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American Carnatic, Chilean Odissi


For 90 minutes on the night of June 21, at a 13th-century abbey in Aix de Provence, South of France, which once housed monks who sang a capella, 500 people sat mesmerised through a performance by Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan. She was singing at the opening of what is regarded as one of the most vibrant music festivals in the world. Apart from India, there were performers from Lebanon, Switzerland, Spain, and several other countries. The audience, though essentially French, was drawn from various parts of the country, with people having either driven or flown in to Aix de Provence to soak in the sounds of music.

When the concert ended, for a full five minutes, the abbey resounded to a standing ovation. "It was amazing how almost everyone, and mind you, not exactly knowing or following the music I sing, literally had red noses and flushed faces, " Raghunathan says. "Among the many who walked up to the stage to congratulate me and just hold my hand and tell me how much they loved the music, there was an old woman who said, 'I was in heaven;why did you stop singing?'"
Every artiste aspires to elevate. When that moment of truth occurs in a setting far removed from the context where the music belongs, it's proof, if proof were needed, that music really has no barriers. This is perhaps among the many reasons that artistes in India have enjoyed international tours. "Honestly, where or who I'm performing for matters only until I begin to sing, " Raghunathan, who lives in Chennai, explains. "After that, I'm on a trip of my own. From my perspective, every concert is a challenge, an adventure. I have a responsibility to carry it through and let it reach its final destination. "

Now that the summer is over, many musicians and dancers have either just got home from the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand or have headed off to new shores to present their work.

Anita Ratnam, who wears many hats - dancer, choreographer, curator, organiser, activist, and academic - flew to Santiago, Chile, to participate in a ten-day conference organised by Oxford University. A round table focused on the intersection of mythology, religion and the performing arts, Ratnam says a conference of this kind is really up her artistic alley. "I must clarify that unlike many artistes who do the US and Europe tours, organised by Indian organisers for Indian audiences abroad, I'm not confronted by the need to project India or Indianness, so to say, " she says. "I'm looking for audiences who are keen to look at the work and its essence. " Her performing venues are also determined by her particular interest and points of view on the performing arts. Ratnam is a regular at universities, museums and other non-formal performing spaces. A few months ago, at the Macquarie University in Sydney, a small group of 75 students of the Department of Liberal Arts sat around to watch her perform seven shorts pieces that extolled the concept of the Sacred Feminine - a two-hour talk and performance on the facets of the goddess and the woman. Ratnam finds these opportunities both "stimulating and liberating. I think the optic of my audience that largely comprises students with an interest in the arts, writers, painters, poets, dancers in their midcareers, is quite different. There's no discussion, for instance, on the form and its techniques and technicalities. They are really interested in the core of my work and what it is trying to communicate. " Another interesting development is the interest in Odissi. Search, for example, for 'Nrityagram, Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy' and the results indicate a growing global awareness of Odissi. On March 21, Brian Seibert, a New York Times journalist, reviewed Samhara, Nrityagram's first international collaboration with Sri Lanka's Chitrasena Dance Company which was performed at the Joyce Theatre, New York. The review titled - A Visitor Returns with Friends in Tow - opened with the sentence: 'New York has become accustomed to regular visits by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble...'

"It's true, " Lynne Fernandez, managing trustee, Nrityagram, says. "Over the last two decades, the awareness of Odissi abroad has increased dramatically. " Nrityagram can take credit for that. Among the first dance companies to perform on mainstream stages, its dancers are known to sparkle with precision. "We treat our audiences abroad exactly as we do our audiences here in India, " says Surupa Sen, acclaimed Odissi dancer and choreographer. "We live in a global world where people are more similar than before. That apart, most venues we perform at are used to presenting performers from all over the world. Our intent is to find ways to communicate what we do and to create and grow rasikas for this dance form. " Sujata Mohapatra, acclaimed Odissi dancer based in Bhubaneshwar and daughter-in-law of the renowned Kelucharan Mohapatra, notes that Odissi has earned a respectable following abroad. "People abroad love Odissi and appreciate its technique, graceful movements and the divinity within, " she says. A stickler for tradition, Mohapatra likes to make her work accessible to her audiences. "Sometimes, when I present a theme-based work or a mythological piece, I demonstrate a few body movements before I start my performance with the music. The idea is to make it as clear and communicable to audiences so they can enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the form. "

In the context of Bharatanatyam, Chennai dancer and choreographer Priyadarsini Govind has been doing her bit to promote and popularise this classical form of dance. With a firm foot in presenting the traditional margam (repertoire), Govind is taking a breather after a six-week tour in America and a ten-day tour in Italy. "Ninety per cent of my audiences in America are Indians who have made it their home, " she says, "But over the years, more and more Americans are watching Bharatanatyam with keenness. In general, audiences abroad are both informed and interested. "

In April this year, as part of the Erasing Borders Indian dance festival, Govind's performance at the Asia Society in New York earned her a review in the Star Ledger. Critic Robert Johnson described her dance as 'wonderfully expressive'. Rooted in her form, Govind recognises that the content of Bharatanatyam is entrenched in Hinduism and is essentially godcentric. "It's all about the presentation, " she says, "And therein lies the challenge. But I've observed that the non-Indian audiences who don't know the nuances of the dance are generally more open-minded;there's a curiosity to understand and appreciate. " In one of her concerts, she performed a Ninda Stuti, a comic composition where you poke fun at the very deity you praise. "Humour, I notice, always goes well in the West, " Govind says. "And I was really amazed how a local, American audience thoroughly enjoyed it. "

Other artistes, like Chennai's K N Shashikiran, who is known both for his artistic and organising abilities, like to tweak the content a little to make it more accessible to his audiences. "That doesn't mean I dilute the traditional in any way, " he clarifies. Back from a two-month performance tour in the United States where he packed in 22 concerts, three lecture demonstrations and three workshops, the Carnatic vocalist says that performing abroad is a huge challenge. At College Station, Texas, Shashikiran composed a pallavi (thematic line of a song in Carnatic music) in Raga Hamsadhwani in English. For a performance at a festival called Sarovar in Oakland, he composed a song called Sarovar in Raga Shuddha Dhanyasi.

He composes mid-air - on long-distance flights - because it's the one time he gets to catch his breath. "You see, with a back-to-back schedule like that, I am constantly on the move, " he says. "I'm in three different cities every week. " Fatigue then is a given? "Not really, " he says, "I enjoy it. " Ask Amrita Murali, a young classical vocalist in Chennai, who toured America this summer for 45 days and performed across 16 venues including a couple of universities, why she enjoys the buzz of travel and she says, "Concerts abroad, are usually about three hours. Sometimes, they may even be four. People drive long distances to come and listen to you;the atmosphere is great and generally audiences are very informed and disciplined. "

Classical vocalist T M Krishna's first foreign tour was to France in 1989 with his guru. "I didn't perform though, " he says. Almost four years later, Krishna visited Singapore and the Reunion Island to perform for a Ramayana production. "My first solo concert tour kick-started with South Africa in 1995. " Exactly a decade later, he toured the United States for three months and performed as many as 30 concerts.

Known for experimentation and innovation within the classical tradition, Krishna believes in singing the same music for every audience. "What you need to get used to is the fact that because they are not always familiar with the music we sing, their responses are very different. Therefore, as an artiste, you need to forget your expectations. If you ask me, that different response is what makes the experience so refreshing. "

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