‘Social media has turned us all into performers’: Anita Ratnam

At 65, dancer Anita Ratnam has embraced all the permutations of the online world and is creating a digital legacy

Seize the moment, tell your story. That’s the sentiment that’s driven veteran dancer Anita Ratnam for the last 30 years — first in her interaction with the internet and, more recently, social media platforms. “People unknown two years ago have become huge stars on social media, all because they have seized the moment. They are younger and more nimble, but that doesn’t mean that at any age we can’t continue to morph and use technology,” says the enthusiastic 65-year-old, one of the first to have a website way back in 1996. (Narthaki.com started off as a telephone directory with 1,000 names — an idea that took shape when the American Broadcasting Company couldn’t reach dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy, and Ratnam helped source her number.)

“Media and visibility are so democratised now. The towers and castles have all been demolished. So, why should I be sitting in one?” Having worked for 10 years in New York as a television producer, media was not new to her. Neither was imagining the camera to be her best friend.

Keeping things social

Ratnam took to social media “for myself — to stay sane, curious, centered and positive”. During the pandemic, it was a matter of jugaad. “I could not order lights. I was balancing my phone on a book stand and opening the curtains hoping for light on my face.”

Though her last stage performance was in Baroda in March 2020, she hasn’t missed dancing. “I feel I’ve performed so much. Digital media is performative. Whether we’re talking on Zoom or any kind of environment, we’ve all become performers because of this rectangle screen.”

Screengrabs of a few of Ratnam’s social media initiatives 

In the last two years, the producer in Ratnam has largely been at the helm of things. In April 2020, when the pandemic began, she hosted a month-long Facebook series of invited written pieces, called Pandemic Ponderings — where she asked creative people ‘What are you feeling?’ In May, she ran a live series called ‘Boxed’ on Instagram for over eight weekends, with five presentations every day. “We asked them to choose one place in their home they spent the most time in. Some chose the bathroom, the bathtub, kitchen, couch, or balcony. It helped them psychologically.” The digital series has been nominated for an award from UK-based Manch Arts, a virtual platform that promotes cross-arts events.

Since then, there’s been Taalam Talkies, a six-episode series on cinema and Bharatanatyam on YouTube; Devi Diaries, a series of dance commissions on Narthaki’s YouTube channel (she did two seasons in October 2020 and 2021, for 31 days, at 6 am and 6 pm — 62 original performances); and Andaal’s Garden, an original series produced during Margazhi 2020, and more.

Insta positive

  • Instagram outshines all other media, she insists. “Between Reels, Stories and IGTV, this platform has become the most effective place to mirror the distraction, shrunken attention spans, and insatiable appetite for the new.” Ratnam has completed nearly 100 talks on Insta Live. “I had less than 5,000 followers in March 2020. Now I have over 50,000. I’ve learnt how to use Reels; I think Insta is perfect for the way we feel now.”

Digital responsibility

Now, two years in, she is thinking about legacy. “I don’t run a school, I don’t have students. My entire legacy, as it is, is in the digital media.” In 30 years, Narthaki has collected “valuable information and the writings of well-known writers whose last writings are with us. It’s a huge responsibility”. She’s working with a consultancy “to look at how Narthaki can stay as a platform of value for the next three years. I don’t like to make five-year and 10-year plans because things are shifting so quickly”.

She also launched neonarthaki.com in August 2020 as a platform to address issues around dance that the main brand was not addressing. “It started with #metoo and the caste issue in dance, and went on to embrace diversity, identity, LGBTQI+, etc.”

Ratnam is looking forward to 2022. And it will be a hybrid approach. She’s part of an international storytelling festival in February, she’s accepted to act in a play in San Francisco. “I’m keeping myself open as to what I’m going to do — either offline or online.”

(Clockwise from left) Simran Sivakumar, Aditi Mangaldas, Bijayini Satpathy, and Mandeep Raikhy 

Peer talk

Ratnam on colleagues who have utilised social media in creative ways.

Bijayini Satpathy: invited us into her daily practice, preparations and relentless pursuit towards a perfectly articulate body.

Aditi Mangaldas: urged her dancers to create in isolation and posted videos of her non-stop exercise and fitness routines.

Mandeep Raikhy: used the lockdown to travel all over the country to examine what it means to be secular in India. He took a piece of white cloth on which he wrote ‘The secular project’ and used his own body to display it — wrapping it around it, dancing in it, sleeping on it.

Simran Sivakumar: used her Instagram handle to become an important influencer. She’s now sought after by Bose headphones, Dove Hair Care and other brands.

Birju Maharaj at the Purush conference in Chennai in 2013 

On Birju Maharaj

“I first met him [the dancer-composer passed away on January 17] in Mumbai in 1973, when he handed over an award by the Sur Singar Sansad for emerging dancers. Our paths crossed many times in New York, when I attended his performance, his workshop, and I was emcee for some special Government of India performances.

He had an amazing sense of humour. In the 80s, he created dances based on office files coming alive at night; he created a dance on cell phones and cross connections. He would have us in splits — this wonderfully talented man who came from a parampara [tradition] of hereditary artists [his father, grandfather, uncles were all legendary Kathak artists].

In 2013, when I organised Purush, a conference on male dancers, in Chennai, I presented him for the first [and the last time]. I didn’t want him to be a dancer, I wanted to show off his vocal skills, and the fact that he was an excellent percussionist. He sang thumri, ghazal khayyal, and he played the dhol, pakhawaj, and tabla. It was brilliant. There was only standing room in the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and he got more than a 10-minute standing ovation.

He was an artist who was open to any kind of collaboration. There are stories of him: visiting Balasaraswati’s house in Georgetown, watching her rehearse, and just taking the miridangam and playing. There was his generosity, curiosity and eternal childlike twinkle in his eye. He’s cast a very long shadow in the world of Kathak.”

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