Interview #81 — Anita Ratnam

By Nithya Nagarajan


Dr Anita Ratnam, based in Chennai (Madras), India, is highly respected as a performer, writer, speaker, arts entrepreneur and culture mentor.

Ratnam has been described as an ‘intersectionist’, whose work weaves the many disciplines of dance, theatre, spoken word, ritual, archaeology, dramaturgy and women's issues. For over forty years, her distinguished career has witnessed over 1000 performances in 27 countries. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for contemporary dance by the President of India.

Anita is performing for Mapping Melbourne on 1 December, 6PM at Chunky Move. Buy tickets here.


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What is ‘Neo Bharatam’, and can you describe how intersectionality informs your approach to your process and practice?

Neo Bharatam. It has emerged from the various strands of my life and movement experience—ritual, mythology, day to day narratives of these stories, my early dance training in a multitude of Indian classical dance styles, my travels and life abroad, my rumination on what/why I choose from the moment I returned to India from my fifteen years in the USA.

Neo Bharatam was a response to the growing consternation and confusion about the way I moved from the early 1990s. Nobody could slot or describe my choreography except in reference to classical frameworks. Images and memories of me as a talented teenage Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam dancer occupied critics’ minds and many, including my Bharatanatyam guru Adyar K Lakshman, were angry with me even thinking of peeling away from my training.

I needed a shield, an armour to step away from the direct barbs and comments while I continued my own search. Naming my movement investigations while still in the formative stage, was the safest way to silence the whispers—at least for some time.

Neo Bharatam is not an institutionalised style. Rather it is a deep personal experience stemming from a variety of contexts, interests and a genuine concern for the Indian dance milieu.

The word is extracted from the Tamiz word for Bharatanatyam: Bharatam. That is the foundational framework for my kinetic. Layering occurs when an idea is placed at the time and place in society and history. Neo Bharatam examines every trajectory of the movement. From stillness and its beginning impulse, to its wild and chaotic and sometimes unconnected conclusion.

An example of this is the conch, a sound and an image familiar to South Asia. The sworls on the white surface, the endless sound, breath, ocean, waves, froth, sperm, life, death, celebration, mourning, madness, endless, the end.... the words keep on building… we find ourselves distanced from the original idea of the object. The body—every part of it—responds. The spine too.

Mythology, story, local milieu, home and ritual are often starting points for my work. An image, a photo, a protest slogan, a colour, an object—any of these can trigger a new work and my approach to it.  Intersectionality is a process in which I am open to inspiration, suggestion and direction from sound, colour, movement, word and emptiness. Allowing my multi-disciplinary training to flow through me during the process but selecting what I wish to say with clarity has taken me many years of trial and error. Past, future, politics, feminism intersect in my work constantly. So NEO BHARATAM remains open-ended and ongoing.

Allowing my multi-disciplinary training to flow through me during the process but selecting what I wish to say with clarity has taken me many years of trial and error.

 How can Indian dance be contemporary on its own terms, and how do notions of colonisation and decolonisation fit within that discourse?
The first thing we must remember is that the Bharatanatyam and Kathak and other forms that we see today are not 5000 years old. They are a modern reconstruct of colonial pasts, both recent and old. Bharatanatyam itself is a polyglot of language, music, movement and religious influences that have poured into its history as recent as the 18th and 19th centuries. Having said that, modern India has looked eagerly to the West in ways in which to validate and define itself. We speak in the language of the coloniser. You and I converse, not in Tamil, our mother tongue; but in the manner of the invader.

India also has the unique ability to absorb a myriad influences and make it her own. Martha Graham left her teachers Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn, who were so influenced by Hindoo dances, in order to forge her own path. Later we had Manjusri Chaki Sircar and Chandralekha who created a language born from martial arts, yoga and and folk forms. Today, both women’s work are studied but look more traditional than contemporary to a Western eye.

Contemporary India is also a continuum. We are not a country that has been recently discovered. The dance structures also share common platforms but are shaped distinctly by place and time. Look at the incredible choreography that has already been handed down to us! There is so much to unpeel and explore within those kinetics.  

