So I have been using Instagram a lot and my account is here so please ‘follow’ me if you like those images.

I like clicking photos and sharing them on Instagram and VSCO Cam. The two sites are somewhat different. Instagram is huge, and VSCO Cam is artsy. Clicking photos on my handy iPhone is a way of getting back to the visual side of things. It helps me observe as I walk around, and also has forced a problem in my mind.

I find that the people I follow have a subject; a topic. Most of the people I follow on Instagram are in fashion or the arts. They post on one topic. The British Museum and MOMA, both of whom I follow on Instagram, help me stay abreast of the goings-on in the art world. Fashion sites on Instagram are just visually beautiful and help me track designers who I like. This raises an interesting problem for me: what is my visual aesthetic? I’m still toying with the idea and don’t have an answer yet. On the one hand I like photographing humans; and on the other, trees and nature attract me as well. I love birds, but don’t have the camera expertise or equipment to photograph birds. The site that I troll late at night however, is India Nature Watch, a fantastic site if you are even remotely interested in mammals, birds, and reptiles. Posting on Instagram and VSCO Cam has forced me to figure out what I want to say visually.

Today, I received an email which pleased me inordinately. It is pasted below and is self-explanatory.  Funny to see that the photo which has been chosen is this one.  Does this mean that I should focus on temple photography? The interplay between what psychologists call “strokes” and creation make up the final voice of a writer or in this case an amateur photographer.

Begin forwarded message:
From: “VSCO” <support@vsco.co>
Date: February 21, 2015 at 2:10:06 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
To: Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com>
Reply-To: support@vsco.co
Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
Shoba Narayan, your work has been chosen for the VSCO Grid™ — a curated gallery of original imagery.

Use this link to view and share your work within a selection of the finest images online:
Thank you for using VSCO Cam® and VSCO Grid. We are grateful for your support.
The VSCO Team

Facebook Twitter Instagram Google Plus
 VSCO® is an art and technology company empowering people everywhere to create, discover, and connect.

Festival of Sacred Music

My friend, Ranvir Shah and his Prakruti Foundation does The Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru every year. Details here

This year, the festival is from March 6 to 8 and has a terrific line up. The Manganiyars, Kadri Gopalnath on Saxophone and Filter Coffee, a rock band. Imagine sitting under the stars and listening to this music on the banks of the Cauvery.

This festival is open to all. Driving distance from Chennai and Bangalore. Reasonably priced hotel rooms are available and you will be helping village tourism. Details at the website and on Facebook here.

Please share. Please attend.


A video of me

Reposting because the sound quality is a little better.

The email below led to this video of me here and pasted below.

She had me at Alarmel Valli!!

Dear Shoba

Hope all is well. Not sure you remember me but we met at the Festival of Sacred Music two/three years ago. I now have a performing arts’ company called Aalaap and under the banner of Aalaap, I edit and publish a performing arts magazine. Will send you a few copies if you give me your snail mail address.

I’m writing to you on behalf of Ahalya, an exclusive, high-end jewellery brand, whose creator is a very intelligent and insightful designer by the same name. Ahalya Bespoke is a sub-brand of Ahalya and to grow the bespoke brand and to create a community of sorts, who celebrate the idea of self and individuality, we have created and manage a social media platform called I Am that is a platform for conversations and thoughts, ideas and inspirations.

In it, we intend to – through stories and films – echo the philosophy of the brand – I Am – where the idea is to celebrate people the way they are; women and men who live life on their own terms and have a point of view that matters.

You can take a look at the page at Facebook.com/theiampage.

I’m writing to you to invite you to be a part of this page’s series of films wherein you share a particular idea/thought/expression/story, etc, that is integral to who you are. So far, we have had two films (Alarmel Valli, the dancer and Sharanya Manivannan poet)

Our camera team will be in Bangalore between October 24th and October 25th and if you are up for this, it’d be great if you could indicate the time and venue where we can shoot this film. The whole process including the shoot will not take more than 90 minutes.

I really look forward to your response…

Warm regards

Chennai Music and Women

I thought about this a lot, but cannot come up with any solution. Everyone lays it on the women artistes to get together and fight the discrimination, but that’s not going to happen.

A note of dismay over inequality at music and dance festivals in Chennai
Shoba Narayan

January 3, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015 11:21 AM

Every year, between December 15 and January 15, hundreds of thousands of people across India congregate in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for its Carnatic and Bharatanatyam festivals. More than 300 concert halls in the city host cultural events throughout the month in a tradition that has endured for more than half a century.

But each year, as audiences clad in silk saris and white dhotis arrive, an ugly issue rears its head: the discrimination against female performers by the show organisers and male musicians.

