Indian classical dance is traditionally performed solo. At least, until recently, when group choreography became a new way to show case it. The lone dancer performs on stage, and is the cynosure of all eyes. There is complete focus and pressure on the dancer, given that he or she is tirelessly dancing, all alone. But is the dancer really alone? Is the dancer really performing solo?

I have always been slightly reluctant to call Bharatanatyam a solo dance form. In my view, there are five performers at a classical dance recital. The dancer and his or her four accompanying musicians. So really, what we witness is a group performance. In some sense then, by calling the performance a ‘solo’, one arguably renders the musicians somewhat invisible and accords them a marginal status with which I do not quite agree.

This invisibility is puzzling to me because the musicians in a classical dance performance, whether present on stage or not, are indispensable! A ‘solo’ Bharatanatyam performance is not possible without a vocalist, a nattuvanar, a mridangam player, and a flutist or violinist. It is not as though Bharatanatyam can be traditionally performed to silence. Even if a dancer uses recorded music, a group effort has gone into making a recording of that kind possible.

The invisibility of the musicians is also odd because a ‘solo’ classical dance performance is in fact, an interaction between the dancer and the musicians. Dancers prefer their ‘own’ musicians because they have developed a rapport with each other, and understand one another on stage.

One often sees this in performance, as the musicians interact with the dancer – this interaction determines the pace and duration of pieces; it lengthens or shortens verses and sancharis. Moreover, a nod or a smile exchanged between a musician and dancer in performance gives the performance a completely different energy. Alternately, a lack of synchronisation between the dancer and musicians can compromise the quality of the dance performance. The dancer missing an aradhi or a musician singing the wrong line of the verse can throw the performance off course, and a keen rasika is sure to notice this disharmony.

Finally, any organizer that hires or invites a ‘solo’ dancer to perform insists and certainly prefers a ‘live orchestra’ rather than recorded music. So really, when organisers ask for a solo dance recital, they are asking for five people to perform.

For all of the reasons above, the relative invisibility of the musicians is bewildering. It goes without saying that malice or cruelty does not lie behind this. It is possibly just the way a classical dance performance has been viewed, evolved and understood for many years. We know that the musicians are required, but the main focus remains on the performing dancer – who is after all, dancing ‘solo’.

I only claim that the invisibility may cause a certain level of discomfort and asymmetry for the musicians as well as the dancer. First of all, the musicians are often well-known in their own right as performers. I feel they must then be given that measure of respect even when they are ‘accompanying’ dancers in a recital. Because they are sometimes not given that, we are faced with situations where audience members leave at the end of a recital before the musicians are even felicitated.

For dancers, the relative invisibility of musicians may have other repercussions, such as a musician, on account of being given subsidiary importance, may not put the requisite effort into the performance. Further, organizers, while demanding a ‘live orchestra’, don’t consider the performance a group performance and pay only enough to remunerate the dancer. The remuneration is almost never enough to meet the costs of four other performers.

Thus, it appears then that it is beneficial to everyone and good on all accounts to consider a ‘solo’ classical dance recital as a group performance.

Mail the writer at aranyanibhargav @gmail.com