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‘Storming Destiny’ Gains Thunderous Applause


Shantona Kumari Bag’s solo Bharata Natyam debut keeps Antares on the edge of his seat and restores his optimistic outlook

Whenever I get invited to a show in KL these days I experience a mild anxiety attack. You see, it’s a 3-hour drive to the city and back from my mountain hideaway; and since the price of petrol shot up and my van’s air-con system broke down, these excursions have become drastically more arduous. I usually manage to find a few good reasons to stay home – but on the evening of July 27th, as the musicians took their place on stage and the lights went up on the stunning set of Storming Destiny, I felt extremely privileged to be present.

Every aspect of the production restored my faith in the possibility of total excellence – from Sivarajah Natarajan’s brilliant lighting and set design to the impassioned and impeccably performed live music. And, certainly, the sheer poetry and precision of Shantona’s epic dance was no less than a divine revelation. It seemed to me she had fully internalized the choreography and was simply reveling in the ecstasy of pure expression. This became more obvious as the 24-year-old dancer warmed up during the second sequence, Jatiswaram, and from there on, surrendered her whole being to embodying the Dance of Life itself. By the time she launched herself into the climactic Thillana, Shantona had sections of the audience cheering and gasping at her virtuosity. She received a well-earned standing ovation.


Though I am by no means an authority on or even knowledgeable about Bharata Natyam, I sensed that this was an entirely fortuitous and ground-breaking collaboration of remarkable talents. Storming Destiny successfully navigated the hazardous artistic seas where innovation collides with tradition. Shantona Kumari Bag injected a palpable intelligence and self-assured awareness into Jayanthi Subramaniam’s robust choreography and made it her own; she also broke with tradition by adding a contemporary feel to her arangetram (solo debut) with her self-penned poetic narration and the inclusion of dramatic devices – like bringing her younger sister Shobhna Devika on stage as her alter ego.


Bharata Natyam performances are famously taxing on the dancer as well as the audience. Quite often in the past I have found myself closing my eyes and drifting away, usually towards the middle of the show. However, my attention did not falter for an instant throughout Storming Destiny. So riveting was Shantona’s stage presence, and so exhilarating her joy, that time seemed to accelerate and space expand, energizing me on a deep, cellular level.

shantona-dancer2We have in Shantona Kumari Bag a very determined and strong-spirited young dancer who will soon be affectionately referred to as “the dancing doctor.” Currently a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Shantona took a year off to reclaim her divine gift of dance – having decided against sacrificing her artistic nature to the rigorous demands of medical science. Instead, she would make a bold attempt to combine her true passion with her chosen vocation (she comes from a family of doctors). Storming Destiny proved conclusively that it can indeed be achieved – and with magnificent aplomb too.

shantonaFB2As a young student at Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Academy, Shantona displayed a fondness and flair for Odissi (an expressive, almost sensual dance form from Orissa, India) – excelling particularly in abhinaya, the esoteric art of portraying a whole spectrum of emotions through one’s physical form. Perhaps the mental discipline of her medical studies helped steel Shantona’s resolve to master the more formal technique of Bharata Natyam.

Ramli Ibrahim, who ranks among the world’s best male Odissi dancers (earning the highest praise from connoisseurs and critics during a recent tour in India), has an unerring nose for talent. Over the decades he has wet-nursed the birth of at least a dozen dancing stars in the Classical Indian Dance firmament – including the likes of Geetha Sankaran, Mavin Khoo, Guna, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, January Low, Revathi Tamilselvam, and Vidhya Puspanathan. Shantona Kumari Bag undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in Sutra’s permanent hall of fame.

shantonaFBAnother outstanding performance at Storming Destiny was delivered by the musicians comprising Gomathi Nayagam (vocals), Jaya Sekhar (veena and violin), Theban Arumugam (mridangam), A. Perampalam (flute), and Ashok Kumar (tanpura) – with Ramli Ibrahim doing an absolutely masterful job of timekeeping on the nattuvangam. Gomathi Nayagam (who currently teaches at the Singapore Fine Arts Society) blissed out the audience with the celestial beauty of his voice and his flawless pitch.

