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Updated: December 13, 2011 19:12 IST

Supply side Bharatanatyam?

V.P. Dhananjayan
Comment (33)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

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.

Press reviews

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.)

A few years ago Shri VP Dhananjayan and his wife spent more than Rs. 20 crores to establish BHAASKARA academy of arts at his birthplace Payyanur in Kerala. They used to visit this academy every year during the summer to teach a "Naatya Gurukulam" camp. But, now the gorukulam has shut down. What went wrong? And why didn't they spend this Rs. 20 crores to set up a sabha in Chennai to promote young dancers?

from:  deepa
Posted on: Dec 16, 2011 at 15:33 IST

The article is unclear. If the distinguished acharya does not like every teacher to prefix her or his name with the profound title of ‘guru' without realising the true meaning of the word, how then the graduates at Kalakshetra often start teaching before they graduate? How can Kalakshetra graduates conduct "gurukula camps" if the founder of Kalakshetra herself was the first to do away with the traditional gurukula system? Or are these just marketing techniques?

from:  Jayanthi Ramachandran
Posted on: Dec 16, 2011 at 15:05 IST

The supply is surely more than the demand, but where is the "demand" coming from? What kind of audience is there? Entourage of parents, relatives, teachers and shishyas make up 99% of the audience. Are there any dance lovers left who come to these performances out of personal interest in Bharatanatyam? What is wrong with arangetrams galore and prefixing names with the profound title of ‘guru' without realising the true meaning of the word? Rukmini Devi Arundale started teaching her own Kalakshetra style after studying Bharatanatyam for 3 years. Why should any dance student today be less ambitious?What is wrong with the most expensive and exotically produced invitation letters and brochures? What is devaluing the art? If a guru from Chennai charges $3000 per unsuspecting student (anybody who has money can join) for a 10-day workshop/camp in Yogaville (USA), is it done with a noble purpose to churn out meritorious artistes or is it carried out with a different purpose?

from:  Parvati
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 20:08 IST

Dhananjayan sir rightly mentions that apart from the Kalakshetra the city does not have good theatres with the requisite ambience. Building the auditorium is undoubtedly a laudable achievement but it cannot replace such extremely rare things as a good araimandi or good laya. Rukmini Devi was one of those who started the "revival" of Bharatanatyam. However this "revival" was built on a quicksand foundation as she removed many elements of Bharatanatyam (e.g. Sringara-related movements of hips, neck, glances, etc. that we find in Alarmel Valli's Odissi-influenced style) that used to make it attractive for the audience and viable economically. Now, when dancers earn a living from teaching rather than from performing, we are seeing the standards fall. The audience is not needed.

from:  Ranjani
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 09:08 IST

Well whatever Sir has spoken here is true.May be there is no solution but i am sure good promising dancers can definitely be a crowd puller in spite of all odds...A.Soumya had mentioned that Sir is still performing...well though he performs he has always encouraged his students to perform along with him too...does it not make a big difference...it is always a great feeling to watch such doyens like C.V.Chandrasekar sir,Vyjayanthi mala bali,dhananjayan sir,radha aunty and many more perform.....we learn a lot by observing...is it not true????Never lose heart...keep trying till you succeed....

from:  Gayatri and Balagurunathan
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 21:23 IST

From the author's abstract ideas and vague allusions some readers may assume that this article is not based on solid facts but on gossip and rumours only. I request Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan to name a dozen or two of the meritorious bharatanatyam artistes (not the ones who are his own students) who were overlooked by the sabhas and by the media. What are the names of the people who can evaluate the merit of an artiste or even a sabha? Can the author give a few concrete examples when nepotism prevailed? Which are the superfluous write-ups published in newspapers, and how does Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan learnt that money power and influence were involved in particular cases? Before, Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan said he would limit his own performances during the festival season so as to encourage young entrants. Now he has changed his mind. What exactly has Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan done over the past 10 years to change the system he condemns?

from:  A.Sowmya
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 17:21 IST

K.T.Jagannathan voiced his opinion: "You have a number of PR agencies that have come up in the last ten years in India, especially since the post-liberalisation era. Their job is to get articles published and sometimes even fixed in newspapers. You can commission them for a fee. They would do all that . today, this intermediary (PR outfits) has virtually taken over the field of journalism. Your job lies in identify the right PR who has right network and ability to get things done. So, getting it over into the media is not that difficult these days. And, as you know, many artistes are efficiently doing it. In several cases, I have seen artistes themselves turning into good marketing guys"

from:  Chandrika M.
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 14:17 IST

