Scroll Top

Interview: Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam in an orange saree doing Bharatnayam outside an old temple.

In December TARSHI interviewed Anita Ratnam, who is a leading Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer based in Chennai. In her own words, she is in dance, “because this is my own way of connecting with myself and the world.  I consider myself a contemporary classicist.” As a supporter of contemporary Indian dancing, she spoke about the evolution of Bharatanatyam, its place in modern India, and her own efforts to free the dance from patriarchal hierarchies that affect the way it is taught and interpreted. Below is her full interview.

Shweta Krishnan: Dance and sexuality, how would you say that the two are linked?

Anita Ratnam: You know, in dance, especially in classical dance, the dancers were usually women and the teachers were usually men. In Indian classical dance, which is narrative based, one has to be or become several characters. You have to cross gender a lot. You are a solo actor. So you become a man, or a woman, or a tree, or an animal or a creature… a stream or a bird or a lion or a prince or a pauper or a rakhshasa. The dancer becomes gender neutral in order to portray the role convincingly. At the same time there is that veil, that suspension of belief. The audience knows that this is a woman, but in this story she plays a man.

Now, there have not been issues of sexuality, the way we understand it today impinging on classical dance practice, except maybe in dancers’ personal lives. There is a tendency to think that male dancers are gay. That may be true. If you start taking statistics you may find that out of the top male choreographers, many of them are homosexual or bisexual rather than heterosexual. And then you can tease the argument further by saying, perhaps because these men respond to the feminine side of their spirit. This could be true of several artistic professions. And in terms of choosing the people to work with… personally, I have no preference. I don’t say I will work with male choreographers, or a female artiste, I respond more to their work.

So, when you talk about sexuality and dance, we could talk about how gender is a part of the dance performance or sexuality and the dancer.

SK: Can we perhaps start by talking about the history of Bharatanatyam. We do know its linkages with the devadasi culture, also that it went through a process where it was desexualised to make it more palatable to a wider audience….

AR: The desexualisation happens when a dance that is a part of a community soaked up in dance and music and culture is torn from its context and gets pulled into a nationalistic debate… as happened during the independence movement, when it became a part of India’s cultural identity. You should look at the historical context. There were some Indians whose voices were respected and heard. The traditional practitioners had fallen on difficult times, and so instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater they found a way to popularise it by getting young women to learn it. It is true that there were repertoires that were considered unsuitable for a young girl, who in independent India was learning English, and learning to ride a horse and eat with a fork and knife and trying to be global. The traditional community understood dance in a way that none of us growing up in contemporary India have. We had dance class, music class, maths class… it was another tuition class. But that generation of parents were anxious about what we would learn from traditional dances, where lyrics tended to be soaked in erotica, and were part of a way of life. You cannot blame them and nor can you blame people like Rukmini Devi Arundale who created an academy and turned dance into a professional practice. She has said in the All India Dance conference of 1958 that she found certain traditional aspects of Bharatanatyam, called Sadir improper, and I don’t know if she used the word ‘unsavoury’ but she said something like that. She thought things have to be changed, and she changed things. Looking back you can say she sanitised the form. But what do you mean when you say sanitised? Who is going to learn it? Who is going to teach it? Who is going to practice it? Who is going to watch it?

Anita ratnam
Pic Source: Arangham; Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

It is not fair to deal Bharatanatyam like a deck of cards. One thing Bharatanatyam dancers must acknowledge is that the dance they perform today is a modern Bharatanatyam. It does not have a 5000-year-old history. That is just false. The Bharatanatyam of today was constituted in the 18th and 19th century by four Tanjore brothers, and during Independence it took on another modern dimension. It is India’s modern dance form of the 20th century. So we have to look at it from that modernist lens. What did it mean to India at a time when India was a new independent nation? What we try to do instead is try to hitch Bharatanatyam to an ancient timeline that is not true.

The sanitisation or as you said the desexualisation is, for me, a natural process. How do you make it palatable to a critical mass? Today, students cannot perform the music. They don’t know the language of ancient Telugu, or Tamil or Sanskrit. So they only learn the movements. It is fashionable also to learn these so-called erotic padams without actually living them. I will give you a parallel. In old Indian cinema there was the heroine and the vamp. Today the heroine is the vamp. So, today’s women are wanting to be the Sitas and the Surpanakas and the Helens without understanding what it means to be a courtesan or a devadasi. They were independently wealthy, owned property, owned homes, chose who to give their money to, had children, passed on their wealth to them. You must understand how independent she was. What a feminist she was for her time! And why the English couldn’t understand independent women like that. So they had to be bad women.

Today we find a return of an interest in the erotic content but my worry is that we don’t have mature interpreters among that style of Bharatanatyam, among the dancers. None of the divas can interpret it right. People who can interpret it like Lakshmi Vishvanathan or Bala Saraswathi’s student Shyamala are not in demand. It comes to a Catch 22 situation, where people want to see the kinetic thrills, like people jumping and leaping and all that. But the sensuality of Bharatanatyam came in a more sedate, more still and more richly soaked presence of the music and the poetry. So in saying it was sanitised it is only half true. If it were available as it was, still there would be no one to interpret it.

