A powerful conversation with Ms. Anita Ratnam, Dancer.

BACKGROUND

I was born Anita Rajyalakshmi. You must realise that in the 1950’s it was not usual for a Tamil girl to be named Anita. My father was very much in love with the actress Luigina Lollobrigida, so he wanted to name me Lolita, but my mother stepped in and said that they can’t have a child named Lolita so I shall be called Anita. I was born in Ambala and raised in Madras, which is where all my family is from. I grew up in an era when the Beatles were huge, everyone was experimenting; my parents would go abroad and come home with bright psychedelic bell-bottom pants that I remember I loved to wear. As a child I was never shy, I loved being the centre of attention and hearing the sound of applause after I would perform for all my parents’ friends. I didn’t know what all that meant, except that I had to be really good so that people would notice me; so I excelled in academics, dramatics, and sports and was initiated into classical dance and music at a very early age. I never imagined that I would be a professional artist; I only imagined that a wonderful, handsome stranger dressed in shining armour would sweep me off my feet like in the romance novels I enjoyed reading. Well, life turned out to be very different.

I had an arranged marriage when I was 21 and moved to America. I thought America was the country to go to but in the 70’s everybody was still sort of finding their way—it was not the America that people know today. I got married too young; I think that women and men should think about marriage carefully and maturely, probably at the age of 27. Everybody thinks that once you get married there comes a happily every after; and even through bad times you must somehow manage and push through. That is not entirely true.

After my marriage didn’t work, I decided to come back to India with my two children. I was 30 at the time, my daughter was a few years old and my son was 6 weeks old. All I wanted was to leave that toxic environment, and for my children to be safe. I wanted to be in a place where I could literally cocoon myself. You can only really do that in your mother’s house, so I came back home to Chennai where my children and I have family.

While I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do. I knew that I did not want to get married again and that I did not want to go back to being the kind of dancer I was before I left India (which was an obedient student to my guru and a classical dancer that looked like an apsara). I had to find a way through which I could express, in my dance, the woman I had become through my struggles—from being alone in New York, sleeping in my car, losing my friends after my marriage went sour, questioning my survival…and then the night ends and the morning comes. Only when you are knocked off track do you truly value life, the breath you take, every moment, and then you reflect on what is really worth it. I went through a process of rebuilding through which I realised that the most important person in the world is myself and if I didn’t see myself from within and regard myself as a complete whole, I could never be a good parent, daughter or sibling.

ROLE MODELS

My role models were within my family. My mother was a beautiful and a fashionable woman; she wore organzas and embroidered saris in a conservative Tamil Brahmin community and even wore shorts to play tennis in the 60’s. On the other hand, I have a great-grandmother who wore a whole-nine-yards sari to play tennis at the Lady Willingdon club; I also have another ancestor who helped Sri Aurobindo found Auroville. So I’ve got heroes within my family and didn’t really look up to any celebrities while growing up.

I always tell young people to go discover the stories within their families, especially by talking to the women. I think older Indian women are amazing; the stories they know to tell, the way they have lived. My grandmother taught herself to read and write English. She was married at 12, became a mother at 14, she had my mother when she was 16; it’s incredible how gracefully that generation has aged, especially considering the hardships they faced. The current generations have faced nothing in comparison, and still the suicide rates are on the rise. I think it’s all because of our weak minds. In this day and age, we find too many escape routes and excuses, and convince ourselves that we can’t handle hardship.

MENOPAUSE

Women have something called menopause, which is a natural biological change. Men also have menopause but don’t realize it. When men suddenly get cranky, and their hair starts falling or they discard their wives and get younger girlfriends—that is male menopause. I never had severe menopause problems because I controlled it with yoga and my state of mind.

FAILURE

My mother would always say: you are not sugar and salt to melt in the rain. I believe in being strong, but I also believe that you should pick your battles and know which fight to let go. I have learned that with time.

Failure and hardship have moulded my character and have given rise to great inner strength. I have tried to use the setbacks in my life as opportunities, and I believe that one must look at failure in the same way. If we look at failure as a door to something, we will be more prepared for the adventure that life is.

