The surfeit of dance performances during the Chennai season is not an indication that all's well with Bharatanatyam; for in truth, mediocrity is edging out merit, says Dhananjayan
The world's cultural capital, Chennai, is bubbling with Bharatanatyam events. However, one wonders whether merit still has a place in an ever-growing line-up of performers.
Performances take place in Chennai's sabhas, big and small, one after another, irrespective of whether there is an audience. The supply is more than the demand as far as the performing art of Bharatanatyam is concerned.
Every so-called festival is advertised as “talent promotion” or “youth festival.” This surfeit of events creates a pile-up of the most expensive and exotically produced invitation letters and brochures that eulogise even the most recent entrant. Arangetrams galore… Every teacher prefixes her or his name with the profound title of ‘guru' without realising the true meaning of the word.
The Bharatanatyam arena is catching up with commercial reality shows, which also claim to promote new talent. But the big question of whether we still turn out meritorious artistes remains.
Akin to a wedding, an entourage of parents, relatives, teachers and shishyas visiting the homes of eminent people to invite them personally for a performance, is also a frequent occurrence nowadays. Luring people with high tea and dinner after the performance is also rampant — compensating for true merit!
Marketing techniques are on the rise to promote individual artistes. Unlike bygone days, we do not have genuine patrons of the performing arts, with the necessary knowledge, interest and scholarship, to evaluate the merit of an artiste or even a sabha. Big corporate houses with little know-how fund organisations during arts festivals. The quality of the artistes is secondary to the mileage they could gain through advertisements and by presiding over inaugural functions. As far as actual performances are concerned, the funders either have no say, or nepotism prevails.
Consequently, a lot of mediocrity has crept in, devaluing the art and watering down the spirit of connoisseurs who attend Bharatanatyam performances in the city halls. I call them ‘halls,' because apart from Kalakshetra, the city does not have good theatres with the requisite ambience.
Pay and perform
As these myriad sabhas compete with each other to put up shows, the rate for aspiring performers is increasing by the day. Many of these aspirants are talented. Ambitious children and youngsters, with eager parents who wish to see them perform, will try to somehow wrangle a press review or have a photo published in the papers. Money power and influence count in getting superfluous write-ups published, which really does not help the artistes.
I have been advocating to some of the sabhas not to encourage amateurs, at least during the festival season. Though some sabhas don't give the neophytes opportunities, even the meritorious ones are reluctant to perform for the paltry sum offered by these organisations.
By today's scales, a professional can put up a Bharatanatyam performance for not less than Rs.25,000. This too depends on the accompanying musicians they engage. Here again, merit tends to take a back seat. There are few criteria for getting an opportunity to perform and the person who holds the organisation's reins often decides. This person may not have an iota of knowledge about the art or artiste.
Some of the established sabhas also give a step-motherly treatment to Bharatanatyam or other Natya traditions in comparison with Carnatic music and musicians. This is the feeling the artistes get when they approach sabhas for opportunities.
Sometimes, artistes, humiliated by the attitude of the sabha secretary or person in charge of programmes, forego their chance to perform.
The press reviews or reports are also often misleading, belying the selection criteria. Connoisseurs are bewildered by the superlative, rave reviews of mediocre performances with half-page blowups, totally disillusioning their knowledge and interest in the art.
Media houses serious about contributing to the performing arts must draw clear-cut criteria for previews and reviews.
All said and done, merit wins in the long run. But it is a slow process. Those artistes who cannot fight the present system should wait and move steadily and confidently, with faith in their merit.
There are no short cuts to success as true artistes. Every display of talent cannot be art. An artiste emerges when his performance touches the heart. This is a slow process, achieved through complete trust and reliance on merit.
(The author is a Bharatanatyam exponent and acharya.)