This Thing Called Culture Dance

When dancers feel lonely

Ritha Devi, an odissi dance exponent and great grand niece of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, at a dance festival

Ritha Devi, an odissi dance exponent and great grand niece of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, at a dance festival   | Photo Credit: A_M_faruqui


In the absence of a support system, old age can be painful

Dance on the surface looks fun, easy and even glamorous. But for those who take it up as a profession, it can be a lifelong hard work with no assured returns. Except satisfaction, joy and perhaps, self-realisation. For those wanting to be in the competitive world, it is a hard trudge. First, as a child, parents say: learn, learn, learn. Then as a youth, society says: earn, earn, earn. As middle-aged artistes, they have to run, run, run (after shows, organisers, babus, media and assorted operators). Later: yearn, yearn, yearn (for awards, titles, tithes). Lastly: burn, burn, burn (candles at both ends to survive, pay medical bills, depend on goodness of a few fans, friends, or whatever family is left.)

And those who don’t have families? Most difficult end years. What have we as a country done for, or made provisions for, dancers in old age? Zilch. Some routine grant, that won’t cover a week’s rations, applying for which itself becomes a demeaning exercise. Besides, only those with push and pull in Delhi or state capitals, finally often get such grants.

Musicians have often recordings and royalties to fall back on. Teach on Skype, better still. They won’t incur costume or cosmetic expenses. Painters have paintings, old or new, and a few can sell these and be solvent. But dancers? Their bodies tired; their energies ended when not fired. Fired by warmth of support systems, patronage or genuine goodness of society.

Do dancers have savings? Do they have grants from Culture Ministry, which come in handy in their old age? Government ought to create a list of, say, 108 greats — 20 each in dance, music, theatre and fine arts and 28 in allied arts of stage, like costume-making, lights, photography and filming. I did so about 25 years ago — to make 30-minute episodes on each great.

Do you think anyone cared? Forget government babus or bodies, did private TV channels, forever looking for content, even care? Five years went by; 25 died. Now 25 years later, 75 of the 108 are dead. And we don’t have a good film on any of them. Do SNA, Doordarshan, all State bodies care one bit for documentation? They just do senseless festivals to spend allotted monies, and making videos of these festivals is their idea of documentation.

In former Russia — that is USSR — in the 1960s and 70s there was this concept of ‘Star of the People.’ When such artistes walked on roads, people bowed and saluted them. They were National treasures. Real, living ones. They got free housing, medical, food, even travel. Their talent and experience were utilised for achieving excellence in selection committees and institutions. They were institutions.

Need strong support

Is there data on how many dancers have no families and need support by way of upkeep and grants? Do our national akademies have any data base for this? If yes, what have they done about it and if no, then why not? Is giving awards and organising festivals their only brief or work?

What about 8 if not 108? Eight above 80, who need support for housing or medical or both? Many in the country don’t even know that the Padma awards carry no rewards, only recognition. No cheque to see one through a rainy day, not even medical insurance. The best service the Centre can do is give each Padma awardee a life-long pension or medical coverage.

And yes, society. Has any big industrialist put even a crore in any dance charity? No, not unless a hall was named after them or an award instituted. Which industrial house in India has done anything big for Indian dance? Forget the usual fig-leaf of research or travel grant. Those are work related. We need dance philanthropists. There’s not one in India, who has done anything for aged dancers. Even if five billionaires give one million each, that will be a start for a fund.

Forget capital or assets, I’m talking of building a U.S. Julliard-type old age home for dancers in difficult circumstances. Indrani Rahman’s great pioneering mother, Ragini Devi, lived in one and was taken care of. As was Matteo, the Spanish dancer. Russian-Italian Nala Najan had an apartment behind the Lincoln Centre, paid for by the New York City municipality, and food stamps for life.

Ritha Devi, niece of Rabindranath Tagore, left her lifestyle in New York city and thought India would love to have her back. She lived alone in Pune, not cared for and died in coma in a hospital. Yamini Krishnamurti is a living legend. Single. Who looks after her? She has no support system. Perhaps an institution like Kalakshetra can do it. It has land, staff and students to help dancers in need of company and care, not just upkeep. Win win for all. Young aspirants will learn so much from direct contact with such greats. The Government could endow such host institutions with more funds, if needed.

So what’s lacking? Will? Spirit? Or rules?

Uday Shankar was badly off in his end years; died in dire straits, all alone. Imagine, no one in Kolkata could buy or gift this iconic dancer the basic things he needed to live once his family was not with him. Only one rosgolla-making company, K.C. Das, supported him, somewhat. Ram Gopal came to India in his end years (1999) thinking India would be proud of its son. He went back to die alone in a facility in Norbury, the U.K. Tara Balagopal is often shown on TV living in indigent circumstances in Delhi.

Dance is the most fragile of art forms. It is heavily dependent on body (a musician can sit and still sing even without one lung, as Kumar Gandharva did), but dancers need minimum support of their own body on stage to perform. Having given their best years to art and country, they expect dignity and love in evening of their lives. Let’s try.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 8:11:55 AM |

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