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Updated: December 30, 2010 12:45 IST

In their own voice - A dancer’s peek into performance spaces

Mythili Prakash
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Mythili Prakash. Photo: D. Krishnan
The Hindu
Mythili Prakash. Photo: D. Krishnan

Mythili Prakash, a young California-based dancer talks about the absence of professionalism in the performance space. Is it a worthy compromise of quality and dignity of presentation? Is the better choice quantity, at the cost of quality, she asks

The ‘season’ as it is known all around the world generates tons of excitement. And understandably, for it is collectively the largest and most extensive arts festival in the world.

I often wonder about the image this description conjures up in the minds of those who have not experienced it, and how far that is from reality. When one thinks of an arts festival, many things such as the following are assumed – selection of artists based on quality, a ticket-purchasing audience that sits in the theatre (not canteen!), proper introduction to artists, tech time allocated to each performing team for sound check and lights with a capable technical crew, clean stage (in this case, suitable for bare-foot dancing), well-maintained curtains/backdrop, hygienically-maintained dressing rooms, bathrooms and backstage and, (most ironically) payment that covers expenses, including one's own performance fee. Burning question: Why are these standards not maintained in our season? Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect some of the above, given the sheer number of performances in a venue on a given day, and the number of days that make up the season.

But is it a worthy compromise of quality and dignity of presentation? Is the better choice quantity, at the cost of quality?

If we could adopt better standards in our festival season, it would, without doubt, be the most formidable in the world. The solution, I believe, lies in the simple phrase, ‘less is more.' Let us first examine the performance space, itself. The backstage needs to be hygienically maintained. The stage ought to be well swept and clean. Importantly, a proper dancing floor is called for as opposed to many of the existing ones which are slippery and uneven – not merely distracting but dangerous for the dancer! Most of this lies in the hands of the organisers. They should, of course, be supported by a capable hired technical staff, ensuring for a smooth, well-running performance.

Now of course, if we expect high standards from their end, we cannot compromise our standard of performance. This seemingly obvious statement reflects a big struggle in the dance scene – getting enough rehearsal time with the musicians. The quality of the artists may be wonderful, yes, but the fact that two rehearsals prior to the show feels like a bonus is a little disconcerting. Isn't it “teamwork” rather than “accompaniment”? Why has it become the norm to manage with the bare minimum, rather than working to present our best?

Unfortunately, the neglect of ‘less is more' has trickled down to the quality of the audience. Attention spans have gotten shorter (I see it in myself too!). Thanks to the ‘kutcheri-hopping' phenomenon, members of the audience can rarely sit through a whole performance as there are millions of other things going on at the same time. The season is no doubt exciting, a buzz in the air, lots to do and see (and eat!). I love the opportunity it gives me to see and hear so much, and as a dancer – to work on and share new work from the margam repertoire. But it is the casualness in professionalism and aesthetics of presentation that really need to shape up. Of course it is unfair to compare closely our situation here to festivals abroad, in which artists are so well taken care of. But, some basic guidelines must be followed.

Performing artists need to be compensated properly. It is virtually impossible in the season that a dancer would be compensated enough to cover his/her costs. The orchestra is paid its fee no matter what (in some cases even the sabhas are paid!), but for the dancer to receive a performance fee is the least of all concerns. Organisers seem to believe that because we do it out of the sheer love for the art, it ceases to be a profession. How can artists be expected to survive? There is a reality to our profession – our love won't pay for our expenses. And if the organisers don't understand or respect our time and work, it is most disconcerting. We are serious about our art. We need to be taken seriously by our fellow artists, musicians, organisers, technical artists, and audience. Bottom line: If it is unfeasible for the organisers to compensate artists, then clearly it is unfeasible for the organisers to hold a performance festival.