Dancers mounting the stage after a couple of years training has definitely diluted the quality of bharathanatyam. But the waning of interest of rasikas is caused by lot more factors.All sorts of persons set up dance schools and promenade as gurus with a committment only to make money.To be in the market, they cultivate sabha officials.The dancers target is to get a review or two, and use them for canvassing in the marriage market.But I feel the present format of bharathanatyam fashioned 150 years ago is losing relevance. Bhakti is allright but nobody these days care much for god or bhakti. Solo dances on a huge stage look ridiculous.Craze for gaudy stage decoration and dancer's costumes are abominable.Since he has launched his mission, Dhananjayan should take a comprehensive platform to make bharathanatyam a relevant meabingful art for the current time..

from:  L.K.Balasubramanian
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 08:02 IST

It is absolutely true that "There are no short cuts to success as true
artistes".Everything depends on the performer's caliber,but again
performers of a high caliber need utmost efforts for years,which is
hardly found today. The only elements that are thought of first are
GLAMOUR AND MONEY and in addition developing PR's. The right kind of
training is not extended and every tom,dick and harry is entertained!
thanks to Dhananjayan sir for rising this issue, my sincere and kind
request to Dhananjayan sir to write more on this topic.

from:  gauri kashelikar
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 19:27 IST

i see nothing wrong with the prolifiration of new teachers and new students. bharatanatyam is now moving on to a different plane.

it must be noted here, for those who criticise NRI practises, that dhananjayan included, dance teachers go to usa for intense training and arrange an arangetram. why should the so called 'knowledgeable' folks find fault with this? is it jealousy or envy?

personally, i think, today's new crop of teachers, are democratizing the art, and taking it beyond the confines of the exclusivity of upper class tambrams, who themselves 70 or so years ago, usurped the art from the likes of devadasi community, and brought middle class 'respectability' and 'acceptance'.

if you need to know more on this, kindly read the story of Balasaraswati as enunciated by her son in law. a very poignant reading indeed...

Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life, by Douglas M. Knight Jr., Wesleyan University Press (June, 2010

from:  raja
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 18:51 IST

There is a reason for lack of expertise in Bharatnatyam. A top student very rarely gets encouraged to pursue the art as a profession.A friend of mine was one of 3 selected to pursue higher dance studies at the Kalakshetra. First discouraged by parents, then beaten down by a husband, this extremely talented dancer was on the verge of suicide. She separated from her husband, much to the discontent of her parents and by chance found a good husband who encouraged her to continue her talent. But now with two kids in tow, she really never had the time to put her talents to work at the high level required for a full time dancer. She is now training other young girls in a small town and is able to put her talent to this good use. I've seen her dance and she has the perfect form, face and grace in her movements to have been one of our top national dancers. What a shame that parents don't take this profession seriously Shame too that some great dancers have to give up dance after marriage!

from:  Angela alvares
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 12:57 IST

An analogous scenario is the path by which young artists in the West find access to prestigious avenues of performance. Carnegie Hall in New York is the iconic venue of note, and a debut performance there is considered essential to any artist's burgeoning career. Like most performance spaces, Carnegie CAN be hired, if one's pockets are deep enough. It is common for student orchestras/choirs from conservatories and universities to book a Carnegie performance to build their name recognition and status. The admissions materials of such schools will often brag that their students have "performed in Carnegie Hall."
The difference I see is that the New York Times would never NEVER review such a student performance (unless by an institution-like Julliard or Oberlin-whose reputation is already firmly assured). Indeed the NYTimes' OWN reputation is at stake. Such shortcuts to success are possible only if we buy into the deception. Alas, in a culture of "Branding," quality is easily overlooked.

from:  Cleveland
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 11:14 IST

It is very distressing to read through this article, particularly because such an renowned "Guru/Acharya" has offered no solution to the problems he has found.Even if mediocre people get a chance to perform (keeping in mind,its their money involved there),what is the problem there?when he knows clearly that merit alone can survive the long run.Attending any program in the city takes up huge amount of time with traffic for a family ,so if dinner is provided , what is wrong with that?Maybe Guruji is used to packed hall performances , but there are still lot of artists out there who are struggling to find audience for their show.How can you be so sure an amateur cannot bring a fresh theme to show ?For the art that has brought you fame& wealth when do you plan to build a good theater for the same like Rukmini Devi.If you can help by creating a Panel of experts who can evaluate an artist by their true merit, regardless of whose shisya they are or family.

from:  Sabi
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 10:23 IST

Sri. Dhanajayan lays out the bare facts that many may find unpalatable. The Carnatic music scene is not that much better either; probably even worse. Gone are the days and those artists who could sweep away the audience to another plane where space and time would disappear from their consciousness.

