What is the role of the audience in shaping art? A panel discussion tried to address this question

Four artists of various shades got together recently to ponder the question of an artist’s interaction with audience. To what extent should an artist customise her art to the kind of audience she is performing to?

Israeli choreographer Idan Cohen, who was in town for the Interface Dance festival, dancer Vyjayanthi Kashi and actor Jagdish Raja teased out different aspects of the artist-audience dynamic at a discussion at Bow Barracks recently. The discussion was moderated by filmmaker Ajit Hande.

“All performing art is self-indulgent,” said Raja, co-founder of Jagriti Theatre. There is – and must be – a bit of oneself in the part being played by an actor, for example; if actors didn’t pour their personal experience into the role, they risk only becoming clones, he said.

Cohen is a contemporary choreographer known for his retelling of classical tales, such as Tchikovksy’s The Swan Lake. “I think the most interesting part about being a creator,” he offered, “is a high amount of arrogance and vanity. To create a world that you think people should pay money to watch – this is an absurdity.”

After acknowledging the element of self-indulgence inherent in art, the panellists also agreed that there exists simultaneously a need to communicate, to connect. (If one is attempting art only to indulge oneself, why exhibit it?)

The classical dancer and choreographer Vyjayanthi Kashi admitted that she does take her audience into consideration before a performance. She related her concern before performing a dance drama role (in which she was cast as Sita) to a young audience.

“How would I bring her to today’s time? I can’t present her as weak; I would have to do it in a relatable way.” In the end, she chose to intersperse her performance with bits of narration, providing context and foothold for the audience, and this worked successfully, she said.

But if you perform to an audience, where is the line between accessibility and playing to the gallery? This is why Raja contended that an artist performs to a space. For instance, a pianist performing Mozart in Vienna is sure to have a greater sense of his audience – because of the context, and not an abstract, generalised sense of ‘audience’.

Another idea, following from Vyjayanthi’s example of walking her audience through her performance, was that audiences needed to be “educated” to better understand art. While there might in fact be a need to “educate” audiences about the classical arts – a suggestion that received support from most panellists – in the end, one might agree with Cohen’s contention.

He said the performing arts are more a process of sharing and two-way flow between artist and audience, rather than a one-way ‘talking down’ to the audience.

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