The west has influenced cinema, music, food, clothing and lifestyle. But we have the undeniable upper hand when it comes to our amazing art forms. And the season is the perfect opportunity to celebrate this. Shouldn't we celebrate with sophistication? When will the level of professionalism that the art deserves creep its way into the season?

(Mythili Prakash is a young California-based Bharatanatyam dancer)

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When supply exceeds demands, audience dwindle. From a rasika's point of view too, it is overwhelming to stomach three or four concerts per day. The mind becomes a concoction of confused images and the rasa generated is a heady mixture which sometimes leaves the rasika with a massive hangover (a bad headache). But it is my guess that the sabhas make money --- 1. By not paying proper remuneration to the dancer and 2. By the sheer number of concerts they organize as opposed to attracting more audience to limited number concerts. I question, do established senior and junior dancers collectively boycott a sabha unless and until proper performance space and remuineration is paid? I highly doubt such a thing can ever happen. Sabhapatis do not care as long as they make some profit, majority of dancers do not care as long as they have a famous sabha name in their resume and most of the audience don't care --- if the dancer is uninteresting there is always the canteen and a AC hall to nap and gossip. So where does that leave a sincere rasika who hankers for rasotpathih despite paying a 300 rupee ticket?? Aranyarodanam!!

from:  Sumana
Posted on: Jan 4, 2011 at 21:51 IST

As for the 'kutcheri-hopping' phenomenon, it happens because there are so many substandard dancers who somehow get performance opportunities that many rasikas come, see the horror, and leave in hopes of finding something better. True, performing artists should be compensated properly if they were not merely amateurs putting on 'professional' airs - exactly what the sound engineers that Mythili complains about do. Indeed, where is 'that level of excellence that a ''test' would demand?' As Prof.A. Gopalakrishnan commented, these amateurs' 'performances are just meant for practical learning experience and so are neither commercial nor strictly stage meant for treating the Rasikas'. The amateurs' motivation is normally anything but 'the sheer love for the art'. And the orchestra is paid its fee no matter what because the musicians are usually far more professional than the dancers they accompany. I explained it in detail in my articles. I am sorry but the reason the sabhas charge the dancers and not the other way around is because the sabha managers don't believe that now the dancers 'are serious about our art'. I disagree with Varadha's comment that 'the state government is diametrically opposed to this Brahminical form of pursuit'. The government is just not interested in promoting some boring semi-classical pseudo-professional 'Bharatanatyam' . Movies are far more professionally made and are more interesting. Indeed, Mythili, isn't it the time we open the Natya Shastra and educate ourselves a bit?

from:  Ashwini Shankar
Posted on: Jan 1, 2011 at 20:02 IST

I can understand the reaction that some from India might have to this article as it is written by someone who grew up outside of India and is young. However, I think she is trying to say that the hubub is part of the excitement and she likes that too. She is also saying that yes, it is a test to dance in these various sabhas. The point is, though, if these venues are such a test and honor--why not really hold the venues up to the name they hold and hold the dancers up to that level of excellence that a ''test' would demand? I think what she is not talking from a place of criticism but that of pride in 'the season.' She appears to want to see the presentation quality be the best so that it's every performance is a treat to watch. When a dancer knows she/he is entering a professional venue--that urges the dancer to work harder and the audience to expect more (which is what they should always out of an artist). I don't know about the issue of compensation. But I agree with her call for excellence.

from:  A Dancer
Posted on: Dec 31, 2010 at 22:51 IST

The west has influenced cinema, music, food, clothing and lifestyle. But ..." It certainly has not influenced our etiquette! It is a uniform experience to watch the patrons walk in and out of a performance at will and people munching on chips is not uncommon. One can not THINK of such behavior at any concert hall in the West or in China or Taiwan. We have to be satisfied to think "We are like that Only".

from:  Vox Populi
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 18:47 IST