In a recent post on Facebook, Kalpana Mohan, a ­California-based writer, highlighted an incident that happened two years ago at a concert hall in Chennai. A prominent male vocalist kicked up a fuss when he realised he would have to perform alongside a young female violinist. An older, established musician, he refused to take the stage with a junior female artist. The organisers found a male violinist to replace the female artist, leaving her in tears.

After describing the incident in her Facebook post, Mohan ended with an appeal for gender equality: “I do hope December 2014 is the season in Chennai in which artists, young and old, fight back, ask questions, write to local and national newspapers and launch a campaign to fix the cracks, while simultaneously fixing the crackpots who believe that a woman is inferior – when all that matters is prowess, not age or gender. I certainly hope that this is the year that older, established vocalists, both female and male, step up and fight for the sake of their younger female counterparts. I hope that the next time something like this happens, the rest of the performing crew unites in support to protest the injustice.”

When The National contacted the violinist who wasn’t allowed to play, she declined to talk about the incident: “I wish to tell you that it does not interest me. I would rather focus on my music,” she said

Oddly enough, nobody in the Chennai music circles blames her for her reluctance to comment, because Carnatic music has traditionally been the bastion of men. In this rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal set-up, female performers don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, especially if they are young, because of the repercussions it could have on their career.

“It is unfortunate and terrible,” says pianist Anil Srinivasan, who works with a variety of performers, male and female. “But the only way forward is for women to band together and boycott all those musicians and percussionists who are saying such things. The audience should also show their support by boycotting concert halls that allow such ­inequality to go unchecked.”


Anita Ratnam, a renowned classical dancer, says: “Senior male performers would rather accompany a junior and emerging male vocalist than sit beside an established and accomplished female singer. It is appalling. Nobody does anything about it, so the abuse continues. Female artists should speak out, not with anger but with confidence.”

Ghatam Karthick, a young percussionist who plays the ghatam (pot), gives some context. “Legendary percussionists such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T K Murthy and Palghat Raghu were used to accompanying exclusively male singers,” he says.

“Until the ‘trinity’ of female singers – D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and M S Subbulakshmi, who won the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour – found success, no male accompanist would work with women,” he says.

Karthick credits female singers and musicians for his big breaks. His first concert at the Madras Music Academy was with the well-known vocalist Charumathi Ramachandran, he went on his first foreign tour with the veena player Veena Gayathri, and says his career soared after he played alongside top female singers such as Sudha Ragunathan and Bombay Jayashri, who was ­nominated for an Academy Award for Pi’s Lullaby in Life of Pi (2013).
“I owe everything to women,” Karthick says matter-of-factly, but agrees that no effort is being made to challenge senior male performers who practise gender discrimination.

“Will we need a Nirbhaya in the music world?” asks the eminent veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, referring to the 2012 Delhi rape victim whose brutal death drew attention and galvanised support for improved attitudes towards women across India.


Indian dance

Of all arts, dance is the one that encapsulates a country’s culture.

I was thrilled to discover this link about Kamala here.

My other dance connection is that I went to Women’s Christian College and Urmila Satyanarayana was my classmate. She is here.

A dance questionnaire for dancers and critics

The most important thing in dance appreciation is to have the courage to respond to it

Shoba Narayan


I am a failed dancer. As a child in Chennai, some of my most memorable visits were to my aunt’s house. Her name was Kamala and she was known in dance circles as Kumari Kamala. My uncle, Major Lakshminarayan, was her second husband. He would take us to The Music Academy, Madras, where we could sit in the front row and watch her perform. She received the Padma Bhushan and scores of other awards.
To us children, however, she revealed quirky human foibles. I eat curry leaves today because Kamala mami mentioned in passing that it would help hair growth. My love of Bharatanatyam comes straight from time spent with her. Their home in Poes Garden was filled with beautiful young girls and the tinkle of anklets. Singers would be rehearsing and endless cups of coffee and tiffin would appear from the kitchen. To me, it represented a world of beauty, art, and apsaras (fairies).
After my uncle died, my aunt emigrated to the US, where she still lives. She teaches dance and leads a quiet life. People still talk about what a fantastic dancer she was. She inspired this column, as she does anything I write about dance.

Chennai’s dance festival opens today. We asked a few dancers and critics the same questions.
1. Who is your favourite dancer and why?
2. Teach our readers how to appreciate dance.
Here are their answers, edited for length.

ALARMEL VALLI Bharatanatyam dancer
1. My favourite dancers are T. Balasaraswati, Yamini Krishnamurthy and Kumari Kamala. When Bala-ma won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, there was some controversy about whether it could be given to a dancer. Bala-ma sang a snippet of a song about 20 times and emoted different feelings. She established without a doubt that dance is visual music. Yamini was a flame. She just set the stage ablaze with her dance. I used to watch her vitality, fire and joy with fascination. I was watching Kumari Kamala on TV the other day. What grace! What life! Today we have become obsessed with the geometry of dance. Dancers of the previous generation paid attention to subtexts, nuances, and poetry that went beyond technical perfection (Valli did not know that Kamala is my aunt when she mentioned her name).

