Multi-faceted artiste in New Zealand creates a unique fusion of dances
By -Wenceslaus Anthony
Former Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam once said, “Dreams are not what you see in sleep, they are those which do not let you sleep.”
Despite his inspiring words, very few people have the courage and determination to make their dreams a reality, especially for those who are thousands of miles away, following one’s heart can be all the more challenging.
One such person who stands out from others by following her heart’s desire and artistic commitment is Ratna Venkat, an eminent Indian classical danseuse based in Auckland, New Zealand. She is trained and adept in the South Indian styles of Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, the North Indian style of Kathak, as well as regional folk dances such as Kavadi Attam and Lavni.
What’s interesting is that she was neither born nor brought up in India, but her love for traditional arts and culture is incredible.
“I was born and raised in Bahrain, and moved to New Zealand with my family in 1999. Though I have not lived in India, I never felt as though I was missing something, because the knowledge I received from my Gurus and guidance from my parents enabled me to understand, appreciate and connect to my Indian roots,” says Ratna.
Her dance training in Bharata Natyam (of Tamil Nadu) began in the State of Bahrain when she was four years old. She was later initiated into Kuchipudi (another classical dance from the states of Andhra Pradesh and the recently formed Telangana).
Ratna’s determination to simultaneously learn the histrionics of these two dance styles under the tutelage of her Gurus led to her highly successful graduation ceremony (‘Arangetram’) in Auckland in 2007.
Amidst the audience were the then New Zealand Governor-General Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, the then Prime Minister Helen Clark, several Ministers of the Crown, the then Auckland Mayor Dick Hubbard, the then Indian High Commissioner Kadakath Pathrose Ernest, art lovers and connoisseurs, business people and community leaders and other dignitaries.
The success of her Arangetram opened many doors, enabling her to travel around New Zealand and across the world, participating at major festivals, corporate events and private functions.
However, what sets her work apart are her creative fusion performances between her classical dances and other music traditions, be it East or West, and she has carved a niche for herself by collaborating with musicians from different music genres.
World of Fusion
Ratna’s foray into the world of fusion began in 2012, when she met the Auckland based band ‘Gurus of Groove.’ Her suggestion to collaborate with them seemed unusual in the first instance since the band had no previous connection with classical dancers and were focused on playing Hindi and Western melodies.
However, the band, convinced of their own need to diversify and add variety to their performances, agreed to change their tune.
“When I introduced this idea, they were a little uncertain as this was an entirely new concept. But after careful planning and countless rehearsals, we came together and inaugurated our fusion acts at the ‘Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards 2012’ in Auckland, at which the Guest of Honour was Hon Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
“The response was overwhelming! The audience just loved our innovation as most of them had not seen this kind of fusion before”, Ratna recounts.
Her collaboration with the band significantly changed people’s views about classical dance and since then, she has been receiving regular requests from many national and local government agencies, multinationals, large companies and cultural organisations to perform both traditional and fusion dances at their events. Following ‘Gurus of Groove’of which she is now the band’s featured dancer at the annual ‘Indian News link Indian Business Awards,’ she collaborated with ‘Idhayam,’ a Carnatic fusion group based in Wellington in 2014, and is a member of the newly formed ‘Sargam Fusion’ band in Auckland, comprising musicians from Carnatic, Hindustani and Western backgrounds.She has also worked with international artistes including an exclusive music-dance duet with Tabla maestro Avirbhav Verma in 2013.
Ratna’s dancing abilities led her to make her mark as a musician too, notably as ‘foot-bell percussionist’ thanks to her training in the Maharashtrian folk dance Lavni, and the North Indian classical dance, Kathak where footwork is the hallmark of these two styles.
Besides her outstanding dance work, Ratna is a talented writer and an orator, and holds a graduate BA degree with double majors in Linguistics and Asian Studies from Massey University, New Zealand. She is Editor of ‘Artlink’, a section that she runs in ‘Indian Newslink’, the oldest and largest circulated English fortnightly newspaper in New Zealand.
Some examples of her cross-cultural collaborative works include ‘Indo-American’ at the Mother Teresa Interfaith Committee (2013), ‘Indo-Oriental’ at the 103rd National Day of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Celebrations in Auckland (2014) and ‘Lavni-Jazz Rock’ at the ‘Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards’ (2014).
Mega Concert 2016
Apart from performing at a number of cities, events and concerts, Ratna is preparing for her new solo dance concert titled ‘Life in a Full Circle,’ scheduled to be held on April 9, 2016 at Dorothy Winstone Centre, Auckland Girls’ Grammar School in Auckland. The concert, supported by businesses from both sides of the Tasman, will be set to live music and dedicated to the art of Kuchipudi, focusing on the ‘Full Circle’ theme and reflecting on the dance’s past, present and future.
The show will also feature Ratna’s journey as a Kuchipudi dancer and the many life lessons that this art has taught her.
“By explaining the story behind each dance piece and sharing my thoughts with the audience, I hope to stir their minds to question their own beliefs and the journey they undertake in their lives,” she says.
Wenceslaus Anthony is the Chairman and Managing Director of WAML Group. He is also the Chairman, Multicultural New Zealand Business Advisory Board, which is sponsored by the New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils, Wellington, Chairman of the Mother Teresa Interfaith Committee and Chairperson of the Divine Retreat Centre of New Zealand.