The visual spectacle of the classical dancer and the subsequent distraction that the idealised notion of beauty delivers is what has turned many young Indian contemporary dancers away from the classical systems.

There is a slow but consistent growth in the new dance movement in India. There is no common pedagogy. A defiance against the notion of entertainment and spectacle, the body as a sweaty, panting organism, anorexic unlike the curvaceous Indian dancer, unconstructed music and repetitive movement—all these seem derivative of European modern dance rather than something born of the soil.  

If Indian contemporary dance has to evolve into a singular form that speaks from the soil of its creation, then dancers and dance makers must return to the roots of ritual art and the possibilities of breath. Every aspect of dance training—eye contact, gesture, stance, spine, the lowered body pulled by gravity, weight as understood by a largely barefoot nation, the sensual celebration of everyday life—these must be absorbed and understood. Not an urban, elitist preoccupation that contemporary dance has become in India today.

You have a live repertoire that you’ve toured over 1000 times and presented in 27 countries. But, this is your first performance tour of Australia. Now, Australia is the only commonwealth country in the world that doesn’t have a treaty with its Indigenous people and funds an offsite detention centre on taxpayer dollars—acts of sheer violence for a country that shields its brutality behind the veneer of multiculturalism. As a visiting artist to Narrm land, how do you think the South Asian diaspora in particular can navigate their personal and artistic identities within this space?

This is Thanksgiving week in the USA. Families of all nationalities gather around the table to give thanks. Years ago, my dear friend and award winning poet Joy Harjo, a Native American, reminded me that this day of American celebration of family and values has come at the bloody cost of butchered men, women and children. Americans cannot forget that they have occupied another people’s land. Selective amnesia is not acceptable. Canada seems to have done a better job with their First Nation peoples.

Australia is grappling with many prickly issues, foremost among them is basic human rights. To huddle indigenous peoples into settlements and parade them out during festivals and international gatherings is tokenism. When i see BANGARRA tour the world or the Alvin Ailey Dance Company from the USA performing in Europe and Asia, I want to see beyond the growing racism and nativism that is occupying political leaders’ minds. I want to believe that these artists are being promoted as their country’s truly inclusive frameworks, but the reality is different.

If Indian contemporary dance has to evolve into a singular form that speaks from the soil of its creation, then dancers and dance makers must return to the roots of ritual art and the possibilities of breath.

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As an artist who enjoys caste and class privilege in India, how do you use your influence for allyship and advocacy?

 Ironically, I was never brought up to think that I was privileged. My mother came from a proud family of land-owners, judges, doctors and ambassadors. My father’s side threw aside the heritage of priesthood  to plunge into entrepreneurship. We had little money in my youth. A bar of chocolate would delight me. My first bicycle was unforgettable. A weekend jaunt to the beach was a celebration. A movie would be anticipated for an entire month.

So when I am asked this question, I have to pause and remind myself that I was very fortunate to be able to savour these early moments, one that my children will never experience. They have much more at their age than I had.

Even in Catholic Convent school, my friends were all on the same playing field. Nobody spoke of money, caste, class and hierarchy. It is dance that brought the reality smack against my face. Tall, light skinned, good looking automatically went against all that politicians were claiming as “authentically Tamil”. “True Dravidian”. When I started talking to the media, I was told that I spoke “Brahmin Tamizh”. It was the way I learned Tamil. My own mother tongue was cast aside as inauthentic. My family and the community’s embrace of the performing arts was used as a symbol of power and privilege. When I opened the annual Music Academy dance festival in December 1970, it was described privately as a conflict of interest. My grandfather was the President of the Academy but the truth was that while he was against me performing, singer M. S. Subbulakshmi was adamant that I must be seen at the prestigious event, believing that I had special talent that needed public recognition.

All my life, my journey has been devalued and diminished as someone who uses money and contacts to speak her art. I cannot be here sharing my life and views if it was only about profit/loss, balance sheets and turnover. That is the language that was spoken around the dinner table daily. But what do we get in dance? So little in real terms.

Privilege is useful and damning at once.