from:  V.R. Subramanyam
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 09:30 IST

Well said Dhananjeyan Anna. Now that NRI money has dictated much of the sabha programming, and the artistic fees are way below costs for a dancer, perhaps we should point a finger - not at the hapless and hardworking NRI's who see an opening via the pocketbook -but at the sabha curators/gatekeepers for squandering an opportunity to build on the historic legacy of the BEST OF THE BEST. Having said this, the state of Carnatic music is far better than that of dance.

from:  Anita Ratnam
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 08:31 IST

I totally agree with what Sri Dananjayan sir has mentioned.hope sabha secretaries realise and give chances to real good dancers after a test or some grade systems. like in carnatic music always the 'a' grade artist are the front liners. Like this sabhas should encourage only ‘A’ grade dancers to perform in prime time and others are given a slot like the up and coming artists in carnatic music. Demanding money from the dancers are not very healthy and sabhas should not encourage this kind of funding. The music season in Chennai is becoming dance season for NRI’s children who are ready to shed lot of money just for performing in Chennai season. because of this, good talents are shadowed and supressed

from:  Vijaya Venkatesh
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 00:41 IST

beautifully written. but when did chennai become the world's culture capital?

from:  amrita
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 23:38 IST

The issues are well brought out in the article. What is the solution? In fact reading a couple of other similar reports in The Hindu with similar points, the question arises, "are classical dances best left to the best few"? what other options do we have starting from such a proposal, thinking progressively there from?

from:  PriyaLasya
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 23:07 IST

I agree with every single word here. It has become very pathetic. Here locally you pay a fat sum and become member of a troupe for foreign shows. The money is paid to the travel agent, who perhaps takes care of the organizers and so called Guru. In recent years this has come down due to group visas and US embassy's vigilance. It was one of the best way to enter EU or US.

from:  Gautam
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 20:31 IST

It is really very heart warming to know that renowned Gurus like Dhananjayan sir are taking up the case to fight for 'Merit' Vs. 'Money and public relations'. In these days, when good artistes are losing hope because it seems that no one really cares for the standard of a performance, this article coming from the great Guru surely is a ray of hope. Ultimately,as the Guru says, though a slow process,complete trust and reliance on merit has to win the audiences...

from:  Divya Yeluri
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 20:29 IST

It would have been nice if Sri Dhanajayan had also discussed in his article the kind of arrangements his students are allowed to make for their arangetrams/performances providing a good starting point for the new generation gurus.

from:  Ranjani
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 19:56 IST

I am sure that The Hindu editors are of high moral standards and never allow to 'wrangle a press review or have a photo published in the papers'. There is no evidence that 'money power and influence count in getting superfluous write-ups published' in Friday Review. The Hindu has no other choice but to respond to Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan's statements about reviews/reports and refute his allegations by explaining how they select the artistes to be reviewed, and what quality criteria they follow.

from:  Ratipriya
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 19:42 IST

It is true that current dancers do not know the meaning of Rangapravesam/Arangetaram. They are under impression that they are fully ready to start dance school and teach others, missing the true meaning is 'Rangapravesam' , only entitles to stage entrance and not to teach. A guru prepares student with few items in every type to present it to audience showing the proficiency in guru and ability in Sishya. It takes long to become a guru in one subject. This is also a reason to have more surplus than demand in any form of classical dance, causing constraints on the part of art lovers to attend limited performances. A classical dance form is getting mixed up with fusion and misleading to overtake a true feeling through generation gap, causing the thinning of true knowledgeable audience. Few gurus maintain a true meaning of Guru/Sishya method of teaching without any generation mix ups and those sishyas recognize their guru to follow a traditional Parampara style.

from:  Prabha Maruvada
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 19:35 IST

It is a big exaggeration to say that "Connoisseurs are bewildered by the superlative, rave reviews of mediocre performances with half-page blowups". Not only the connoisseurs but even the average rasikas hardly ever decide to attend a performance based on a press review or a photo published in the papers.