2. I think the most important thing in dance appreciation is to have the courage to respond to it. Dance calls for an investment of effort from the audience. A willingness to receive. Does it touch you? Does it move you in any way? Can it transform you? Don’t worry about the reviews. Cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. Listen to good music. The arts sensitize and refine your spirit, but you have to invest in them.


1. To give one name for a favourite dancer would be impossible.

2. I think the specific things you should look for are: a) The technical grounding of the dancer, in all aspects—the pure dance aspect, the abhinaya (emoting) aspect as well the musicality and collaborative aspect with the musicians. b) I give a lot of importance to the content and whether the content of the dance has been literally expressed because this will only invoke a feeling of momentary appreciation…. For it to linger as a fragrance in your mind for years to come, the entire performance has to be transformative. Therefore, one needs to look at whether the content has been merely translated or whether it has been transformed into something else. Has it evoked in the viewer a sense of wonder and magic? That to me is one of the most important things. c) To see how the piece has been choreographed, keeping in mind the space where it is being performed, the lights used, the costume worn. Whether the aesthetics of the work are in harmony with the dance.


1. A good critic cannot have a favourite! But since you ask: Padma Subrahmanyam for her academic mind and divine art and decades of sincere service; and Alarmel Valli for her precision, spontaneity, clarity, class and depth of art.

2. Go with an open mind. Try to understand the literature/poetry of dance because therein lies its kernel. Don’t see the physical features, but the inner beauty of the dance/r. Look for substance and structure. Clarity of positions, delivery; standards in aesthetics and overall presentation. Hidden in the word heart is art. See from your heart, not head alone.

BICHITRANANDA SWAIN Director, Rudrakshya Foundation, an institute of Odissi dance

1. Sujata Mohapatra is the one dancer who stands out in my eyes. Not only is she a wondrous and brilliant dancer on stage, but also a charming, kind and compassionate human being off stage. When she enters, it seems sculptures have come to life and the finesse with which she dances, her technique, her abhinaya, almost everything about her can blow your mind away. Her strenuous dance regime and discipline is something many young and upcoming dancers should take note of. The Rudrakshya Foundation dance troupe. Photo courtesy Rudrakshya Foundation.

2. Watch as many dances as you can. You may never go into specific details as to which pose is what and what the name is, but once you have seen a large number of performances, you will automatically compare and will know good dance from bad. Also, since dance is all about aesthetic beauty, there is no specific need for the general audience to know the bhangis/charis/bhramaris (bends, specific leg postures, and movement patterns). Leave that for the critics and the scholars. The audience should just delve deep into the rasa. Talking about rasa (“emotions” would be an incomplete translation), classical dances are mostly made up of abhinaya, and any layman can understand the expressions of love, hate, jealousy, bravery, etc, just by looking at the dancer’s expressions. The only requirement is that the dancer should be proficient enough to portray them efficiently.

MADHU NATARAJ KIRAN Dancer and founder, Natya Stem Dance Kampni

1. I have several favourites, for different attributes constitute a great dancer for me. I have chosen the following: My mother and guru, the late Maya Rao, who was a beautiful dancer in her youth. Her lifetime’s commitment, passion, and complete surrender to Kathak showed even at age 86 when she demonstrated an abhinaya piece. The nazaaqat (delicacy) of old world Kathak and her training at European dance studios gave her dance an unparallelled edge. Anita Ratnam, for creating a neo-classical mosaic which balances artistry and accessibility to dance. She balances mythology with current women’s issues in a unique and potent manner Alarmel Valli, for personifying a dedicated regimen and clarity of form

2. My advice to a dance novice, or an enthusiast for that matter, would be to watch a performance with an open mind. It helps to research the artiste and her organization and gives one a glimpse into her ideology, her process of creation, which then makes the “viewing” more meaningful and multilayered. Traditional and contemporary performers explore and experiment with mainly two aspects: Form, which is her chosen dance vocabulary—Bharatanatyam, Manipuri, etc.—and content, which is the theme of the presentation, and which can range from the Ramayan to a very personal take on life. Although the classical forms follow certain codified motifs that provide a yardstick for critiquing, every performer also infuses her personality and vision into every piece. Try and catch a few performances of a young/emerging dancer, one in her prime, and a maestro, preferably over 60, and you will be able to see the phases, ranging from athleticism and virtuoso qualities to the dancer herself becoming a symbol of experiences and memories

Shoba Narayan wishes that Bengaluru had a dance festival to equal Chennai’s.