For me it has been a long road. Sticking to one’s mantra, making bonds, creating friendships within and outside dance, walking the talk, mentoring, watching, travelling, connecting, appreciating, listening, nudging… all these strands feed into my own life and work.

As the first generation professional artist in my family, I finally earned their approval with the national award in 2017. A party was thrown by my children in which my relatives and friends gathered. At 62, I had my moment.

Privilege has tested me. It has made me acutely aware of all the weapons in my arsenal that I must never put aside. I need to acknowledge it, make it my partner and amplify its power.

When I walk in my ancestral temple among the devotees, many touch my feet and I am deeply embarrassed. The conversation and rituals often include words of caste, low born/high born, curse, redemption, salvation. I am automatically accepted as a spokesperson, being from a prominent family that generously supports heritage and temples. The performing arts is not a recipient of their generosity. So I am caught in a double bind. Nobody believes me when I request a grant. They dismiss this as a joke.

Privilege has forced me to create my own opportunities and often produce and present them as well.

What has it been able to do for me? Only get my foot in the door. To talk to important people but then my work has to speak. Privilege may get your heard or seen. Once. I could not have sustained my artistic practice if I was only riding on the back of privilege. Yes, the resources made available to me may have been more than for other dancers. But they did not come free. It has been mostly my own personal money that has funded my many collaborations. Not from Daddy or Mommy Dearest.

Privilege is useful and damning at once.

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As the founder of India’s largest dance directory and blog, you are also a cultural commentator and critic. Why has it been important to you to create a space for curated conversation around dance in India and what interesting stories do you have to share from this journey?

It could start from me being born on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini. I can communicate, think on my feet and make friends easily. I was also ways interested in Literature, Music, Dance, Theatre, Film and Television. I studied all these subjects through my BA, MA, MFA.

Becoming a single mother forced me to look at my life and art and bring them together into a single stream. Feminist issues appeared more and more front and centre in the work. However, I was a mother and unlike many great dancers in India who were either single or without children, I was acutely aware that I did not want adopt the strident anti-male rhetoric that is most often associated with feminism.

As my own work began to reimagine the Indian myths from a feminist lens, I needed to protect the process and the product by becoming a producer. I remember the early festivals I curated in 1993 and later. I wanted to include a small group of dancers and theatre actors to be a part of my discourse. I wanted to grow the group. Aditi Mangaldas, Veenapani Chawla, Rajika Puri, Rani Moorthy—all from various performance disciplines—responded with such readiness. This grew into annual two-day events.  

My natural leadership qualities, honed by my own family’s pioneering success in business, gave me the opportunity to curate and convene five dance conferences, various festivals, and mentor numerous dancers. When I published the handbook of dance telephone numbers in 1993 called NARTHAKI, people said that nobody would buy it. It was sold out in six months. It has now grown into a giant online portal.

When I answer a question like this, I am surprised at the breadth and width of my dance experience and that it has included so many moments of great viewing for so many. I remember meeting Akram Khan in London and convincing him to come to THE OTHER FESTIVAL in 2000. It was his first visit to India and it was for my small festival!

Now I am developing my storytelling skills and that has been an attractive addition to Literature Festivals in India where young children can be included. I developed my public speaking abilities through my years in television, and my writing has increased.

In all my efforts and public moments, I have wanted to focus on a professional dialogue and discourse about the creative life. Not just dance but the live arts. Indian conversations tend to descend into egos and individuals. Rarely do ideas and trends get discussed. Globally there is much to watch and learn from. I am an inveterate nomad. I love new experiences  and want to share the idea that just because you are open to life that you are no less an artiste or yourself.

Over the years, you have collaborated with an interesting array of artists. What excites you about collaboration, and do you have frameworks in place that best facilitate a process of collaboration, especially if it is cross-cultural?

I get bored easily. I was very bored on stage by myself. I also did not want a fond mother or a guru sighing at my dance. I wanted an objective, neutral gaze and a conversation with equals. My years in the USA as a television producer forced me to work with a variety of people on a daily/weekly basis for 10 years. I learned how to give and take and yet hold on to my vision of the final product.

