What is the state of Bharatanatyam today? Read on to know what practitioners and learners feel.
FROM SOCIAL ostracism to pre-eminent respectability, the saga of Bharatanatyam is marked by vicissitudes. There was a time when this art form, practised by the `Devadasis', was frowned upon by society. And later when it was banned in South India in 1947, its fate seemed nearly sealed. But thanks to the endeavours of classical masters such as Rukmini Devi, E. Krishna Iyer, Balasaraswati and Ram Gopal, the dance form was revived and it won national and international acclaim over the past 50 years.
"There are over 25 Ph.D programmes on Indian dance in American universities alone," says art critic Sadanand Menon, "This is when there is hardly any such attempt here." According to Menon, this lack of research stems from an absence of `historicisation.' "We don't have the virtue of looking at an art form from its natural history. As a result, most of the critical material available on Indian dance are written by foreigners," he says.
However, the problem the art form confronts today is not merely this dichotomy between practice and research but a proliferation of practitioners and the resultant decline in quality.
"Bharatanatyam has become very business like," laments A. Janarthanan, former principal, Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, Kalakshetra Foundation. "Gone are the days when art was for art's sake. Now, you may excel in the art but you should know how to market it, for which money is required. Even a mediocre artiste can perform during the festival season if she has the wherewithal," he says.
The dance schools that have mushroomed are also said to have contributed to the deterioration of the form; they have diluted the essence of the traditional pieces. "Since good teachers are either busy or already engaged, the aspirants are left to turn to these schools to learn the art," says Janarthanan. However, the decline is not just in the quality of dance but also in the audience turnout. "With competition from satellite channels that beam entertainment programmes round the clock, there is pressure to give short-duration performances to retain the attention of the audience," says Radhika Shurajit, Founder Thrayee Dance School.
But Anita Ratnam, cultural activist and founder of Arangham Trust, takes a more critical view. She says, "The present day dancers are not committed to excellence, they are in a hurry to perform and create a record of sorts with their performances. The audience can sense this lack of dedication, which eventually results in their dwindling numbers. The artistes should realise that dance is not just physical exertion but an internal introspection."
In fact, the mad rush for fame and publicity is evident in the number of applications received by the sabhas. "For even a handful of slots, there are thousands of proposals," says Shurajit.
"The decline is not in talent but in providing opportunities to exhibit it," say V.P. Dhananjayan, founder, Bharatakalanjali. "There are no criteria for selection at the sabhas, denying the talented a platform to perform."
"I want to perform before I leave for my course abroad," says Sandhya, a young dancer learning the art form for 16 years. "Although I am interested in performing on stage, applying to the sabhas is a laborious process and so I have decided to perform abroad," she says. Another dancer Sudha is tired of applying, as the question frequently asked during selection is "Whose recommendation do you have?" "There is pressure on the organisers to give preference for a particular candidate over the other," observes dance critic, Nandini Ramani. That doesn't mean that they buckle under pressure. There are sabhas, according to Ramani, which choose artistes purely on the basis of merit. However, she admits that even for a well-established artiste, marketing has become an indispensable factor.
To keep in tune with the changing times and to make Bharatanatyam more relevant to the contemporary audience, Natyarangam (the dance wing of Narada Gana Sabha) organises a dance festival every year on various social issues such as male chauvinism, eve teasing, dowry, corruption and politics. "The response in terms of audience turnout and dancer-participation has been encouraging," says K.S. Subramanian, member, Natyarangam. The sabhas such as the Krishna Gana Sabha, the Narada Gana Sabha, the Music Academy and the Karthik Fine Arts also organise `Lecture Demonstrations' to educate the public on the nuances of dance and music.
However, despite innovative themes and performances, there is a section among the artistes like Anita Ratnam who feels that if the artiste is sincere and committed, even a four-hour long traditional Bharatanatyam performance can be made riveting. A view echoed by dancer
Padma Subramanium, when she says, "an artist is the one who lives in time and timelessness."
`Too expensive to pursue'
BHARATANATYAM, THE traditional art form of Tamil Nadu, has been popular with foreigners. Non-Resident Indians come to India during the December season to perform and watch their Indian gurus perform. But most of them feel that Bharatanatyam is an expensive art form to pursue.
Noaoko is a Japanese student learning the art in India for the past six months. She feels that Bharatanatyam is more intricate and difficult as compared to the Japanese dance forms. Despite language problems, Noaoko says she is able to empathise with the characters she portrays. But her performance in India has exposed her to the elaborate dressing and make-up.
Andrea, a dancer from the U.S., is quite surprised by the `commercialisation' of the art form. She says her aim is to attain a higher state of spirituality through the dance form. Her Masters in `Dance and Spirituality' led her to the Indian Classical Dance.
At the age of 34, she says she will perform only when her gurus feel that she is mature enough. She wishes to be a bridge between the two diverse cultures.
Priyadarshini, a 21-year-old student born and brought up in California, has been learning Bharatanatyam for 14 years. She comes to India every summer to enhance her skill. She admits that many NRIs learn the dance just as a fashion statement.
In the U.S., she says `arangetrams' are fast-becoming social events amongst the Indian families. It is also considered prestigious to perform in India during the December season.
SANGEETH KURIAN & JYOTSNA RAVISHANKAR
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