Read more at: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/NTfUPj44CGLq6ScoM27DgM/A-dance-questionnaire-for-dancers-and-critics.html?utm_source=copy

Emotional ecstasy: painter V. Ramesh

Emotional ecstasy and those mystic muses
Painter V. Ramesh on painting four female poets and their experience of mysticism
Shoba Narayan Mail Me
V. Ramesh at the NGMA in Bangalore. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The painter, V. Ramesh, is sitting cross-legged on the floor of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bangalore, talking about four female poets and their experience of mysticism. All around us are Ramesh’s large canvases, depicting these four women poets who have been a source of inspiration for his recent work. Ramesh discovered them in the library of the Ramana ashram in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. He began reading their poetry, mostly through English translations. “Though they were separated by centuries and geographies, the emotional ecstasy that permeated their work moved me,” he says.
The earliest of these female mystic poets, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, lived in the fifth century. She was one of the 63 Nayanmars who composed hymns in praise of the Hindu god Shiva. She wanted the lord to strip away her beauty so that she could worship him without distractions. Frail and emaciated, she worshipped the lord and became the subject of a beautiful Chola bronze. She appears in Ramesh’s painting in the form of a skeleton.
The second female mystic who has influenced this painter is Andal, an eighth century Tamil mystic. Andal is the only female among the 12 Alvar saints who worshipped the god Vishnu whose influence still permeates society. For my wedding, I wore what is called an “Andal kondai”, which is a chignon tied on the right side of your head. To this day, girls who grow up in Chennai learn to sing the Andal Tirupaavai, particularly in the winter (the Tamil month of Margazhi). My favourite rendition is by Sudha Raghunathan (Andal Tirupaavai).

The daughter of Periyalwar, Andal was discovered under a bush and raised in an atmosphere of devotion. She would create garlands for Vishnu, which her father would take to the temple. Andal would try them on first and then hand them over for the temple. Her father discovered her doing this and chastized her. He made her create a new garland. One night, Lord Vishnu appeared in his dream and said he wanted the garland Andal had tried on. “The god wanted the garland that Andal created because he missed the scent of her body,” says Ramesh.
“There is so much closeness, intimacy and sensuality in that story. In fact, Andal was caught because her father discovered her hair on the garland, and I have portrayed that in my painting.” Ramesh has painted a tuberose garland against a deep-blue background to depict Andal’s use of garlands to access her lord. She died at 15, after composing two famous volumes of Tamil poetry: the Thiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumozhi.
The third female mystic who is depicted through falling jasmine flowers in Ramesh’s painting is Akka Mahadevi, who lived in 12th century Karnataka. Akka means “didi” or elder sister. Her Kannada poetry is known for its mysticism and feminism. Her deity of choice was Chenna Mallikarjuna and her vachanas are still spoken and sung in Karnataka. Like the other mystics, Mahadevi too walked out on her family, not an easy thing to do at the time. “All these female mystics had the courage to leave their homes at a time when it was not common,” says Ramesh. “Their spirituality gave them strength and a loophole to find their way out of unhappy relationships.”
The last female mystic who has made her way into Ramesh’s painting is the 14th century poet, Lal Ded. Chased out of home by her mother-in-law, Lal Ded walked around naked. A merchant gave her a piece of cloth to cover her nakedness. She tore it into two and wore them on either shoulder. Whenever someone ridiculed or criticized her, she tied a knot in the cloth on her right shoulder. Whenever someone praised her, she tied a knot on the cloth on her left shoulder. At the end of the day, she showed the merchant that there were an equal number of knots on both sides. “These are apocryphal metaphors that tell you that you should take praise and criticism with equanimity,” says Ramesh.
I liked some of Ramesh’s earlier work—a red suffused heart inspired by eighth-century poet Manikkavachakar, titled Flood My Heart With Your Tender Mercy, and a self-portrait with a tiger. While the emotional exaltation that spirituality offers interests him, the concept of bhakti (devotion) has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, he says ruefully.
I had not heard of Ramesh. He teaches and paints in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. He lives with his wife and has a fairly regular routine. He teaches in the morning, has lunch and a siesta, and spends the afternoons in his studio. In the evening, he listens to Carnatic music and reads. “Not much of socializing,” he says. He speaks passionately about Carnatic music and its musicians. Palghat Mani Iyer, he says, would not play for female musicians till his daughter married D.K. Pattammal’s son. He wouldn’t play his mridangam even for people like M.S. Subbulakshmi. Only after he became the sammandhi of D.K. Pattammal would he play for her.
The painter’s dilemma is to convey the emotions that he says are easier expressed through poetry and music. “How to paint emotional ecstasy? How to convey it?”
Before meeting Ramesh, I phoned art collector Abhishek Poddar, who is on the board of the NGMA to do a sort of due diligence on this artist I had not heard of. Poddar owns some of Ramesh’s works but I don’t think he is biased when he says: “There are some artists who get their due, some who get more than their due and some who get less than their due. Ramesh belongs to the last category. He is a thinking artist who doesn’t churn out formulaic work.”
I think Ramesh, whose works are priced at Rs.7 lakh-25 lakh, is a scholar who is also an artist. He is interested in mysticism, poetry, music, books and art. When I talk about Ponduru cotton, he says he wears dhotis made with hand-spun Ponduru cotton and plans to wear one to the opening of his own show.
Ramesh’s works are riveting. His dhoti might be too.
V. Ramesh’s works will be on display at the NGMA in Bangalore from 5 February-25 March. The show is supported by Gallery Threshold.
Shoba Narayan plans to read A.K. Ramanujan’s translated poetry after this meeting.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Subodh Gupta

The NGMA Delhi has this retrospective. Would be great to visit if you are in Delhi.

