“I didn’t want to be a ‘half-woman’ in my art”, says dancer Dr. Anita Ratnam

She was always the unhappy girlfriend or wife. That was not the kind of woman I wanted to be. I had left an unhappy marriage with two very young children to remake my own life. I did not want to revert to some sort of “half-woman” in my art. 

“I didn’t want to be a ‘half-woman’ in my art”, says dancer Dr. Anita Ratnam

Dr. Anita Ratnam

Dance is an art that needs hard work and dedication and a dancer is the one who, with complete devotion shows their creativity through their dance. Everyone can dance, no doubt, but only a few get those extra moves to present the story beautifully and catch the eye roll. Dr. Anita Ratnam, a Contemporary  Dance Actor, and an independent mother of two has proved to the world that she is born to dance. Sharing her experience and journey with us, she also shared her views on new emerging trends in the world of dance. Excerpts:

1. What was the whole idea behind finding Narthaki?

Ans: The idea for NARTHAKI came when I was working at a television company in New York. During my stay, I first started with the dancer’s directory. And my dream came true through a phone call from American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). They were headed to India for extensive coverage of Rajiv Gandhi’s election campaign.

Rajiv Gandhi was widely expected to win and alongside the political stories, they also wanted to do some cultural coverage. Though one of the people they were interested in was Delhi-based, Yamini Krishnamurthi and to reach out to her they contacted me as in the year 1990, there wasn’t any access to emails. They called me because I had the only television company from India in New York City.


I too did not have Yamini ji’s contact but I called my aunt who lived in New Delhi and within 24 hours she got the number and called me back with the information. I passed it on to ABC. That incident got me thinking about why it is that the phone number of one of India’s most iconic dance artists was not available at our embassies and consulates.

Why not create a phone book of dancers? And that is how the first edition evolved. A hardbound book with 1000 names was released in 1992. The second edition with 4000 names was released in 1997. By then, e-mails had started in India. Landline phone numbers were changing from 5 digits to 8 digits.

In April 2000 NARTHAKI was born online. The digital avatar of the address book. We now had nearly 5000 names of dancers, institutions, organizations, dance costume tailors, ornament makers, instrument makers and so many contacts that were connected to dance. We loaded them all online and made them free for the public.

As a choreographer and performer, I have made the long journey from a classical dancer in Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, and Kathakali to the meditative arts like Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. I have learned martial arts like Kalaripayettu and have integrated the movement vocabularies into my own style which I have named NEO BHARATAM. The switch from classical to contemporary did not happen overnight.

2. What inspired you to become a classical dancer(any event, family legacy)?

Ans: I know that I would not have been introduced to dance if my mother had not been forbidden to learn dance. She loved the form but her father had strictly forbidden her to learn Bharatanatyam. She took a vow that if she had a daughter that she would present the opportunity to her. I loved to perform in front of my friends and family members. As the firstborn, I was naturally outgoing and not shy of people. My mother knew that I would take the form. I think now that I was destined to be a dancer. A performer, on stage, and not via another medium.

3. Would you like to explain your journey throughout as an artist??

Ans: My discomfort with the classical format was not with the form but the content. I had learned in a certain way – KALAKSHETRA STYLE- from my gurus, such as Adyar K Lakshman and Neila Sathyalingam. The classical dance performances were soaked in BHAKTI but the heroine in the performance was always in some kind of sad longing. She was never content or satisfied. She was always the unhappy girlfriend or wife. That was not the kind of woman I wanted to be. I had left an unhappy marriage with two very young children to remake my own life. I did not want to revert to some sort of “half-woman” in my art. 

And so to align my life and my art together, I had to stop being a classical dancer only and find my own ways to move and interpret further what I had within. I had to look for new material to dance to. I had to seek collaborators to work with dance movements, stage design, music, costume, and direction. The initial attempts were clumsy and awkward.

I had a well-trained body but I was not sure of the direction to head. The critics were cautious and not convinced. I had built an excellent reputation as a Bharatanatyam dancer until I left for the USA in 1975.

