian cinema and Bharatanatyam; then ‘Devi Diaries’, a celebration of the feminine divine; and then ‘Andal’s Garden’. I also wanted to launch a parallel digital idea, called Neo Narthaki, to address the growing interest and voices that were emerging from what was once considered the margins.

Without thinking about it, we suddenly became a digital curator, producer and presenter. We didn’t actually set out to be that. We responded to the pandemic, the lockdown, the inability of dancers to stay connected.

The dance community was hit hard by the pandemic, and artists took to the digital space like never before. How has that impacted them?

One good thing is that there has been a lot of knowledge sharing. There has been a lot of learning, connecting with scholars and information and thought leaders in the arts field. The second good thing is that a lot of young and talented people who did not think they could work the system, suddenly had the opportunities. I like the fact that it was able to democratise and break down some ivory towers. The pandemic demolished idols and heroes and heroines, but also gave brats the freedom to say whatever they wanted without looking at somebody’s legacy or track record. A lot of medicine exists too. But, even in that, we have seen some excellence, some potential.

anita ratnam, narthaki Anita Ratnam’s ‘A Million Sitas’.

You have a background in classical dance. What made you explore other movement forms and develop your own vocabulary?

My mother was never allowed to dance, so she wanted her daughter to have that opportunity. That’s how I came to dance. I always say dance chose me, I didn’t choose to be a dancer.

I went to the US at 21, studied theater and TV, started a TV program and ran it for 10 years. Then when my marriage fell apart – and I had a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and six-week-old son – I decided to go back to India, make sure my children were taken care of, while I figured out what I wanted to do.

At that point, with my experiences at work and my personal life, I could not go back to being a classical dancer. The repertoire was not speaking to me – the endlessly suffering heroines waiting for their man and the whole patriarchal makeup of it. Then I met Veenapani Chawla, who started her own theater company called Adishakti. What she was doing really resonated with me. She catalysed me into finding my own vocabulary.

My own performance style has been able to braid my many interests and influences in movement and other forms. I call it Neo Bharatam – ‘Neo’ is new and ‘Bharatam’ is the original Tamil word for Bharatanatyam – because the basic scaffolding or physical structure of my work is still on a Bharatanatyam body, but the interpretation is certainly far more contemporary.

anita ratnam “I always say dance chose me, I didn’t choose to be a dancer.” (Photo: Narayana Sankar)

What is the future of classical dance in India? Enrollment in dance schools is going up but several students drop out after a while. Why is that?

There is no economic future in dance, unless you want to be a teacher. Very rarely does a performer in India get compensated for every expense that is incurred – such as transport from the home to venue. So we need to do much more in terms of asking ourselves where we have gone wrong as a dance community.

We shouldn’t lose touch with the government, but depending on the government can be quite demoralising. Even with the corporates, CSR is so unclear.

And then there is the opinion that all classical dancers are very rich. For those who live by their art, the only way to pay the bills is by teaching. That needs to change. We don’t have professional agents to represent dancers. We don’t have a national tour network.

In the media, there is a fight to find space for the arts. Why are we not invited to any of the think tanks or leadership summits? Do we have nothing to say or contribute?

You recently wrote that dance and politics are converging. Could you elaborate?

Politics is not just about elections and governments. It’s a political act to decide to be a performing artiste, and we have to look at what is happening around us in terms of class structures, the tag of elitism and privilege that classical dance now has. These have been amplified during the pandemic, when so many muffled voices were released.

I think dancers, especially senior ones, should not sit on the sidelines when you have a dancer who has a #MeToo moment and wants to be heard. Recently, when a Mohiniyattam dancer’s performance was stopped in Kerala because it offended a judge’s sensibilities, where could the artist go? We don’t have a grievance cell, we don’t even have a committee in the Sangeet Natak Akademi. So how does an artist respond, or address issues?

Copyright is also a huge issue that the pandemic has thrown up. Another issue is sexual identities. The arts have always been a welcoming space for any kind of non-binary individual. But within that, there are a lot of voices that tend to muffle differences. We need spaces to talk about it without coming to conclusions. I think Narthaki has been a conversation starter, a place where conversations can converge.

What is your message for the next generation of dancers?

I have hope for the next generation. I hope they can be less distracted and self-absorbed, and develop a camaraderie amongst themselves to talk about issues that they will face. I feel they need to take up the baton and lead. And I am very happy to support them. I’m really looking at some of them to step up as thought leaders for the arts.

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