Arts & Culture
Subodh Gupta the Damien Hirst of New Delhi
Shoba Narayan
February 1, 2014 Updated: February 2, 2014 11:46:00

Famously dubbed the “Damien Hirst of New Delhi” by The Guardian, Subodh Gupta is arguably the subcontinent’s most celebrated contemporary artist. The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi opened a retrospective of Subodh Gupta’s works this month, curated by Germano Celant. It is Gupta’s most comprehensive exhibition in India to date and the biggest exhibition the NGMA has ever dedicated to a contemporary Indian artist.

The exhibition is spread across two buildings – the ornate Jaipur House, originally built as the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur in 1936, and the museum’s modern concrete-and-glass extension constructed in 2009.

Gupta’s work has been shown in many major international exhibitions including the Tate Triennial in London (2009); Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012), Kochi, India; The Saatchi Gallery London (2010); and the Guggenheim Museum, New York NY (2010). His works are in the collections of major museums worldwide, among them Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Collection in London, the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

What interests you about the microcosm and why have you focused on that with your solo show, Everything Is Inside?

The show came out of my previous sculpture of a black taxi with luggage on top. I had titled it Everything Is Inside. The idea for that piece came at the airline baggage carousels when I observed Indians returning from the Gulf countries where they worked. They had so much luggage that they had packed it all into bundles. You couldn’t even unpack it because it was tied so tightly. I was curious about what was inside. Was it gifts, toys, watches? This show came about based on that piece.

What are some of the fresh works that viewers can expect to see at the NGMA? Can you talk about the All in the Same Boat, the new work you’ve created for this exhibition?

The Kerala fishing boat in this piece is an object that I used like a canvas. This is an object that has a lot of poetic resonance for many people. You look at the boat and you feel calm and peaceful. I am attracted to objects that contain a lot of meaning, such as boats and vessels. It is interesting to think about what to put on top of that.

A lot of your work is about identity. What are some of the themes that interest you?

Identity is linked to my journey as an artist. I gain inspiration from the objects that surround me and the ones I see within my own world – plates, food, vessels – simple objects such as those. All these become works that go to Shanghai and other parts of the world. Everything Is Inside had four large works that have never been shown in India. Even for people who have seen my work, these are new installations. Two are outdoor works and two are indoor. The rest have come from Italy, England, Korea and other countries. There are many new pieces that have never been exhibited in this country. We spent days installing it.

Why is this show significant?

First of all, this is my first solo show at the NGMA. That is important to me because this is my country. This is my home. It is a proud moment for me because the NGMA is a great museum that I have grown up visiting. To be part of it is one of the most important things for me.

What do you think about the contemporary art scene in India?

We need more art schools. We need more space to show art. We need more art lovers and collectors. I was asking someone, why is it that in India we don’t have 100 new artists every year? Where are all the young artists? Museums should exhibit contemporary artists as well. When people see artists like me, there will be lots of questions, lots of curiosity. That is something we lack in this country.

What comes next?

I have a show at a museum in Frankfurt in the autumn. I am also part of many group shows this year, including one at Venice.

• Everything Is Inside will run until March 16 at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Visit ngmaindia.gov.in/upcoming-exhibits.asp


Chennai Music Season

Chuffed that Ranjani Gayathri posted this piece in they Facebook page (Ra-Ga). Nice acronym.

