Reimagining Brown Bodies

An evening of conversation and performance on the hereditary, the classical and the contemporary in Indian dance, with stalwarts and cultural ambassadors from India, Swarnamalya Ganesh, Mallika Sarabhai and Anita Ratnam was presented at ICE on 21st February 2020.

The event was curated by Indu Balachandran and Arjunan Puveendran, and supported by Nithya Nagarajan, Australia Council for the Arts, Krea University and Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) as part of the Exchanging Expertise initiative with technical support from Systemic Solutions, Janakan Raj.

All three presenters performed excerpts from their works which challenged the norm in their own individual manner. If Swarnamalya presented a strict Sadir movement dominant practice, the subject of her presentation challenged why our dance practices do not portray other religious customs and practices.

Mallika Sarabhai presented a bharathanatyam padam composed by herself which portrays Radha as an older woman in love with a young Krishna. Going against the norm, she asks why the heroine has to continue to be shy, pining and yearning. Why do we continue to portray our heroine as this powerless woman who cannot express herself boldly, portraying her real desires, the complete woman. Anita Ratnam, known for her neobharatham style which incorporates other styles of classical dance such as Kathakali, Kalaripayatte (martial arts from Kerala), Bharathanatyam, including theatre and spoken word, portrayed a powerful Soorpanakha, a woman who lusts for Rama until she is humiliated by Lakshman and struck, with an interesting ending, where she and Sita, sisters in love, join hands. An enthralling performance and engaging performance from the word go.

Anita Ratnam as Soorpanakha

The event proceeded to a panel discussion, hosted by Indu Balachandran, who asked relevant questions to all three dancers about their journeys and thoughts on the current status of dance globally.

The questions asked by Indu Balachandran carried the vision for the evening and attempted to encapsulate and bring to fore current challenges faced by creatives, organisers and practitioners in the field of Classical arts at global level.

The issues were complex and given the limited time, the answers and views of all the presenters whilst interesting, needed more time for any in depth discussions.

If the audience was expecting some brain storming to arrive at possible sustainable relate-able models to charter our own future for Arts in Australia, this topic was not explored.

The discussions generally varied between traditional norms and modern more contemporary practices. The challenges that ‘new works carrying the messages of ‘the other’ face, both in Chennai and in the global market. The panelists briefly touched upon the challenges that practitioners/ teachers/ gurus in or outside of India face – juxtaposed between keeping the practice alive in foreign lands and the desire to conform to the well known accepted, safe and well trodden paths; or to conform to the high standards to obtain acclaim in the mecca of all Indian classical dance, Chennai Sabhas for that Ultimate approval.

All three dancers in their own life navigated the many challenges they have faced moving against the wave of ‘ the known’ either in form or in content, towards the ‘unknown’ making their own brand of the unknown, known to many across the globe. A mighty fete.

Briefly, the discussion trailed to topics were Mallika Sarabhai highlighted the importance and growing need for creatives to explore new themes and subjects that unite and explore the humane aspects of harmony, peace, oneness and compassion, unbounded by religious or political correctness. Swarnamalya briefly touched upon the fact that eminent dancers often paid lip service at being inclusive, but failed to develop works that were actually inclusive and remained imprisoned in their own citadels. Anita Ratnam highlighted that the global trend, especially in the USA, was moving towards stand up comedy. Parents who spend huge amounts of money on Arangetrams, remain absent from dance shows. The very same dancers, sadly, fail to foster dance, as expected. Anita Ratnam briefly shared her own journey from margam dominant practice to theatre to neo bharatham which was interesting.

The audience moved into the foyer of ICE where over dinner catered by 2 Boys In Saris, passionate discussions continued, amongst groups of students and art workers. Sadly, eminent dance school gurus, festival directors such as Parramasala, main stream art workers from institutions such as Critical Path, Form Dance, Diversity Arts and others were missing.