I am also a person who goes by gut instinct. I met choreographer Hari Krishnan when he was 24 years old in Toronto. I just invited him to set a solo work on me. That was it. The start of a now 22-year relationship.

I have worked with lighting designer Victor Paulraj for 26 years, when he was a trainee under my friend, the late Mithran Devanesan. Composers Anil Srinivasan and Vedanth Bharadwaj have been my sound and music partners for 14 years. Visual and costume designers Rex and Sandhya Raman have dressed me for more than 20 years.

These partnerships have not been easy. Disagreements, arguments, angry altercations, failed attempts, wardrobe malfunctions on stage—much has gone wrong. But more has gone right. I am in constant conversation with my collaborators. We discuss the politics of the work, its intention and its audience demographic. I always look at my hometown of Chennai as the first audience but build from that point to a whole new avatar.

I have had a couple of disastrous collaborations. I was too generous and the other side seized the advantage and denied me any credit when I had helped create much of the work. I used these as learning steps.

Collaborations also need trust. One has to be sure of oneself and also trust the process. Sometimes I have had to listen to my choreographer or my designer who would tell me that what I wanted was not going to fit into the arc of the work. However much I was in love with that moment or the idea, I had to put it aside. Sometimes, Rex would create a visual moment in which I had to find an improvisational impetus within the work. Sometimes, the lighting designer would discover a pathway and tell me to recreate a particular choreography inside that pool of illumination.

Once I have a trusted team around me we all work towards making the project the best that it can be. I have always been asked why I need a choreographer. “Can’t you choreograph on our own? Why hire someone when you know what you want? “

Truth be told, I am a better performer than a choreographer. I am too impatient but am excellently malleable clay in the hands of a good director or choreographer.

I get bored easily. I was very bored on stage by myself. I also did not want a fond mother or a guru sighing at my dance. I wanted an objective, neutral gaze and a conversation with equals.

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I have had the unique pleasure of visiting your home and studio, and your space is a feast to an artist’s eye. How does ‘home’—in the largest sense of the word—inspire your aesthetics?

 I have lived in my home for 52 years - which is much of my life. But I have left for fourteen of those years when I made a life and career in the USA as a student of theatre and later a Television Producer in New York City.  With my constant travels within India and outside, home has become a photograph, a jasmine essential oil, a favourite chant on my iPod, even a scarf that is always packed whether I use it or not. Less a sense of place and more a reminder of roots.

Growing up, my parents had an open house. People were always dropping in and the kitchen was open for eighteen hours, with the fires burning. I have continued that practice, with artistes and creative people from all disciplines converging to talk, discuss and often present in my new ARANGHAM STUDIO SERIES evenings.

Home in Chennai is a refuge and a recharge. The aesthetics of my creative space, located in the north east of my house is a deliberate choice. According to Indian vastu, this is the area of Lord Shiva and is best for inspiration to strike. It is from this space that all my classical and new work was birthed and completed. It is from this very space and surface that my day-dreaming sparked.

If I am not back home in 3 weeks from anywhere. I miss it. More importantly, my body starts falling apart with aches and pains!

How do you practice self care?
I am a hedonist. I love life and food! Standing around me is a Personal trainer, Pilates teacher, Yoga guru, Facial therapist, Ayurvedic massage therapist, Homeopath and  Trichologist. I am a self-confessed foodie, savouring every kind of cuisine and beverage—at least once!

Coming from a family of good looking but very large women, I am constantly struggling with weight issues. I am constantly trying to lose those final 7 pounds. When depressed, I reach for lipstick, not chocolate! I really want to like the reflection in the mirror. I want to accept the post-menopausal state of skin and body, to accept all that I am each day. It is not easy but I made a promise to myself to be my personal best.

Self care also means developing the life of the mind. I read, listen to an eclectic array of music and take long walks along the ocean. I need to be near the water. Mountains don't excite and energise me as much as lakes, rivers and the sea. Silence and daily meditation, even on a flight, is a must.  I soak my feet in water every evening, a  small tub with rock salt thrown in. It is like a cleansing after hours of walking, dancing, moving...

