Anita Ratnam adopted the leotard as her Bharatanatyam costume more than a decade ago. And, with the silks and jewellery, out went also the traditional repertoire of classical heroines. The transformation was complete when, five years ago, she rechristened her dance Neo Bharatam.
Next week, 50-year-old Ratnam travels to New York with a show and a workshop that will personalize even more her signature dance style. She will hold a masterclass at a meditation session where she will teach participants how to use dance mudras and yoga in their practice. And, perform snatches from the Ramayana and Dashavatar at Central Park as part of International Storytelling Day.
Ratnam has just returned from a Singapore tour where she danced at the experimental Substation theatre with even fewer trappings of a classical performance—without a large stage, at the same level as the audience, and with no lighting for dramatic effect.
“I don’t like to do that typical syrupy, saccharine, supplicating act on stage. But I am always deeply moved by the intent with which the traditional dance is performed. In the end, my dance will be my own statement,” says the Chennai-based dancer.
The dancer says her years in New York and her work as a TV broadcaster have pushed her further from ritual dance. But she still banks on it as a foundation to choreograph her dances.
At her dance-storytelling session, Ratnam says she will draw on mythology, but put a contemporary spin to reach out to the multiracial audiences that will probably include a lot of young adults and children.
“To me, it is very important to make myself understood to the audience. If I have to dance during the day, in an open space, I have to keep the music dramatic, but minimal. And, if I have to make the stories understood, I wouldn’t mind drawing parallels between Darwin’s theory and the creatures in Ramayana. Or, use Spiderman to illustrate the story of Hanuman,” she says.
Ratnam’s dance often combines experiment with tradition. In Singapore, she held the first performance of her tribute to the iconic dancer Chandralekha, who passed away last year. For Ratnam, Chandralekha was someone every rebel looked up to. “There is no denying that she affected all dancers who questioned traditional poses and stances. There was something martial, unsmiling and stark about her dance. The image that survived of her is of a spirited woman in black with a red sash around her waist, and that is what I conveyed in the dance,” says Ratnam.
Her other unconventional choreography is Seven Graces, a tribute to Tara, the Tibetan Buddhist deity. The music, interestingly, has been composed and sung by the Tibetan community at Bylekuppe, just off Coorg.
“I have the body language of someone who has broken out of the format and I am no longer 25. I cannot do the same old dance items, so find it better to adopt a personal style that I now call Neo Bharatam. But my dance is not always modern; in fact, I want to delve further back from the years when Bharatanatyam became what it now is,” she says.
Ratnam dips into myths often, but has her own way with it. Her choreography of Amman, the generic mother goddess of Tamil Nadu villages, is overlaid with the sounds of tribal drums. For this dance, Ratnam wears the exaggerated bronze breastplate of the Theyyam performers of Kerala. In Katha, she plays three ardent Shiva devotees—Uma, Sati and Meenakshi—and set the dance to Sanskrit chanting. Her other classical choreography is based on Andal, one of the most underrated female Vaishnav poets of ancient South India.
Every year, Ratnam hosts The Other Festival in Chennai, an alternative to the city’s hugely popular classical music-dance season. It showcases innovative ideas in dance and drama. “Part of my role as a dancer is to encourage and mentor younger artistes who wish to experiment,” she says.