I think that too many people today are focused on economically oriented goals—a certain number, a certain lifestyle, a certain status; but for those of us who are dreaming different dreams where the initial passion to want to do something isn’t money-inspired, those spirits should be encouraged. I wish more parents would recognize the dreamers in their children and encourage some dreaming, instead of telling these dreamers that they will turn out poor, useless and not marriage-worthy. In history, the greatest of people have succeeded only after failure; most often these people were called mad to dream the way they did. I encourage people to read biographies and autobiographies to get inspired and to see how failure leads to opportunity.

WELLNESS

My mother always preached wellness, which included working our bodies like machines. She was a yoga therapist and taught yoga to women who couldn’t conceive and those who suffered from thyroid problems. Infact I had severe asthma as a child, but therapeutic yoga cured me by the time I was 14 years, without any medication. My siblings and I grew up having no salt on certain days and fasts on others, liquid diets, castor oil therapy, oil massages, homeopathy and naturopathy. I remember drinking castor oil to clean our stomachs and using castor oil to clean and cool our eyes. We even had a vegetable garden at home along with 6 cows that gave us fresh milk every day…at this same house we are doing this interview! I am very fortunate to have grown up having fresh produce, an active lifestyle and a general sense of wellness.

ADVICE TO OTHER WOMEN

Virginia Woolf, the famous American writer, said that every woman needs a room of her own; not necessarily a physical room, but a space, a quiet space, away from everyone but yourself, where no one should be allowed to disturb you. If we advocate that space and allow people to enter, then it is our own fault. Being selfish for that space is necessary.

One of my favourite anecdotes is, Indian women are like Banyan Trees, spreading wide, putting down strong roots and having multifaceted branches. Men are like Ashoka Trees; they grow tall and straight— their main interests are their job, their career, their money, their lifestyle and their toys. I want women to be more like Ashoka Trees and men to be more like Banyan Trees because that is the only way there will be a balance. By priding ourselves on being able to do thousands of things at the same time, we cannot concentrate on one particular thing. We (women) tire ourselves so much by giving, giving, giving all the time, and we take no time for ourselves. I ensure I take time for myself so that I can be a better being to myself and in turn to my family.

I think one has to be very happy to be able to be alone. To be alone doesn’t mean you are lonely; there is a big difference. There is a lot of calmness and happiness in solitude.

BEAUTY

Another thing that I am grateful for is that my parents taught me to appreciate beauty and to want to be surrounded by beauty, not necessarily perfection. Sometimes an imperfect object with history or something that represents a memory is far more valuable than an object that appears perfect. I think everything has its place, including something sleek and modern. You can’t own every beautiful thing, so appreciate it if somebody else has something beautiful: a home, a piece of jewellery.

AGEING

I think ageing is a state of mind. I have earned the wrinkles on my face; each of them has a story to tell. At this stage of my life, this is who I am and this is what I look like. I am not an actress or a model where it seems essential to look like a perfectly photo-shopped unreal being; I do not want to be or represent that. I want to look and be real, both on stage and off stage.

HEALTH

Having been inculcated into an idea of health from a very early age, I have also been aware of the value of listening to my body. My body talks back to me, and I listen.

I am an early riser. I wake up at 5am no matter where I am and what time I went to bed. I wish more people woke up to enjoy the early hours of the morning, where there is a certain vibration in the air and when your thoughts are clearer.

I start my day with 5 minutes of Pranayam. Then I write 3 pages in my favorite journal. I don’t write to make sense and I don’t edit, I just write. It could be a dream I had, a thought, a feeling, anything. I have been doing this for 10 years now, and I find that it unclogs something in me.

I eat simple, clean, freshly made, home cooked food. I don’t store food in the fridge for more than 24 hours. I like to eat colourfully as that allows me to get a more varied range of nutrients. I enjoy fruit, egg whites or a whey protein shake for breakfast and eat small portions at least 6 times a day every 2-3 hours. If I’m home, I don’t eat past 6 PM; instead, I sip on hot water and allow my system to rest. I like to have a vegetable juice at least once a day and mix it up with Beetle leaves, Acai berries, Goji berries, Figs, Dates, Walnuts and Chia seeds. I limit my gluten consumption as I prefer rice-based products over wheat based products. I am careful about my dairy intake and prefer my coffee black. I also enjoy herbal teas There is a lovely tea plantation in Sri Lanka where I get fresh plucked tea leaves— my favourite is the French Vanilla and Rose. Sometimes I chill my tea and enjoy it iced. I also have lots of raw nuts, but not the salted or flavoured variety those are heavily processed. If I do have dried fruits, I ensure that I soak them in hot water for a few minutes to remove some of the sugar.

