Diaspora Dialogues  

Anita Ratnam blog

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 anitaa.ratnam@gmail.com