Sat, Dec 07 2013. 12 09 AM IST

The Chennai music season decoded
A primer to Chennai’s music and dance festival
Shoba Narayan
Ranjani and Gayathri perform with Charumathi Raghuraman
This is the time of year when my Klout score drastically increases. Thanks simply to the fact that I grew up in Chennai and am interested in music and dance, my popularity reaches an all-time high, with friends, acquaintances and even cordial enemies from across the globe asking about Chennai’s December season. It is also the one time of year when I don’t have to answer uncomfortable questions about Chennai’s weather. Yes, it is “sultry” as the locals say; but there is the sea breeze to cool things down.
This is a primer to Chennai’s music and dance festival; a personal answer to questions about what to see, do and hear in Chennai during the season. Basics and semantics first. The word kutcheri means music concert. In Chennai, this mostly means Carnatic music, which began with Purandara Dasa, a 15th century composer, musicologist and scholar who codified Carnatic music into a system that continues to this day.
Purandara Dasa, who lived in Karnataka and composed many “Dasar-namas” as they are called in Kannada, is called the “Sangeeta Pitamaha” or grandfather of Carnatic music. More popular are the “divine trinity” of composers who came after him. They are Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshithar and Syama Shastry, each of whom has a distinct musical signature. Even if you know nothing about the song, you can recognize the composer in the last couple of lines. Shyama Shastry ended with “Shyama”, Dikshithar ended with “guru guha”, and Thyagaraja with “Thyagaraja”. Another king-composer, Swathi Thirunal, who belonged to the same Travancore royal family as the artist Raja Ravi Verma, ended his compositions with “Padmanabha”, in a nod to the jewel-rich temple in Thiruvananthapuram.
The beauty of Chennai’s December season is its authenticity. It hasn’t changed much in close to 50 years. There are concerts throughout the year in Chennai. Only recently though have NRIs started flying into town during Christmas, establishing a cottage industry of retirees who take in known paying guests who can’t find an affordable hotel during this time. To the brass tacks.
When to go
The peak season is from 15 December-15 January. However, there are some sabhas where the concerts start as early as 1 November. Essentially, Chennai becomes a treasure trove of music all through November, December, and January.
The dance festival typically starts after 1 January. Go to Artindia.net for details and schedules. Concert schedules can be found at Chennai December Season (www.chennaidecemberseason.com ), which provides links to individual sabhas. There is also a frequently updated Facebook page of the same name.
Where to go
The Music Academy, or “Academy” as the locals call it, is Ground Zero. Perhaps because of its prestige, it has also become something of a circus; the place to see and be seen.
Other sabhas may offer a more authentic experience without the tamasha (spectacle). For example, the Narada Gana Sabha or Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, informally called Vani Mahal, are centrally located and attract the connoisseurs of Carnatic music. There are hoary old sabhas such as the Mylapore Fine Arts Club or Rasika Ranjani Sabha (RR Sabha) where the chairs are rickety but the audience strong in its knowledge of music. Newer venues like Hamsadhwani in Indira Nagar, where I grew up, attract good musicians and a younger crowd. Some central venues like the Rani Seethai hall and Kamarajar Arangam, where the “Chennaiyil Thiruvaiyaru” festival will be held, have gained strength in terms of their offerings.
Where to stay
In terms of location, the old Chola Sheraton, now called My Fortune, on Cathedral Road, is walking distance from the Music Academy. Hotel Maris and Hotel Savera are also close by. Another chic choice is The Park, Chennai, which is down the road and within walking distance if the moon is shining and the weather, cool. Chennai has some great new hotels such as the Hyatt Regency, ITC Grand Chola, Park Hyatt and The Leela, but these are not close to the performance venues.
Specific dates
If you want to see both music and dance, fly into Chennai on 27 December. You will get three days of music. For a break, visit the Ramana Ashram in Thiruvannamalai, where you can stay at the Sparsa resort. Or drive 3 hours to Puducherry for an Indo-French experience at any of the number of boutique hotels there. I’ve stayed at The Promenade, Le Dupleix, Maison Perumal, The Dune, L’Escale, and De l’Orient and can recommend them. Stay a couple of days outside Chennai and get back into the city on 2 January for the dance performances.
Which artist?
These are my favourites. The sweet-voiced sisters, Ranjani-Gayathri; the diva, Sudha Ragunathan; the singer who has a phenomenal musical pedigree, Nithyashree Mahadevan; ditto for Abhishek Raghuram; the maverick T.M. Krishna; the classicists Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Vijay Siva; Aruna Sairam who, popularized abhangs; Bombay Jayashri, nominated for an Oscar.
Who am I leaving out? This year it may be time to patronize rising stars such as Nisha Rajagopal, Amritha Murali, Pantula Rama, Sikkil Gurucharan, Sreevalsan Menon and Gayathri Veeraraghavan.
Rest assured that no matter who it is, they will be good. They have to—in order to reach this level. While Chennai music connoisseurs mark their years by the nagomomu that Balamurali Krishna sang at the Narada Gana Sabha in 1972 as compared to that young firebrand, T.N.Seshagopalan, who sings it too fast for the abheri to flower, the company of these musicians—for you and I—will be enough.

Shoba Narayan is paying attention to Ramakrishnan Murthy from California, viewed by her connoisseur friends as a promising talent in Carnatic music.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Performance Art

Classical and folk dances are the best way to connect to your culture– my view.