Also, Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan cannot complain about the papers because a very large number of such reviews are the reviews of his dancers or of himself. Media houses are commercial establishments, and are serious primarily about getting readership and advertising fees. They must have the figures about how many readers read the Bharatanatyam reviews today. I will not be surprised if those few newspapers who still publish any Bharatanatyam reviews will stop doing so.

from:  Madhu
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 19:28 IST

Terrific article by Mr. V.P. Dhananjayan and his "market analysis" situation of Bharatanatyam brings in unique perspective. I agree with him in total. I live in the US and am appalled by every Tom, Dick and Harry here, lounging themselves in to be a tutor for this ancient art giving raise to mediocrity that he espouses. In my years I have had a dozen invitations to “arengetram”. I am sure that situation is not any different in India. What it has done is to relegate real experts into the background! This movement is definitely triggered by wanting to become famous, a quick entry into movies, retire in comfort and forsake the art! It is as simple as that. I always understood that anyone can learn the art but only a true artist can be a guru! The parents should also curb their enthusiasm as they see their agenda worked through their children. It is OK that you do not have it in you to be a dancer or a cricketer. Be a decent citizen and that is enough!

from:  Raman
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 17:44 IST

The Rasikas are still attending Dance programs in this city and they
attend in more numbers than the music concerts or stage plays.What is
happening behind the stage as revealed by the writer should make the
concerned sabhas to wake up and do something to change this trend.The dance numbers in films have influenced the old and young viewers alike
to such an extent,that they are kept ignorant about the grace and technique of our classical dance numbers. He says about Siva's dance 'Kodukotti', 'Pandaranga koothu, Mayon's dance 'Alliathoguthi' and 'Kudam koothu', Anjana Vannan's dance 'Malladal koothu' Muruga's dance 'Thudi Kotti koothu'and kudai koothu' Kaman's dance 'Bedis koothu', Durga's dance 'Marakkal koothu', Thirumgal dance 'Pavai koothu' and Indrani's dance 'kadayakoothu'. The kings had encouraged these dances and they had attracted the people of those days.May be
the dancers could revive these to compete with films.

from:  doodu
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 15:37 IST

Heartening to see such a frank article from an accomplished artist as Shri. V.P. Dhananjayan. This "pay and perform" culture leads on one end,to mushrooming of mediocre artists and on the other end demotivates young talented artists who cannot afford to self sponsor performances. Continuation of this trend can lead to to serious paucity of good quality talent in the long run.

from:  Aparna
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 11:04 IST

realy a sincere truthful article

from:  sunilnellay
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 10:21 IST

The views are a forthright expression by the renowned artist. What is
painful is the fact that press reviews, often superlative, are within
the access of the rich and influential. Young artists must come up and
there must be avenues. The people at the helm of the Art and the Sabhas
must do an act of fine balancing. Parents are anxious and often
overanxious. However parents have a duty to encourage, and get
encouraged, their children for their creative pursuit. I wish
Dhananjayan's views receive serious attention from all concerned people.

from:  M Arunachalam
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 09:58 IST

V.P.Dhananjayan is absolutely right that mediocrity, or rather money power and political power, is edging out merit. But what kind of "merit" are we talking about if the demand for "meritorious" performances has declined so much that people are no longer willing to support these "meritorious" artistes? How do we evaluate the merit of an artiste? V.P.Dhananjayan does not offer an answer, however the Natya Shastra does. Nor does he mention any "superfluous write-ups" that allegedly are "published with money power and influence". When and where "misleading press reviews or reports" were published?

We do not have genuine patrons of the performing arts in the sense that our richest people are not supporting the arts, but what about the middle classes?

from:  Lavanya Rajagopalan
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 09:31 IST

I partly agree with Shri Dhananjayan's observations. I attended the entire dance recital line-up of a prominent sabha in the city last year. Except for a couple of well-established dancers, the recital hall was empty for the whole of the fortnight, save for 10 people. It is very distressing to note that dance has become a poor cousin to carnatic concerts. Why? Is it because there are no superstars of bharatnatyam, save two or three, who draw crowds, or is it because we do not value dance forms highly?

from:  Divya
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 08:36 IST

Dhananjayan makes an excellent case for upholding the dharma of Bharatanatyam.
Dance forms have come to be the most commercialised, not only in India, but
abroad as well. Abroad, as a thumb rule, the basis for adhering to Indian tradition
sans bollywood is to learn Bharatanatyam. The gurus are self taught-styled mostly
from hearsay, DVD/CD's and so are their orchestra and students. The
enshrinement of 'angikam and bhuvanam' is neither felt by the gurus nor their
students. Performances are marketed under the guise of multiculturalism in order
to invite the un-trained non-Indian audience, whose presence is seen as a mark of
acceptance of Indian culture. There is always some Indian restauranter or local
council willing to support these half-baked endeavours. Our music and dance is
for invocation of the paramatma within, such that at the end of the sadhaka, a
certain calmness, realisation and perception of the self should occur. For this the
guru and paddhati needs a revival!

from:  Dr. Hari Subramanian
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 08:24 IST

A great insight for some of your future essays and dance topics related discussion.

from:  sandhya vora
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 08:15 IST
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