If we want to know why dance music today is not all it used to be, there is a need to move beyond merely blaming the calibre of the musicians
“Geetam, VadyamtathaNrityam , thrayamSangeetamuchyate” (Song, instrument and dance together constitute music.)
— From Sangeetaratnakara of Sarangadeva
The central purpose of dance is the evocation of rasa. Both the performer and the spectator obtain rasanubhooti (the experience of rasa ) when song, instrumental music and dance coalesce into an emotive whole in a performance. Many people lament that such coalescence is missing today. Dance accompanists are often blamed for their lack of involvement in a performance. To me, this seems to be a rather simplistic explanation for a deeper problem.
It is true that dance and music have gradually moved away from each other over the last few decades. Particularly in the field of solo classical dance, there has been a steady rise of mediocrity.
Dance teachers, private dance academies and educational institutions with music and dance faculties must accept some responsibility for such a downslide. Public-funded cultural bodies have also played a major role in strengthening mediocrity. Ubiquitous groups of influential dance patrons, uninformed journalists of the print and electronic media, dance experts with dubious qualifications have also promoted mediocrity. From being a reserve of the choicest artists, the classical dance field has become a free-for-all playing field.
Some blame lies with the audience too. At times the print and electronic media tend to promote mediocre artistes whose successful brand image may be based more on good public relations, social networking and powerful connections rather than their intrinsic capabilities. By allowing their opinions and choices to be formed by media hype, the audience also strengthens mediocrity in the performing arts.
There are some core qualifications which are required for a dancer to attain artistic excellence. Dancers are expected to have a command over allied aspects like music, rhythm, literature and language. Only a dancer with command over every area of the art can draw out the best from the accompanying artistes. Sadly, most dancers don’t possess these qualifications, and for those few who do, the pursuit of rasanubhooti does not seem to be an important objective. Most dancers perform pre-choreographed pieces in exactly the same way on any number of occasions, and hence they instruct the accompanists to repeat the music score in the same manner. This curbs the natural enthusiasm of musicians to improvise while providing accompaniment. Many dancers do not understand the lyrics of the song they are dancing to and hence cannot guide the singer in enunciating the words correctly, resulting in the atrocious mispronunciations one hears frequently in dance concerts. There are innumerable dancers who recite jatis by rote but do not take the trouble of correcting points where they stray away from tala.
Some dancers get away by masking their inherent shortcomings with superficial presentational aspects. In short, some basic essentials in artistic standards are not met.
Classical dance is about the pursuit of excellence. It is also about artistic integrity. A dancer of quality and integrity must stand tall, not just on popularity charts, but in terms of having true knowledge of the chosen artistic idiom. Recognition, acceptance and remedy of inherent artistic lacunae are important steps towards that end.
Dance musicians mostly accompany dancers for financial back-up while pursuing their real ambition of eventually becoming solo concert artists. Nevertheless, these accompanists must be prepared to play a meaningful artistic role in a dance performance. For doing so, a greater rapport must emerge between dancer and accompanist. Unless that happens, there will be further distancing between dance and music, resulting in the death of rasanubhooti.
(The author is an eminent classical dancer, known for her mastery over Carnatic music, and a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, among other honours.)