DETOX

It takes 3 minutes for the blood to circulate through your whole body, and it takes 3 days for your body to experience the effect of a detox. If you are on a detox plan, you must understand that it should be done consistently for at least 3 days to feel the benefits. You must also know how to come off the detox plan and not to go right back to your regular eating habits. The detox should be celebrated to truly enjoy it. When I am on a juice detox, I put my juice in a lovely glass and put the glass on a beautiful tray to make it aesthetically pleasing.

INDULGENCES

My favourite indulgences are spa massages, and sometimes even just mango pickle with thair sadam. After a performance when my chakras are buzzing and I can’t sleep, I indulge in a glass of red wine or some brandy, but to actually tune out my thoughts I watch television. Some of my current favorites are 24, Criminal Minds, Revenge and Scandal. Besides dance, I am passionate about music and cinema. When I am in New York, I could watch four films a day. I won’t tell anyone where I am, it will just be me and the movies. I recently watched Blue Jasmine and loved it.

FITNESS

I look at fitness as a part of life and not something that I must do only if I put on weight. I am a dancer, so even if I stop dancing professionally, I must always look like a dancer. That is a responsibility I have to myself. I like to exercise at least 4-5 days in a week, but I always mix it up. I have a personal trainer who comes home, we do circuit training and work on my core. Sometimes I run on the beach or swim at the club or cycle on my brother’s cycles (he is a fitness freak). My dance rehearsals also make for good cardio. If we all took up the responsibility to take care of ourselves, we would be a much healthier lot.

BATH

There is a lady named Usha in Adyar, who mixes different herbs to make shampoos and body washes. She is amazing. Sometimes I’ll also use Spa Ceylon’s Aloe shower gel. For my dry hair, I like Kiehl’s or Aveda products. I also really like Forest Essentials and L’occitane hand lotions.

SKIN CARE

I go to my facialist in Bombay once in three months. I change my moisturiser depending on the city I am travelling to and usually pick one up stuff from the airport’s duty-free. You know if you put pure ghee on your face and then splash your face with water about 50 times, what is left on your face is really the best moisturiser. I use sunscreen religiously and prefer Swiss and German brands.

MAKEUP

The makeup brands I tend to use and like are Shu Umera, Shiseido, Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani. I am currently using Giorgio Armani’s Maestro Foundation, which is fantastic. I also really like Shu Umera’s Lightbulb Foundation. I discovered a new brand called Youngblood that makes a great black gel eyeliner, which doesn’t budge or smudge even when you sweat. I am constantly looking for products that stay put so that I can use them when I dance. I think Kevin Aucoin makes great lipsticks and has lovely shades.

FRAGRANCE 

I have been using Issey Miyake fragrances for a long time now and love that they smell fresh. I also like Caroline Herrera’s 212. When I go to Auroville or Lucknow, I get small viles of the natural fragrance of Jasmine and Sandalwood. I like that I can travel with them and be reminded of home.

PARTING WORDS

My father used to say to me, “You got to be the first person on the moon because nobody remembers the name of the second.” We are all imperfect flawed beings, and I’ve tried to recognize my strengths and weaknesses so that I am able to camouflage my weakness and heighten my strengths.

I think to find true bliss you need to go on your own journey of self-discovery. Being one-half of a whole sounds very exciting when you’re young, but you need to be a whole on your own, accept your flaws and shine as bright as you possibly can. We need to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” because it is relevant to know the answer. Remember your geography is your history, understand yourself, understand your environment, understand where you come from; otherwise you will not be able to take your place on an international stage as a global citizen.

– as told to TBR

– Ms. Anita Ratnam photographed at her home, in June 2014 by Nithin Barath for TBR

– For more ‘powerful conversations’, click here- TALK

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