A quest for the adrenaline rush of a good performance and the creative forces shaping it.
’Surrounded by speed and spectacle, my style is slow, meditative and very personal.’
Celebrated danseuse Anita Ratnam’s artistic journey has traversed the gamut of emotions, sensibilities, ideologies and genres. Her work today seamlessly transcends cultural barriers, whereby movement and body synchronise into a variegated entity. “The process of creativity is what excites me more than the actual presentation. This is something that we do not enshrine in India. The entire adventure of discussion, improvisation, creation, negation, assembly of images and movements, arguments, doubts and tears… all this is so vital and precious to me. The performance has its own avatar. But once the lights are on and I place my foot on stage, there is no looking back. No rewind or pause button. I love the adrenalin of performance with the warmth and alchemy of bodies and eyes watching. This is a magical and potent
rasa,” Anita says animatedly.
With four decades of over 1,000 performances, both in the international and national arena, Anita is a recipient of several awards and accolades including the Kalaimamani title conferred by the Tamil Nadu government.
The Chennai-based artiste calls herself a “contemporary classicist”. Trained in Bharatnatyam, she also has formal training in other performing art forms like Kathakali, Mohiniattam, and calisthenics like yoga, Tai Chi and kalaripayettu. She has experimented with several styles and genres of dance and body movements, leading to the evolution of a unique style of her own — Neo Bharatham. “Neo Bharatam is a slow and organic process. It is not a pastiche. It is not fusion and it is certainly not a style that I can’t teach anyone. It is mine alone, developed over years of trial and error. I move in this way today because I am listening to my body. Surrounded by speed and spectacle, my style is slow, meditative and very personal. My own life experience is part of the creative process,” she avers.
Anita has also had shorts stints in theatre and film but says Bharatanatyam is still her anchor in the sea of choices. “Bharatanatyam is my bedrock and the source of my creative process. Having said that, I love Butoh (Japanese modern dance) — a total opposite in every way from Bharatanatyam. I am fascinated with the slowness, the rejection of all things beautiful and the refusal to be easy on the eye, and the embracing of all aspects of life — even death and the bizarre. I can never be a Butoh dancer, but that art form has informed my work more and more over time,” she says.
In 1992 she set up the Arangham Trust, which “seeks to explore, enrich and promote the performing and visual arts of India. Soon she also launched www.narthaki.com, a portal on Indian dance. And in a city like Chennai, which is traditionally associated with the classical art forms (and often misconstrued as intolerant towards alternative art forms), she introduced ‘The Other Festival’ together with arts patron Ranvir Shah.
“The Other Festival was meant to bring the brave, bold and the adventurous in contemporary performance and visual arts to a great city like Chennai. It was timed to be a curtain-raiser to the visible 75-year-old classical music and dance season. By launching on December 1 every year, the festival spoke of the ‘other’ Chennai — a side and a face that was young, international and open to new ideas!” she explains.
What began as a “small festival with a big heart” is today a veritable platform for contemporary performances and performers. Much like the Grey Festival that Anita was recently a part of in Singapore. “That was a really lovely experience. Sharing the festival alongside the pioneering Astad Deboo was an honour. The four-day event was dedicated to dancer Chandralekha and my own evening of work was called “about HER… in five chapters”. It was a suite of five dances of which the first piece was called REBEL and dedicated to Chandra,” she says. Chandralekha is considered the pioneer of the contemporary art scene in Chennai.
As a creative person who is constantly evolving, Anita’s artistic radars are constantly observing and archiving details. “I have been often asked to enter the world of education. With my PhD on theatre studies hopefully behind me next year and a spate of teaching invitations abroad, it will be time to begin thinking in that direction. I have often wanted to initiate a diploma in cultural and performance studies, a discipline not available in India,” she adds.
Often described as a dancer, scholar, choreographer, writer and cultural ambassador, we wonder what lies beneath the appellations. “You forgot impresario and cultural entrepreneur,” she says with a smile, before adding, “Anita is all of these and none of these. I will always think of myself as a communicator and not just a dancer. I am passionate about life and it reflects in all that I do. I hope I never stop laughing and revelling in all that life throws at me.”