Why a dance is worth a thousand words
Seeing dance from an audience perspective is one thing. Doing it is another pleasure entirely

One of the most stunning performance pieces that I saw this year was by actor Jyoti Dogra who used her India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) grant to create a piece called Notes on Chai. The piece had no accompaniments, music or props. It was just one woman—Dogra—on stage in a black costume. She began by making these weird sounds and nasal noises and moving in a fluid non-rhythmic fashion. Not another pretentious performer attempting to be an Indian Martha Graham or Twyla Tharp, I thought. After a minute of moving through the stage, Dogra stopped, held a pose, and transformed into a small-town girl from, say Raichur, and spoke in a breathy little girl’s voice. “My father, you know, wanted me to get married, and I said, ki, Papa, not now….” These aren’t her actual dialogues but they fit. Throughout the nearly 2-hour performance, Dogra transformed herself into multiple characters, including an old man. It was a unique and uniquely Indian approach to theatre and it showed a speechless audience the power of a live performance.

For someone who makes a living through words, I am acutely aware of their limitations. Words—save poetry, perhaps—attempt to address the visceral, intellectual part of our brains. We clarify, analyse and explain using words. As a tool for communication, words are both ubiquitous and occasionally ineffectual.

Dance and music, on the other hand, touch the deepest parts of our selves; the parts that developed before humans invented words and had to rely on gesture and gaze to get their point across. The performing arts burrow deep into our souls towards those points—call them chakras or neurons—that are beyond analysis or articulation. They do the thing art does best: they change how you feel.

Occasionally, gifted dancers use both words and dance to explain ideas to laymen. Many months ago, I was a guest at a unique, inventive event called the Bee Festival at the Hyatt Regency in Chennai. The event, organized by cultural impresario Rajiv Sethi, brought together the country’s top artistes such as Bharatanatyam danseuse Malavika Sarukkai and Odissi dancers Rekha Tandon and Sonal Mansingh on one stage. A highlight was Mansingh’s virtuoso demonstration of the bee or bhramara, as it appeared in Indian poetry and mythology. Using a mix of words, gestures and evocative dance, she bought these humble insects to beautiful life, and taught a lay audience the idioms and gestures of classical dance.

My recent intersection with dance comes through my daughter who has learned it for many years. She began with Bharatanatyam and then switched to Kathak. Through her teachers and her peers, I have come in contact with this special ecosystem of teachers and dancers that is present in every Indian city and town. Delhi is home to Kathak greats like Aditi Mangaldas, who refused the Sangeet Natak Akademi award earlier this year because it was given to her for her work in creative and experimental dance rather than in Kathak. In a fascinating debate on the online forum of Narthaki.com, Mangaldas and gurus from the Kathak Kendra (a constituent unit of the Sangeet Natak Akademi), in Delhi, went back and forth about Kathak’s relevance, context, costume and meaning.

Dancers have taken two paths to making their art relevant in today’s world. Some like Anita Ratnam have transformed and contemporized the dance forms that they were trained in (Bharatanatyam in Ratnam’s case). Others like Bharatanatyam dancer Priyadarsini Govind seek to stage events such as Govind’s recent collaboration with Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna as a way to draw in audiences. Best of all, in my view is to follow the path of Mangaldas and Mansingh, which has been to teach the idiom of dance to a lay audience without diluting it. As dancer Akram Khan said once, in order to transform tradition, you have to dig deep into it.

Documentaries help illustrate the thoughts and processes behind dance. A terrific blog in this area is Cinemanrityagharana.blogspot.in, which connects dance, cinema, and heritage. A more recent one is a documentary film by Pakistani journalist Sonya Fatah and her husband, film-maker-journalist Rajiv Rao. The documentary, I, Dance, portrays dance in Pakistan predominantly through the prism of Sheema Kermani, one of Pakistan’s few classical dancers. Created with a grant from the IFA, this documentary portrays the women dancers, “who dared to defy the social, political and legal code for the performing arts”. I heard about the documentary from economist Surendra L. Rao, and his wife Geetha Rao, a textile expert. Rajiv Rao is their son. I must add that even though I have mentioned the IFA twice in this piece, I have no connection to—and agenda for—this organization.

Dance, they say, comes naturally to children. It is what we do to express ourselves. Sometimes, when that expression gets suppressed you have to fight for it. As Kermani says in the documentary, “The biggest victims of the Islamization were women and the arts, especially dance.”

Those of us in India are lucky to be able to dance in public. We should try it sometime. Seeing dance from an audience perspective is one thing. Doing it is another pleasure entirely.

Shoba Narayan learned about the Ashta-Nayikas or eight heroines depicting eight moods from Sonal Mansingh in Chennai.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Why we dance?

I have become interested in dancing recently, perhaps because I have been doing it. This November 17th is Pournami or full moon day. Planning a folk dance in my building similar to what is described below.