In Melbourne I am dosing myself with dark chocolate, great wine, flat whites and city walks—so self-care and self-love does become easier.

With my constant travels within India and outside, home has become a photograph, a jasmine essential oil, a favourite chant on my iPod, even a scarf that is always packed whether I use it or not. Less a sense of place and more a reminder of roots.

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You aren’t a Guru per se, and steered clear of teaching. Was there a particular reason for this, and what advice would you give to emerging dancers and artists of South Asian backgrounds?

Please stop using the art form as an excuse to hide behind words like “SACRED” and “DIVINE”! Bharatanatyam is NOT 2000 or 5000 years old, It is a modern dance form that is polyglot of cultures, kingdoms, religions and languages. A classical dancer and a temple spire may be representative of Indian tourism or Singapore/Malaysia’s multi cultural identity, but in the diaspora you should not cling to regressive ideas of purity or nationhood through the dance and music.

If you read your own dance history, you will find the many interventions of other cultures and influences that have made classical Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam what they are today.

Bharatanatyam was the first successful test case style that became the template for all the other classical styles to build their repertoire. The Alarippu to Thillana format became the ‘Margam’ pathways for the various classical systems to follow. Today the clack of the wooden stick, the dance sari (designed for the Kalakshetra body) and even the stitched costume come from Bharatanatyam.

 South Asian teachers and dancers must put down those mirrors and look around. Australia is an exciting multicultural country with so many exciting initiatives in design, music and culture. Yet why are we only dancing about Radha and Krishna? Why are the dance schools and teachers not encouraging their young students to go out and watch and form opinions about the incredible art that surrounds you in this city and the country?

Why is the South Asian diaspora around the world obsessed with their financial success and not translating it into becoming audience or donors to local arts chapters?

Why is there no generosity in being a good “Rasika” to other performances of non classical genres? Why is there so little solidarity and consensus among the dance fraternity in the diaspora? Are we so insecure that we cannot share and watch one another’s work?

We are stronger together. The art we practice is stronger than all of us.

You have started to consider questions about dance and the ageing female body. What are the cultural constructions of the ageing female body in a country like India, and how does your work deal with issues of agency, desire and femininity in and through your body?
I am acutely aware of time. Each rehearsal, every performance makes me older—agility, stamina are all tested. Even the smile begins to feel stretched. On the flip side, time allows for the saturation of experience and lived life and that automatically seeps into the movement. I allow myself to soak into that moment, to hold and savour the trajectory of the arm or the foot, the glance—each becomes amplified and lush.

I don't like ageing but allowed myself to confront it when I turned forty, and looked around to find that I needed to discover another kind of “pulse” to my performance arc.

Ageing means looking into the mirror and finding that gravity is winning over muscles and shape.

Using gravity is what I try to do. Intentionally slowing down and holding the moment.

Initially, my methods, if I want to call it that, seemed that I was dancing like an old woman. Speed being the marker for proficiency. But the measured pace allowed the choreography and the performer to breathe.

Now that I have passed fifty and sixty, this trajectory has served me very well. Allowing me to explore and discover the very same piece that was first created and performed 10 or 15 years ago. To reduce lyric and narrative over sound design, to INSERT my aging body within the work and to  rediscover its nuances and original intent, then reshaping it.

I have been a single woman/parent for thirty years. That will not change. Desire is not something to be wished away. In my life I have had fleeting moments of it. India does not allow discussion of desire or sexuality for mature women—something I do not agree with. In my own work, I use the idea of touching my body, holding my breasts, enjoying the feel of time and experience speak from my pores.

The pretence of acting desire on stage through longing for Krishna, Vishnu, Siva is actually sublimating the emotion into something comfortable for the viewer. Yet the hereditary performers were more relaxed about their bodies and their lives. 

Ageing is exciting.

I cannot wait for seventy and beyond. I hope I am a juicy crone—still performing!

I cannot wait for seventy and beyond. I hope I am a juicy crone—still performing!

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Interview by Nithya Nagarajan
Photographs by Leah Jing, at MPavilion & ACCA