Dear Ms. Mythili: You are right on target with this issue. I live in the New York metro area for over 25 years and have had the good fortune to host leading artistes as well as arrange a few performances. Additionally, I am familiar with the Madras kutcheri circuit. The issue is primarily around 1. Too many sabhas participating in the season and hosting essentially the same artistes on different schedules, and 2. The concerntration of all major concerts in Chennai alone. The latter unfortunately is a structural issue as, outside of Chennai, perhaps Mumbai (Chembur and Matunga), New York or the Bay Area would be the only other places where there is a core Carnatic music follower base. It would make more sense to expand the music season to 2+ months, have corporate sponsors support groups of sabhas, or sponsor specific artistes globally. Several foundations in the US and arts councils of various US state governments sponsor symphonies. In the heartland of Carnatic music (Chennai and Thiruviyaru), the state government is diametrically opposed to this brahminical form of pursuit and portrays more the peripheral forms of carnatic music or mainstream theru-koothu or the movie industry. The private sector has the financial strength to address this and a few groups/individuals such as the TVS Group, Shiv Nadar, Shriram Group are stepping forward but this has to have a more structured approach - it can be achieved. Good luck and God Bless you.

from:  Varadha
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 18:36 IST

The perception that Bharathanatyam dancers are being exploited by organisers is wrong. The organisers mostly are approached by dancers or their Gurus not for an opportunity to exhibit their talent but to test themselves for performing on the stage. Most of the times the Gurus try to give such exposures to their students at regular intervals, just as an Annual Day fete in schools. The audience here are predominantly the friends and relations of the performers who may not qualify as Rasikas by strictest definitions. These performances are being event managed by the organizers. The organizers do not overcharge for these services for they do it simply for the love of the art.

It should be noted that these performers may not be prepared enough to take the knowledgeable Rasikas and the critics from the media. Therefore the organizers and also the media exhibit utmost restrain in reporting about these performances. These performances are done mostly in new spaces that are mostly auditorium spaces little used during the season in Schools and Colleges. These auditorium managers also thus learn the nuances of hosting classical performances and thus mature gradually as Sabhas for future. In total these performances are just meant for practical learning experience and so are neither commercial nor strictly stage meant for treating the Rasikas.

Prof.A.Gopalakrishnan

Ganamukundhapriya (Regd),
(Dedicated to Saastriya Sangeetham & Bharatha Natyam)
1/2, Ammaniammal street,
Mandaveli,
Chennai 600028.

Mobile: 9884581501

from:  Prof. A. Gopalakrishnan
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 17:27 IST

Rightly said/written. But is 'absence of professionalism' not applicable to most things 'Indian'?

Do we need a much improved level of professionalism and sophistication? The answer is obvious. Perhaps the artistic space where creative, educated, intellectual, self-driven people congregate would be a good place to start...

from:  Prakash Subramanian
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 17:00 IST

I don't think this article should have been here. A person, born and brought up in the states telling us that our music season would have more merit if the arrangements were more sophisticated? The hubbub is part of the culture, part of the thrill. Why was this published??

from:  Raghu
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 16:46 IST

Hi Mythili,

I agree totally with you. This is one season where we can show case a part of our vast culture and tradition to the world and make them look up to us. It's hightime we start thinking about providing good oppportunites, pay and Infrastructure to people as appropriate to the work that they do, may it be art or any other form.

Thanks for posting this.

from:  satt
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 15:46 IST

I fully understand your concerns, Mythili. And what you have mentioned is not just applicable for art festivals but to life in India as a whole.

I am living overseas for more than 10 years now and I must admit that India is far behind when it comes to quality. As you have mentioned, in India, people try to provide "the bare minimum". Two phrases in your last paragraph, viz., "sophistication" and "professionalism" are something Indians do not care for. These words are replaced with "compromise" and "do it somehow". It is really unfortunate.

from:  Sivakumar
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 14:26 IST

Excellent article,thanks to share this in facebook.

from:  Revathi kamath
Posted on: Dec 30, 2010 at 10:36 IST
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