An unexpected bonus on the first night of Storming Destiny was the marvelously humorous and touching speech by guest of honor Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan. Everyone present shared the profound pleasure and pride that Shantona’s parents, Drs Arun Kumar Bag and Mridula Kumari, must surely have felt.

When the very air we breathe is befouled with pollutants – and the banal misrule of mediocrity seems oppressively unchangeable – an event as consummately produced and aesthetically gratifying as Storming Destiny becomes all the more therapeutic and laudable. I salute Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra for being such good medicine for the soul. And, of course, for nurturing such quintessential talents as Shantona Kumari Bag and for giving Malaysians a genuine cause for celebration.

14 August 2007

[First published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2007. Photographs courtesy of Shantona Kumari]


Anita Ratnam ~ Dance as Sacred Ritual

Anita Ratnam: embodiment of dance

Anita Ratnam: embodiment of dance (photo: Amrutha Ananth)

Antares is awed by the consummate beauty, skill and wisdom that crafted UTPALA: THE AWAKENING

I very nearly missed catching the fabulous Anita Ratnam (and her Arangham Dance Theatre) in the world premiere of Utpala: The Awakening. The hot clammy weather had depleted my joie de vivre and I did not relish the thought of driving 110 miles merely to assuage my curiosity about this legendary dancer-choreographer, former TV producer, cross-cultural ambassador, and professor of aesthetics in the Universality of Dance. In the end I decided to toss a coin three times – and thrice the answer was, “Go… Go… Go…”

The moment I set foot in Sutra House – the magic garden theater of dance that Ramli Ibrahim built – my spirits began to lift. What a splendid setting for the epiphanies that were soon to follow.


Utpala: The Awakening premiered at Sutra House, Kuala Lumpur

A crucial element was the enticingly eclectic music: a rapturous mix of prerecorded tracks culled from various sources – and live performance with Jaya Sekhar on veena and vocal, and L Subhasri on nattuvangam. There was an evocative dash of Sheila Chandran, plus some truly exciting sections featuring freestyle jazz piano and tabla. The editing could have been a little more polished – the fadeouts sometimes terminated abruptly, a jarring auditory experience – but the selection itself revealed the choreographer’s conceptual clarity and focused intent.


Beyond all choreographic boundaries…

Art’s success must be measured by its power to reconcile, heal and ennoble. Technical discipline, flair and skill may define professional standards but the core of the performance is where Mystery dwells: it reveals the soul essence of the artist for better or worse. The complementary aspects of lighting and costume design are important in dance and, in the case of Utpala, were more than satisfactorily fulfilled. What truly shone through was the sublime inspiration behind the narrative concept and choreography, which delineated and unified the divine, demonic, and human dimensions.


Utpala is the stalk that connects the lotus to its source

In reconciling eastern and western dance vocabularies, the sacred and the secular, the classical and contemporary approach, the celestial and the terrestrial, Utpala: The Awakening seduced and gracefully guided us through the birth pangs of incarnate being, adolescence and maturity, sorrow and joy, tenderness and brutality, and led us unerringly to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel where our mortal existence is elucidated, validated and consecrated.

Utpala’s synergetic blend of classical Indian elements with a contemporary, cosmopolitan perspective was confident and uncontrived, reflecting the work of a mature artist comfortable with her Indian roots – yet adventurously seeking a universal aesthetic.

Using the lotus as the central motif of the work (“Utpala literally means the slender stem that connects the sacred flower to the muddy marsh from which it grows”), Anita masterfully synthesized Hindu cosmology with Jungian and gestalt psychology and grounded her thesis in the rich, dark soil of being human. Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva were invoked – then Shakti (the feminine principle) took over, in her Parvati, Mahalakshmi, Saraswati, and Kali aspects. And what a Goddess figure Anita cut with her charismatic stage presence – with a single mudra she was able to express a gamut of experience, her stillness was potent, her movements charged with ethereal grace.


