‘I didn’t choose dance, it chose me’: Anita Ratnam

In a candid conversation with Patriot, Ratnam talks about her passion for dance, the development of India’s largest phone directory of dancers – ‘Narthaki’, its growth, and the invention of her dance style Neo-Bharatam.

In Frame: Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam celebrates 30 years of Narthaki, an online dance resource that connects dance enthusiasts all over the world. She was a dancer throughout her life, except for her brief stint in New York as a TV broadcaster.

She is trained in Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Kalari and Tai-Chi, and has also created her own style Neo-Bharatam.

Please tell us about your introduction to dance.

I didn’t choose dance, dance chose me. My mother always wanted to be a dancer, but she wasn’t allowed. So, she made a promise to herself that if she had a daughter, she would give her the opportunity to dance. That is the major reason I was introduced to dance. 

Also, there was something about me that I wanted to express. My parents then decided to put me under training. 

I started learning under my mother’s friend Raji Narayan when I was three years old. Dance became fun for me. After school, I would run home and wait for my lessons. 

I would credit my mother’s encouragement, my father’s support and my first teacher’s love for me that gave me the feeling that this is where I belong. I had my arangetram(first performance on stage by a dancer on the completion of formal training) at the age of nine.

Due to medical reasons, Narayan had to move to Bombay. Then, for a solid 10 years, I was trained under Adyar Lakshman, a Kalakshetra disciple.

For 10 years, you worked as a TV producer in New York. How did it fit into your passion for dance?

I got very tired of my life being managed. I was becoming rebellious with my mother. After I felt restless, I applied to Martha Graham School in New York. But at that time, you could not get the money released by the Reserve Bank until it was a proper university.

Then, I applied to several universities and got admission to the University of New Orleans. I did my degree in theatre and television and that’s how I became a TV producer. I was managing art and culture programmes. It was an interesting journey, but dance was always in my blood. 

In 1990, I ended my marriage and came back to India with my two young kids. As a single mother, I had options to stay in New York, or come back and start my TV programme. But I wanted to go back to India, as my parents were supportive and took care of my children while I figured out what to do with my life professionally. 

My training in Kalari and Yoga helped me balance and calm my mind when it was most needed. Later, I joined a Bombay-based television company called Plus Channel as the South-Indian bureau chief, but I felt that dance was something I knew best.

In 1993, I started creating small choreographies and founded Arangham Dance Theatre. I used to bring my ideas and experiences to the theatre. We did traditional Indian stories differently.

Ten years into that, I wanted to do my PhD in Women Studies. So, I enrolled in Mother Theresa University. During that period, I started to manage big groups, attended many conferences, and created my style. 

I was working furiously to create an ecosystem of professionals for dance. I was teaching young people about art management besides using my experiences to teach them how to be professional dancers and how to look at lights. 

What was the initial inspiration behind Narthaki and how did you tackle the challenges along the way?

It all started with one telephone call. The call was made from the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in New York to my television company – the Bombay Broadcasting Company in New York. The phone call was from the producer of Good Morning America, David Hartman. 

He was calling because his crew was going to India to do a series of political stories on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who was campaigning for re-election at the time. They also wanted to do some soft stories, and at the top of their list was an interview with celebrated dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy.

To their surprise, neither the Indian embassy nor the consulate had the phone number or contact of the great wonderful Yamini Ji. So they called me as I was the only television producer of Indian content in New York. 

I also didn’t have Yamini Ji’s number, but what I did was, I called my aunt in Delhi, who got the number and called me back all within a turnaround time of 24 hours. Of course, the number was given to ABC. 

But that got me thinking, how is it that our most celebrated icon in classical dance – Yamini Krishnamurthy, does not feature on the contact lists of any of our embassies and officials? So, I thought, why not create a phonebook of dancers? And that was the genesis of Narthaki.

When I came to India on my next visit, just a few weeks after I went to New Delhi, I met all the officials of the culture departments, and I asked them for the list of dancers. They all were very kind, and they gave me at least four pages or a maximum of eight pages. 

But they also assured me that they were going to come out with a national directory within the next 12 months. That was in 1990.

Well, I did not want to wait until that book came out. I said I’m going to do it. So, in 1992, the first edition came with 1,000 addresses designed by Swathi Bakshi. There was a gap of five years when the second edition came in with 3,000 addresses. 

And so, we decided to go online on 14 April 2000 with narthaki.com. The response from the dancers was overwhelming because they unanimously said one thing: I have democratised dance. 

As we grew, the website became a one-stop destination for all dance-related content. Once a month, I write a column titled ‘Anita says’. I think I’m qualified to make comments.

