Anita Ratnam is a renowned dancer and choreographer. Since her Arangetram at an early age, she has been giving Bharatanatyam performances for more than four decades now. She is also well adept in Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Mohiniaatam, Taichi and Kalaripaayattu dance forms. Trained at a young age by Guru Adyar K Lakshman , she spent many years at Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra and has over the years evolved into a complete dancer. Born and brought up in a Sri Vaishnavite family, she is steeped in the religious culture and ethos of Sri Sampradaya. She can chant Sanskrit sholkas fluently as well as recite paasurams from the Naalayira Divya Prabandham (4000 sacred verses composed by the 12 Ahzwaars and by Thiruvaragathuamudanaar- a devotee of Sri Raamanujaa), who propounded the Vedanta philosophy of Vishishtaadvaita and its related theology, Sri Vaishnavism.
Though trained in the classical Bharatanaatyam style, Anita has constantly innovated this dance form and has adapted it to evolve an unique and distinct dance style of her own which she refers to as Neo Bharatam (Bharatanatyam was earlier referred to as Bharatam). On this platform, Anita has made this dance form new, invigorating, modern and very contemporary. On 3rd September, she gave a scintillating performance of a deeply spiritual extravaganza titled “Neelam- Drowning in Bliss”, at the Experimental Theatre, NCPA. It was, as I learnt later, her 50th performance of this dance-drama.
The programme started with an introduction of Anita Ratnam and the theme of the solo dance-show by poet Arundhati Subramaniam. She traced back to the Bhakthi movement in South India during the period between the 6th and 9th centuries, when twelve saint-poets called Aazhwaars ( immersed in God) devoted to Lord Vishnu or Tirumaal, the dark one, sang psalms in His praise. Almost during the same period, there were 64 saint-poets called Naayanmaars who sang in praise of Lord Shiva. Their outpourings are among the earliest devotional hymns in any Indian language. Arundhati Subramaniam aptly quoted one of the verses of Nammaazhwaar (our aazhwaar) from the English translation of selected verses by poet A. K . Ramanujan. The title of the dance show ‘Drowning in Bliss’ plays on the meanings of such an immersion or diving deep in the love of God .
During her formative years, Anita Ratnam had visited many Vaishnavite temples. The architectural beauty of these temples left her in awe and amazement. The distinct tall pillars supporting the hundred pillars and thousand pillar Mandapams and the seemingly never ending corridors where peace and serenity reigned, left a deep impression on her psyche. The quiet chanting of the Vedas and the Divyaprabandham in the background provided her with an ambience of sublime spirituality. She developed a great fascination for Aandaal (one of the twelve Vaishnavite saints and the only woman saint). Aandaal had unparalleled love for the Lord and completely surrendered to him. She exhorted all to do the same and secure their places in Vaikunta. The essence of Vishishtaadvaita philosophy is unconditional surrender (Prapatti) to Lord Vishnu. All individual souls are feminine and are totally dependent on Lord Vishnu, the supreme Soul and Paramapurusha.
The dance performance started with the chanting of the Sri Vaishnavite moolamantra- ‘Om Namo Narayanaya’, followed by the first verse of ‘ Sri Venkatesha Suprabhaatam”- the early morning awakening of Lord Srinivaasa at Tirupathi and Periaazhwaar’s (Aandal’s foster father) benediction to the Lord- “Pallandu Pallandu………” (may you live for thousands of aeons). There were four sections to the show. The first part had the procession of Lord Vishnu at Thirukkurungudi. In the second part, the subject was Aandaal where she expresses her envy for Paanchajanya, the conch of Lord Krishna which enjoys absolute proximity to the Lord which Aandal is yearning for. She wants to know how her beloved Lord’s lips taste and she repeatedly asks the conch “Karpooram naarumo, kamalappoo naarumo,(how does it smell, like camphor or like the lotus flower?), “shol aazhi ven shange” (please answer me you white conch) . In the third part is the dance where Mahalakshmi arose from the ocean during the great churning of the ocean in search of Amritam and garlanded Lord Vishnu. In the last part was the story of Lord Rama in Srirangam. She danced to Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s composition. She used a ragam-tanam-pallavi format of Dikshitar's 'Rangapura vihara' sung by Sikkil Gurucharan to visualise Lord Ranganatha through the Ramayana and the Dasavatara.
Flutist R Raghuraman was perched on the top of the stage and played so well that he received applause from the audience for his wonderful brilliance constantly reminding me of the magic of Lord Krishna’s flute playing skills conveyed in Periaazhwar’s hymns. Arvind Srinivasan’s piano for the section on Mahalakshmi was absolutely sublime.
Anita with her choice of colour for the costumes was a showstopper. For the first one on Lord Vishnu (Nambi) in a temple procession in Thirukurungudi she wore a yellow dress, for the second part as Aaandal she wore a golden costume, for the third part as Mahalakshmi she wore a shining lotus pink dress and for the last part of Lord Rama she wore a striking blue dress in consonance with the colour of the ocean (neelam). Visual design was one of the outstanding features of “Neelam”.
After the dance performance was over, the audience was invited to talk with Arundhati Subramaniam and Anita Ratnam who were on stage. It was an enjoyable tete-a-tete after the first few seconds of stunning silence when everyone was expecting another person to break the ice. The feeling was not the usual terror of audience participation but one of warmth and inclusion. Anita articulated her ideas well and with Arundhati’s imploring questions and comments, she handled them tactfully and gracefully. The finale was when one person asked Anita what was her idea of bliss. To which pat came the reply “ After all the rigours of the day, my idea of bliss is to get back to my hotel room and eat a bowl of curd rice”.
The settings of the dance theatre, the incredible costumes created by visual designer Rex, the lingering melodies of the flute and the piano and the elegant dances by Anita Ratnam resulted in an ecstatic and unforgettable evening for the audience. For Anita Ratnam, dance is a language of faith. The fond memories will linger on.