Dissolving the distinction between goddess & human

It was clear that Anita Ratnam was an object of devotion and an inspiration to her talented young dancers – to whom she gave generous space to display their admirable terpsichorean gifts. The two exquisite female dancers, Aarti Bodani and R Gayathri, were perfectly matched with their dynamic male counterparts, L Narendra Kumar and M. Palani. As representatives of humanity, the four enacted the phases of evolution, the dramatic (and traumatic) transition from tribal to individual consciousness, the inner and outer polarization resulting in the battle of the sexes, and realignment with and ultimate return to Source through spiritual awakening.

In ritual dance, symbolic objects carry immense significance. The large basin of water at a corner of the open-air stage suggested cleansing, renewal and rebirth; the glittering discs of mirrored glass harvested from the dancers’ feet by the Goddess at the finale (and lovingly returned to the water) might have represented the divine spark contained within each soul, the holographic fragment bearing the blueprint of the Cosmic Whole, the luminous, self-reflecting consciousness of a sovereign entity.

Even as I surrendered to the sensory and mental stimulation of Utpala: The Awakening, a part of me was acutely aware that Anita Ratnam had taken dance beyond mere art or entertainment, to the rarefied precincts of sacred ritual, whereby the boundary between performer and audience is temporarily transcended, and mutual blessing experienced.


Embracing her destiny as a crosscultural ambassador (photo: Deepak Mudgal)

But just who is this Anita Ratnam? We learn from the program notes that her classical training was in Bharata Natyam, supplemented by the Kerala traditions of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. (Indeed, she met Ramli Ibrahim while both were students of dance guru Adyar K Lakshman, and was thus happy to premiere Utpala at Ramli’s 6th Sutra Festival of Contemporary Dance Theater and Music in Kuala Lumpur.) Anita subsequently obtained a Master’s degree in Theater and Television from the University of New Orleans, and embarked on a 10-year career as a New York TV producer and weekly talk show host. She produced the highly acclaimed Festival of India television series among others, earning two Emmy nominations, and then returned to Chennai (Madras) where she established the Arangham Trust – a foundation promoting dance and its interaction with visual and performing arts.


Anita portrays the female trinity of Saraswati, Lakshmi & Meenakshi

In 2002 she collaborated choreographically on two international productions: DUST (which premiered in the U.S.) inspired by the life of Tibetan explorer Alexandra David-Neel; and Hyphenated (which premiered in Canada), a work addressing issues of race, identity, and the trans-cultural experience. Apart from dance, Anita Ratnam’s work “intersects at the crossroads of art, ethics, philosophy and culture” and she engages with young audiences through “physical theater” workshops. She also co-founded and co-directs The Other Festival – India’s “only contemporary arts festival” held annually in Chennai since 1998. And to top it all, Anita recently initiated – an award-winning web portal on Indian classical dance bringing together practitioners of Bharata Natyam, Odissi, and other Indian dance traditions – wherever they may be on the planet.


Anita Ratnam by Ashish Chawla

This creative dynamo is also mother to two teenaged children who are proud of her celebrity status, but occasionally lament her absence from home when she’s touring or busy organizing arts events and workshops.

At the close of Utpala: The Awakening, Ramli Ibrahim invited questions from the audience. The calm, clear manner in which Anita responded was equally impressive. The Indian High Commissioner, H.E. Veena Sikri, happened to be in the audience, and was asked to say a few words. Her gracious praise for the performance was unstinting and augured extremely well for more vibrant intercultural exchanges between India and Malaysia. As Ramli rightly reminded us, the cultural, spiritual and commercial links between Mother India and her former vassal states in the Malay Archipelago go back thousands of years. We have every reason to cherish this precious heritage and continue working on behalf of its future evolution.

10 June 2003

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