Some gurus did not like the idea of Narthaki, as their disciples were getting directly contacted. But our biggest challenge was to find writers for Narthaki; though Leela Venkat Raman, Nikhil Khatri, Manjiri Singha and many other writers wrote for us. 

We are even trying to conduct writing camps. Very few young people want to write about art. Also, an art page is not considered very important. People have the opportunity for visibility with the advent of social media.

Introspecting the last three decades of Narthaki, what would you like to change or add to the venture?

Today, we are a professional curator and producer for original dance events. When I first started it, no one thought Narthaki would become this successful – not even my mother or guru. 

I don’t think I could have planned it. I thought, let’s try for five years. But look where it took me!

We’ve built our team of camera persons, editors, and line producers. We are thinking of ground events, and collaborating for dance-on-camera festivals to amplify the brand. We are thinking of scholarships for different styles like contemporary, traditional and folk dances. 

The pandemic had a huge impact on art and artists. Did Narthaki take any initiatives to engage artists during this challenging period?

When the pandemic hit India in March 2020, we launched what is now recognised as our most innovative digital adventure – ‘Boxed’. It was mainly contemporary dancers and some classical dancers examining what it was to be locked in a cage or a box for two minutes. 

‘Boxed’ then went on to generate ‘Taalam Talkies’ – the connection between South Indian cinema and Bharatanatyam. In October, we launched ‘Devi Diaries’ – a celebration of the feminine and divine. Then in December, ‘Andal’s Garden’, and during Shivaratri, we created another property called ‘A-Nidra’ in celebration of ‘A-Rudra’. 

I wanted to launch a parallel, or a second idea, or a digital idea and call it Neo Narthaki. Art has always been welcoming to any kind of identity issues, which is why we find a lot of people with non-heterosexual identities attracted to art – whether it be dance, music or design. I wanted to address the growing interest, clamour and voices that were emerging for what was once considered at the margins or the sidelines.

Please tell us about your dance style Neo-Bharatam.

There are my body movements among different movement vocabularies like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam and Kalari. I had to first find a name, which would become like a fort within which I can experiment. 

I did not want to be a Bharatanatyam dancer with all the costumes and experiment with the movement. Bharatanatyam and costume automatically determine one kind of dance.

With Neo-Bharatam, I had to strip everything and go back to zero. From what I want to wear, what music I want, and who I want to collaborate with.

Neo-Bharatam for me is a synergy of various movement vocabularies that I have learned. It is also a semi-autobiographical style. I always brought a personal diary into my work, whether obvious or not. 

I have used the stories of women in my life, reimagining mythological women who are not very well known – like Ahalya and Manthara, and not just Sita.

It is an umbrella under which I can use my vocabularies of training in both dance arts and meditative movement arts. Also, to bring a symphysis, there is choreography. But the co-performers in Neo-Bharatam will be costume, music, stage props and lighting. I see all of them as collaborators. I really look at team building where I can also learn. 

It is a style that I have organically developed with me, by me, upon me, and a style that I can change when my body changes. I have been able to pass on the techniques I have learned to the young dancers who work with me. They have been able to understand the approach of Neo-Bharatam. 

After working with several young artists, how would you describe your experience working with them?

I’ve learned a lot from them. I wanted to remain approachable and accessible. I love working with young people. 

First of all, I get to understand how they think, how they feel, and how they respond. They are very smart but very distracted. For dance and art, you need time. I use the term muscle memory. The movement has to sync into your body until it becomes second nature to you. 

You need to have faith and patience to do that. Young kids want everything fast. Many people I audition, drop out because I don’t create art in one month. It takes one year. Unless somebody is willing to be with me for that period, they’ll not last with me.

How do you see the audience in India and abroad?

The challenge in India is to hold the audience which is increasingly distracted. Abroad, the atmosphere to watch professional dance is more established. 

You will be given a full day for technical rehearsals. The whole theatre will be there to support you. The people will come in quietly. You don’t have to ask them to switch off their cellphones. There is a discussion after that.

The way they watch performances abroad is different from India. I enjoy performing overseas, but the challenge is in India. My work must be seen here in India. I don’t create work to export.

Any advice for upcoming dancers?

I would say there are no shortcuts to learning, as well as body movements and choosing the right teacher or guru. Muscle memory can be actually slower, but the body takes time to assimilate one technique and movement. 

So, you have to be able to curb your impatience and train rigorously with the right teacher for five to seven years. Resist the need to change quickly. Have patience. Trust the art. And most importantly, trust yourself.

As part of World Dance Day, Ratnam will talk about her journey with Narthaki at CD Deshmukh Auditorium, India International Centre on 23 April.

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