More than 100 dancers have worked with me and have learned several techniques that they can apply to their own practice or when they work with other groups. 

4. What challenges did you face after starting Narthaki and bringing it on social media? How did you deal with the pandemic?

Ans: The pandemic was a turning point for NARTHAKI. From being an aggregator of news and dance information around the world, we became producers and curators of original digital content. When the world was in total lockdown and dancers had no avenue to perform, we created an award-winning idea called BOXED where we selected contemporary dancers and asked them to film themselves on phone cameras. They were requested to choose one location of their homes – sofa, dining table, bathroom, bedroom, corridor, staircase- and make a 2-minute video. BOXED became a global hit. We won several awards and the series has been cited as one of the most innovative digital dance ideas during the pandemic. 

NARTHAKI has had its share of cynics and critics. We have been hacked not once but twice. Dancers who were not featured have unfriended me on Facebook. Those who did not get flattering reviews send me nasty messages through anonymous handles. These were all expected. What we say PAR FOR THE COURSE. If one sets off in a new direction without any prior leadership, then they are actually hacking through thorns to create a new path.

NARTHAKI and my own life as an artist have shaped that kind of pathway. A different way of thinking and an approach towards how the dancer fits into this chaotic and fast-moving world of today where technology dictates so much of how we lead our lives. 

We continued to create and present numerous ideas over the past two years. Over 200 dancers have appeared via NARTHAKI and many unknown talents have been discovered.

5. According to you, what are the most important traits a dancer should have? 

Ans: Motivation, practice, and discipline are the main traits dancers must carry within themselves. Also, a 360-degree optic for dance creation, choreographic process, stage management, time management, costume, and lighting design is very important. Today a dancer needs to equip herself/himself with much more than merely the technique and practice.

6. Explain the motive behind neonarthaki.com? 

Ans: We are mainly women-driven but not exclusively. NEO NARTHAKI is a
sister idea that was created in 2020 because we needed the younger generation of dancers, especially in the diaspora, to have a voice. The LGBTQIA+ community in the live arts needed a platform to express their views and space for discussion or debate was not readily available. The arts have always embraced difference and diversity and that is what NEO NARTHAKI has looked to amplify. The demographic is a younger, more diverse, and highly opinionated sector. They are looking for much more than just gurus and items.

7. What are your views on the new emerging term ‘streeto-classical’ in the world of dance?

Ans: These are all terms given to emerging styles. When HIP HOP started it was on the streets of HARLEM in New York. It was a fringe style but it is now mainstream pop culture.  India’s youth has so much vitality and creativity that we will always find a juggaad-way of doing things. I do not like to criticize any form of dance expression. Styles and names will change and continue, what endures is what is excellent.

8. What are the major changes that have taken place in classical dance since the old days?

Ans: The learning methodology has changed. Students are eager to perform the moment they join a dance class. Parents are participating more and more in their children’s creative life. When I was learning, group dance was not the fashion and so we have to earn our own reputation only via solo dancing. Nowadays, students just after completing their debut on-stage performance – ARANGETRAM get a chance to be on stage with their gurus, which is such a bonus for the young dancers.

With too many dancers and too many badly trained teachers, we are seeing a lowering of standards across the board. The cost of being a performing dancer is too high. The business model has to evolve. But then why do we learn the art if we are not willing to dance and share our art? This is a dilemma since the state or individuals do not have the same respect for classical and committed dancers as they used to have 30 years ago.  It is a new India and a new world. One has to be nimble, flexible, adaptable, and ready for change. If not, change will overtake you.

9. With the advent of satellite television, Bollywood cinema, and American pop culture, some of the precious indigenous dances are dying out. So what are your thoughts on this?

Ans: Cinema is a huge influence. It will always be there. Dance competitions on Television are also a good way for classical dance to be popularised. However, there is no substitute for the basic learning methods for at least 5 to 7 years. Once you have learned any style of classical dance, then Bollywood dance is easy to pick up. Both will co-exist with more and more young people using hybrid styles and techniques to express themselves. We must wait and see what evolves instead of criticizing them.