Add a new ingredient to festivities: dance
Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face
Shoba Narayan

It was at Devi Garh resort in Delwara, Rajasthan, that I got my first inkling of how Indian festivals should be celebrated. I was there in October, during Navratri. My room was on the highest floor. Every night, I could see groups of women dance on the terraces of the village nearby. They were dressed in red and gold and although I could barely hear the music, I could see them dance.

Growing up in Chennai, I had a rather poor view of Hindu festivals, save Deepavali (as Diwali is called in south India). Whether it was Ganesh Chaturthi, Ram Navami, or Karthigai Deepam, the focus was on eating the same old sweets, and visiting the same old neighbours, who you saw everyday anyway. There were long rituals and pujas which, for a child, offered little joy. Now, I realize the key difference between festivals in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere: dance.

In Chennai, we didn’t dance. Not at weddings; and certainly not during festivals. Tamil Nadu has a rich tradition of folk dances but somehow they didn’t happen in an urban setting: not in Chennai where I grew up; not in Coimbatore where my grandparents lived; and not in Salem or Madurai. When we gathered in groups, we mostly gossiped and eyed each other’s jewellery. Dance, we didn’t. I learned Tamil folk dances at school, when we performed them for “Annual Day” celebrations. Kolattam (literally meaning stick-dance) is similar to the dandiya; and kummi or gummi is like the garba. One lovely version is called pinnal kolattam, and it involves intricate steps. Pinnal means braid in Tamil. The women stood in a circle. Long pieces of rope hung from the ceiling. The women held a piece of the rope and danced in a way that the hanging coloured ropes were braided and then unbraided by the end of the dance. But these were dances that I saw on stage, not on the street.

How do Indians celebrate festivals like Dussehra, Deepavali and—just ahead—Christmas? If I had to pick one factor that makes our celebrations distinct from other cultures, it would be dance. I don’t mean the Bollywood remixes that we dance to in nightclubs. I don’t even mean Kathak, Bharatanatyam and other classical dances that energize and elevate our performing arts. I mean local folk dances that are native, unique and regional—whether it is the Assamese bihu; Rajasthan’s ghoomar; Madhya Pradesh’s matki dance with an earthen pot balanced on the head; Maharashtra’s very sexy lavani dance; Manipur’s dhol cholom in which the drum plays a key role; Odisha’s baagh naach which takes its cues from the tiger; Punjab’s kikkli which requires more skill and looks more interesting than the bhangra; and West Bengal’s gambhira, which is performed by Hindus and Muslims, all clad in lungis.

Have these dances disappeared, or are they merely absent in the urban environment? Will they disappear as India rushes towards urbanization and is that a bad thing? I have a theory for why these dances aren’t common in our cities. Group dances involve community; they involve meeting and dancing face to face. That is hard to do for us city-dwellers. This festive season, my building in urban Bangalore decided to do Indian folk dances rather than the usual Western music and beats. Although we chose common and popular ones such as a diya dance for Deepavali and the garba for Navratri, what a challenge it was to pull off. South Indians like me didn’t know the steps intuitively so it involved rehearsals before the big day. Coordinating schedules was a pain. No wonder people send out texts and emails in lieu of greetings. Hugging a friend in person and wishing them is incredibly satisfying but also logistically hard.

Dipping my feet—quite literally—into the folk dances of India taught me many things. Cultures use their bodies differently with music. Discovering why it is a fascinating exercise. Why do the Chinese and Japanese move their bodies slowly to sonorous music and why do the Scots jump, hop and skip? How do circular body movements mutate through countries and cultures. Indians, Africans and Arabs all are masters at whirling round and round, but we each use this movement quite differently. Africans squat slightly and use only the pelvic area. I once watched a dance group perform at MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa. They were hired from the local village for entertaining tourists. Their pelvic area seemed to have a life of its own, moving faster and faster with the beat. The rest of us tried it but even the trained ballet dancer among us couldn’t do it with any grace. Yet, the African whirl is quite different from the sensual belly-dancing whirl of the Arabs. They both use their hips but differently. Indians whirl too—in Kathak and in folk dances—but our whirls are more like the Sufi dancers and the whirling dervishes of Turkey and through the Silk Route.

This Deepavali season, along with the festivity, there was a bit of soul searching about how to celebrate our Indian festivals. This could well apply to the coming Christmas holiday. Are we going to be more eco-friendly? Are we going to splurge on ourselves or give to charity instead? Are we going to follow our over-the-top instincts that seek to keep up with the Joneses (or Agarwals and Chaddhas) or are we going to introspect a bit? For all those who are doing this, I have one more suggestion and request: dance a little. Not just at nightclubs which is fine and wonderful, but also at home, within your community and your building complexes. It takes a bit of work, but the effects are magical. To dance in a group is to learn how to express and communicate without words. It is joyous and soul-satisfying.

Shoba Narayan is looking to Goa and Kerala to see if there are any folk dances that are suitable for the coming Christmas holiday season.