SK: So how do you interpret it in your own dance?

AR: I did not learn from a traditional devadasi guru. I learned from a modern guru in whose arsenal there was nothing more than the Bhakti tradition. So I feel that for me to listen to all these as music is very beautiful. If I choose to interpret a famous padam like Paiyyada, which is Bala Saraswati’s repertoire about a man who has left her, I would use theatre. I would keep the music integral, and use a form that would allow the body to be free, than just use mudras. That is how I would do it; use theatre as a vehicle to interpret it and give it a modern twist. That is how I would approach all these erotic padams.

SK: Can you talk about how dance and theatre come together?

AR: As I was saying earlier, some padams and some repertoires I think are best interpreted by theatre, where we can have more than music and dance, where we can have dialogue and present a narrative to an audience in a way they can understand it. Also, theatre has some excellent practices. People sit around in a circle and discuss how they want to perform a script. In traditional Bharatanatyam teaching there is still a hierarchy, a classic guru-shishya relationship, where the guru is above the shishya. But in theatre the performers are equal. Everyone gives an opinion on how to perform a piece, and on how they interpret it.

SK: You are also a cultural activist. Can you explain what that really means? What is cultural activism? What do you work for?

AR: I believe in culture, and when I say culture I don’t mean just dance. I believe in finding our roots and knowing who we are. I don’t see myself as someone walking in the street holding placards, and canvassing, but I try to address issues in the practice of dance and theatre. It could be patriarchal issues… it could be like the guru-shishya hierarchy we spoke about. We know there is an alternative in theatre, and so we learn from that to change the way dance is practiced or taught. That is a form of cultural activism.

(Anita Ratnam has pioneered to address the evolution of dance. She was also the co-founder of The Other Festival, which brought classical dance, theatre, poetry, music and several art forms together for an audience in Chennai. She also played a key role in the revival and restoration of Kaisiki Natakam, a 13th century Tamil temple theatre ritual. She is an Executive Member of the Sangeet Natak Akademi.)

Pic Source: Arangham; Photographer: Vipul Sangoi
Pic Source: Arangham; Photographer: Vipul Sangoi

SK: Classical dances have themes based in mythology and stories from olden times, and yet you have this modernist lens of dance. How do you interpret mythology for the modern audience?

AR: These stories, yes they are old stories and they talk of ancient times, but they are also the stories we all grew up with. When we say Sita, we think of the times when we have sat around as children and listened to the Ramayana being narrated. When there is a public incident where a woman’s saree or dupatta is pulled we think of Draupadi. When someone gives up something dear we think of Karna giving up his kavacha (armour), or Kunti giving up Karna. So, these stories find their way into our lives. We relate to them. And that is why they are relevant to a modern audience as well.

SK: Are these also modern interpretations then?

AR: Absolutely. In a way, the stories we tell have passed through our modern lenses and are modern interpretations. These dances tell how we relate to these stories. Again, the use of theatre helps in creating interpretations that are different from traditional Bharatanatyam performances.

SK: Going back to what you said about gender crossing, and the sexuality of the dancer… how do you think the sexuality of the dancer affects their interpretation of a character?

AR: I have played both male and female characters, but I relate more to the female characters. My interpretation is inspired by my personal life. I don’t know if you have seen me perform live, but after a recent performance in the US, the reviewer wrote about the lift of my torso, the pose and the stance using very powerful adjectives. If you think of femininity as something subtle and demure, then you could say these adjectives are ‘masculine,’ but every dancer is in touch with their masculine and feminine sides. I am comfortable with both. In real life I am very comfortable in pants… everyone wears them, but I am really very comfortable in them, just as I am when I wear ‘feminine’ clothing. I am a single mother, and I have played the role of both father and mother. So I have played masculine roles off-stage, and I think this impacts my dance, the way I walk, the way I take a stance, the way I present myself to an audience.

SK: Earlier you said, most teachers were male and several of the students were female. Do you think young boys are not interested in dance?

AR: No, I wouldn’t say that. There are many young boys learning dance. For a lot of women, dance is something they learn when they are young, then they go to college, get married, and not a lot of them perform. When men take it seriously, they are able to make a career out of it. More men actually do make a career out of performing and teaching dance. But on stage, the female dancer is still very popular. And this I would say is because of the male gaze in the audience. When they see a dance, they want to see a beautiful, female dancer. That is partly why we see a lot of women performing. But there are several men in the profession, and many of them take it seriously, teach dance and perform.

Please do check the Issue in Focus article based on this interview and a viewing of a Malayalam film Vanaprastam. The article walks us through important connections between dance, sexuality and gender in the dance forms of Bharatanatyam and Kathakali.