Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. The adage stands very true for Dr Anita Ratnam. A performer, writer, poet, transcultural collaborator and arts entrepreneur, Anita simply glides from one role to another with natural aplomb. Talking to her is like talking to a young spirited being who seems to hold the essence of the universe within her body and soul.
In Delhi for the World Dance Day celebrations, Anita speaks about neo-bharatam, her mystical women-centric performances and her desire to learn flamenco.
What is keeping you engaged at the moment?
I'm attending conferences throughout the year. There's Navadisha 2016 at Birmingham, UK, which is a conference on South Asian Dance as part of the country's growing dance landscape. I'm leading a panel on the challenges of collaboration and sharing my thoughts on creativity. Then there's Alchemy at Southbank Centre, London, where I'll be leading a panel during an all-day performance and art installations that focus on the issue of ageing and maturing dancers.
At IFTR Stockholm, I present a film and a lecture on the lost art form of Kaisika Natakam, a 15th century Tamil Nadu temple tradition. In November at Pomona College, Los Angeles, I present a film and a lecture on 'The Articulate Body', that focuses on dance as remembered and retained by the human body. Apart from this, I’m looking at bringing 'A Million Sitas’ to Delhi.
I'd also like to develop a special programme on the life of Sita: her stay in Lanka, relationship with the women in the garden, how she interacts with them, the episode with Hanuman... This performance should most likely be in Sri Lanka.
Three years ago, we started a mentoring project in Bengaluru called Padme for professional dancers where we put them in touch with the best composers, music directors... Here, we become the co-creators of choreography. I have created a neo-classical project with these dancers and they have been touring the country, which ends in Mumbai this year. We shall be auditioning for the next project sometime in August this year.
How would you explain Neo-Bharatam?
Neo-Bharatam literally translates into 'new India'. Bharatam is the older name for Bharatanatyam. As an artist, I realised that we have to move on with the times. The evolving of art is very essential. And ‘Daughters of the Ocean’ was a watershed in that sense. It changed my performances and it made me share with the audiences what is uniquely mine. It was a great turning point that made me experiment with several types of movements. I learnt to walk in ten different ways. There are several ways in which a body can move. I use body language — the physical vocabulary — that is the fodder, clay, rough material which shapes my performances. That’s what neo-bharatam is all about.
You have formal training in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Tai Chi, Kalaripayattu. How difficult is it to merge these varied forms into a single performance?
Bharatanatyam remains my basic foundation. In each of my performances, the soul is Indian but my movements become very different. It has become very organic, the way I move. Earlier when I had developed neo-bharatam, this merge or shift was difficult. Now, it's easy. And when I say easy, it’s not like it doesn’t require effort. A lot of work goes into it before we can actually come up with such a performance. Word associations are written down, they are then phrased and later inculcated into body movements. We make videos of what we do on stage when choreographing a particular project to see what we like and eliminate the rest. It’s a very gradual process.
When I start building images, neo-bharatam becomes a seamless blur that the audience must receive as a performance. I have not learnt any modern dance forms. So modernity in my dance comes not because of any other factor except that being a widely-travelled person and well read, I observe and imbibe a lot. My mind is like a 360-degree blotting paper.
Your women-centric performances delicately weave relationships in a complex matrix. The outcome is mesmerising. How do you achieve this visual effect through dance?
To achieve this effect on stage takes careful crafting. So, I do one performance a year. Crafting takes time; the pacing is important. The written and the spoken word have different impacts.
Working with lights, costumes, colours, musicians — all these collaborations play an important role in creating a mystical effect on stage. Vedic chants, singing, different types of instrumentation, props, all add to the total impact in every performance. For example, a Kabir doha strummed on the guitar is an entirely varied experimentation. I borrow from across the world and incorporate it in my dance moves to create the desired effect on stage. And the fact that I share some things from my life, build my work on a personal diary and present it in a way that isn't personal — all make for unique performances.
Dance is a powerful medium to bring feminism and related issues to the fore. Have you observed similar gender specific issues being brought on stage through dance across the world?
I have seen the most amazing performers across the West. But no one is doing my kind of work. For them art is for art’s sake. In my performances abroad, people want to see more of the art rather than the social issues that it highlights. So in that sense India is my greatest challenge.
A particular dance form you are yet to experiment with?
Flamenco is a dance form I adore. There are so many older women doing flamenco with so much grace, power and sensuality — that makes me want to learn it.
You write poetry. Is it also as cathartic as dance?
Poetry is not as cathartic. I need to spend more time writing. The body needs to be quiet for the mind to be calm and allow words to flow on paper rather than translate them into images for dance moves. There’s a certain energy that is required to assimilate and then write. Otherwise the energy gets converted into choreography.
What about Anita Ratnam, the mother?
My daughter Arya Saraswati (29) is a writer. She writes children’s books. And my son Shriman Narayan (27) is trained in film and television from the US. They are both creative individuals in their respective fields. They are independent, but know I am always there for them. I don’t hover around them all the time.
Updated Date: May 08, 2016 08:37 AM