"The atmosphere now is starkly different from when I was growing up learning dance," says Dr Anita Ratnam, an Indian contemporary performer, dissenter, and public figure. "Once we put everybody on pedestals, they become untouchable," she adds.
Changing times have effected a paradigm shift in the way classical dance, music, and performing arts are perceived, and have brought the ecosystem under the scanner. Courtesy: an evolved pedagogy that encourages critical thinking which helps rationalise power and information gaps, and a better-informed audience who root for representation and intersectionality in the arts.
"No one can question a guru or a teacher" as an unwritten norm becomes almost obsolete in modern discourse – until it doesn't.
On World Dance Day, we sit with Dr Ratnam who speaks to us about the dilemmas of being a dancer today and the guru-shishya legacy.
Dancing To Her Own Tunes
A first-generation dancer in her family, Dr Ratnam showed a streak for performing at a young age. Her mother's unfulfilled wish and her own penchant for movement combined, she grabbed her "chance to dance" and took it up professionally on her return to India after a 10-year stint as a television producer in New York City.
Trained in three classical dance styles of south India, yoga and meditative artforms, there was a point when Dr Ratnam felt that the classical dance repertoire was no longer in sync with her brand of politics and ideology.
A certain dissonance that sprung from unwillingness to be co-opted prompted her to discover herself as a performer and create her own movement vocabulary, which led to the birth of 'Neo Bharatam' that involved Bharatanatyam as a sort of scaffolding or a foundation premised on which she merged her love for theatre, life, and art.
"One had to break free from the idea of the heroine, a woman for the most part as someone in relation to the man or the hero – either waiting or in anticipation, or disappointed, or somehow losing out in love or in a relationship," she says.
The world was changing and dance and expression had to follow suit.
Being Labelled a 'Bad Hindu'
An active social media user, Dr Ratnam, who has been in the field of arts for a good 50 years, refuses to be confined to a singular role. Her work takes her around the world where she interacts with young minds and gets her pulse on what's capturing their imagination.
Someone born a Hindu with caste privilege, educated in an Irish Catholic Convent, she had a syncretic influence of different faiths. But in today's context, it has boiled down to choosing one thing over the other.
"A good Hindu to me is someone who is accommodative, embraces people and exercises the liberty to pick and choose based on what works individually. However, In light of today's definition that necessitates practicing one's own faith or having social markers in place, I guess I don't quite check the boxes."
The Appeal of Classical Arts & the Guru-Shishya Paradigm
According to Dr Ratnam, there will always be a pull for classical dance and music, especially amongst the diaspora for whom it is the introduction of India 101 – it being a faith-based repository. The practice warrants a certain humility or surrender to the 'higher one', which leads to a one-way reception of listening, learning, absorbing but doesn't quite encourage questioning.
The guru, touted as the 'dispeller of darkness' and a source for true knowledge and holistic grooming, is relegated to a special seat of honour in our culture but in reality, he is no different than a professor. In contrast with the traditional gurukulas where students needed to camp, in urban centres, classical dance and music is one of many extra-curricular activities that students pursue following a normative approach.
"Parampara, therefore, needs to be reviewed as a system or a method of learning at best which can be enabled only on finding the right guru or teacher."
The Kalakshetra Row and the Assumed Sanctity of Arts Spaces
In 2019, a year after the #MeToo movement had kicked up a storm in Hollywood, there was an important meeting in Chennai, where seven prominent Carnatic musicians were called out, with substantive proof against them. The Federation of Sabhas or the cultural organisations then blacklisted these artists. However, this did not make much impact and remained constrained to whisper networks.
Since 30 March 2023, however, protests have rocked Chennai-based arts and culture academy for several days after many students alleged sexual harassment against four of the institute's teachers. So far, one of them – Hari Padman – has been arrested.
The reason why they have sent tremors across the country is because people have long shared the notion that it was unprecedented for these allegations to have emerged from a prestigious arts Institute of a national stature which, by default, has been 'sanctified' and have begun realising off late that policies like the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), the PoSH Act (Prevention of Sexual Harassment), POCSO (The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act), need to be mandated besides a full-proof redressal mechanism, no matter the nature of the institution, Dr Ratnam adds.
How Can Artists Be Better Allies?
Dance may be an embodied expression but it's also a visual artform. While the aesthetics may have undergone transformations, factors like body shaming over an 'ideal type' still exists. And so does victim-blaming amid supposed transgression, harassment, predatory behaviour, which simply undermines the nature of the shock or trauma undergone by the survivor.
"The burden of proof in society and in courts becomes excruciating whereas, many of those accused, roam scot-free, are invited to grace events, so on and so forth. Such is the hypocrisy."
"It is also pertinent to point out the role of media in reporting such events extensively and taking it to the front page which all of us must collectively take cognisance of."
Lastly, it is high time for the artist community to come together as a unit and register their support and solidarity towards the movement, instead of remaining tight-lipped, she says.