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‘Artistes should be able to be political without holding a placard’ : Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam discusses re-examining notions of womanhood, and how to engage more youngsters in the Arts

Hours before her flight to London, dancer Anita Ratnam, with her characteristic smile and casual air, is debating why being politically aware is not a luxury but a necessity in her line of work. The veteran artiste, who dons the hat of choreographer, theatre practitioner and arts entrepreneur, walks me through the process of bringing out works in a politically charged environment where everyone has multiple opinions on everything. Her critically acclaimed work A Million Sitas, recently brought alive on stage once again in the city, was one such attempt.

Ratnam’s works invariably look at the world through a feminist lens, and now encourage more youngsters to do so as well. The times are such that everything is being politically dissected, she says. “I want to connect with my childrens’ generation — the social media-savvy, young people who have travelled the world,” she says.

She is well aware that she is competing with Netflix, Amazon and other such platforms that present entertainment on a platter to the average audience, in the comfort of their homes. What would make them get out of this comfort zone to come and see a performance? This is the thought that runs through her mind, while compiling a piece.

‘Artistes should be able to be political without holding a placard’ : Anita Ratnam

“I create a work from the vast milieu of India and specifically Chennai. Strands of my training in Carnatic music, the muscle memory of Bharatnatyam, and martial arts of tai chi… I have synthesised all these into a personal movement vocabulary called Neo-bharatha,” she says, “Technology is a great guru. Using it wisely can help me reach a larger group of millennials.”

Feminist threads

Ratnam believes that artistes should be able to be political without holding a placard. Her work Stone, which narrated the story of Ahalya was an attempt in this direction. “I look at characters who can go beyond stereotypes to being tropes. For instance, I could compare The Ramayana’s Manthara to any of the most astute political strategists of our times. She was able to topple a government,” says the artiste.

Meenakshi of Madurai is another example posed by her: Legend goes that she is a queen born with three breasts, but she has to lose one breast, become coy and “normal” to suit the likes of Shiva. “The way I tell the story is that Shiva transforms into Sundareswarar and merges with her. The latter then becomes Ardhanara. I do take creative liberties,” she continues. According to her, artistes need to re-examine these familiar stories and their notions of womanhood.

Space to be

The artiste, who shuttles between different locations and new roles in the Arts, is well-versed in women’s studies and literature too. And when she is not dancing or ideating, she can be found walking along the city’s beaches, anonymously blogging about a favourite dish, or reading. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she has never ventured into teaching. “Not being a teacher has allowed me space to re-imagine the possibilities of sance. Today’s teachers are pulled in many directions, especially by ambitious and impatient parents,” she opines. Her artistic process, thus remains unbridled.

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