Fine arts, but no future?

FOR A city that claims to ooze culture from every pore Chennai provides remarkably little encouragement to aspiring artistes and innovative ideas, judging by how Marga's path-breaking `dance, theatre and music festival' was received earlier this week. The vision of Bharatanatyam dancer Usha Vasanthakumar and Kalakshetra-trained Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi dancer Unni Krishnan, Marga is an attempt to "establish the right path of teaching and presenting dance professionally and meaningfully, to unveil the unrecognised cultural treasures of dance, theatre and music and bring them into limelight for the mutual interactive fulfilment of artistes and art lovers." In theory.

In reality, what Marga faced on all three nights of the festival were rows of vacant seats in the forlornly empty Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium. And this was in spite of the fact that the organisers roped in an array of talented performers at a considerable expense, ensured that the show was professionally executed with dramatic lighting, powerful orchestras and lavish costumes and set it all in an air-conditioned, comfortable auditorium located in Chennai's cultural heart, Mylapore.

On Friday, the legendary Kerala Kalamandalam performed, bringing Kathakali to Chennai after a long time. The team used two performers to tell the powerful `Duryodhana vadham' from the Mahabharata. As they sang the fascinating narrative, backed up by a powerful array of picturesque drummers, the Kathakali dancers whirled and spun, effectively telling the story with just expressive facial movements and dramatic hand gestures. Two hours. No breaks for potato chips or Coke. And yet the audience sat completely still, mesmerised. Which just goes to show that art works, provided its artistes really work at it - and that's precisely what Marga is out to prove. That is, if the two-year-old organisation with a bigger dream than a bank account survives another year.

"We have got barely any sponsorship in the form of money and we spent so much on the festival. Last year, the response was just as bad. Sponsors aren't interested because they say they don't get any mileage out of this. I don't know if we can even afford to keep it going for one more year at this rate," says Usha seeing her small, but delighted, audience off at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan reception. Usha and Unni believe that Marga has tremendous potential to do good for the Chennai cultural landscape where a stagnation has set in, resisting the winds of change and ensuring that `newcomers' don't get a platform to perform - unless they are prepared to turn their pockets inside out and let their money do the talking.

"It's a vicious circle. Dancers who are not established have to pay the sabhas to get an opportunity to perform. Then, they have to have money to afford an orchestra. So no matter how talented and dedicated an artiste is, unless he or she has a lot of money, it's practically impossible to perform," says Usha adding, "I know young dancers who have learnt dancing with enthusiasm for years, then never get a chance to perform at all on stage. Eventually, they just stop dancing altogether. It's tragic."

Most sabhas pay only established artistes to perform simply because that is the only way they can sell their tickets. They reason that the audience will not pay to see an unfamiliar performer, irrespective of how good he or she is. Apparently, most dancers fall in line with this tradition instead of fighting it. So they pay sabhas to perform, the sabhas sell tickets at nominal rates - or make the entry free - and then use the money to hire bigger artistes. The beginners meanwhile keep paying money to dance till they are well known enough to be paid.

However, a number of established dancers feel this fad will eventually kill the art. Already, as a result, there is very little variety available with practically every stage offering Bharatanatyam, Bharatanatyam and more Bharatanatyam according to one performer. He says since sabhas are unwilling to pay for dance groups from other parts of the country, and audiences are unwilling to pay for admission, it's inevitable that performances by troupes from around the country and abroad will gradually fade out.

Dhananjayan, the prominent Bharatanatyam performer, says sponsorship will make all the difference to this bleak scenario. "We need patronage from commercial houses. We don't have kings to support us any more. Unless they come forward, the arts and artistes can't survive," he says. Dhananjayan doesn't spare the audiences either. "People are unwilling to buy tickets in Chennai. This is a sad situation existing only here," he states.

Usha and Unni concur. "Audiences don't come when shows are ticketed, and sponsors are not interested when the audiences don't come," Usha says. When the shows are free, organisers either have to cut costs or settle for dancers who are willing to perform without payment because with no help from commercial houses they can't meet the expenses. And since most art forms are too expensive to be performed for free, in the end what Chennai gets is the same performance menu, again and again.

If Marga survives they might be able to make a dent in this set-up, at the very least. Perhaps, with sponsorship and audiences that are willing to open their wallets, they might actually be able to revive what has stagnated in Chennai's cultural scene. However, they first have to figure out how to break the artiste-sponsor-sponsor circle, and from the look of it — that's akin to figuring which came first - the chicken or the egg.


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