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Anita Ratnam's Masterful Neo-Bharatam: An Evening to Remember
By Ketu H. Katrak
Professor of Humanities, University of California, Irvine

Historic Crowell Hall, on October 3, 2008 at Wesleyan University was aglow with prominent Indian dancer Anita Ratnam's vibrant energy in a unique bharatanatyam recital imbued with Ratnam's own choreographic style called Neo-Bharatam. This performance was part of the Navaratri celebrations held at Wesleyan for over 25 years. Ratnam, regarded as a pioneer in Contemporary Indian Dance, remains deeply connected to a unique bharatanatyam evolved over her individual artistic journey of nearly thirty years as a dancer and woman. Her dance today is such a unique accomplishment because of the organic development of her art where as choreographer she creates movement, works with remarkable talent on sound arrangement, as well as costume, lighting, stage design as well as theatrical use of voice and story-telling. In Ratnam's dancing body bharatanatyam comes across as quite different from traditional margams with predictable use of space, and the usual stories of kings, demons, and gods. She breathes new life into the traditional style with her own unique selections and renditions of the goddess, part of Ratnam's signature style even in her contemporary work.

The evening was in two parts, the first half with live musicians (particularly noteworthy was the vocalist Shobana Raghavan), and the second half presented an excerpt from Ratnam's recent choreographic piece entitle, "Neelam: drowning in bliss" (2006) danced to recorded music--a very unusual and captivating musical arrangement by talented Anil Srinivasan and the melodious haunting voice of Sikkil Gurucharan.

Ratnam's dancing throughout was captivating, mesmerizing, evocative, and even as the audience was lulled into the carnatic music and lyrics of Adi Sankara's "Ambika Pallvi", or "Sirulu Minchina" and "Nitya Kalyani", or "Ranga Pura Vihara" in "Neelam", Ratnam's choreographic arrangements brought in a dimension not often seen in bharatanatyam—of making her audience think and engage with unique movements creating mandalas of circles, triangles, straight and diagonal lines on stage, exuberant nrtta and deeply moving and masterfully communicated abhinaya (narratives and emotions conveyed via facial and gesture language). The lyricism of Ratnam's dancing is marked with carefully thought through flows and interruptions and her particular talent in selecting and arranging the soundscapes kept the audience at the edge of their seats!

Ratnam's bharatanatyam (trained since a young child) is so finely and deeply embodied in her very bones and muscles that there is a clarity and ease in the overall effect. The audience followed spellbound, whether it was the many renditions and names of the goddess (and Ratnam's contemporary work explores goddess lore and "parallel myths" as she puts it from India, China, Tibet, Egypt). The choice of "Sirulu Minchina" Sabdam was a telling choice by a dancer whose work resonates with female-centered energy. The song mocks Lord Janardharna's lack of judgment in dallying with women of ill repute. Ratnam's abhinaya, the cornerstone of highly evolved bharatanatyam artists such as the legendary T. Balasarwati who herself had danced on this very stage at Wesleyan, moved masterfully and fluidly among a range of emotions whether it was love and adoration of the goddess, or dismay and disbelief at an unfaithful man, to the fierce goddess forms (with appropriate teeth grinding and facial/visual ferocity) that even the male gods need at times as shown in the "Nitya Kalyani" varnam. Ratnam, highly knowledgeable about Tamil indigenous history, chose this varnam that "was made popular" as the Program Notes state, "by well known devadasi musician Bangalore Nagaratnamma." Ratnam was striking in her myriad facial expressions, communicative eyes, and the breadth of movement traversing this particular stage's length (longer than its depth), even creatively using a raised stage platform at one end to sit and continue the story-telling, and once even stepping down one step in front of the stage. The dynamism of moving across, around, and diagonally on the stage space was a particularly remarkable aspect of Ratnam's own creative inroads into bharatanatyam.

The second half began with a voice-over comment on the movement and sound explorations in "Neelam" using the carnatic musical structure of ragam-tanam-pallavi. The costume design by Rex was incredibly beautiful—a shimmering deep blue sari, with ample pleats and almost touching the ground. As Ratnam moved with this generous length I was reminded of Balasaraswati who also wore sarees almost caressing the floor in her performances and was also very tall as Ratnam is. The excerpt enacted in quick tableau-like representations, the life of Lord Rama, his exile into the forest, the abduction of Sita by Ravana, Sita's rescue with the help of the monkey-god Hanuman and Rama's triumphant ascension of the throne. Ratnam lucidly presented a crash course on the complex epic, The Ramayana in movement! She creatively used a long garland representing different symbols like Krishna's flute, and Rama's adornment--similar to and taking further her use of a long piece of unstitched fabric in her earlier works. In this piece, as part of Ratnam's own evolution into contemporary choreography, she explores the dimensions of stillness and silence, especially the kind that one encounters in a temple's innermost sanctum sanctorum where the idol is kept, usually dimly lit.

Ratnam's performance that evening indeed transported her viewers from the world of the familiar here and now into a higher realm where the dancer becomes one with the music, and touches the spectators' hearts. I have elsewhere described Ratnam's highly accomplished and moving art as that of an ethno-global artist, one who is rooted in her indigenous Tamil culture, literature, and music, as well as one who has the imagination, intellect, and creativity to reach into movement and musical traditions from a pan-Asian arena and beyond. Her dancing at Wesleyan University showed that this masterful artist has indeed arrived at a remarkable creative height. Ratnam's Neo-Bharatam is the one to watch in Contemporary Indian Dance, a style that works with the totality of movement, music, costume, stage machinery, along with theatrical use of space, voice and story-telling.