Art on the mart
While some artistes find it an insult, others just grit their teeth and do it for the money. What do classical dancers and musicians feel about the commercial venues they are asked to perform at, on their `prestigious' tours abroad? ANJANA RAJAN scouts for opinions.
"If the focus is to promote the arts and nothing else then maybe artistes can think of performing at venues other than theatres or concert spaces." ... Rama Vaidyanathan.
CROSSING THE seven seas used to be considered a sure step to losing one's `purity'. As one sees the proliferation of Indian classical dance and music abroad, this thought comes to mind, not because standards are being diluted or because the arts have left temple spaces behind them, but because it is not uncommon to see serious artistes being presented in shopping malls and other public spaces with the avowed aim to net a new audience.
While Bijan Mukherjee of Impresario India says only, "Our classical tradition, whether dance or music, has been an obeisance to the almighty God and in their presentation we should be mindful of the ambience," others are more forthright in their criticism.
Bharatanatyam dancer Uma B. Ramesh finds the practice "definitely unacceptable, whether here or abroad," but concedes, "For artistes who cannot host their own shows (a sad reality in India) the money may be good."
Canada-based Bharatanatyam teacher and choreographer Mamata Niyogi Nakra, says, "I personally have not attended any concerts in bars, shopping arcades etc. by visiting Indian artistes in Montreal," but recalls seeing Pandit Ravi Shankar performing in a basement bar in Copenhagen in the mid-`60s. "But he made sure no drinks were served and the whole place was arranged to create an ambience with an Indian feel, incense and all."
She says he explained "he was on a mission to bring Indian music to every nook and corner of the globe, and to do so one had to occasionally accept such venues", but adds that is "a mission one can say now, after 40 years, is largely accomplished".
Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen warns, "I feel it is more important, essential even, for Indian artistes to present high quality, well presented programs abroad more than in India. In India, the audiences can tell the difference between a good and bad artiste, but abroad, some audiences will turn off the style or Indian performing arts in general if they don't like the programme, not understanding that it is the presentation or artiste that is lacking, not the art form."
Many artistes familiar with the art scene in the West point out that performing in public places like malls or parks does not have a seedy connotation and artistes use it as a means of outreach. Mamta Nakra says, "Often the space, the background and the site add a dimension to the performance that the artistes find attractive and enhancing, plus the fact that they are able to build on their audiences."
Kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas points out that even in India such programmes are presented. "I have constantly said that we ourselves need to stress that dance is a serious activity and should not be considered as a dinner table entertainment. But then I have not been financially dependent on my dance. I am sure that very often it is money that may be the major factor. It is not right for me to offer moral judgements on another performer for accepting such a show. It is the organisers and the likes who need to be told off."
"By lowering standards to present classical dance in `marketing-driven' spaces, our precious art forms get trivialised." ... Geeta Chandran.
Agrees Ashiya Sethi, Creative Head of the India Habitat Centre, "It's the officials of the Government we should question for putting the Government machinery behind such mistakes. It goes contrary to the Government's avowed agenda for the arts."
Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran says the shift from temple to proscenium "has brought classical dance from the sacred realm to the secular." While the positive outcome was that "it democratised the arts, smashed its caste and creed connotations", the scales have now tilted "from the secular to the profane". To combat this, "Artistes must come together to say a firm no to such easy-come opportunities. Also, if Government officials are involved, they need to be exposed, if they are defiant."
She adds, "But it is also the responsibility of the performers to set standards and educate impresarios." Uma Ramesh echoes this feeling. "Only if we respect our art and culture, we can expect organisers overseas to do the same."
Sharmila Biswas, Odissi exponent is scathing in her remarks about some artistes "armed with taped music, parking themselves in some relative's house" and participating in inappropriately organised "weekend shows, sometimes done in a very informal manner in somebody's house. Seriously, these things are bound to happen until Indian organisations and the Government policies find a proper way to support and nurture Indian artistes."
Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan is more circumspect. "I feel it depends totally on the focus of the event. If they are having performances at shopping arcades and bars to promote Indian products, then it is unacceptable. But if the focus is to promote the arts and nothing else then maybe artistes can think of performing at venues other than theatres or concert spaces."
"For artistes who cannot host their own shows (a sad reality in India) the money may be good." -- Uma B. Ramesh.
Arshiya Sethi, recalls, "I do remember having a big argument with an NRI friend who sings in a restaurant." Of this "highly paid engineer," singing ghazals and dhuns, she says, "He fervently believed that in the West the awareness and sensitivity to Indian arts was so little, and venues so few, that it was quite okay."
Says choreographer Narendra Sharma, "Trade and politics at the international level dominate people's psyche, and everything else is used to further trade and commerce. But it is not right. I think the cultural level should be different. I know good artistes from here are used in hotels, and some think, `Yaar, art ki aisi ki taisi,' as long as they earn. It's all the fault of globalisation. It starts driving everything."
Geeta Chandran comments: "By lowering standards to present classical dance in say a bar, shopping mall or other `marketing-driven' spaces, our precious art forms get trivialised."
But an official of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations feels, after all, "Trade supports culture, as can be seen from the spread of Indian values across Asia. One should not divorce one from the other." But while sponsorship is the vital factor in arranging programmes, whether at home or overseas, it is imperative to "match the artiste to the occasion." He explains that as the Government agency responsible for sending cultural ambassadors across the world, "We are supposed to be as discriminating as possible. We hope we are discerning, but sometimes we do fail, since we cannot see the venues abroad."
"These things are bound to happen until Indian organisations and the Government find a way to support Indian artistes." -- Sharmila Biswas.
Sometimes the balance goes definitely awry. Percussionist T.R. Dhandapany was shocked when a travel agent in Vienna who was doubling as a local organiser, presented his purely classical troupe in a shopping mall, saying he wanted to attract clients to India. "I have been all over the world, but I never experienced anything like this," says Dhandapany. "Such presentations are bad for India's reputation. But it is also true that despite the venue, people did love the performance, and some commented that we had been able to transform it into a sacred space."
Rama Vaidyanathan experienced this kind of breakthrough at a Japanese street festival. Initially "sceptical" to perform, she later felt she reached a new audience "who otherwise would never go to see a dance performance".
In this fraught scenario, perhaps we have to agree with Arshiya Sethi: "These are hard choices people have to make, and I think eventually like religion these are personal choices, and we should not be judgemental."
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